Down to the Wire, Red Sox Hold Their Own Fate

Going from being in first place for over 70 days into danger of the dropping out of the second Wild Card spot, the season has come down to the wire for the Boston Red Sox. With nine games left in the season, Boston holds a two-game lead over the New York Yankees for the top spot in the Wild Card standings. Behind New York, the Toronto Blue Jays are only half a game out of the playoffs with Oakland and Seattle still within striking distance.

Red Sox Playoffs

With so many teams still in the race, Boston has a small margin of error and cannot afford to throw away any games at this point. Luckily, the Red Sox are carrying a seven-game win-streak and their final six games are against last place teams in Baltimore and Washington. Additionally, the Yankees will end their season against AL opponents Toronto and Tampa Bay.

That’s the good news.

The bad news? It’s very likely that Tampa may take it easy on their pitching if they clinch the division early. This means no one should count on the Yankees losing the series. Toronto themselves also have a fairly easy schedule. The Blue Jays will also face Baltimore and they too face a last place team in the Minnesota Twins.

That’s why the weekend series against the Yankees is so important. There are no guarantees in the final weekend. When Boston had their epic collapse in 2011, who did lose to in the final game of the season? Last place Orioles. Who did the Rays beat to clinch the Wild Card that year? The (already clinched) Yankees.

Pivotal Series Against New York

The first game of the series, each team is sending out their All-Star. Nate Eovaldi will face-off against Gerrit Cole. After that, the Sox have Nick Pivetta and Eduardo Rodriguez going. Each guy wants a spot in a potential playoff rotation, but it’s safe to assume that both will have a short leash. Yes the Sox don’t want to ruin the staff for the final six games, but losing the series to New York might mean having to win at least five of six games to secure the playoffs. Even against two last place teams, no one wants that kind of pressure.

That first game will really set the tone for the series. New York has Nestor Cortes and Jordan Montgomery slated to pitch. Both own ERAs under 4.00. If Eovaldi can give Boston a solid start, they will be in a great position to win the series.

Ever since New York snapped their 13-game win streak, they have not been the same team. They are currently 10-11 during the month of September, though they just swept the Texas Rangers. It’s not too often Boston and New York face each other this late with playoff implications on the line. Come Monday, the standings for the Wild Card could look vastly different.

Where Does Tanner Houck Belong?

For the second start in a row, pitcher Tanner Houck failed to pitch five full innings, managing to only get one out in the fifth before getting pulled. In 12 starts this season, Houck has pitched at least five innings only four times. Early in the season it seemed the Red Sox were trying to limit his workload. Now it’s clear that Houck performance significantly drops off the deeper he goes into games, leaving some to wonder what his role on the staff should be.

Tanner Houck Role

In his first time pitching through the lineup, Houck has a 1.67 ERA. That number jumps to 4.13 his second time through the lineup and 27.00 the third time. While his strikeout percentage stays around 29-30% his first two times through the lineup, he only strikes out 11% of the batters he faces the third time.

Though he has only pitched 2.2 innings facings batters for the third time, Houck has faced 18 batters, given up seven hits and eight earned runs. While his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is consistent the from the first and second times through the lineup (2.28 to 2.25), that figures balloons to 14.79, showing his struggles are not entirely due to bad defense.

This puts into question what Houck’s role should be for the rest of the season as well as next season. Houck has certainly displayed the ability to be a starter. Unfortunately being unable to get through the fifth puts a lot of pressure on the bullpen if he isn’t sharp.

Role for a Potential Playoff Run?

Assuming Boston can hold their playoff spot, they will host the AL Wild Card Game and likely start Chris Sale. From there, if Boston wins, they would head into ALDS for a best-of-5 series. Nathan Eovaldi would open the first game and then it’s a question how the rest of the rotation plays out. The decision would come down to choosing between Houck, Nick Pivetta, and Eduardo Rodriguez for two spots. As tempting as it would be to start Houck, having him in the bullpen may be best for the team.

Having Houck come out of the bullpen will give Cora some flexibility to deploy him when needed. E-Rod could pitch six solid innings just as likely get pulled after three. Garrett Richards has been solid ever since getting moved to bullpen and having another reliable long reliever would go a long way.

Houck has yet to give up a run this season as a relief pitcher. Though the sample size is small (6.2 innings), he has shown that batters struggle the first time they face him. Additionally, Red Sox relievers have a combined 3.93 ERA and suffered through come inconsistencies. Closer Matt Barnes has an ERA over 11.00 since the beginning of August. Garrett Whitlock is the only qualified reliever with an ERA under 3.00.

Despite his inability to go deep into games, Houck has been a solid in the starting rotation. Long-term he should develop some more stamina. With a full offseason and spring training, he should be able to build up some arm strength. Houck has been one of the best pitchers to come through Boston’s farm system. He may be best coming out of the bullpen for the time being, but don’t be surprised to see him finally solidify his spot in the rotation next year.

Updating and Predicting the AL Wild Card Race

After going 2-4 in their rigorous series with the Rays and White Sox, the Red Sox now hold the second Wild Card spot in the American League, with Toronto holding the first. Boston now sits just one game ahead of the Yankees for the second Wild Card spot, and three games in front of the Athletics and Mariners. The Red Sox will now travel to Seattle to face-off with the Mariners in a series that could have big playoff implications. 

What’s ahead? 

With the Wild Card narrowed down to just the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, Athletics, and Mariners, this is what the remaining schedule looks like for those squads. 

Toronto Blue Jays- vs Rays (3), vs Twins (3), @ Rays (3), @ Twins (4), vs Yankees (3), vs Orioles (3)

Boston Red Sox- @ Mariners (3), vs Orioles (3), vs Mets (2), vs Yankees (3), @ Orioles (3), @ Nationals (3)

New York Yankees- Vs Twins (1), @ Orioles (3), vs Indians (3), vs Rangers (3), @ Red Sox (3), @ Blue Jays (3), vs Rays (3)

Oakland Athletics- @ Royals (3), @ Angels (3), vs Mariners (4), vs Astros (3), @ Mariners (3), @ Houston (3)

Seattle Mariners- vs Red Sox (3), @ Royals (3), @ Athletics (4), @ Angels (3), vs Oakland (3), vs Angels (3)

AL West

The Athletics and Mariners are set to meet each other seven times before the end of the season. With the season series between the two at 7-5, these two very well could knock each other out of the Wild Card race. The two teams have been evenly matched this season, so it is unlikely one dominates the other in their remaining seven games. 

The Athletics also draw the unfortunate task of taking on the Houston Astros six times before the end of the season. Houston and Chicago and currently neck and neck to decide who will have home-field advantage for the ALDS. This means there will be no easy games for the Athletics when they see the Astros. 

The Mariners will see their division foe Los Angeles Angels six times before the season ends. In their 12 matchups this season, the Mariners lead the season series 7-5. The Angels have been tough for the Mariners this season, so their six games could be another factor that drops Seattle in the standings. 

The schedule is not in favor of the Mariners and Athletics moving forward. With both teams three games back of the second Wild Card spot, it is unlikely each team can catch up, IF the Red Sox take care of business in their series with the Mariners this week. If the Red Sox can take care of Seattle, Houston will do the rest with Oakland. 

AL East

The AL East is where things get interesting. The Blue Jays have clawed all the way back into things and now hold the number one spot in the Wild Card. Toronto is a team the Red Sox do not want to see. We have seen what the Blue Jays are capable of, beating up the Red Sox by double digit runs a few times this season.

This race will be tight all the way up until playoff time. As I stated in another recent article, the schedule is in the Red Sox favor once again, but they will need to capitalize.

The Blue Jays will play the first place Tampa Bay Rays six times before the end of the season. The Rays are 8-5 against Toronto this season. The Blue Jays will also see the Twins seven times before the end of the season, who have the ability to put up good offensive numbers.

The Yankees will see the Blue Jays and Rays, as well as come to Boston for a three game series. If the Red Sox hold up their end and capitalize on the schedule, they could be shaping up to land that number one spot. The Red Sox will need some help so they don’t have to see Toronto though.

Has Bobby Dalbec Earned Another Year As A Starter?

Red Sox fans first saw Bobby Dalbec in the big leagues after Mitch Moreland was traded away at the trade deadline in the shortened 2020 MLB season. Dalbec made his major league debut on August 30th of 2020, and in the final month of the season, he put up impressive numbers for a rookie. 

In 23 games in 2020, Dalbec posted a .263 batting average, a .359 on-base percentage, and 48 total bases. Dalbec also hit eight home runs, and knocked in 16 RBIs in his 92 plate appearances in 2020. 

Concerns in 2020

What was worrisome for Dalbec were the same things we are seeing this year. Too many strikeouts, and faulty defense. In his 23 games in 2020, Dalbec had a 42.4% strikeout rate, meaning he struck out 42.4% of his at bats. Much like this year, Dalbec particularly struggled with breaking balls (55.7% whiff rate), and off-speed pitches (54.5% whiff rate). Dalbec also chased 33.5% of pitches out of the zone, which contributed to his high strikeout rate. 

Dalbec also committed three errors at first base in just 20 games started.  

High Expectations in 2021

Coming off the impressive numbers at the end of 2020, and an incredible spring training campaign, Red Sox fans had high expectations for Dalbec in 2021. Dalbec earned the start at first base in the 2021 season opener, thus beginning the roller coaster ride it has been with Dalbec this season.

Slow Start

Unfortunately for Dalbec, he got off to a very slow start to the 2021 season, and really didn’t find himself until after the All Star break. Dalbec hovered around the Mendoza Line for most of the first four months of the season. 

Pre- All Star .219.264.409.6731095

Dalbec’s struggles had Red Sox fans (Including myself) begging Chaim Bloom to get a first baseman at the trade deadline. Understandably so, the 26-year-old was not putting up good power numbers, and was leading the team in strikeouts. But Dalbec seems to have heard the noise surrounding the first base position because he has elevated his game. 

Post All Star Break

Since the All-Star break, Dalbec has been red hot. He has posted a .297 batting average, .376 OBP, and has hit 10 homeruns, which matches what he had pre All Star break. Since the trade deadline, Dalbec is hitting .350 with 28 RBIs. 

Though Dalbec has significantly improved his game, we are still seeing the same problems. Trouble in the field, and an alarmingly high strikeout rate. Dalbec has 40 strikeouts since the All Star break which puts him in the bottom 2% in strikeout rate in the league this season, with an unnerving 34.5% strikeout rate. 

In terms of Dalbec’s defense, he was a third baseman turned first baseman so there is reason to be patient with his defensive struggles. 

Has Bobby Earned Another Year?

I think he has. The Red Sox are only paying Dalbec $575,000 and he has started over 110 games for the team this season. Dalbec is also under team control until 2023, and then has three years of abirtation until 2027 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. 

Dalbec has shown us over the past month that he is capable of being a solid bat in the lineup. With star prospect Triston Casas ready to take over the reins at first base within the next few seasons, it wouldn’t make sense to break the bank for a first baseman. 

When Casas does take over at first base, which is only a matter of time, that wouldn’t necessarily mean Dalbec wouldn’t have a spot in the lineup. With J.D. Martinez set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2023 at the age of 35, the Sox could potentially move on from Martinez and move Rafael Devers to the designated hitter spot. 

Devers’ defense has been atrocious this season and for much of his career. This season alone Devers has 19 errors. Eventually the Red Sox are going to have to take him out of the field if he can’t figure out his defensive issues. Which could leave the door open for Dalbec, who really plays third base.

Looking at the Red Sox Wild Card Chase

With 23 games remaining, the Red Sox currently hold one of the two spots in the AL Wild Card. The Red Sox sit a half a game behind the New York Yankees for the top spot. So if the playoffs started right now, the Red Sox would travel to New York for the Wild Card game. 

Rafael Devers homers twice as Red Sox beat Cole, Yankees

The Wild Card is still relatively new in Major League Baseball, as it was first adopted in 1994, and it was changed to the current format in 2011. The Wild Card is played between two non-division winners with the best record in their respective league. 

With the Red Sox being eight games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the division lead with just 23 games left, they would need a lot of help to catch the Rays for the division crown. So realistically, the top Wild Card spot should be what Red Sox fans are rooting for. 

The teams the Red Sox need to keep an eye on are Mariners, Athletics, and Blue Jays. The Mariners currently sit three and a half games behind the Sox for the second Wild Card spot. With Toronto and Oakland each four games back. 

Good news for the Red Sox

The good news for the Red Sox? They again will control their own destiny, which they have for the majority of the season. They had chances to bury the Yankees, as well as build their division lead on Tampa earlier this season, but fell short. This time, falling short is not an option, because that could mean falling out of the playoffs. 

The Red Sox will see both the Mariners and Yankees prior to the season’s end. With series against the Rays, and White Sox also in that span, the Red Sox will need to win these series against the teams hot on their tail for the Wild Card spot. The Sox also need to take care of business against sub .500 teams. Boston will see the 43-92 Baltimore Orioles six times before the end of the season, they will also see 56-80 Washington Nationals three times. Those are nine games the Red Sox need to take advantage of. 

Sox need to dig deep

The Red Sox are facing their most difficult hardship of the season in the middle of their Wild Card push. They have sent 11 players to the COVID-19 related injury list in just one week. 

The Red Sox have stayed afloat, and have won six of their last ten games despite all the absences in their line-up. But it doesn’t get any easier. The next two series for the Red Sox will be the AL East leading Tampa Bay Rays, and the AL Central leading Chicago White Sox. 

The Red Sox split the series with Tampa Bay last week, in the heart of their Covid outbreak. So we know it is possible for this team to find ways to win despite being short handed. 

Kyle Shwarber: First Baseman

On Friday night in Cleveland, Kyle Schwarber made his first start at first base for the Red Sox. Schwarber looked a little clunky and maybe a little nervous to play the position, but the first game went off without a hitch. Throughout his career with the Cubs and earlier this year with the Nationals he was an outfielder. It will be interesting to see moving forward how much time he will get at first base, and how quickly he can adapt to his new role.

Kyle the On Base Machine

Since being traded to Boston from the Nationals, Schwarber has played mostly a mix of left field and designated hitter. After returning from his stint on the injured list (IL) Schwarber hasn’t missed a beat offensively. He was always known as a power hitter, but people always wonder what you’re going to get out of a guy who is returning from the IL.

Schwarber’s ability to work the count and get on base has mostly been on display so far. However, he’s still clubbed a few timely home runs to remind everyone why the Sox traded for him. In 14 games with the Red Sox, he has a .326 batting average with an on base percentage of .483 and has already drawn 14 walks. His two home runs and only three runs batted in might be disappointing so far for some. However, his lack of RBI’s is offset by his nine runs scored. The power will come, but right now he is still producing by making pitchers work, getting on base, and scoring runs. This is something this team has lacked for the past month.

In the Field

Who plays everyday and what will be huge down the stretch if this team not only wants to make the playoffs but make it far in the playoffs? Ideally, you’d like the Sox to have Verdugo, Hernandez, and Renfroe be the everyday outfielders. They have played great defense all year and all have made significant contributions with the stick this season. Ideally, you’d like to have J.D. Martinez be the everyday DH. Not a good fielder, but the type of guy you need in the lineup everyday if you want to make the playoffs. If Schwarber can make the right adjustment and learn first base and become a serviceable everyday first baseman then that is huge for the push to October.

The Playoff Race

We’ll just have to wait and see how Schwarber, and this team does down the stretch. The Red Sox currently hold the second wild card spot 2 games behind the Yankees and 2 games ahead of the Athletics. The offense needs to turn it around in September for the playoff race, and Schwarber will be a big contributor to that. It’s just a question of can he learn first base well enough in time, so we don’t have to play musical chair with all the position players.