Analyzing how Red Sox stunned Rays and whether it's sustainable

A trip around the majors sees Kike Hernandez hit a walk-off sacrifice fly to upset the Rays and send the Red Sox to the ALCS, meanwhile the Braves and the Giants both win to put the Brewers and Dodgers on the brink of elimination in the NL.

Coming into the American League Wild Card Game, there was a common belief among baseball fans that whoever came out on top would dive headfirst into a wood chipper known as the Tampa Bay Rays.

After a walk-off 6-5 victory on Monday gave them a 3-1 ALDS win, the Boston Red Sox have proved that conventional wisdom incorrect. A team that finished behind the Baltimore Orioles in 2020 is the first club to earn its place among MLB’s final four this year.

The question for the Red Sox now is whether what they showed against the Rays indicates they can take this unlikely run deeper, or if Monday’s victory will be the highlight of their 2021. To sort that out, we looked at a couple of the biggest surprises from Boston’s playoffs so far, and how likely they are to hold up.

A top-of-the-lineup dynamic duo

Considering the driving force of the Red Sox’ success has been their offence, Alex Cora’s lineup construction looks a touch odd at first glance. In four of the team’s five playoff games, Cora has sent Kyle Schwarber — a bulky slugger with a career .343 OBP — to the plate first. The big lefty bat was followed in the all-important second hole by Kiké Hernández, whose 110 wRC+ ranked fifth among Red Sox batters during the regular season.

That odd-duck combo has been truly sensational in the playoffs going 16-for-42 with 11 runs scored and eight driven in to set the table. A slightly closer look shows there's a method to Cora’s madness, too. After joining the Red Sox, Schwarber’s OBP was .435 during the regular season, the best he’s ever posted in a 41-game span:

His walk rate during that time (19.6 per cent) is also the highest he’s posted over such a time frame, and he’s drawn three walks in the playoffs. He’s even accounted for the Red Sox’ only stolen base to round out his traditional leadoff production.

Hernández’s success is less concretely explained, especially considering he entered the playoffs off a cold September that saw him hit .213/.294/.371. That said, the versatile veteran has played in the playoffs in every year of his career and his post-season OPS (.838) is way higher than his regular-season OPS (.748), which might explain his current production and Cora’s faith in him — although there’s a good chance it’s statistical noise.

Will it hold up?: To a degree. Schwarber is an elite hitter in the midst of a career season, and the fact he doesn’t look like a typical leadoff man doesn’t have much bearing on his production. It’s harder to predict that Hernández will continue to drive the offence, but he’s coming off a 4.0 WAR season and doesn’t seem likely to fall off the earth.

Putting the ball in play

During the regular season Boston was one of the harder teams to strike out, but their 11th-ranked K-rate (22.6 percent) was strong rather than spectacular. In the ALDS the Red Sox took things to another level, striking out in just 15 percent of their at-bats — a mark that would’ve been by far the best in the league if they’d done it over the course of the season. That’s particularly impressive considering the Rays are a top-10 team in the majors by strikeout percentage, and brought some serious velocity to the table.

Avoiding the strikeout can be overrated if you’re not making hard contact, but that hasn’t been a problem for the Red Sox, who slugged .549 as a team in the ALDS. The formula of focussing on getting the bat to the ball — and putting pressure on the opposing defence — is often cited as the key to the Kansas City Royals’ playoff success in 2014 and 2015. We might be seeing the same thing with Boston.

Will it hold up?: Probably not. It’s not like the Red Sox lineup has drastically changed in October, so it’s unclear how this is happening. It’s also possible they’ll draw the Chicago White Sox in the ALCS — the team that strikes out opponents at MLB’s highest rate. The Houston Astros are no slouches when it comes to missing bats either, ranking 12th in the majors. This seems like something that explains the team’s ALDS success as opposed to being predictive.

Quality innings in bulk

In four games against Tampa Bay, the Red Sox got just 12.2 innings out of their starters with 11 runs against. For a team whose bullpen was considered solid, but not elite, entering the playoffs, that could’ve been a death knell.

Even though the team did see wobbles from relievers like Ryan Brasier and Hansel Robles, they got some excellent work from Nick Pivetta and Tanner Houck, who contributed more innings in three relief appearances (14.2) than the four starters combined, allowing less than half as many runs (5). Pivetta’s only relief outing of the year prior to the playoffs was a save in the team’s final game, but he has experience out of the bullpen with 17 of his 30 appearances in 2019 coming in relief. He also possesses a high-velocity fastball and doesn’t have to worry about pitch-count efficiency issues that can derail him as a starter.

Houck also looks impressive in relief as he’s able to simplify his repertoire, sticking to mid 90’s fastball and a truly slider ridiculous slider that has 91 percent more horizontal movement than average — as Brett Gardner found out when he swung at a pitch that hit him earlier this year:

Using starters in relief is hardly a novel strategy in the playoffs, but the Red Sox managed it to great effect in the ALDS.

Will it hold up?: Probably. Pivetta has been inconsistent this season, but his raw stuff has always looked good and he clearly has Cora’s trust — plus the ability to throw 67 pitches on just two days of rest from a 73-pitch outing. Houck is less proven, but he’s even nastier and can work short high-leverage spots as well as providing bulk innings.

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