The Red Sox Are Closer to the Royals Than You May Think

The numbers say the Sox and defending World Series champions aren't all that far apart.

Kansas City Royals

Photo via AP

The Las Vegas oddsmaker Bovada only put the Red Sox at 20/1 odds to win the Fall Classic next season, but it must not realize how close they are to the World Series champion Kansas City Royals.

And that’s not a reference to the fact that the Sox went 4-3 against Kansas City in 2015. A seven-game sample size is far too small to extrapolate any meaning from. But a 162-game sample is significant, and over the course of the regular-season, the 78-win Red Sox matched up with the 95-win Royals better than you would expect.

Throughout the playoffs, the Royals lineup rightfully got a lot of credit for its depth and relentlessness, but the Sox actually scored more runs this year. Boston plated 748 runs in 2015—fourth in the Major Leagues—whereas the Royals put up 724 runs. Despite the struggles of big-ticket free agent signings Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the Red Sox enjoyed a mountain of contributions from their prized young prospects.

At the top of the order was Mookie Betts, who hit .291 while popping 18 home runs and stealing 21 bases. Twenty-two-year-old Xander Bogaerts led all shortstops in hitting and rookie switch-hitting catcher Blake Swihart posted an .805 OPS after the All-Star Break. Jackie Bradley Jr. finally came into his own offensively as well, smacking 30 extra-base hits over the final 50 games of the season.

As far as older guys are concerned, David Ortiz enjoyed his ninth 3o-home run, 100-RBI campaign. Dustin Pedroia had his best offensive showing in three years as well.

It’s fair to expect the Red Sox lineup to be among the league’s best in 2016, which should alleviate some concern about the state of their much-maligned starting rotation. But if you spent the bulk of last season lambasting the Sox’s starters, then you must view the Royals’ rotation with a similar amount of skepticism. Kansas City’s starting pitchers only yielded 22 more runs than Boston’s last season, which is negligible over a 162-game campaign. The Royals’ Opening Day starter, Yordano Ventura, was actually demoted to the minor leagues in July.

That doesn’t mean improving the rotation shouldn’t be a priority for the Red Sox this winter. But they’re not as far away as you may believe.

The real difference between the Sox and Royals, and perhaps the reason why Kansas City was able to win with a subpar starting staff, was relief pitching and defense. The Royals’ bullpen was the best in the American League, posting a 2.72 ERA. The Sox’s pen, meanwhile, put up a porous 4.24 ERA—third worst in the AL.

But fortunately for the Red Sox, bullpens can be overhauled in an offseason . Relievers are volatile by nature, and their performance varies greatly on a year-to-year basis. In 2013, for example, Koji Uehara was the Red Sox’s fourth option to close out games. He wound up posting one of the greatest seasons a reliever has ever enjoyed.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility to expect the Red Sox to have a greatly improved bullpen next year. Their defense, which was 16th in runs saved, will almost certainly be better with Jackie Bradley Jr. in the outfield full-time instead of Ramirez. Sandoval had a disastrous summer defensively at third base, too, but he’s just one year removed from being a Gold Glove finalist.

The Royals had arguably the best defense in baseball last season, but one would be hard-pressed to find an outfield that covers more ground than the trio of Betts, Bradley, and Rusney Castillo. Over the final two months of the season, the Sox’s defense turned into a strength.

The Red Sox played on a 90-win pace over their final 48 games of the year. If that’s the same team that takes the field next April, they should be postseason contenders. The numbers say they’re not all that far off.