In case you missed Thurday’s Part 1, click here.
On Thursday we covered teams 15 through 6, now it’s time for the moment I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for…the top five Red Sox teams of the 21st Century
Tier 4: One Win Away
How they finished: 95-67, 2nd in the AL East, lost in ALCS to TB in 7
Team MVP: Dustin Pedroia
Team LVP: Mike Lowell’s Hip
AKA: “I Can’t Believe We Just Lost to Tampa”
Easily the most effective of Boston’s three 21st century title defenses, though they were plagued by injuries and in season roster turmoil. Manny Ramirez, after half a decade of occasionally sulking and being in off and on trade talks was finally dealt after things spiraled out of control in a mid-July series against the Angels when Ramirez refused to run out ground balls and was generally too much for anyone to deal with. The Red Sox ended up with Jason Bay, and while Ramirez went on a Bondsian (in more ways than one) tear once arriving in Los Angeles, in retrospect the Sox probably got, like, 85 cents on the dollar for their oft-disgruntled star. Bay played well in his 49 games with the team, posting .293/.370/.527 splits and simply not being Manny out in left. The lineup was also buoyed by MVP Dustin Pedroia, who led the AL in hits, runs, and doubles while finishing second to Joe Mauer for the league batting title as well as Maybe-Should-Have-Been-The-MVP Kevin Youkilis, who clubbed 29 HR and posted a 144 OPS+. Injuries to David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and JD Drew (who actually carried the team offensively with a monster 1.309 OPS in the month of June) limited the team come playoff time, and while the Sox went out and acquired Mark Kotsay and used Jed Lowrie and Sean Casey extensively to cover the damages, the result wasn’t quite the same. Josh Beckett, after a 20-win 2007, showed up to spring training looking less than fit, and struggled with injuries as well.
This was the last season in a six year stretch where the Red Sox were one of the toughest outs in postseason baseball, coming back to win from down 0-2 in the 2003 ALDS, 0-3 in the 2004 ALCS, 1-3 in the 2007 ALCS, and forcing a Game 7 in the 2008 ALCS after falling in a 3-1 hole. Trailing by 7 runs in Game 5, the Sox mounted an incredible comeback capped off by an RBI single by Drew. This time, the series comeback fizzled in Game 7, where the lack of Mike Lowell and over-reliance on mediocre replacements caused the offense to sputter at the worst possible moment. Despite that disappointment at the Trop, the 2008 Sox were solid across the board, and one of the better defensive teams of the century. They were good, but they didn’t quite have as much talent as the team just ahead of them in the rankings.
How they finished: 95-67, 2nd in the AL East, lost in ALCS to NYY in 7
Team MVP: The entire lineup.Seriously.
Team LVP: Grady Little
AKA: Either “Cowboy Up!” if you like to look at the glass half full, or “Rock Bottom” if you’re a Red Sox fan old enough to remember what it was like before 2004
The 2003 Red Sox are far and away the most potent offensive team on this list. This was Boston’s modern day Murderer’s Row, a team that could score, and score, and score, and were perfectly happy trying to win every game 9-7. They posted an absurd team ISO of .202, hit a Red Sox record 238 home runs, and averaged (that’s right, averaged) 5.93 runs per game. This was the year Theo Epstein took over as GM, and he laid the groundwork for future championships by bringing in guys like Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, and of course David Ortiz. The result: a lineup that was so-so the prior year transformed into the most prolific hitting team team since the turn of the century. Check out the most common batting order from that season (OPS+ in parentheses):
1. Johnny Damon (94)
2. Todd Walker (95)
3. Nomar Garciaparra (121)
4. Manny Ramirez (160)
5. David Ortiz (144)
6. Kevin Millar (110)
7. Trot Nixon (149)
8. Bill Mueller (140)
9. Jason Varitek (120)
Those numbers are insane. 7 of the 9 regulars were at least 10% higher than league average, and the only two that failed to reach an OPS+ of 100 (Damon and Walker) were still just above league average. Pitching-wise they were less impressive with a middling starting rotation featuring a Pedro Martinez who was lights out for the first six innings or 100 pitches, but could not be trusted past that point (as the Grady Little would find out in October), Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield, and anchored in the loosest sense of the word by John Burkett, Casey Fossum, and midseason acquisition Jeff Suppan, who promptly posted a 5.57 ERA for the remainder of the season. The bullpen went with the now infamous “closer by committee” strategy, which worked out not so well. The ‘pen was 28th in the MLB in ERA and was one of the reasons why Pedro was left in on that fateful October night.
But what was most impressive about this team was that they were, for all intents in purposes, the one that started it all. Though they lost in heartbreaking fashion to Yankees and Aaron Effing Boone, they instilled a never say die attitude with their comeback against the A’s in the ALDS and forcing a Game 7 against the Yankees in the ALCS after falling behind 3 games to 2. They were incredibly talented, and the massive failure that was October 16th, 2003 set the stage for everything that happened the next season.
Tier 5: The Champs
How they finished: 97-65, 1st in the AL East, won WS over STL in 6
Team MVP: The Beards/Team Chemistry
Team LVP: Joel Hanrahan
AKA: The Impossible Dream Redux”
Following 2012’s disaster, the Red Sox decided to do a complete 180. Gone were some of the big money stars that were the face of 2011’s collapse and 2012’s implosion. In their place were bargain buys like Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara Shane Victorino, and Jonny Gomes. The team won a couple of games, then won some more, then kept winning, and kept winning, and before anyone really knew what was going on the Red Sox had cruised to a first place finish in the AL East. The team knocked off the Rays, outfoxed the Tigers. and ripped off three straight wins to close out the Cardinals to win the World Series. That’s the simple version of the story at least. This team was a team that nobody saw coming and caught everyone by surprise. David Ortiz was a monster all season long, and when it came time for the postseason, he did what Big Papi does best, saving the season when it seemed like all hope was lost. At the end of the day this was a team that combined both elements of 2004’s quirky characters and 2007’s cold efficiency.
What was most intriguing about this team was not necessarily that they won, but how they did it. They have the third highest wRC+ of any Red Sox team this century, and they were able to do that not through a barrage of 3 run homers like Sox teams past, but with speed and doubles. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino combined at the top of the order to wreak havoc on the bases, and the rest of the team, while not necessarily spectacular basestealers, were heady runners. The result was a BsR (baserunning rating) of 11.3, fifth in the majors that year and the best of any Red Sox team, not just of the 21st century, but ever. Combined with a lineup that ground pitchers to a pulp thanks to guys like Napoli and Daniel Nava who averaged 637 pitches per at bat (a rough guess on my part), this Sox squad was difficult to deal with. Everything went right for the Sox this season, and while Jon Lester was the only pitcher to top 200 innings, the rest of the staff chipped in just enough high quality innings to get by, especially Clay Buchholz, who started the season 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA before getting injured in June and not returning until September, and Koji Uehara, who was about as automatic as it got after rescuing the closer role from the Andrew Bailey/Joel Hanrahan crap sandwich in June. While I may have ranked them third among the championship teams, it’s important to indicate that this team was every bit as good as the either two.
How they finished: 96-66, 1st in the AL East, won WS over COL in 4
Team MVP: Josh Beckett
Team LVP: Eric Gagne
AKA: “So Much For Another 86 Years”
While the 2004 and 2013 teams caught everyone by surprise, the 2007 championship almost never felt in doubt. The 2007 Red Sox have the highest Pythagorean W-L of any other Red Sox team in these rankings at 101-61. As I pointed out in the 2013 section, the 2007 team was a highly efficient machine, especially with regards to their pitching staff. Josh Beckett had his best season as a member of the Sox, posting a 3.08 FIP while finishing second in the AL Cy Young chase to CC Sabathia. Beckett was a superhuman in the playoffs as well, winning all four of his starts with an ERA of 1.20. Curt Schilling nearly threw a no hitter in June until he famously shook off Jason Varitek and promptly allowed a hit with two outs in the ninth. Daisuke Matsuzaka led the team in IP, even though his up and down season proved indicative of what was to come the rest of his career. The Red Sox staff as a whole was excellent, finishing with the best team ERA in the AL despite finishing in the middle of the pack defensively. Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon were automatic in the 8th and 9th innings, leading the bullpen to the second best ERA in the majors despite deadline acquisition Eric Gagne’s attempts to completely undermine the entire season.
While the pitching was indeed excellent, the lineup was a force as well. Sure, the whole Julio Lugo thing didn’t quite work out and the bench was weak enough that Bobby Kielty was considered a huge get during the post-trade deadline waiver period, but World Series MVP Mike Lowell had a career year at the plate, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia were an excellent 1-2 tandem at the top of the lineup, and David Ortiz set career highs in BA (.332) and OPS (1.066). 2007 was the final season of a four year run for Big Papi where he terrorized major league pitching. Ortiz averaged 44 HR, 135 RBI, and 42 doubles a season over that stretch, while posting a line of .304/.408/.616 and an OPS+ of 159. Ellsbury made his major league debut late in June, and provided a late season boost thanks to his offensive dynamism, even jacking Coco Crisp’s spot in the starting lineup by Game 6 of the ALCS. In the postseason the Red Sox handled the Angels and the Rockies in the ALDS and World Series, respectively. Though they ran into some trouble with the Indians in the ALCS, falling behind 3 games to 1, they rallied back with three straight wins, outscoring the Indians 30-5 in Games 5-7 and capped off with a sneaky legendary catch by Crisp to clinch the pennant. And yet, though this team was certainly great, they never felt quite as good as the hands down best team on this list.
How they finished: 98-64, 2nd in the AL East, won WS over STL in 4
Team MVP: Everyone
Team LVP: No one. Seriously. I can’t think of anyone.
AKA: “The Curse Reversed”
As if there was going to be any other Red Sox team in the top spot. I mean, forget the last 15 years, this is the best Red Sox team of all time. It isn’t particularly close. Forget their on field performance for a minute. This team had to overcome 86 years of tortured franchise history and a rabid fanbase desperate for a championship. They avenged last season’s heartbreak to their arch nemesis in the sweetest way possible. They, unlike so many previous incarnations of the Red Sox before them, actually finished the job. And they did all of this while being the most likable group of guys to ever put on a Red Sox uniform thanks to things like “Why not us?” and Nelson and everything Kevin Millar said and did during the ALCS. To quote SNL’s Stephon, this team had everything.
As I mentioned earlier, this team could not have happened without everything that happened in 2003. Epstein sought to solve all of that team’s problems in the following offseason. The Sox needed a second top flight pitcher to go with a declining Pedro Martinez? Enter Curt Schilling. Last year’s bullpen by committee was an utter failure? Let’s go get Keith Foulke. Our infield defense was a disaster? Out with Todd Walker, in with Pokey Reese (and yes I linked that catch because it never gets any love even though Derek Jeter made the same catch look 1,000 times more difficult in that same game and was deified for it even though he didn’t have to range as far). And yet even with the changes, the Red Sox were only 52-44 on July 24th. That night, the Red Sox beat the Yankees 11-10 in extras in “The A-Rod Game“. Suddenly the team had a spark. On July 31st, Epstein made waves yet again with the blockbuster trade that sent away a sulky Nomar in exchange for Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts. From that moment on, the ’04 Sox played like a completely different team, going 21-7 in August and 42-18 overall down the stretch. Unlike so many teams before them, the Red Sox got better as the season went on instead of wilting, a trend that continued into the postseason with the greatest comeback in baseball history against the rival Yankees in the ALCS. The Sox ripped off 8 straight wins after falling behind 3-0 to New York, with heroics from seemingly every player on the roster from Ortiz, Ramirez, and Schilling to Roberts (obviously), Mark Bellhorn and Curtis Leskanic. That’s why there’s no singular MVP with this team. Everyone played a tremendous part.
Statistically, this team has an excellent argument for the top spot as well. They had an offense that produced only slightly below that of 2003’s historic lineup, and a pitching staff and defense (especially once the Nomar trade went down) that was much improved from the prior season. The only real weakness on this team was on the basepaths, They were second in the AL in team FIP, and with Foulke anchoring the ‘pen they jumped from 28th in reliever ERA in 2003 to 11th. These subtle improvements bumped the team from a very good team to a championship caliber one. The 2004 team was more talented than 2013’s team, and had far more character than in 2007. When it’s all said and done, they are not only the most important Red Sox team of the 21st century, they are also the best.