We all remember what happened over those four days in October.
The Red Sox, down a seemingly impossible 3-0 in their best-of-seven 2004 American League Championship Series bout with the rival Yankees, became the first team in Major League Baseball history to overcome such a daunting deficit. At that point, the feat had occurred just twice in NHL history (1942 Maple Leafs and 1975 Islanders) and never before in the NBA.
Even for the most optimistic of us, the chances were barely worth entertaining. Fortunately, sometimes the unbelievable becomes reality.
Sadly, that simply won’t be the case for the decade-older Red Sox. The gap is too large and the field is too deep.
Entering baseball’s unofficial second-half on Friday, Boston is 43-52. The club is last in the AL East, 9.5 games out of first. In the Wild Card standings, the deficit is a more manageable eight games, though eight teams sit closer to that relatively new second entry.
Mathematically, the Sox aren’t definitively out. Their probability of reaching the postseason, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, is still a wing and a prayer 3.5 percent. Fangraphs improves those odds to 5.8 percent.
But, historically, the odds are nil. WEEI.com’s Alex Speier delivered the bad news earlier this month.
The 1964 Cardinals were the last team to limp to a losing first-half record before turning on the jets and achieving a championship. That team owned a 39-40 first-half record but then had a dominant second half, going 54-29 to finish the regular season with a 93-69 record en route to a title. They are the clear outlier of the last 50 years. The average World Series champion of the last 50 years (beginning with that Cardinals club) has enjoyed a record that was 15 games over .500 through the first half. Besides the '64 Cardinals, only two teams that eventually won the World Series wrapped up the first half any worse than six games above .500. The 2003 Marlins were three games over .500 at the break; the 1985 Royals were two games over .500.
Admittedly, Speier’s first premise was grounded in a team’s hopes at winning a championship after a tough start rather than simply making the playoffs, so his focus turned to a division crown. He went on to outline that there have been 16 teams dating back to 1995 to get hot in the second-half after pre-break struggles to win their division.
That may sound like a lot, but the patterns aren’t in Boston’s favor.
The Dodgers have turned the trick twice in the last five seasons after sitting with a .500 record or slightly worse (three games under) with at least 94 games under their belts at the break. However, both rallies against the Diamondbacks began with gaps of no worse than 2.5 games in the lousy NL West.
In 2012, the Athletics were an even 43-43 at the break and, more notably, nine games back of the Rangers. But 86 total games played is far different than where the Red Sox are today, having played 95. By the 96th game that season, Oakland had improved to 5.5 games out at 51-44 and was 12-2 following the respite.
The closest example this year’s Boston team can point to in rallying for a division title is the 2003 Minnesota Twins. At the break, the Twinkies were 44-49 and 7.5 games behind the Royals. Worth noting, though, they were third in the AL Central, not last, before the A.J. Pierzynski-led club finished 46-23 (beginning with a five-game winning streak).
In summary, Speier writes, “No team in the wild card era has come back from being more than five games under .500 at the break to win the division; a 7.5 game first-half deficit is the most significant one to be erased.”
As we know, the Red Sox are worse on both counts.
But in today’s age, in spite of just a one-game guarantee, one must acknowledge the Wild Card – even if there are a staggering number of teams to leapfrog. That discussion escalates the timeline by a couple of weeks.
Last July, SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee looked back at the biggest comebacks in the Wild Card era. His research, with help from CoolStandings.com, began at the trade deadline. That’s rapidly approaching on July 31.
Brisbee notes that every one of those successful clubs since 1995 had at least a 7.4 percent chance – and an average of 26.2 percent – to make the postseason with the exception of one: the 2011 Rays.
Sox fans remember that one all too well. That season, Tampa was 10.5 games back in the East and 8.5 games behind in the Wild Card chase at the deadline – both marginally worse than where Boston sits today and a ridiculous 107 games into the season. In turn, the Rays had a 2.1 percent chance to play in October. Thanks to Boston’s 7-20 September collapse, it did.
Common sense obviously tells us the Red Sox need to not only get hot, but do so immediately to have even the slimmest opportunity. Consider the schedule.
Over the next month, Boston will play seven games against Toronto (49-47 overall, 4-2 vs. the Sox), three-game sets versus Kansas City (48-46, 26-21 on the road), Tampa Bay (44-53, but 13-5 over its last 18 games), the Yanks (47-47, 29-24 on the road, 6-4 vs. the Sox), St. Louis (52-44, aided by wins in five of seven), the LA Angels (57-37, with wins in 18 of 22), and a two-game series with Cincinnati (51-44, with victories in six of eight) before again matching up against lowly Houston.
It won’t happen. The Rays are the outlier, not unlike the 2004 Red Sox.
Realistically, the race is over for the AL’s third-worst team and the sixth-worst run-producing club in the majors. A rumored pursuit of a pitcher like Cole Hamels isn’t to improve this year; it’s a possible Jon Lester contingency plan. The Sox will indeed be sellers, even at the most basic level in order to make room for the kids. The process has already started with Pierzynski’s release and will inevitably continue with the departures of veteran role players like Jake Peavy, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Mike Carp, Craig Breslow, or Burke Badenhop. Perhaps even more valuable pieces such as Koji Uehara or Felix Doubront will move.
There’s plenty to look forward to over Boston’s final 67 games and certainly a number of reasons to watch the games, as we’ll explore in the weeks ahead. A playoff chase, however, isn’t one of them.
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