- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

It’s Still Not Time to Panic in Boston

The Red Sox are reeling. Over the last month, they’ve seen a 10-game lead over Tampa Bay shrink down to just three games. They’ve seen their rotation suffer from injuries and poor performances, and lately, even the normally reliable Daniel Bard has been blowing up at inopportune times. As hard as it would have been to believe even just a few weeks ago, the Rays could pull into a tie in the Wild Card race if they can complete the weekend sweep in Boston.

And yet, despite all the injuries, the poor performances, and the threatening kids from down south, I still don’t think the Red Sox really have all that much to worry about. Even if we presume that the Red Sox and Rays are of somewhat equal talent levels for the remainder of the season, the Sox still have a lot of advantages in this race for the final playoff spot.

Let’s start with the obvious — the three game lead. Yes, the Rays could wipe that out if they keep beating the Red Sox brains in, but the actual probability of the Rays pulling off the sweep this weekend is pretty darn low. Even if we say that this version of the Red Sox is something less than what they’ve shown all year, it’s essentially impossible to argue that the Rays are a significant favorite in any of the three games, especially with the games being in Boston. If it’s a 50-50 toss-up in each game, that would put the odds of the Rays winning all three at 12.5% — pretty much the same chances that a pitcher gets a hit in any given at-bat.

Sure, it could happen, but do you routinely bet on pitchers getting hits in certain situations? I didn’t think so. The reality is that even if the Red Sox lose two of three to Tampa Bay this weekend, they’ll still wake up Monday morning with a two-game lead. That might not sound like much, but when you look at the two team’s remaining schedules, it’s a formidable lead.

After the weekend series with Tampa Bay, the Red Sox host the Orioles for four games, play three at New York, and then finish the season with three more at Baltimore. The Yankees series will be tough, but seven of their final 10 games are against the team with the third-worst record in baseball. If we give the Red Sox a 65 percent chance of winning each game against Baltimore and a 45 percent chance of winning the remaining games with the Yankees, then we’d expect them to go 6-4 in their final 10 games.

The Rays, on the other hand, have essentially the exact opposite schedule. They have seven more games against New York, and their three-game break in between series is against Toronto, the better also-ran of the AL East. Tampa plays nothing but winning teams the rest of the way, and while it’s likely that the Yankees won’t be rolling out a full force line-up in the final weekend, it’s still going to take a monstrous effort to make up ground during the final week and a half.

If we give the Rays a 45 percent chance to win each of the four games in New York and then a 55 percent chance to win the home games against the Blue Jays and Yankees to end the season (under the assumption that NYY will be setting up their playoff rotation, giving guys days off, etc…), we’d come up with an expected record of 5-5 in their final 10 games.

Yes, just based on remaining quality of opponents, the Red Sox should be expected to gain a game on Tampa Bay in the standings after this weekend series ends. Even if the Rays sweep this weekend, Boston would still be slight favorites to capture the Wild Card, and we’ve already pointed out that it’s pretty unlikely that the Rays will win three straight in Boston.

Even if the Rays take two of three and cut the lead down to two games, they’d likely have to go 8-2 down the stretch to end the season in a tie with Boston, and 9-1 to win the Wild Card outright. The odds of the Rays winning 9 out of their final 10 games are about 1 in 100, and that’s being generous with their individual chance to win each game.

If the Rays beat Josh Beckett tonight, you’re going to hear a lot about momentum, choking, and narratives that suggest that the Red Sox are in a lot of trouble. In reality, though, the Sox are still extremely likely to win the Wild Card, and it’s really the Rays who can’t afford to lose this weekend. Anything less than a sweep and this race is essentially all but over. Tampa Bay has to play perfect baseball for the next three days, then hope that the Orioles find some late season magic to help them out down the stretch.

I’ll put my money on Boston.