The Red Sox Are Becoming History

It took a no-hitter — a 108-pitch, 10-strikeout gem by the A’s Sean Manaea — to stop the Red Sox in their tracks, snapping their eight-game winning streak and dealing them just their third loss of the year in their 20th game. Though they lost to the A’s again on Sunday, they’ve spent time in some rarefied air in recent days.

When the Sox beat the A’s on Friday night to climb to 17-2, they became the first team in 31 years to reach that early-season pinnacle, and just the sixth since 1901, when the American League began play:

Teams That Started 17-2 or Better
Team Year Final W-L Finish Postseason
Tigers 1911 89-65 2
Giants (18-1) 1918 71-53 2
Dodgers 1955 98-55 1 Won World Series
A’s 1981 64-45 1 Won AL West (1st Half)
Tigers 1984 104-58 1 Won World Series
Brewers 1987 91-71 3
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Two of those five teams went on to win the World Series. The 1955 Dodgers, managed by Hall of Famer Walter Alston and led by Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider (and also featuring a 19-year-old bonus baby named Sandy Koufax), started the year 10-0 and ran their record to 22-2 before taking their third loss. By that point, they were nine games ahead of the National League pack; they would win by 13.5 games, then claim their long-awaited first championship by beating the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.

The 1984 Tigers, managed by Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson, with a lineup featuring what should be a Hall of Fame middle infield in Alan Trammell (who was elected this past December) and Lou Whitaker (who’s been unjustly frozen out) as well Kirk Gibson, won their first nine games, with (sigh) Hall of Famer Jack Morris no-hitting the White Sox in their fourth game of the year. They went 16-1 through 17 games and peeled off another 16-1 run in games 24 through 40 to run their record to 35-5 before leveling off. They set a franchise record for wins, running away with the AL East by 15.5 games, then sweeping the Royals in the ALCS and trampling the Padres in a five-game World Series.

As for those Brewers, the last team to reach 17-2, it didn’t end so well. The Tom Trebelhorn-managed team, which starred Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, won their first 13 games — the ninth of which was Juan Nieves’ no-hitter against the Orioles on April 15 — and followed their first loss with another four straight wins. Things got bumpy from there, though. After inching to 20-3, they lost 12 straight and 18 out of 20; they simply didn’t have the pitching to back up their record. They limped into the All-Star break at 42-43, and while a 39-22 run from August 1 onward pushed them to 91 wins, they finished third in the AL East, seven games behind another Tigers squad featuring all of the aforementioned principals.

With two losses, the Sox’ current record of 17-4 isn’t quite as sexy as it was a couple of days ago, but it’s still pretty special. Since 1901, just 21 teams have won at least 17 of their first 21 games, with only one in this millennium winning more than 17: the 2003 Yankees, who began the year 18-3. One Red Sox squad began 18-3, in 1946 (more on them momentarily). Here are the teams whom the Sox have matched:

Teams That Started 17-4
Team Year Final W-L Finish
Cubs 1907 107-45 1 Won World Series
Giants 1912 103-48 1 Won NL Pennant
Pirates 1921 90-63 2
Giants 1922 93-61 1 Won World Series
Dodgers 1977 98-64 1 Won NL Pennant
Mets 1986 108-54 1 Won World Series
Mariners 2001 116-46 1 Won AL West
Mariners 2002 93-69 3
Royals 2003 83-79 3
Giants 2003 100-61 1 Won NL West
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

For as scarce as such starts have been throughout history, it’s somewhat remarkable that four of them occurred in a three-year span from 2001 to -03, with two in the same year — and as noted, the one by the Royals wasn’t even as good as the 18-3 start by the Yankees that same year. For the Royals, that season stuck out like a sore thumb for another reason as well, as it was their only finish above .500 from 1995 to 2012, and they couldn’t even parlay it into a playoff spot. The 2002 Mariners, a year removed from setting a record for most wins in the regular season, squandered their 17-4 start, as well. They went 55-33 through the first half, leading the AL West by three games, and held at least a share of first place up to August 22, when they were 77-51; however, they went just 16-18 the rest of the way, dropping from first to third place behind the A’s and Angels in less than a week. By the end, they were 10 games out.

The combined final winning percentage of those 10 teams was .626, roughly the equivalent of a 102-60 season. After their first 21 games, they played at a .599 clip, the equivalent of a 97-win team. These Red Sox, who began the year projected to win 92 games, are now projected to win 100 games, the majors’ second-highest total behind the Astros’ 101.

As a franchise, the Red Sox have only reached the 100-win mark in a season three times, but not once during the 162-game expansion era (1961 onward for the AL, 1962 onward for the NL). Their high there was 99 wins in 1978, the year of Bucky F. Dent. In 1912 (105-47) and 1915 (101-50), they were led by Hall of Fame center fielder Tris Speaker and righty Smoky Joe Wood, who went a gaudy 34-5 in the first of those two seasons; in the second, a 20-year-old Babe Ruth was among the team’s other top starters.

The third such team from the Boston annals is the aforementioned 1946 team, which began 18-3 and finished 104-50. Those Sox entered 1946 having gone 27 years without a pennant and three with no better than a .500 record, but they had a good excuse for the latter situation, as they had been hit as hard as any team by the loss of players to military service. Left fielder Ted Williams, center fielder Dom DiMaggio, and shortstop Johnny Pesky had missed all of 1943-45 due to the war, while catcher Hal Wagner, second baseman Bobby Doerr and righty Tex Hughson had not only missed 1945 but had been inducted in late 1944, decimating a team that had been just four games out at the end of August. They went 9-17 the rest of the way.

The 1946 Sox won their first five games against the Senators and A’s, then lost three out of four before peeling off a 15-game winning streak that took them to 21-3, 5.5 games ahead of the Yankees and the rest of the AL pack. Williams hit .423/.563/.769 with five homers and 16 extra-base hits through the first 21 games, driving in 23 runs and walking 24 times while striking out just six; he would win AL MVP honors while leading the league in OBP (.497), SLG (.667), wRC+ (215), and WAR (11.8). Pesky hit .407/.469/.523 over that same span; as he had done as a rookie in 1942, he would go on to lead the AL in hits (208). DiMaggio (.403/.519/.581) and Wagner (.356/.517/.600) were red hot over that 21-game stretch as well.

If not for a season-high six-game losing streak from September 6 to 12 and a pair of losses in their final two games, those Sox might have set a franchise record for wins, but as it was, they outdistanced the second-place Tigers by 12 games. Though they took a three games to two lead over the Cardinals in the World Series, they ended up losing in seven, with Enos Slaughter dashing home from first base with the winning run in the eighth inning while Pesky allegedly held the ball for a moment too long.

We’ll have to wait another six months and change to see how it all pans out for these Red Sox, but thus far, they have the majors’ highest-scoring offense (5.90 runs per game) and are third in run prevention (2.86 runs per game). Given the quality of work they’ve received from not just from Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, and free-agent addition J.D. Martinez but from players such as Xander Bogaerts, Rick Porcello, David Price (his three-run homer served up to Khris Davis on Sunday notwithstanding), and Hanley Ramirez, as they’ve turned the page on a disappointing 2017 season, they have a chance to be a special team.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017). He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

Despite facing teams with a DH, the top three teams in run prevention are in the AL. Playoff odds has those three teams finishing in the top 4. AL has some pitching this year.

Hughes
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Hughes

They definitely have good pitching, but they’re running too hot at this point.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Well you’ve got a team that had the best pitching staff last year (potentially in history), a team with pitching so deep that a recent 3-win starter can’t crack the starting rotation, and a team whose 2nd and 3rd best pitchers recently won Cy Young awards. It’s the era of the superteam, so I guess we shouldn’t be that surprised.

And the next eight teams are all NL teams.

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

Which one is the Astros? Peacock and McHugh can’t crack the starting rotation despite recently putting up 3 WAR as a starter, and Verlander and Keuchel won Cy Youngs and may not be the best pitcher on their team.

ScottyB
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ScottyB

-Indians
-Astros
-Red Sox

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

You cracked the code, although admittedly you probably have to share my personal definition of 2011 as “not recent” to get it.

Or rule it out by figuring out that #2 is definitely not the Red Sox.

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

It is all in jest, but 2011 isn’t very different than 2012.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Was it really that long ago? I guess it was. I thought it was 2013 or 2014, but apparently that was Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber (deserving winners, both of them).

I also thought that Verlander won his Cy Young award in 2009, but apparently not only was I wrong about that (Greinke had a ridiculous 2009) but Verlander outpitched Price in 2012 anyway.

rounders
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rounders

I’m a Sox fan, but after 162 contests this is not going down as the greatest starting five ever. They ran into some bad teams, some cold teams, cold conditions, and yes, in addition they had a few very well pitched games. Their sixth and seventh starters have been effective to this point, and that will be the key to success if they have it. That bullpen is gong to need help.