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The Red Sox are not built to win in the playoffs

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Recent historical trends indicate that teams constructed like the Red Sox have met playoff struggles.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the Red Sox loss to the Tigers on Monday, Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham tweeted that the Red Sox are just 8-30 in games during which their offense scores fewer than five runs, and that the team is therefore not set up for playoff success should they get there.

Abraham raises a curious point, and I decided to check if there was any evidence behind his logic: do teams that rely on offense to bail out pitching usually struggle in the playoffs?

The Red Sox offense has been prolific thus far, pacing the majors with 557 runs, good for 5.68 per game. However, the pitching has scuffled even despite the offseason additions of David Price and Craig Kimbrel. Boston has allowed an average of 4.84 runs per game, sixth-worst in all of baseball.

In order to find comparable team seasons, I went back to 1995, the first season with the (mostly) current playoff format, and compiled a list of every team that finished both in the top 5 in the majors in runs scored and in the top 10 in runs allowed. I then filtered the list for just those teams that made the playoffs. This yielded my list of comparable teams. Sure, it's simplistic, but for the purposes of this exercise it should be effective. Each of these teams excelled offensively, gave up more runs than average, and were still successful enough to make the playoffs.

I came up with 11 teams, presented below with their runs per game, runs allowed per game, overall playoff wins, and playoff outcome.

Team

Year

R/G

RA/G

Playoff Wins

Result

TEX

2015

4.64

4.52

2

Lost ALDS

DET

2014

4.67

4.35

0

Lost ALDS

PHI

2007

5.51

5.07

0

Lost NLDS

BOS

2005

5.62

4.97

0

Lost ALDS

NYY

2005

5.47

4.87

2

Lost ALDS

CLE

2001

5.54

5.07

2

Lost ALDS

CLE

1999

6.23

5.31

2

Lost ALDS

TEX

1998

5.80

5.38

0

Lost ALDS

SEA

1997

5.71

5.14

1

Lost ALDS

BAL

1996

5.82

5.54

4

Won ALDS, Lost ALCS

COL

1995

5.45

5.44

1

Lost NLDS

Though the sample is relatively small, the results are almost shockingly uniform. Only one team that fit the criteria -€– the 1996 Orioles –€” won a playoff series, and they followed up by losing in five in the ALCS. The other ten teams averaged just one playoff win, and four were swept. It appears that Abraham was right to question whether the Sox are built for playoff success.

Now, does this spell doom for the current iteration of the Red Sox? Of course not. The sample is very small, at just 11 teams, and postseason baseball is so fickle that it is hard to draw real conclusions at any sample size. Additionally, the 2016 Red Sox have a better offense than any team on the list after adjusting for park, league, and era. Boston does not merely have a top-5 MLB offense; it has a historically good cast of hitters. However, many of the problems that existed for the teams on the list – and eventually may have led to their seasons ending early in the playoffs –€” could also be present for the Red Sox.

An especially good comparison is the 1997 Seattle Mariners. Much like the current day Red Sox, the Mariners sported a star-studded lineup led by young hitters such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Seattle also led the league in runs scored, but struggled to prevent other teams from scoring, giving up the eighth most runs in the majors. The offense (with the help of staff ace Randy Johnson, of course) was good enough to lead the team to 90 wins. Fangraphs currently projects the Red Sox to finish the season with 91 wins, so the two teams look fairly similar in terms of regular season performance.

Things unraveled for Seattle in the ALDS against Baltimore, however. The Orioles tagged Mariners pitchers for nine runs in each of the first two games, Mike Mussina twice quieted the bats of the Seattle offense, and Baltimore took the best of five series in four games.

This is not to say that the Red Sox should expect to lose in the first round of the playoffs simply because of what happened to a different team nineteen years ago. Boston has more offensive talent than just about any team on the list above, and the pitching is liable to improve at any moment, especially with the addition of Drew Pomeranz, and the possible return of David Price to his pre-2016 form.

It is worth noting, however, that if Boston is to have considerable postseason success, it will have to buck a recent historical trend. Most of the teams touched upon above lost in the playoffs because their pitching staffs were unable to limit opposing offenses, and their previously excellent offenses struggled at inopportune times. If Boston faces a team flush with pitching, such as Cleveland, in the division series, it may meet the same end as the 1997 Mariners.

There is one further factor to consider: with Boston currently hanging on to a playoff spot by a meager two games, this analysis may be rendered moot in two months anyways.

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Data courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com

Tom O'Donnell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He will be a junior at Colby College next fall. You can follow him on Twitter @Od_tommy.