Red Sox are not underdogs

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The Boston Red Sox won 108 games this year. They had the second-best run differential. They had the highest payroll in the game by tens of millions of dollars. They have one the of the largest fan bases in the game — which means a lot of revenue and a lot of people believing in them — and, of course, they have won the World Series three times in the past 14 years.

In light of that, it’s quite a thing to suggest that they are some sort of plucky upstarts, that they are some sort of underdog or that they are a team “nobody believed in.”

You ask for miracles, Theo, I give you the baseball commentariat:

Chris Russo is not alone. My Twitter mentions overnight and into today were filled with people casting the Red Sox as underdogs or even upstarts in some way or another. I found that all rather comical so I began engaging people about it to try to understand it. Once all of the dumb arguing had settled down — and my god there was a lot of dumb arguing about it — I found it breaking down roughly like this:

The genuinely anxious 

The most understandable people I encountered were Red Sox fans who just didn’t have confidence in the team. This is a very relatable feeling for a sports fan. While we crow and brag about the guys we root for to others, no one is as hard on a team as that team’s own fan base. It’s a familiarity thing. We know our team’s flaws and weaknesses better than anyone and, if we’re like most people, we tend to think about those far more than we think about our team’s strengths, especially come playoff time.

In Boston it’s way worse, I imagine, because in that town there’s a massive media-industrial complex fighting for angles, and when one is looking for a fresh angle one often looks to pick nits. The bullpen sucks. The manager is out of his depth. The GM is too passive and isn’t adding enough at the deadline or, alternatively, is too aggressive and is mortgaging the future. The rotation is about to be exposed. From what some Boston friends have told me, the entire summer was spent with talk radio and certain columnists fixating on the teams flaws, mostly because it’s kinda boring to talk about a team that wins almost every day. Which the Red Sox did.

In light of all of that it’s understandable to think that your victorious Red Sox stunned the world and beat the odds and all of that. Just know that . . . that’s not, actually, what happened. They were the best team in baseball from the start of the season until the end and, despite a couple of injuries and things, were always considered one of the top two or three most likely teams to win the World Series. To suggest otherwise is just not true.

 

The perpetually-aggrieved 

A smaller subset of fans will cast themselves as underdogs for less-relatable reasons, usually couched in grievance. They’re supremely confident in themselves and their team and they view it as an insult if the outside world does not feel the same way. This insult, over time, is forged into a victim mentality that casts their rooting interest into a besieged underdog for which victory is not just victory but triumph over impossible odds and against foes hellbent on their destruction. This, despite the fact, they are extraordinarily powerful and have advantages most other teams do not have.

There are analogies here to the situation of the New England Patriots of recent years. There are also analogies to our current political situation. In the interests of not getting into the 105th and 106th nasty internet fight I’ve been in today, I’ll leave that for another time.

 

Those lacking perspective

Many people who cast the Red Sox as underdogs did so because they believed Houston to be favored in the ALCS. And yes, some people did favor Houston. In early October MLB.com’s panel of experts picked the Astros to win the pennant. ESPN’s panel narrowly picked Boston. It was sort of all over the map. If I had to guess based on the pre-series commentary I recall I’d say a few more people picked Houston than Boston, but it wasn’t overwhelming. It also shouldn’t matter a bit.

The Sox won 108 games. The Astros won 103 games. They were both very, very good teams and finding daylight between them was pretty hard. A lot of good arguments could be made that Houston was a stronger team entering the series and it’s certainly the case that last night’s matchup of Justin Verlander and David Price cast the Sox — but really just Price — as an underdog of sorts. But it was not a case of David vs. Goliath. Not even close. To suggest that it was because some pundits were leaning towards the Astros is to fundamentally misunderstand (a) that pundits are required to pick a winner and often do so in a contrary manner to get attention; (b) how good both of these teams were; and (c) what David vs. Goliath stories are all about in the first place.

The Astros vs. the Red Sox was not David vs. Goliath. It was Goliath vs. Goliath. Two of the best teams to ever meet in an LCS. One of ’em had to win. To say that either of these teams, if victorious, were the heroes in an underdog story is silly in and of itself, but to say so simply because 12 people with a media credential picked Houston while seven picked Boston, or whatever, is even sillier.

 

The gambling people

A lot of folks I encountered cast the Red Sox as underdogs because gambling lines favored the Astros. If the people in the previous group are getting it wrong because they’re not appreciating the degree of “underdog” the Red Sox were, these people are getting it wrong because they’re using an entirely different definition of the word “underdog” than most people use when talking about underdog teams.

Yes, you are technically an “underdog” if the betting lines favor your opponent, but that is not what most of us mean when talking about that concept. We’re talking about teams that no one thought had a chance. True Cinderella stories with the odds stacked against them and for which there is no rational basis to assume they have a real shot. This describes the 1968 Jets or Buster Douglas. This does not describe the 2018 Red Sox at all. If, before this morning, you suggested such a thing without reference to the betting lines, you’d be laughed out of the conversation.

Betting lines are created to do one thing: generate the most bets possible that break down in such a manner that, on balance, they benefit the bookmakers. Yes, they take all kinds of actual information into account like, say, whether Chris Sale might pitch in Game 5 or 6 or how the Astros do against lefties, but it’s granular stuff that no one, ever, talks about when they talk about the larger narrative arc of teams and whether or not they were underdogs in the sense that the non-gambling world talks about underdogs. Which is to say: they’re pretty meaningless for our purposes.

The Dodgers were favored by the oddsmakers to win the 2017 World Series over the Astros. They did not. No one called that a monster upset and no one cast the Astros as the heroes of an underdog story. For the very same reasons, no one should cast the 108-win Red Sox in that role. And even if they want to, well, I suppose they need to stop doing it now:

Beyond those three categories, I think, there is just this general need to graft a narrative on the postseason. I’ve fought the creating of such narratives for years, but it’s a battle I know I’ll always lose. We want to tell stories about teams and we will tell such stories. It just so happens that, in sports, one of the most appealing stories is the against-all-odds underdog, Cinderella story. I’d hope that, if we must traffic in narratives, we’d try to find better, more accurate narratives, but people will reach for that one every single time it’s available and, as here, even when it’s not really available. It stimulates the pleasure centers of our brain and appeals to the latent Just World Fallacy to which most of us ascribe and in which the big bullies always get their comeuppance at the hands of the plucky upstarts.

If the Brewers come back from being down 3-2 in the NLCS, you can bet you’ll hear it applied to them. For them it’ll be a multi-tracked underdog story, focusing on relative team strength but also on market size and payroll. If the Dodgers win, well, it’ll be pretty darn hard given their talent and payroll, but I suppose someone will try.

Maybe, if they try hard enough, they’ll even find a way to make Boston the underdog again, those odds I cited above — and every other consideration — notwithstanding.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.