We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.
Everyone loves an underdog story. A tale of improbable glory over seemingly impossible odds. The 2018 Red Sox were . . . not that. Not at all. They were a dominant team from Day One (well, Day Two, as I note below) and remained dominant until the final out of the World Series, winning 108 games in the regular season and barely being challenged in the postseason. In the end they hoisted their fourth World Series trophy in fifteen seasons and there was really not a ton of doubt that they’d do it.
The Sox won 93 games and their second straight AL East title in 2017 and they had one big need to fill heading into the season: power. They filled that, and how, by signing 45-homer man J.D. Martinez just after spring training got underway. Adding him to their already outstanding young core of players — Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts — instantly gave the Sox one of the best, if not the best, lineups in the game.
Still: entering the season it felt like they were getting relatively little love.
That mostly had to do with the Yankees, who had a sexier offseason, acquiring Giancarlo Stanton in the winter. Yankees fans were high-fiving each other through the holidays while Red Sox fans were largely frustrated at how long it took to land their big slugger in Martinez. The Yankees and Red Sox both got new managers too, but Aaron Boone — slayer of the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS — was a sexier hire than Alex Cora, who came over from Houston. It didn’t matter on paper, but it led to an enthusiasm gap. What turned out to be a hilariously misplaced enthusiasm gap.
The Red Sox had a horrible opening day game against the Rays, but that was about all that went wrong for them over the course of the year. They won their next nine games and 17 of their next 18 to create a four-game lead in the division by April 20. Between then and June 26 they would spend a total of ten days out of first place, never more than two games out. July 1 — on which they were tied with the Yankees — was the last day they would not have sole possession of first place. Later that month they’d lead the division by as many six games. In August they led by ten and a half games at one point. In mid-September their lead stretched to ten and a half before coming back down to eight games on the final day of their 108-win season. Really, there was never a time after Independence Day when anyone truly thought they didn’t have the AL East on lockdown.
It’s worth noting that all of this happened despite the fact that they were missing ace Chris Sale for a large stretch in the second half. They also never got a single plate appearance from team leader Dustin Pedroia either. It didn’t matter much. The key to the Red Sox was that they had few if any weaknesses and a deep, deep roster that always had someone, at some time, stepping up. One night Martinez would be the hero. The next night Betts. Then Bradley. Then Bogaerts. Mitch Moreland. You name it, and there was always a Boston player who was coming through. A midseason acquisition of Nathan Eovaldi helped patch over Sale’s injury and some weaknesses in the rotation, but really, this was a team with no true weaknesses, even if Boston talk radio tried to drum a few up every week.
In the end the season belonged to the Red Sox, from start to finish. No star in baseball shined brighter than Mookie Betts during the regular season. He’d finish with a .346 batting average, leading all of baseball, a .640 slugging percentage, and 129 runs scored. He also put together a .438 on-base percentage with 32 home runs, 80 RBI, and 30 stolen bases while ranking among the best defensive outfielders. According to Baseball Reference, Betts was worth 10.9 WAR, the highest total by a position player since Barry Bonds in 2002 (11.8). It was only the 21st time a player compiled a 10.9 WAR or better since 1871. The others to do it along with Betts and Bonds: Cal Ripken, Jr., Joe Morgan, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner. That’s amazing company and, quite understandably, earned Betts the MVP Award, with only teammate Martinez and Mike Trout — who each got a single first place vote — keeping him from winning it unanimously.
Once the postseason came the Red Sox would drop a single game to the Yankees in the ALDS, a single game to the Astros in the ALCS and a single game to the Dodgers in the World Series. Even in that one World Series loss — the epic, 18-inning Game Three in which Max Muncy hit a walkoff homer to give the Dodgers the win — the Red Sox found at least some glory. That in the form of Eovaldi’s gutsy, six-inning relief appearance in which he was dominant through about 96 of his 97 pitches. Also finding postseason glory was journeyman infielder Steve Pearce, who hit three homers in the span of two games, knocking in seven runs and earning the World Series MVP Award. The Sox clinched the title with an easy 5-1 win in Game 5, beating Clayton Kershaw for the second time in the Series.
Maybe his hire was not as sexy as Aaron Boone’s, but Alex Cora pressed all the right buttons all year long and all postseason long. A supremely talented roster steamrolled over the AL East, the American League and all of Major League Baseball. It was the best season in the history of the storied franchise, arguably the best season by any major league team in the past 20 years and among the best seasons any team has put up in the history of the game.
Is that the top story of 2018? I’d say so. If you got one better, I’m all ears.
By Craig Calcaterra, NBC Sports