Maybe it wasn’t the schedule.

A little more than a week ago, I was a bit dismissive of the Red Sox’ 20-8 record in the aftermath of the Nomar Garciaparra trade. Because they spent August playing the AL’s middle and lower classes, I wasn’t convinced that the team’s .700 stretch was anything but the intersection of regression to the mean and mediocre competition.

Starting last Tuesday, though, the Sox absolutely slapped around three of the top six teams in the league. They went 8-1 against the Angels, Rangers and A’s, capping the run with a three-game thrashing of the A’s in Oakland. The Red Sox now have complete control of the wild-card race and a realistic chance to win their first division title since 1995. With the sweep over the A’s, the Sox are now 28-9 since making the trade that brought in Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz.

As was their intent, the Sox have allowed many fewer runs, nearly one per game, since acquiring the two defensive specialists. They’ve also hit a bit better:

                         RS/G    RA/G
Before (101 games)       5.67    4.88
After (37 games)         6.19    3.92

Some of that run prevention can be attributed to playing a bunch of games against the Devil Rays, the remnants of the White Sox, and the RoadRangers. Surely, the Sox pitchers have taken advantage: Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe have done their best pitching this year since the trade. The Sox starters as a whole have been much better since the deal, but that improvement is theirs, independent of the defense:

                     IP    HR   BB    SO    HR/9   BB/9    K/9   K/BB
Pedro Martinez     136.2   17   38   133    1.12   2.50   8.76   3.50
Curt Schilling     145.2   13   23   130     .80   1.42   8.03   5.65
Derek Lowe         110.0    9   49    57     .74   4.01   4.66   1.16
Bronson Arroyo*    103.1   10   29    86     .87   2.53   7.49   2.97
Tim Wakefield*     113.2   13   37    59    1.03   2.93   4.67   1.59

*as starter        609.1   62  176   465     .91   2.60   6.87   2.64


                     IP    HR   BB    SO    HR/9   BB/9    K/9   K/BB
Pedro Martinez      57.0    3   12    70     .47   1.89  11.05   5.83
Curt Schilling      51.1    8    5    42    1.40    .88   7.36   8.40
Derek Lowe          55.1    4   14    35     .65   2.28   5.69   2.50
Bronson Arroyo      43.0    4   13    30     .84   2.72   6.28   2.31
Tim Wakefield       45.1   13   11    38    2.58   2.18   7.54   3.45

Team               252.0   32   55   215    1.14   1.96   7.68   3.91

Sox pitchers are striking out more batters and walking fewer, and that’s as important to run prevention as the defense is. (The uptick in home runs, while significant, is largely due to Tim Wakefield, and at that, one start against the Tigers.)

By the way, how scary is Martinez right now? He’s been healthy and in the rotation all season long, and is finally starting to look like an $18 million pitcher.

Now, I didn’t like the trade, and I still think that pointing to it as the primary cause of the Sox’ good play since it happened is wrong. (I believe the Latin term for the fallacy is post hoc ergo propter hoc; just because A came after B doesn’t mean that A caused B.) Lots of things have gone right for the Red Sox since the deal, and the true difference between them and the Yankees was never eight games, or even half that. While defensive contributions can be debated, we know that Cabrera and Mientkiewicz have been, respectively, decent and awful at the plate: .286/.316/.463 for the shortstop, .239/.295/.338 for the first baseman.

The Sox have avoided some of the uglier innings, and unfortunate losses, that plagued them in the season’s first four months. Cabrera and Mientkiewicz–and Dave Roberts, acquired in a separate deal on July 31–have helped to make the Sox a better defensive team, and better defense has been a part, not the whole, of the 28-9 run. Drawing a connection between the Red Sox’ improved defense and, say, Derek Lowe‘s discovery of the strike zone over seven starts, is shaky reasoning.

I will say that the last month of play by the Sox is going to end up as one of the big lessons for me on the season, and the new knowledge has nothing to do with defense or trade evaluation. At the start of the season, I figured the Sox were a few games better than the Yankees, but that both would make the postseason. Come mid-season, with the Sox trailing the Yankees by seven games, I concluded that the Sox couldn’t catch the Yankees, even though I knew that the standings exaggerated the difference between the clubs.

I think what the Sox–and for that matter, the Astros–have taught us is to not get fooled by the shape of a season. The Sox are 84-54 right now, a 99-win pace that is right where I and many other prognosticators had them in March. Their performance is right in line with expectations. But it seems surprising, because the shape of it has been such that the team looked like a disappointment, and now looks like a world-beater. I don’t know of any studies that examine the shape of a season, but I have to think that we get fooled by subsets of a season more often than not. The Sox are exactly what they were in March: a championship-caliber team.

Certainly, I have to rethink the idea of changing preseason predictions. We toss around the words “sample size” a lot, but if we know that a half-season of performance isn’t enough information with which to evaluate a player, shouldn’t it also be too little to evaluate a team? If the core talent is unchanged, why allow an insufficient number of games to change your mind about a team or a race?

I was wrong to dismiss the Sox’ chances in July. I can defend my evaluation of the Nomar Garciaparra trade, and will continue to do so, but I can’t defend basing a decision on the same small sample size with which I would so readily dismiss, say, Juan Uribe‘s first half.

Enough navel-gazing. (That’s Nate’s job today.) The real question is, have the Red Sox locked up another trip to October, and can they get there as the AL East champion? They own a strong rotation, a formidable lineup, an improved defense and a deep bullpen. Other than six games with the Yankees, the Sox play a Charmin-soft schedule, with 18 games against the Mariners, Orioles and Devil Rays. As good as they’re playing right now, they could tear through that kind of slate.

Those six games with the Yankees, next weekend and the weekend after, will probably make the difference, because the Yanks also have a fairly easy march the rest of the way. It’s easy to see those games as mismatches for the Sox, who have completely outplayed the Yanks since the All-Star break, but head-to-head games are tough to predict. It’s significant that the games, especially the last three, may not be as meaningful as you’d think.

Let’s go back. All year, I’ve been saying that you have to look at the AL as a four-team race for three slots. Here are the standings in that race:

Yankees     86-52   .623   --
Red Sox     84-54   .609   --
A's         81-58   .583   --
Angels      79-59   .572  1.5

MLB can pump up home-field advantage all it wants, but it’s much more important to get into October, and get there in good shape physically, than to worry about a spurious advantage once you’re there. If the Yankees and Red Sox both maintain a good-sized edge over the two AL West teams, then the games between them become about positioning. Put simply, if both teams get VIP passes into the club, then who walks in first really doesn’t matter.

No, not even for the Yankees and Red Sox.

(Sorry, Rangers fans. Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are that your team is out of the mix before the Astros are. The Rangers have just had too many losses to bad teams, and since the All-Star break, it’s been their offense, not their pitching, that’s killed them. It’s been a good run, and something to build on for 2005 and beyond, when presumably no one will be trying to sell Brian Jordan as a viable outfielder.)

The Red Sox have established themselves as the best team in the AL. They took five months and a lot of agita to do it, but they got there. I’ll stand by the notion that they’d be better if they’d never traded Nomar Garciaparra, but it’s clear that the trade has had a positive effect on the defense, and it’s going to be seen as the reason for any success they’ve had since and will have in the future. Even if we should have seen it coming all along.

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