Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The 2018 State of the Red Sox: The Midseason Report

The 2018 Boston Red Sox have reached the All Star break and the unofficial midpoint of the season (although they've already played 98 games out of 162). I thought it would be fun during a respite from games and daily recaps to sit back, take stock of where the Red Sox are right now, and assess the team's performance to this point. Please keep in mind that while I am taking as many stats as I can into consideration, I'm also going by what my eyes and brain tell me; because of this, a lot will be my opinion with which you may agree or disagree. As such, I welcome lively debate and discussion either here in the comments section or whichever social media platform you may have reached this post from. With that out of the way, let's begin.

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THE HITTING: 2017 was the first season AO (After Ortiz) and it showed. The team had a power outage and finished dead last in the AL in home runs and struggled to generate a lot of offense for much of the season. Coming in to 2018, the roster wasn't retooled much beyond signing free agent slugger JD Martinez. There were many questions as to how the bats would perform: would Martinez be able to carry over his hot half season from Arizona to Boston? Would the bounceback seasons from Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley that we expected actually happen? Would Andrew Benintendi avoid the sophomore slump and build upon his impressive rookie season? Would Rafael Devers hot half-season translate into a good rookie campaign? Would the Red Sox actually hit a grand slam this season? (They had none in 2017).

I'm happy to report that the answers to most of those questions have trended in the right direction for the Red Sox so far in 2018. I'll tackle them in order.

- JD Martinez has been everything the Red Sox were expecting when they got him, and then some. At the All Star break, he's hitting .328 with 29 home runs and 80 RBI. His OBP is .393 and his OPS is 1.037. He's been a consistent threat in the order and his methodical approach to hitting has rubbed off on his teammates as he's helped elevate their play this season; in short, he's been as much a benefit as a leader as he has been a player. He would easily be considered as the Red Sox player having the best season if it wasn't for the next guy.

- I've just about run out of words to describe the season Mookie Betts is having thus far. We all thought his MVP caliber season in 2016, when he finished second in the AL to Mike Trout, may be his high-water mark. Mookie even said as much after a disappointing 2017 when he admitted that '16 "might be as good as it gets for me." He must have taken those words to heart because what he's doing this season blows away what he did two years ago. He's leading the league in batting average by hitting a whopping .359. He's got 23 HR and 51 RBI, but when looking at those RBI keep in mind that he's hitting out of the leadoff spot; were he hitting out of the 3-5 spots, he'd surely have as many RBI as JD. Mookie's OBP is a gaudy .448 and his OPS is a ridiculous 1.139. He's stolen 18 bases, scored 79 runs, and lest we forget he continues to play Gold Glove defense in right field. Combined with his perpetual smile and infectious personality, Mookie is one of the most exciting players to watch in MLB today. A third Gold Glove and the AL MVP are both within his reach. Regardless, he's already put together one of the greatest half-seasons I've seen in my 30+ years of following baseball and the Red Sox.

- Xander Bogaerts has been a very good player for the Red Sox since he first came up toward the end of the 2013 season, but the knock on his has been that he hasn't taken that next step in his evolution from "very good" to "great." He's typically had good first halves of his seasons before seemingly wearing down over the course of August and September. Last season this was exacerbated by an injury to his hand after being hit by a pitch. His power numbers drastically decreased last season after his All Star season of 2016. The big hope heading into 2018 was that he could repeat his 2016 first half over the course of an entire season. So far, so good. Xander started the season red hot, leading the team in average and home runs before a minor foot injury sidelined him for a few weeks in April/May. Since coming back and getting back into rhythm, he's been one of the team's best and most consistent hitters. He currently sits with a .284 average with 16 home runs (including THREE grand slams!) and 64 RBI. He's also playing much better defense at shortstop. In all, he's having an All Star caliber season and hopefully getting some rest so that he can finish the rest of the season strong. The team will need him if they're going to make any noise in the postseason this year.

- In any other year but 2017 where Aaron Judge wasn't there to hit 51 home runs, Andrew Benintendi would have been the AL Rookie of the Year (he finished second). After his sizzling play upon being called up to the big leagues in July 2016, he put together a great rookie season in '17. Heading into this season, the hope was that he would avoid the sophomore slump and build upon the successful rookie campaign. He got off to a bit of a slow start this year, but since May he has been on a tear and narrowly missed out on being named to his first All Star game. Right now, he's hitting .297 with 14 home runs and 57 RBI. He's swiped 17 stolen bases and scored 68 runs and while his aggressiveness on the basepaths still results in him running into a lot of outs, overall he's having a great second season.

- I'll touch on Bradley and Devers in another section down below.

THE FIELDING: Coming in to the season, the Red Sox were generally considered to have one of the best defensive outfields in the game, while the infield defense left a bit to be desired. While the outfield trio of Betts, Bradley, and Benintendi has definitely lived up to expectations, the infield has been a pleasant surprise. Most people will I'm sure immediately point out that Rafael Devers has more errors (19) than any other third baseman in the league, but I have been impressed with his increased range and his aggressiveness at going after balls. I chalk it up to growing pains and am fine with how he's played as long as he continues to improve. At the other corner infield position, Mitch Moreland has continued to play solid defense at first (remember, he's won a Gold Glove). Xander Bogaerts has been much improved at shortstop and the platoon at second base (especially Brock Holt) has been better than expected in the absence of Dustin Pedroia. As a team, the Sox have committed 46 errors this season for a .987 fielding percentage, both second best in the AL.  

THE STARTING ROTATION: On paper, this looked like a real strength for the team. Chris Sale was coming off one of the greatest seasons for a Red Sox pitcher ever having struck out 308 batters in 2017. Drew Pomeranz somehow won 17 games last year even though he routinely barely made it into the sixth inning. Eduardo Rodriguez had shown glimpses of his talent over the last two seasons and looked to finally be putting it all together. Rick Porcello had a bad year in 2017 but won 22 games and the AL Cy Young award in 2016 and was due for a bounceback. And then there's David Price. A real enigma, he had a very good 2016 season but completely squandered 2017 both to injuries and his behavior. Still, based purely on what they've all done over the past two seasons, it looked as though 2018 was set up to be a great year for the Boston rotation. Reality has been a bit more of a mixed bag. Sale has been his usual brilliant self, entering the break with a 10-4 record, 2.23 ERA, and 188 strikeouts. He'd have even more wins but he's been the victim of a few games where he only gave up one or two runs but didn't receive any run support. Porcello is 11-4 and while his ERA is a bit on the high side at 4.13, he's second on the team with 115 strikeouts and has been the team's second best starter. Rodriguez was having a fantastic first half before he left his final start before the break with an ankle injury. He currently sits at 11-3 with an ERA of 3.44 and 110 strikeouts. And then there's Price. He's 10-6 with an ERA of 4.42 and has struck out 109, but his last few starts heading into the break have been poor and the constant drama and excuses that always swirl around him have made him about the polar opposite of a fan favorite. Still, if the team is going to be successful this season they're going to need him to continue to pitch well and somehow break through his inability to deliver in the postseason (and against the Yankees). 

As for Pomeranz, he's been a disaster. Injured since early in the season, he looked bad before we went down and from all reports has been awful in AAA Pawtucket on rehab assignment. Steven Wright came back from the DL in June and was pitching great out of the fifth rotation spot until his surgically repaired knee caused him to go back on the shelf. Hector Velazquez and Brian Johnson have been ably filling that fifth spot with emergency starts, but with Rodriguez now out for the near future the Red Sox are going to have to rely on these two (or someone else) a bit more than anyone should be comfortable with. This is one area where there is no relief coming from the farm system so the Sox are going to have to patch it together and hope that the trio of Sale, Porcello, and Price can carry them until Rodriguez and either Wright or Pomeranz come back.

THE BULLPEN: My griping about the bullpen will be well known to anyone who's been reading my daily game recaps here. Statistically they're one of the better bullpens in the majors, but apart from Craig Kimbrel at closer, who inspires confidence? The middle relievers who have to bridge from the starters to the closer (because as we all know, starting pitchers almost never go beyond six or seven innings any more) have been the team's Achilles heel for the last few seasons and while it's better this year than it's been in years past, it's not by much. It seems as though right when one or two guys pitch consistently and are ready to take the mantle, they revert back into a pumpkin and set everything back to square one. That's happened with Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, and Carson Smith (before his bizarre shoulder injury ended his season). Tyler Thornburg is finally back in the majors and in the lineup but has been inconsistent while reacclimating to the game. Alex Cora doesn't seem to trust Brandon Workman unless it's a blowout win or loss. And Heath Hembree...well, the less said, the better. I really hope that either these guys can tighten up and be consistent for the rest of the season or Dave Dombrowski can work some magic at the trade deadline to pick up some middle relief help on the cheap because if there's one area that will be this team's undoing in 2018, it's this one.



THREE UP:

Mookie Betts - See above. Quite simply, he's the Red Sox best player and the best player in the AL apart from that Mike Trout fellow who I hear is pretty darn good himself. The Red Sox need to make sure they sign Mookie long term. He's the face and future of the franchise.

JD Martinez - He's been even better than I expected, both as a player and as a clubhouse guy. The fact that he's now saying he's open to restructuring his contract to stay here longer is even better. The Sox need to do what they can do keep him here for a long time as long as it doesn't financially cripple them.

Chris Sale - I was a bit wary of trading for him in the wake of the whole "scissor-gate" thing when he was with the White Sox, but he's been a fantastic competitor on the mound and a great influence in the clubhouse, to say nothing of how dominant he's been. He's the definition of what an ace should be.

THREE DOWN:

Christian Vazquez - His defense hasn't been nearly as good as we were all led to believe this season (the stats say he's actually worse than Sandy Leon) and he's been atrocious at the plate. The Sox pitchers all seem to prefer pitching to Leon, too (Sale and Porcello only throw to Leon). His injury for a broken pinkie finger may be a blessing in disguise for the team as Leon is now the primary catcher. While Sandy is no Johnny Bench, I'll take his solid defense and .242 average over Vazquez' .213.

Drew Pomeranz - He looked awful before his injury and the reports coming out of his rehab starts at AAA Pawtucket aren't good, either. This guy has gobs of talent, but durability and efficiency always seem to be an issue. Last year he put it all together to win 17 games (even though he never went deep in any of those starts). Perhaps that was as good as it's going to get? The Sox need him to be the 2017 version of himself, and fast.

Dustin Pedroia - It's not Pedey's fault, but I think age and injuries, not to mention how hard he's always played the game, may have finally caught up to him. He only lasted three games after coming back from his knee surgery and the word is that he's done for the rest of this year. It wouldn't shock me if he retires after 2018; if he does, it'll be sad but understandable. While I've never thought he was as good a clubhouse guy as a lot of fans did (and I think 2017 showed that once and for all), I always loved the way he comported himself on the field.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

The Bullpen - Some nights they look great, other nights they look as inept and bumbling as ever. The only sure thing coming out of there is Craig Kimbrel. The inconsistency has cost the Sox a few games this season, but so far not as many as it did when John Farrell was managing. The team needs one or two of the middle relievers to step up and take the reins as the go-to bridge guys for the rest of the season. I'll be looking for that in the second half.

Jackie Bradley & Rafael Devers - Both of these guys are among my favorite players but have had up and down years. Bradley's defense has been as stellar as ever, but he started off so miserably at the plate that he was benched for a couple of weeks in May/June. He's been on a tear the last month, though, and seems to have turned it around. Devers started off hot with the bat and has been slumping badly since June. His defense has improved but it's still an adventure any time anything is hit to him. I have no doubt both guys will continue to improve and be important parts of the team, but both need to turn it on and trend in the right direction for the remainder of the season.

Sandy Leon - Like Bradley, he started off brutally at the plate but has been hitting really well over the last month. With Vazquez out for 6-8 weeks, he's now the primary catcher again and needs to show that he deserves that (I think he does).

THE MANAGER:

Alex Cora - What a difference from John Farrell. I've written a lot about Cora over the season, but I'll write some more. The team seems to really like playing for him and all seem to respect him; neither of those things were evident in the last couple of years under Farrell. As a tactician, he may not be a Terry Francona or Joe Maddon, but he's a hell of a lot closer to those guys than he is to the bumbling Farrell. If I have one gripe with Cora, it's perhaps his over-reliance on analytics and schedules. He had a tendency earlier in the season to rest guys according to schedule regardless of their performance. This led to some truly strange and/or weak line-ups being trotted out there and also guys sitting who were in the midst of red-hot streaks. The one that always sticks out in my mind is the stretch in June where Benintendi was absolutely tearing the cover off of the ball but ended up sitting a few games in a row because it was "scheduled." In those cases, I don't care if the guy is due for a day or two off...it he's that hot, you keep him in the line-up. These are small quibbles, though, because overall Cora has been great. There's accountability again, there are consequences for things both good and bad, and the team feels like the manager is running things again instead of the tail-wagging-the-dog feel of the Farrell years. Plus, it's hard to complain about a 68-30 record at the All Star break.
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THE VERDICT: How can this first "half" of the season be anything other than a resounding success? The Sox are 68-30, 4.5 games ahead of the Yankees, and have the best record in MLB. They've played the most games of anyone in the league to this point and have 2/3 of their remaining games at Fenway Park. They can play .500 ball the rest of the way and still finish with 100 wins, but no one expects them to only play .500 baseball. The team is fun to watch and the guys seem like they're having a blast playing. They can beat you with their pitching, they can beat you by outslugging you, and they're deep enough so that different guys can beat you on different nights. I was avoiding giving out "grades" during this midseason assessment, but if I were do so it couldn't be anything other than an A+. Are there areas where they could improve? Of course (looking at you, bullpen). But compared to most other teams, the Red Sox flaws are minor and need tweaks more than a complete overhaul. I'm still a bit nervous about how this team will fare in the postseason given their flameouts the last two years, but I'm confident this is the group and manager to get over that hump. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy the rest of the season when play resumes on Friday. It's going to be a fun race to the finish line, that's for sure.

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