The Boston Red Sox have been the toast of baseball in the first four weeks of the season, rolling to an 18-8 record and the best record in the majors. After a soap opera year of 2012, a new manager and a new attitude have produced some new results. In today’s American League MLB coverage we’ll look at how the Red Sox have been doing it, speculate on their long-term chances and take a brief look at the rest of the AL.
Boston’s strengths in a nutshell are…
- Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz have been amazingly good
- Dustin Pedroia leads an offense that’s filling the basepaths with runners
- The return of David Ortiz has lifted a lineup that’s also driving the ball for power very well.
Bucholz is your April frontrunner for the Cy Young Award, with a 5-0 record and 1.19 ERA, while Lester is 4-0 with a solid 3.11 ERA. These were the two pitchers everyone was focused on at the start of the year. Both were part of the infamous Fried Chicken Fiasco in the collapse of 2011, where pitchers were drinking and eating fried foods in the clubhouse during games—the baseball equivalent of fiddling as Rome burned. But it was presumed the ringleader in the group was Josh Beckett. Now Beckett is gone, the old pitching coach John Farrell is back as manager, and Bucholz and Lester look like aces again.
The back end of the rotation and the bullpen were question marks. I was skeptical of signing Ryan Dempster and my mind hasn’t really changed, but Dempster does have a nice 3.30 ERA. Felix Doubront is an acceptable fourth or fifth starter—one who’s never pretty—but at least gives you a shot. John Lackey has made two starts since his return from Tommy John surgery and has an ERA of 2.61, but with one stint on the DL already behind him, you have to question how many outings he can give you.
Joel Hanrahan was acquired to shore up the ninth inning and began the season by getting hit hard and then hurt. He’s back off the disabled list, but Andrew Bailey—last year’s big acquisition to shore up the ninth inning before getting hurt, then hit hard—has found his pre-2012 form. Bailey’s closed five of six chances with a 1.46 ERA. Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa are doing excellent work in the setup roles.
What happens with Dempster is going to go a long way towards telling us if the Red Sox can continue to lead the AL East throughout the summer. While I’m sold that Bucholz and Lester are back as a legitimate 1-2 punch, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that somewhere along the line they’ll lose some decisions and that Bucholz’s ERA might rise into the 2s. If Dempster can stay steady, it will give the rotation needed stability.
While Boston’s staff ERA ranks 4th in the American League, the hitting is a little bit better, ranking 3rd. The best Red Sox teams from 2003-11 followed the Moneyball formula of churning out on-base percentage and this team is doing just that. Pedroia is leading the way with a .444 OBP, while Shane Victorino is at .385. Jacoby Ellsbury is playing reasonably well, but hasn’t really heated up yet in the leadoff spot, so there’s every reason to think the Sox can maintain their high level of getting runners on base.
This wasn’t supposed to be a vintage Red Sox team when it came to power, but they’re second in the American League in slugging percentage. David Ortiz returned from the disabled list and in nine games, he hit three home runs and delivered a slugging percentage of .917. Mike Napoli, another offseason acquisition I was skeptical about, is coming through and unlike Dempster, I’m ready to change my mind and say this is the real thing. Napoli looks very comfortable in Fenway and my biggest concern was his defensive skill at first base. At the very least, that hasn’t been a problem in the early going.
And my favorite Red Sox, left fielder Danny Nava, is finally getting regular playing time. Nava got national attention in 2010 when he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues. When he got further chances to play, he consistently got on base and played a good left field, but was always shunted aside as the front office went in search of the next high-priced star. Now he’s getting his chance and the numbers speak for themselves–.385 on-base percentage and .500 slugging.
The disappointments in the lineup are clearly on the left side of the infield. Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks are off to horrible starts. Middlebrooks’ six home runs have somewhat obscured that, but he’s only got 19 hits total for the year. He’s a great talent and the fact the team has started so well will buy him some time to keep developing, but for long-term success, Boston is going to need him to hit.
Drew is a different story. I like his acquisition in the offseason, but he’s hitting sub-.200 and has been hurt. You know, I realize that the offseason moves I didn’t like (Dempster and Napoli) are coming through and the one I did (Drew) is a bust. The Sawx are my favorite team, and let’s just say I’m glad I’m not in charge of making these decisions. Just writing about them after the fact. But back to Drew—he’s apparently never really gotten his stroke back after the devastating ankle injury that cost him a season and a half when he was in Arizona. The Red Sox haven’t had stability at shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004 and apparently the search will continue.
So where do the Red Sox stand for the long haul in what promises to be a tough AL East race? The Yankees are only two games back, as they try and find healthy bodies. The Orioles are two and a half back, and the Rays are inching back closer to .500.
As a fan, I feel good about this team, but also realistic. Clearly, Boston is back to being fun again and will be in the race. The realistic side of me says the 3 thru 5 spots in the rotation are a question mark. And even if you’re a Dempster believer, you have to concede that at least 4-5 are big questions. In the bullpen, Bailey’s known to be fragile, so we have to see how that plays out. I’m not ready to say the Red Sox are the team to beat in the AL East, but at least this spring I don’t have to use the NBA & NHL playoffs as a way of hiding from baseball reality.
DETROIT & LOS ANGELES GO IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
The Detroit Tigers had been off to a muddling start, but have caught fire and won five in a row. They’re getting vintage performances from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and new free agent acquisition Tori Hunter. The ERA of the Detroit starting rotation is the 2nd-best in the American League, with Anibal Sanchez also off to a blazing start. The bullpen was a question mark coming into the season and is no less so today after some blown saves and injuries to Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel, but Jose Valverde has returned to the team and successfully closed two save opportunities. I picked this team to win 100 games and win the World Series. The century mark might have been overkill given the relief pitching, but as long as the Tigers are alive and have their stars healthy, I consider them the team to beat in all of baseball.
The Los Angeles Angels were last year’s team to beat and for a lot of people they were this year’s too. And apparently they are the team to beat—because of a lot of people are beating them. The Angels are now 9-17, thanks primarily to a pitching staff that’s 14th in the league in ERA. Everyone is to blame. The starters’ ERA is also 14th and the bullpen is an abysmal 3-of-8 in save opportunities. Say what you will about how bad Josh Hamilton has been—and with a .252 OBP/.296 slugging he’s been awful—but pitching is the big culprit here.
And now the elephant in the room is the status of manager Mike Scoscia. He’s considered in many quarter s—including this one—to be the best manager in baseball, or at least the equal of anyone else. But this franchise has spent a lot of money and is not seeing any results. If the issue is management—and that’s still a big if—I’m inclined to that Scoscia would just be better off playing on a team that was less about high-priced stars and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles. Managing egos is different than managing baseball. But whatever you think on this subject, what seemed unthinkable for a long time, is now a topic being casually broached on talk shows. egos is different than managing baseball.
nd and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles.