Okay, I get it, it’s still April. The Boston Red Sox have only played 19 games and standings at this point mean nothing. Still, when you take a look at this team compared to the 2020 club, it’s like night and day. As a matter of fact, the Red Sox only have to win twelve more games to match their 24 wins last season. Yeah, they were that bad. So the big question is: what changed? How did Boston have such a turnaround in just one offseason without making any crazy blockbuster moves?
For “starters”, take their starters! If you asked the average Red Sox fan in 2020 to name the team’s starting rotation, it’s unlikely they’d have an answer beyond, “Uhh, Nathan Eovaldi?” Now with Eduardo Rodríguez back, Martín Pérez re-signed, Nick Pivetta a permanent fixture in the rotation, the addition of Garrett Richards in the offseason, and of course Eovaldi. Not to mention Chris Sale set to return from Tommy John surgery and the proclaimed right-handed Tanner Houck waiting for his chance to earn a permanent role in the rotation, the Sox pitching has held their own so far this season.
Per FanGraphs, the Sox starting rotation have held batters to a .250 batting average with an average ERA of 4.40. Three out of five of their starting pitchers have an ERA below 4.00 with Eovaldi leading with a 3.04 ERA, Rodríguez a 3.38, and Pivetta a 3.68. Martín Pérez’s 5.93 is a bit misleading. Pérez looks very similar to 2020: there’s usually one or two innings that skew his line for the day, but after that, he’s able to go at least five innings limiting the damage. Plus, he’s not the #2 guy in the rotation anymore.
As for Garrett Richards, anyone calling to DFA him on April 22nd should take a seat. No doubt about it, two of his four starts this season have been painful to watch. Why keep him around when Tanner Houck’s major league starts have gone much better?
There are a few reasons. One of course is the money. Richards is guaranteed $10 million this year. Of all the Red Sox’s free-agent signings this offseason, he received the most money. It’s way too early to be cutting a $10 million dollar pitcher, especially since Richards cannot even be sent down to Worcester without his consent due to service time. Second, even if he looks ready to be a permanent major league starter, Tanner Houck needs those starts in Triple-A to properly develop. The last thing the Red Sox need to do is rush Houck’s development, especially when he has the potential to be such a key fixture in the rotation for years to come. Third, Richards’ woes are nothing he cannot fix. It all comes down to working on his slider. “He’s an established big-leaguer with a track record. He has been working on it but we have to find it. We have to find that pitch. It’s hard to maneuver a big-league lineup with one pitch. It seems like it has been that way during the season. If we can get that pitch back to what it was in the past and use the curveball good, we’re going to have the guy we envisioned before the season,” manager Alex Cora told the media of Richards after last night’s 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays.
Another big asset the Red Sox starting rotation brings this year is their ability to go further into games than last season, making the bullpen’s job easier. The Boston bullpen has been pretty impressive so far this year. Matt Barnes looks better than he ever has as the Sox’s closer. In 9 innings, he’s faced 32 batters and struck out 16 of them. He’s only allowed 3 hits with 1 earned run.
Offseason addition Hirokazu Sawamura seems to be adjusting well to facing MLB hitters, as well as returning reliever Phillips Valdez who may have flown under the radar a bit last year, but now is a key asset to the bullpen. Veteran reliever Adam Ottavino has also been a great help to the Sox in the late innings, despite a few blips here and there.
Of course, the biggest story regarding Red Sox relievers is Garrett Whitlock. The Rule 5 draft pick snagged from the Yankees has so far exceeded expectations, and become somewhat of a secret weapon for the Sox. In 9 innings pitched, he’s struck out 11 of 30 batters faced and allowed no runs or walks. Pretty good for a Rule 5 pickup.
You can’t win a baseball game solely relying on just good pitching though (just ask Jacob deGrom), and the Sox offense sure seems to have a solid understanding of that. The Red Sox offense lead MLB in batting average, hits per game, and doubles per game. They’re second overall in runs per game and third in RBIs. They’re dominating the American League rankings in nearly all offensive categories; opposing teams make one mistake and the Sox bats immediately make them pay. From leadoff to last, the Red Sox lineup is dangerous. Where does one begin?
Designated hitter J.D. Martinez is SO back. Looks like all he really needed was his video review back. In just 17 games, Martinez is batting .368 with 17 runs, 20 RBIs, and 6 home runs. He’s looking very similar to his 2018 form, a scary thought for all opposing teams.
Alex Verdugo has really come into his own as a staple to this lineup. He started off the season slow, but since he found his swing he’s been lights out. .288 average, 14 runs, 13 RBIs, 3 home runs, and a whole lot of energy.
Another hitter bringing a lot of energy to the field and clubhouse is free-agent signing Kiké Hernández. The leadoff hitter always seems to come up clutch in just the right moments to keep the ball rolling or get it started for Boston. His versatility on the field in combination with the other utility man, Marwin Gonzalez, makes both of them so far excellent offseason signings.
Franchy Cordero, better known by Boston fans initially as “Andrew Benintendi’s replacement” is another addition to this lineup who’s been coming up big already for the Sox. While we’re still waiting on that first Franchy bomb, at this point I don’t think anyone’s doubting Chaim Bloom’s thought process with that trade. Cordero is making the offensive contributions Benintendi could not, plain and simple.
Even Christian Arroyo is mashing! The second baseman is hitting .364, and in 44 at-bats, has only struck out 9 times. Again, from top to bottom this offense is dangerous. First baseman Bobby Dalbec resides in the #9 spot in the lineup with 13 hits, 4 doubles, a triple, and 4 RBIs. Dalbec is just waiting on that first bomb and then he’ll really be cooking.
Aside from J.D. Martinez, the only other hitters remaining from the 2018 team are Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and Christian Vázquez who are hitting .385, .270, and .271, respectfully. Vázquez told MLB.com this year’s team is giving him 2018 vibes. “In spring training, everybody was talking about the right language. It’s the same language we talked about in 2018 and we won [the World Series] that year. I’m not telling you we’re going to win this year, but we’re going to go on the same track. It’s fun to see the [guys] in the dugout and the clubhouse in spring training all together talking about everything, and about getting better every day. I feel like it’s a family here. We’re together and it’s fun to see this.”
Again, I know, I know, it’s April. It’s far too early to be getting ahead of myself. Still, if there’s one thing to take away from the Sox’s fast start this year it’s that they’ve got all the tools to keep them in the conversation all season long.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire