By Sean Sylver, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Red Sox have the best record in baseball.
It’s April. Some fans don’t. Others try to keep up with the team, but can’t allow themselves to fully invest. After all, the Bruins are headed to Game 7 with the Maple Leafs. The Celtics suddenly find themselves in a first-round battle with the Bucks. Gronk is apparently hard at work on a new career racing dirt bikes. William and Kate had a baby.
There’s a lot going on.
At 17-4, it’s still the best start in team history. Best in baseball since the 1987 Brewers, in fact.
Those same Brewers didn’t make the postseason. And they featured a right-hander by the name of Chris Bosio, formerly a trivia answer as the last pitcher to no-hit the Sox before Sean Manaea equaled the feat on Saturday. A Sox skeptic would use that game as a reason to steer clear.
But a no-hitter is a statistical blip. 21 games of data reveals that Boston leads the majors in runs scored. They’re fourth in ERA. Sure, they’ve racked up the majority of their victories against clubs (Baltimore, Miami and Tampa Bay) with a combined .345 winning percentage. They’ve also answered the bell against their toughest competition, posting 54 runs in taking five of six contests from the Yankees and Angels.
However you choose to assess the validity of the overall performance, it has been a remarkable April for the Red Sox. As Tony Massarotti mentioned the other night on The Baseball Reporters, they can basically go .500 the rest of the way and still make the postseason.
October looms as a bugaboo for this squad, but there’s little that can be done between now and then to address those lingering questions.
The Red Sox are a talented group with the highest payroll in the Majors. While they almost certainly won’t sustain this blistering pace, continued execution and repetition of good habits provides encouragement that the Sox might be able to stand in and slug with Houston and Cleveland in five months, after all.
So with that, here are some things to take away from the Red Sox’ excellent first three weeks…
Mookie Betts is Leading By Example
After a step back last year, the runner-up for the 2016 American League MVP Award looks destined to get back in the mix this season. Headed into Tuesday’s series opener in Toronto, Betts leads the league in batting, OPS, runs scored, and doubles.
At least part of his early success has been attributed to a more aggressive approach at the dish. Manager Alex Cora has encouraged Betts to look for pitches to drive earlier in the count, and while he continues to draw walks at a similar rate to last season (working a career-high 77), he’s doing more with the pitches he used to observe.
Much has been made of the club’s leadership void following the retirement of David Ortiz 18 months ago. While the dominant personality in the Boston locker room has yet to reveal himself, Betts appears poised to set the tone for a much-improved Red Sox offensive attack. He’s not Ortiz. How could he be, hitting from the leadoff spot? At 25, Betts is simply settling in for a run as one of the best players in the game.
The Supporting Cast Might Be Good Enough
J.D. Martinez isn’t Ortiz, either. But he’s made it much harder for opposing pitchers to deal with the Boston lineup. And while an encore for last year’s desert-fueled 45 home runs is unlikely, he is hitting a characteristic .307 (he’s hit .300 on the nose over the last four years) and knocked in 15 while doing much of his damage out of the cleanup spot.
Another veteran cog has been Hanley Ramirez, who started the campaign on a tear and appears poised to offer a repeat of his 2016 campaign (30 homers, 111 RBI). Many questioned Cora’s Spring Training decision to hit Ramirez third, but so far, it has looked like a good one. Do we have the TB12 Method to thank? Or, the fact that Ramirez remains an immense talent, who, when motivated and surrounded by professional hitters, can be an absolute force?
Meanwhile, the kids are all right. Rafael Devers, all of 21 years of age, is leading the team in runs batted in out of the sixth spot in the order, though he’s recently moved up to fifth with Xander Bogaerts on the disabled list. If Bogaerts manages to pick up where he left off and Andrew Benintendi starts raking, it greatly minimizes the travails of of Jackie Bradley and Christian Vazquez at the bottom of the order. Let those guys concentrate on defense, another area where Boston has been particularly strong this season.
This isn’t the Red Sox lineup of ten years ago. But they’re up to eighth in the Majors in homers after finishing dead last in 2017, and they’ve cashed in on five grand slams. They’ve made adjustments. Let’s see how they do when the opposition starts to adjust to them.
Good Rick Porcello is Back
Since coming over from Detroit via trade after the 2014 season, Porcello has been a man of extremes. At his best, he’s a Cy Young candidate. After all, he did collect that hardware just two seasons ago. At worst, he’s a punchline at 10:55 every night on The Adam Jones Show. He gave up a league-leading 38 home runs last season. That’s not a trophy one displays on his mantel.
Porcello hasn’t surrendered a single long ball in 2018 over 25.2 innings pitched. He’s collected a win in every one of his four turns through the rotation. He made offseason mechanical adjustments and worked to get his trademark sinker back down in the zone, even putting in time with fellow sinkerball purveyor Derek Lowe on the practice fields of Fort Myers.
With Chris Sale, David Price and this version of Porcello as a third starter, the Sox will at least steer clear of losing streaks, with the potential for a lot more.
Just Like They Drew It Up
For all of the fits and starts, Boston’s blueprint for success still features a dominant starting rotation. That is, if they stay healthy. Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez started the season on the shelf, but the Sox weathered the storm with three wins and just five total earned runs allowed in rotation turns from Hector Velazquez and Brian Johnson. Both will now be pressed into duty as part of the bullpen corps.
The coaching staff has also committed to preserving Sale, as the lefty has logged less than six innings per start. And that’s no indictment of his performance. Other than being on the losing end of a no-hitter, Sale has given the Red Sox enough to win every time out. Last year, John Farrell seemed to leave Sale out there for seven innings almost as a formality. This year, Boston is banking that a decreased workload for the ace results in happier late-season returns.
While Price has started in two of the team’s four losses, he’s gone seven innings in three different starts and looks to be in the vicinity of the pitcher the Red Sox signed two and a half years ago. Granted, that guy carried question marks, as well, but it’s a far cry from a 2017 campaign where many questioned if he’d be able to pitch this year at all.
The Long View
Despite annual moaning that the baseball season is too long, the 162-game road is littered with potholes that challenge even the best teams on paper. There’s a reason those 1987 Brewers finished third in the AL East (and don’t blame Rob Deer).
Bats will go silent. Arms will go dead. Key players will miss time. The Sox will have to make adjustments, as they already have with injuries to Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia.
Meanwhile, the same questions that followed John Farrell will remain with Cora until he compiles a big enough sample size to provide more definitive answers. Boston once again leads the majors in runners lost on the base paths. Bullpen management reared it’s ugly head on Opening Day and, given the lack of established options beyond Craig Kimbrel, will be a concern even as the ‘pen continues to pile up scoreless innings (20.2 consecutive through Tuesday).
Houston and Cleveland aren’t going anywhere, already posted atop their respective divisions. And while the Sox may just have the roster to compete, the psychological hurdle of October stands as yet another challenge.
Things almost never go according to plan in baseball. But in April 2018, the Red Sox have hit, they’ve pitched, and they’ve given themselves breathing room in the American League East. That’s really all a fan can ask for. The real intrigue is in how this team sustains and matures over the next 141 games.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.