Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Through 34 games, the Red Sox are 18-16 and are simply exceeding expectations. If the team was healthy, most fans would’ve considered this a nice surprise, but that hasn’t been the case whatsoever. Instead, as the most injured team in baseball, they’ve treaded water without Trevor Story, Triston Casas, Brayan Bello, Nick Pivetta, and Garrett Whitlock for sizable chunks of the season and Lucas Giolito who blew out his elbow in spring training.

How have they survived? It starts with pitching and some unexpected offensive breakouts that have reshaped the outlook of the roster. So, let’s dive into what has gone right for the Red Sox despite being cursed by the Baseball Gods.

1. Craig Breslow and Andrew Bailey have fixed the pitching infrastructure.

Tanner Houck. Kutter Crawford. Those are the two leaders in fWAR amongst all starting pitchers right now and that’s nothing short of stunning.

Houck has made significant arsenal changes, ranging from the elimination of his four-seamer to upping the usage of his splitter and altering how it moves. That doesn’t even include the former first-round pick cutting his BB/9 down from 3.5 last season to 1.4 through 7 starts. Crawford has also seen his weapons on the mound tweaked, with his cutter becoming his primary pitch and his sweeper going from 6% usage to 24%.

Truth is, those are two most obvious examples of what the new pitching infrastructure has been able to do. Whitlock, Cooper Criswell, Greg Weissert, and Justin Slaten have also seemed to take significant steps forward, but in a much smaller sample size due to injuries/roles. You have to tip your cap when a team loses 60% of their rotation and they still have the best rotation (2.11) and pitching staff ERA (2.62) in the sport.

  • BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 26: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park on September 26, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 26: Tanner Houck #89 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park on September 26, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)

    This is what the Rays and Dodgers have done for years now. When injuries popped-up, there was always another arm ready to step-up that seemingly came out of nowhere. Ryan Brasier, Jeffrey Springs, and Zack Littell are all recent examples that left the Red Sox and dominated with those clubs down the stretch.

    Bailey has prioritized his guy’s throwing their best stuff in the zone, even if it isn’t a traditional fastball. Right now, the Red Sox are throwing fastballs only 31.7% of the time, which is 8.1% less than the next team (Twins). Just for context, the Giants threw the 4th-lowest percentage in all of baseball last year with the Cubs slotting in at 23, so there’s clearly a lot of influence from Bailey’s side.

    Are injuries a concern? Sure. But this has been the climate created by the current pitching epidemic in the sport, where breaking stuff and velocity are King over everything else.

    At the end of the day, teams value whether a pitching infrastructure can continue to turn out productive arms on a regular basis and raise the floor of the pitchers at their disposal. If you can repeat the process again and again, you become the next trendy pitching lab everyone wants to steal from. Credit to Craig Breslow for making the necessary hires in Bailey, Justin Willard, and Kyle Boddy to do just that, because if you can pitch, you’ll be in almost every single game you play.

  • 2. Wilyer Abreu is showing that the end of 2023 wasn’t a fluke.

    Tyler Milliken ⚾️ on Twitter: "Ridiculously good at-bat from Wilyer Abreu with 2 outs.Fouled off 4 balls. Saw 10 pitches. And pushed the Red Sox first run of the day across.Just what they needed after the way they started last night. / Twitter"

    Ridiculously good at-bat from Wilyer Abreu with 2 outs.Fouled off 4 balls. Saw 10 pitches. And pushed the Red Sox first run of the day across.Just what they needed after the way they started last night.

    It’s kind of funny to see how the narrative has shifted on Wilyer Abreu from last September to now. He was initially this darling at the end of 2023 that looked like a potential long-term fixture in the outfield, which Tom Werner doubled down on over the offseason by mentioning he’d get 400 at-bats. Then after a rough spring and first week of the 2024 season, many soured on him and were ready to ship him back to Worcester.

    Since then, Abreu has become one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball with a .307/.380/.489/.869 slash line over 28 games. Funny enough, that’s the exact number of games he played in 2023, so we now have a 56-game sample of him rocking a 139 wRC+. Seems pretty clear he’s going to be a major part of this core in the coming years with that type of production.

    Along with doing damage at the plate, Abreu has revealed himself to be a worthy successor of Alex Verdugo’s defense in right field. He’s in the 80th percentile for Outs Above Average with 96th percentile Arm Strength. Credit to Breslow for recognizing that Abreu’s skillset made Verdugo expendable for pitching depth in Richard Fitts, Greg Weissert, and Nicholas Judice over the offseason (plus the financial relief).

    In a lot of ways, Abreu feels like the all-around talent the Red Sox had always hoped Verdugo would become. He’s stolen 5 bags in as many chances so far, which ties Verdugo’s total from last year. Add that to what he can do offensively and defensively and you have a player that has a chance to make an impact on a daily basis for years to come.

    Heading into this season, Abreu was labeled as a player that had to take a step forward if the Red Sox were going to go anywhere. Now, that pressure has multiplied tenfold because he’s your everyday clean-up hitter trying to do his best Triston Casas impression. Not the easiest of circumstances to develop in, but he’s been up to the task so far, which is the exact type of development the Red Sox were hoping to see from a bunch of guys in 2024.

  • 3. Justin Slaten has picked right up from where 2021 Garrett Whitlock left off.

    If you had Justin Slaten being tied for the 5th-most valuable reliever in baseball at 0.7 fWAR, go apply for a front office job. Craig Breslow was basically high-stepping when they acquired Slaten from the Mets over the winter and now you see why. The righty has given up 2 ER since April 14th, which has him owning a 0.95 ERA/2.05 through 19 IP this season.

    Alex Cora hasn’t hesitated to compare Slaten to 2021 Whitlock on a few occasions, which should only highlight how much the Red Sox value him already. It’s easy to understand when diving into the numbers. Being elite at forcing opponents to chase, make soft contact, and not walk is the exact combination you’re looking for from an elite bullpen arm.

    The only part of Slaten’s game that hasn’t carried over from the minors is the high strikeout totals. So far in the bigs, his K/9 is sitting at 7.1, but that doesn’t seem overly concerning with the quality of contact he’s giving up. It’s fair to wonder if the Red Sox pitching infrastructure has been pushing him in that direction, because it’s heavily improved his previous control issues and allowed him to be a multi-inning weapon.

    Going into 2025, there’s a likely chance that Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin won’t be on this roster after reaching free agency. I don’t think Craig Breslow will be too keen on spending heavily on the bullpen with his financial limitations and the ability to develop arms out of thin air. That might set the stage for Slaten to be the team’s future closer or at the very least an elite set-up man, so he should be included in all conversations about the organization’s young core moving forward.

  • 4. Rafael Devers seems like he’s on the brink of taking another step forward offensively. It’s been barely talked about with Rafael Devers battling both his shoulder and knee issues early in the season, but he’s looked great at the plate. He’s put together a slash line of .286/.412/.476/.888 in 23 games with a surprisingly high BB% of 15.7% and a 151 wRC+. Despite not showing his typical power yet, he’s on pace to set career-highs in OBP, OPS, BB%, and wRC+. Some might be worried about Devers’ power output since he only has 3 homers, but they’re bound to come with him ranking in the 91st percentile for xSLG. It’s essential for Devers to hit at an MVP pace this summer if the Red Sox lineup is going to be a consistent force. It’s no doubt the bats have exceeded expectations since Triston Casas went down, but you can’t expect Rob Refsnyder and Connor Wong to be two of the hottest hitters in baseball forever. When examining the slumps Devers has gone through in his career, they often were a result of him chasing too much and expanding the zone. That was reflected by poor Chase Rates, which had him finishing in the 25th percentile or worse every single season before this. Currently he’s in the 50th percentile for 2024, so this is the best discipline we’ve ever seen from him. This seems like the natural progression for Devers to start getting into the .900 OPS on a yearly basis as the homers pile up. He only reached the benchmark once in 2019, which is arguably his best offensive year alongside 2022. Not too many guys have the ability to bat .300, rank in the 97th percentile for BB%, and launch 35+ home runs.

  • 5. Connor Wong looks prepared to be the perfect catching tandem with Kyle Teel. Not the finest game for Connor Wong yesterday afternoon, but it doesn’t erase how ridiculous he has been to start 2024. He’s been the second-best hitter amongst all MLB catchers (minimum 70 PAs) in terms of OPS and the 4th-best for wRC+, which is a drastic change from what Red Sox fans saw a year ago. While it’s ridiculous to expect him to maintain those numbers with a .396 BABIP, he’s still showing growth by cutting his K% from 33.3% to 21.5%. On the defensive side of things, Wong has continued to show a strong feel for working with a pitching staff. He’s not the most elite defender overall, but he’s improved his framing (38th percentile) after it was dreadful a year ago and continues to show off a lethal arm. Can’t forget his athleticism for a catcher either, that allows him to be sneaky versatile and make a small impact on the basepaths (86th percentile Sprint Speed). The Red Sox have made it clear that Kyle Teel is a major part of their plan for sustainable success, so that leaves you questioning where Wong fits in, That was a tough question to figure out after Wong hit .154/.241/.260/.501 with no homers against left-handed pitchers last year. Reverse splits weren’t going to make it easy to protect Kyle Teel at the plate, which Alex Cora has done with other elite prospects like Rafael Devers and Triston Casas. In 2024, Wong is still demolishing righties at a insane pace with a .365/.370/.635/1.005 line in 54 plate appearances, but he’s also handled lefties by slashing .308/.379/.462/.841 in about half the sample size. Only 1 of his 5 homers have come against southpaws, but that’s already more than we saw all season. This feels like the return of him being competent against lefties again, which was the case when he was trying to force himself out of Triple-A in 2021 and 2022. If Wong takes such a big step forward this year that he makes it clear he’s an everyday catcher, that’s a good problem to have. That could open a bunch of trade possibilities for a position that is still one of the weakest in all of baseball. But if you’re hoping to set Teel up for success with a big brother that’s seen it all the last few seasons, Wong feels like the perfect solution to ease those growing pains and produce in a role that keeps everyone fresh.

  • 6. Tyler O’Neill has been one of the biggest steals of the offseason. Tyler O’Neill has made Craig Breslow look like a genius through the first month of the season. He’s been one of the best hitters in all of baseball, slashing a ridiculous .292/.406/.629/.1.035 with 9 homers, 3 doubles, and 13 RBI for a 184 wRC+. That’s some serious production for a package of Victor Santos and Nick Robertson, especially with Santos getting rocked at Triple-A and Robertson having a minimal impact on the Cardinals so far. Over the offseason, whenever O’Neill’s 2021 season was discussed, it was basically framed as a pipedream. He’s now on pace to surpass those numbers despite battling a concussion last month and the lineup being considerably thinner. It’s fair to wonder if he’ll finish the season on the roster, especially since he’ll be a free agent this offseason, but he’s become a valuable asset that will either bring back a prospect or help for a playoff push in August or September. Credit to O’Neill for leveling up his game with a more controlled approach at the plate. He’s rocking the best BB% of his career at 14.2% right now, which is a considerable jump from last year’s number of 10.5%. That’s led by an 80th percentile Chase Rate, which we saw start to take a step forward a year ago, so this feels like a change you can expect to stick moving forward. For those who wonder how much we can take away from Breslow’s first offseason, I definitely think O’Neill should stand out. Breslow identified a rebound candidate who hadn’t been himself in nearly 3 years and now that same guy is your fWAR leader amongst the position players. That’s a dream scenario for many front office leaders. I’ll also add that O’Neill has been a home run off the field as well. Similar to Justin Turner a year ago, he hasn’t hesitated to face the media after tough losses and support his teammates. That type of figure was badly needed once Trevor Story went down and O’Neill has thrived under it, which probably explains why he was so open about his love for Boston on ESPN last weekend.

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