Halfway through the 2017 season, the Boston Red Sox find themselves sitting atop the American League East, 3.5 games clear of the second-place New York Yankees, with a record of 50-39. Not at all shabby. Yet, the Red Sox first half was anything but sunshine and rainbows the whole way. There were some very good moments and, though they entered the break on a two-game skid, they were trending in the right direction for most of June. However, April and May brought little other than frustration, injury, and inconsistency. It was, in many ways, a tale of two teams.
Red Sox First Half Review: A Tale of Two Teams
A month-by-month recap serves little purpose here; it would also be a snoozer to read and to write. Instead, we should take a look at what stood out in the first half, and what we can look forward to the rest of the way.
Injuries Take their Toll
The Red Sox started the season with a run of rotten luck that left the roster depleted. The flu ravaged the locker room for over a month, and kept the bats from really getting into sync for a long time. David Price missed a good deal of time to injury, but has since returned, to decent results. The bullpen, though it has held up well, still lacks Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg. Guys like Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly stepped up, but Smith and Thornburg would make the ‘pen truly elite.
The rotation has suffered similarly. In addition to Price, two other starters have missed time. Eduardo Rodriguez, who was having a breakout year, slipped in the bullpen and hurt his knee. Steven Wright, last season’s feel-good story, will miss the remainder of the season after having knee surgery.
The injury bug also struck position players. Dustin Pedroia missed time thanks to a couple of injuries, Josh Rutledge and Pablo Sandoval spent time on the DL, and Brock Holt might not be able to return after dealing with recurring vertigo. Even now, Mitch Moreland is dealing with a broken toe, though he’s playing through it. After so much went wrong so early, it’s almost a miracle that the Red Sox find themselves not only contending, but leading.
The other strange note from the early season was the sever power outage the Red Sox faced. While they were hitting, they were not hitting with runners in scoring position, and they were not hitting for power. Late in April, the team ranked near or at the bottom of the league in most major offensive categories, after leading in those same categories last season. Only Moreland, who quickly earned the moniker “Mitchy Two-Bags”, seemed to have a handle on his power stroke.
As we enter the second half, the Red Sox have flipped the switch, as they say. They’re sixth in the league in doubles (up from 13th in April), 12th in RBI (up from 25th), and ninth in runs scored (up from 26th). While they still sit at 26th in home runs, that’s a good deal better than dead last, where they were at the end of April. Five players have at least 12 homers, and the team is now batting a collective .268, the fifth-highest in baseball. Things are looking up.
Pomeranz Trends Up, while Porcello Struggles
Last year’s AL Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello, hasn’t looked like the 2016 version of himself for some time now. He’s 4-11 on the year, but of course win/loss record doesn’t mean much. What means more is his ugly 4.75 ERA, which resembles his 4.92 figure from 2015 more than his 3.15 from last year. His WHIP, at 1.43, is even worse than the number he put up two years ago.
It’s not bad luck, either; it’s self-inflicted. He’s allowed 24 walks already, after allowing just 32 all of last season. He’s already surrendered 19 home runs; he gave up just 23 in a full season in 2016. For that matter, he gave up only 25 in 2015, which was a poor campaign by any standard. By most measures, he’s regressed so badly that he’s on his way to turning in the worst year of his career. His last start before the break was brilliant, an absolute gem. Right now, however, that’s an anomaly, not the norm. Porcello must get back on track if the Red Sox are to go anywhere in the postseason.
Luckily, Drew Pomeranz has stepped up. Pomeranz had an ominous start to his Red Sox career, coming over in a shady trade with the San Diego Padres. He did little last season to endear himself with the home crowd, and early this year it seemed like that would continue. And then, somewhat shockingly, it didn’t.
After posting a 4.15 ERA for April and a 4.30 ERA in May, he suddenly started pitching well. He’s lasted at least five innings and has allowed two earned runs or fewer in eight of his last nine starts, and has pitched six or more innings in six of those starts. He’s lowered his season ERA to 3.60, and has been a very solid third starter.
Sale and Kimbrel Stand Out
Craig Kimbrel and Chris Sale have been otherworldly. Words almost fail to describe the level of dominance each has exhibited thus far. They were rewarded for their good deeds with All-Star appearances, and both could be frontrunners for the Cy Yound Award, come season’s end. Kimbrel has been just shy of totally untouchable; his 0.50 WHIP attests to that. His ERA, now at 1.19, would represent his best mark since 2012, when he finished at 1.01. He already has 23 saves, after tallying 31 all of last season, and has a dumbfounding 68 strikeouts in just 37.2 innings. Relievers don’t win Cy Youngs, but it could become very difficult to deny Kimbrel if he keeps blowing everyone away.
Unfortunately for Kimbrel (but fortunately for the Red Sox and their fans) the man who might snatch the hardware out from under him is Sale, his teammate. Sale hasn’t been perfect; he’s had a bad (by his standards) game once or twice. But even mentioning those few negatives feels unfair to a guy who’s 11-4, and would have more wins if the Red Sox had figured out how to score consistently early in the season. Beyond that, he owns a 2.75 ERA and an 0.90 WHIP. Oh, and he also has 178 strikeouts, more than any other pitcher in baseball, in 127.2 innings. He’s already thrown 12 games of at least 10 strikeouts. At this rate, he’ll blow past 300 in no time. The Red Sox gave up a lot to acquire both Sale and Kimbrel. Right now, that’s paying off big-time.
Who’s on Third? I Don’t Know!
The hot corner has been a carousel of faces since the departure of Adrian Beltre what sometimes seems like decades ago. This season alone, the spot has been manned, at various times, by Sandoval, Rutledge, Holt, Deven Marrero, and Tzu-Wei Lin (and probably others; it gets hard to keep track). Sandoval, though slimmed down, proved hapless in the field and inept at the plate. His playing time since returning from injury has all but evaporated. Holt, of course, plays every position ably, but vertigo has kept him off the diamond for much of the season. Rutledge is a solid bench bat, but third proved a tough defensive assignment for him. Marrero can flash the leather, but his quiet bat created a hole in the lineup.
However, it seems that, in recent days, Boston finally found a rather unconventional solution. A platoon, consisting of Lin and Marrero, has brought some life to the lineup and a semblance of stability in the infield. Both can field solidly, and Lin has hit well since his call-up. He’s batting .333 and, though he’s only collected two RBI, has a knack for making things happen. He’s getting on base at a .435 clip and has scored seven runs in just 15 games. Marrero is also faring better with the bat, now that the pressure of the everyday job is off his shoulders. He’s raised his average from .176 on June 1 to .225 on July 8. While we should hope it improves further, that’s still a very encouraging trend. Even more encouraging is his .955 July OPS. That’s probably not sustainable, but even a decent-sized drop would leave it at an acceptable figure.
This Red Sox team, while heading in the right direction, probably can’t win a World Series as constituted. It needs another reliable starting pitcher, even once Rodriguez returns; Doug Fister isn’t the answer. It also could use at least one more reliever and a third baseman, unless the platoon is the answer there. Trades will come, as they invariably do each year. Sonny Gray of the Oakland Athletics would be a welcome addition to the rotation. He’s currently rebounding nicely from a dreadful 2016 campaign. It’s hard to say what it would take to pry him loose from the Bay Area, but it’s something the Red Sox will undoubtedly look into. Boston could also look across the bridge in San Francisco, where Johnny Cueto might be available.
Right now, the Red Sox are positioned well to at least make the playoffs, and maybe win the division. They must make at least one big move if they want to go any further than that.