How Far Can Boston’s Offense Carry the Sox?

Posted: 08/02/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

The Boston Red Sox have scored 574 runs this year. That’s 5.57 runs per game, by far the best in baseball. The thin air-aided Colorado Rockies are second at 5.1. Boston’s 5.57 is the most in baseball since the 2009 World Series Champion Yankees put up 5.62 runs per contest. To get very statistical, the Red Sox’s run output is 2.26 standard deviations above the mean, which puts them in the 99th percentile. In layman’s terms, they have a dominant offense. And yet… their run differential, +84, is good but not great. Last year, the Blue Jays had easily the best offense in the game, but they also had easily the best run differential in the game. Boston’s run differential is fifth best in baseball. Again, good but not great. If the (probably outdated) old adage that pitching wins championships holds up this year, the Red Sox won’t be winning the championship. But given that plenty of World Series Champions have won without dominant pitching, it would be foolish to cross off the BoSox without considering them. At the same time, there are a few teams in baseball this year who pair very good offenses with good pitching or vice versa. Is Boston’s offense good enough (or pitching not terrible enough) to contend with those teams?

When I see teams putting up extraordinary performances, as Boston’s offense is doing this season, the first question I ask is how sustainable it is. I’m relatively confident that this lineup’s success is more durable than, say, Cleveland’s. The top six guys in the lineup are clearly legitimately good-to-great hitters. Neither Mookie Betts, the leadoff hitter, nor Dustin Pedroia, who hits right after Betts, looks like a powerful hitter. But if you were to assume that either Betts (5’9″) or Pedroia (5’8″) is a singles hitter, you’d be mistaken. Betts, who’s in his third season, already has 21 homers and is slashing .305/.347/.534. Through about two full seasons, he has a 124 career wRC+. He’s the real deal. Pedroia’s been around for much longer and looks as if he’s fully recovered from his nadir of 2014, which is the only time since his first full season that his WAR has been below 3. He’s the perfect two-hole hitter, pairing a good eye (9.7% career strikeout rate) with a good bat (.307/.373/.453) with some power (12 homers).

Of course, a big reason that Betts and Pedroia might be excelling is that pitchers can’t afford to pitch around them. Why? Well, Xander Bogaerts and David Ortiz, baseball’s most terrifying 3-4 combo, are two good reasons. Bogaerts, who was a blue-chip prospect before struggling in 2014 and breaking out in 2015, is having easily his best season as he nears his 24th birthday. His .329 average is fourth best in baseball, and he would surely be getting more hype if he weren’t: a) hitting between Pedroia and Ortiz and b) playing in the generation of great young shortstops. From Corey Seager to Manny Machado to Francisco Lindor to Carlos Correa to Addison Russell (with more shortstops in the pipeline), MLB is overflowing with star shortstops, and Bogaerts is near the top of that list.

Then there’s Big Papi, who is in the midst of one of the best final seasons of all-time. It’s hard to believe that the DH is going to retire after the season he’s having, but if we take him at his word, he’ll have arguably the second best final season ever behind Sandy Koufax (I’m not including Joe Jackson or Happy Felsch, whose careers were ended by the Black Sox scandal, or Roberto Clemente or Win Mercer, whose careers were shortened by death). He’s been the best hitter in baseball this season, with a .320/.410/.643 triple-slash line, 25 homers, and he’s also one of just four qualified hitters with more walks than strikeouts this season (Ben Zobrist, Bryce Harper, and Jose Altuve are the others). He’s first in isolated power (slugging percentage – average), first in doubles (35), and in the top 10 in homers. Those numbers will probably regress a little bit in the next few months, but there’s no question that Papi is the best cleanup hitter in baseball. But Boston’s embarrassment of offensive weapons doesn’t end with him. Remember the (then) Florida Marlins’ version of Hanley Ramirez? You know, the guy who went first or second in fantasy drafts. Well, Ramirez was one of the worst players in baseball last year, but he’s responded with a .275/.353/.441 season that, while far worse than the numbers at his apex, comes much closer to approaching his career averages.

Then there’s Jackie Bradley Jr., who’s known by most people as the guy who had a 29 game hitting streak this season. Bradley, a centerfielder, might be the most interesting guy on this team. He, like Bogaerts, was a top prospect, a guy always known for his stellar defense. The defense was always there, but in his first two seasons Bradley hit .189 and .198 while moving between AAA and the big club. Then, he slogged through three months of last season before having a tremendous August in which he hit .354/.429/.734 with a 207 wRC+ and 17 extra base hits in the month. But he hit just .216 after August, which begged the question: was August 2015 a total outlier? Was Bradley just the next Domonic Brown (Phillies fans know what I’m talking about. Brown, the team’s top prospect for years, was rushed to MLB before consistently stinking for his first three seasons. Then, he hit 12 homers in May of 2013 and slugged .688 for the month. He was an all-star that year. His career WAR now stands at -1.6)? We now know that Bradley is the real deal. While he hasn’t been as good since the streak ended, he’s consistently been at least good at the plate every month this season. He’s hitting .295/.375/.540 with way fewer strikeouts than ever and 17 homers. He should at least double his career high in long balls (10 last year), and he’s the second best hitter among centerfielders behind Mike Trout. Not bad.

So the Red Sox have the best DH in baseball, the best RF (Betts), a top five ish 2B (Pedroia), a top-three hitting SS (Bogaerts), and a top-two hitting CF (Bradley). You know what’s really scary? They’ve also gotten great production from the bottom of the lineup. Travis Shaw, who came out of nowhere in his rookie season last year to hit .270/.327/.487 in limited time, has taken the third base job against righties and run with it. Against righties, he’s hitting .287/.355/.487, good for a 119 wRC+. Not bad for a seven-hole hitter. Meanwhile, catcher Sandy Leon might be the biggest surprise in baseball this season. This is perhaps the only place on the offense where significant regression can be expected, because I don’t think Sandy Leon is going to continue to hit .391/.434/.620. He was only recently given the starting job and only has 100 plate appearances, partly because last year he hit .184/.238/.202 and partly because he was a career .187 hitter heading into this season. So catcher will likely turn into a problem area for the Red Sox, as has often been the case since the Jason Varitek era.

I haven’t mentioned Chris Young, the LF who was super hot before he hit the DL at the end of June. Young should be back soon, and if he can put up numbers anywhere near the .277/.338/.508 he was slashing before his injury, the Red Sox will be able to recoup at least some of the offense lost by the inevitable Sandy Leon slump.

The pitching has to be pretty darn bad to screw that (^^^) up, right? Well, yes and no. If it were strong, this would definitely be the best team in baseball, but when teams like the Cubs are so great, it doesn’t take a horrible pitching staff to push the Sox down a few spots. The team’s 4.66 rotation ERA certainly isn’t pretty. The biggest disappointment has predictably been David Price, who was signed to a mammoth contract and now has a 4.26 ERA. The Red Sox seem to have a way of screwing up all of the big contracts, from Carl Crawford to Hanley Ramirez to Pablo Sandoval to Price. Clay Buchholz, who’s now in the bullpen, made 13 horrific starts, going 2-8 and posting a fully deserved 6.31 ERA. And Eduardo Rodriguez was pitching sooooo well that the Sox tried super hard to knock him out of the rotation with a second big starting pitcher acquisition (they wanted to add Chris Sale after already acquiring Drew Pomeranz). Rodriguez, who was solid in his rookie year, has a 6.51 ERA in nine starts this year. I guess you can look at that as the inverse of Leon, but a 6.51 ERA is no bueno, no matter how you slice it. But although Pomeranz has been poor in his first three starts for the Red Sox, I like him and think he’ll be pretty good for the Sox going forward. And in Rick Porcello and knuckleballer Steven Wright, Boston has two solid starters with sub-3.5 ERAs and a combined 26-7 record. They don’t have an ace, but, luckily for them, most of baseball’s aces reside in the NL. Sure, if they face Justin Verlander or Corey Kluber in the playoffs they’ll be at a disadvantage. That could be particularly concerning if they fail to win the AL East, which would put them in a one game playoff against another team’s ace (maybe Verlander or Kluber, but maybe also someone like Baltimore’s Chris Tillman, which is to say someone less intimidating). But if the Red Sox advance to a full series, I actually like the four man rotation of Price, Porcello, Wright, and Pomeranz. There might be a blowup in there, but I think those four are generally capable of throwing quality starts, which is really all you need when you have an offense like that (^^^).

The Red Sox clearly recognized that their bullpen was another issue, which is why they acquired Brad Ziegler about a month ago and Fernando Abad today on trade deadline day. Ziegler’s already made an impact with a 1.08 ERA in eight games for the Sox, while Abad has a 2.65 ERA and can serve as a lefty specialist. Craig Kimbrel was activated off the DL today, and I have a feeling that his 3.55 ERA is going to be a lot lower by the end of the season. The Red Sox rank 13th in bullpen ERA right now, but that ranking could rise a bit as the new pieces balance the bullpen and as Kimbrel gets into his groove.

Bottom Line: Despite the fact that they’re currently in third place in the AL East, I’m bullish on Boston’s roster. The one thing that worries me is the pitching matchup in a potential wild card game, so the Red Sox would be wise to push hard to win the division.


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