Search as I might in the delightful depths of baseball-reference.com for clues, I couldn’t tell you if there’s anything illustrative to be found in the Red Sox’ recent seasons that might aid in navigating the unprecedentedly weird one that’s about to get under way.
I can’t even tell you — nor can anyone else — with any assurance that there will be a season, at least one that fulfills the abbreviated current target of 60 games.
Everything is tenuous and subject to change. All of it. Rob Manfred might think he reigns over baseball, with all of his goofy, shoehorned rule alterations that suggest the smug commissioner has never cared about the game in any authentic way. But this season, the sport is ruled not by rich men in suits, but the frightening whims of a virus.
Maybe such a caveat is unnecessary. It should be. But I’m still uncomfortable with baseball charging ahead to play, what with the pandemic proving its staying power in a divided America in which even the common-sense plea to wear masks is politicized and dismissed by the ignorant.
And if I’m being totally honest, the limited expectations and vastly decreased appeal of the Mookie-less 2020 Red Sox has further muted any potential enthusiasm for this makeshift season.
So it was that I dug into those statistical catacombs of baseball-reference to see if I could unearth some optimism, particularly regarding the capabilities of this Red Sox team. It’s hard to find any on the surface.
It wasn’t even two full calendar years ago that the Red Sox won a franchise record 108 games and steamrolled the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers — all richly talented teams — en route to their fourth World Series title since 2004.
Last season, they mismanaged spring training with a lack of urgency, never found their previous form all summer, and fell to 84-78, missing the playoffs with 24 fewer wins than the previous season despite returning essentially the same roster. The worst came after the season, when popular manager Alex Cora was fired after his role in a cheating scandal during his time as Astros bench coach was revealed.
And so here they are now, entering this 2020 mini-season without Cora, or Betts (traded in a shameful salary dump to the Dodgers), or Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery), or David Price (who went with Betts to the Dodgers and has since opted out of the season), or anything resembling a Major League starting rotation.
Yeah, the lineup — featuring franchise face Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez — is still potent even without Betts. But it won’t be as good as it was with Betts, the most complete player the Red Sox have developed in the draft era and their best overall player a season ago even with some slight falloff from his 2018 MVP season. Every time I get a flicker of enthusiasm for this season, it’s snuffed out when I remember the Red Sox traded Betts — a shameful enough decision — without getting a pitcher as part of a return package.
Still, while it may not be illustrative, there is some fun to be found in poking around baseball-reference, looking back at the past couple of Red Sox seasons through 60 games, and trying to find some hints that this short season could be more fun than it looks like it will be right now.
Last year, following an 8-3 win over the Royals on June 4, the Red Sox were 31-29 after 60 games. We were already waiting for the hot streak that never really came. (The ’19 Sox won six in row from June 12-17, but that was a tease.) But there were some good things happening. Bogaerts, Devers, and Martinez were all hitting over .300, and each had an OPS above .870 at that point. Michael Chavis had clubbed 10 homers in fewer than 150 at-bats. Eduardo Rodriguez had six wins. Marcus Walden and Brandon Workman both featured an earned-run average below 2.00. The Sox were 7½ games behind the Yankees, but there was hope.
The 2018 Red Sox had something more than hope through 60 games; they were downright dominating, improving to 41-19 with a 9-3 win over the Astros on June 3. The lineup was a machine. Betts was on his way to an MVP season, hitting .359 with 17 homers through the first 48 games before missing a couple of weeks with an abdominal strain. Martinez and Mitch Moreland both had an OPS over 1.000 and double-digit home runs. Bogaerts (.852 OPS), Andrew Benintendi (.918 OPS), and Brock Holt (.319 average) were all raking. Chris Sale (110 strikeouts in 81 innings), Rick Porcello (eight wins) headed the rotation, and Price was about to go on a winning streak. The Sox were a juggernaut unlike any we had seen.
These 2020 Red Sox cannot be a juggernaut. I know, we’ve had teams that have been a pleasant, even shocking, surprise in the past, most notably the 2013 World Series champs, who weren’t supposed to be much after a last-place finish in ’12. But it’s hard to see a way in which this team can overcome its lack of competent starting pitching, even if the bullpen is deep and some relievers will be worked (perhaps even as openers) so often that we’ll be comparing them to 1977 Bill Campbell, 1978 Bob Stanley, and other relief workhorses of the past.
The best-case scenario for this team is that its best hitters — Bogaerts, Martinez, Devers, and even Benintendi — are at their best immediately, just as they have been through the first 60 games of the past couple of seasons. That’s not too much to ask. Moreland has been a good early-season hitter, and an unexpected fast start from someone like Jackie Bradley Jr. would also greatly aid the cause. This team is going to have to win a lot of 8-6 and 9-7 games.
The bullpen should be competent to good, especially if Brandon Workman can come close to replicating his superb 2019 season. If Rodriguez, a 19-game winner last year, returns at full strength after his bout with the virus, that gives them … well, one trustworthy starter. But the rest of the staff will have to be pieced together with guesswork (what is the fascination with Ryan Weber?) and perhaps a little bit of luck — or pretty much what the baseball season itself is requiring right now.
The Red Sox look like a .500 team to me. And speaking of 50-50 propositions, I’d say that’s roughly what the odds are that a 60-game season happens. But what the heck. Play ball while you can, I guess.