Remember rock bottom?
On the off day following a three-game sweep at the hands of the White Sox May 9, the Red Sox were at the bottom of the AL East with a 10-19 record, an embarrassing start that left them far closer to the worst record in the league than to a playoff berth. Other teams had already started to imagine scenarios in which the Sox would become sellers prior to the trade deadline.
A bit more than five weeks later, the outlook is very different.
Thanks to a 24-10 surge, the Red Sox sit in possession of the third AL wild-card spot with a 34-30 record, within view of both Tampa Bay and Toronto and narrowly ahead of Cleveland.
“It feels good to come to the ballpark, put it that way,” said Xander Bogaerts. “It’s much more fun now coming to the ballpark. We know what to expect and what we’re capable of.”
What produced the about-face?
Through those first 29 games, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, and Bogaerts did what they could to carry the offense. But with staggeringly poor production from the other six lineup spots and with no one hitting homers (the Red Sox had just six over a 19-game stretch concluding with the White Sox sweep), it wasn’t enough. The Red Sox were averaging just 3.28 runs per game, 28th in the big leagues.
But on May 10 in Atlanta, Devers homered in a 9-4 win, and one day later, Trevor Story got on the board with the first homer of his Red Sox career. Production started spilling to different corners of the lineup, with Story soon to start a power binge that transformed the sense of possibility. A team that expected to rank among the best offenses in the game finally emerged as just that.
“We certainly thought coming into the year that we had one of the better offenses in baseball,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “As we look up now, that is where we are. But it was quite a journey getting here.”
As a group, the Sox started doing a much better job of swinging at strikes (going from the least-disciplined team in the game to middle-of-the-pack in chase rate) and crushing pitches in their nitro zones. Contributions started emerging from all over the lineup, most notably with an epic eruption by Story from May 19-27 — 7 games, 7 homers, 21 RBIs — but also including timely contributions from Christian Vázquez, Franchy Cordero, Bobby Dalbec, and others.
“It was really about just stepping back and seeing how teams were approaching us,” said hitting coach Pete Fatse. “They were trying to go outside the strike zone. They were trying to get as many [chase] swings as they could.”
With increased discipline came a massive improvement in performance. Starting May 10, the Sox have nearly doubled their run-scoring average to 6.0 per game (entering Thursday).
“That first month, it was, like, ‘Man, what’s going on?’ It felt like it was never-ending,” said Story. “Obviously, this is more what we know we can be. It’s not by accident. We’ve made the proper adjustments that we need to make and we’re putting good swings on the ball on pitches that we want to hit.”
The rotation actually has a worse ERA (3.55) during the current run than it did in the first 29 games (3.28). But that reflects in part on the fact that leaguewide scoring has gone up. The Red Sox rotation remains among the top third in the league in ERA, but with more of an impact, as the starters are routinely working much later into games.
Through May 9, the Red Sox rotation averaged roughly 4⅔ innings per start. In the subsequent 34 games, they averaged 5⅓ innings, an increased workload that in turn put less strain on the bullpen. On three occasions, the Sox bypassed the bullpen completely, with complete games from Michael Wacha (in a 1-0 win), Nick Pivetta, and Nate Eovaldi.
|Through May 9||May 10-June 15|
|Record||10-19 (.345)||24-10 (.706)|
|Average||.228 (19)||.281 (1)|
|OBP||.279 (29)||.349 (2)|
|Slugging||.342 (25)||.477 (2)|
|Strikeout rate (%)||21.7 (10)||20.0 (23)|
|Walk rate (%)||6.1 (30)||8.5 (11)|
|Homers||16 (28)||46 (7)|
|Chase rate (%)||35.5 (1)||32.9 (15)|
|ERA||3.28 (8)||3.55 (9)|
|Strikeout rate (%)||23.6 (10)||21.1 (14)|
|Walk rate (%)||8.2 (17)||5.8 (25)|
|Innings/start||4.7 (21)||5.3 (11)|
|ERA||4.19 (23)||3.12 (6)|
|Strikeout rate (%)||24.9 (12)||24.1 (8)|
|Walk rate (%)||9.7 (17)||8.5 (17)|
|Blown saves||8 (1)||5 (12)|
|High-leverage PAs||109 (1)||79 (17)|
“This comes up every year, because in the beginning of the year, we make a concerted effort to keep the starters under control knowing that at some point later on, we’re going to lean on them more,” said pitching coach Dave Bush. “It’s an organizational approach. In late May, we started kind of opening it up.”
The starters are striking out fewer hitters during the current run but have cut back tremendously on walks, pitching to contact and taking advantage of what has been tremendous defense.
“We’re playing a lot better defense this year,” said Bush. “We’ve been preaching last couple years the value of throwing strikes and having action happening early in the count. It’s always easier to send that message when the defense is making plays.”
Bullpen pitches in
A bright spotlight seared the Red Sox through the first five weeks of the season — not their performance in high-leverage situations but rather the frequency of those situations. Through May 9, according to Fangraphs, the Red Sox bullpen allowed a .339 on-base percentage (fifth-worst in MLB) and .417 slugging mark (seventh-worst).
Those marks were made more glaring because the Red Sox were constantly in tense games, with their 109 high-leverage opponent plate appearances ranking first in the league. Any bullpen wobble meant a blown save, and given the relatively limited workload of the starters, there were plenty of chances to wobble.
Since May 10, the bullpen has improved to middle-of-the-pack in high-leverage situations, with a .316 OBP (12th) and .366 slugging mark (13th). More significant has been the infrequency of situations where the game hinges on a single pitch; the Red Sox’ ability to blow out opponents resulted in just 79 high-leverage plate appearances since May 10, 17th in the big leagues.
Aided by the emergence of John Schreiber and Tyler Danish as well as generally solid work from Matt Strahm and Austin Davis, along with the recent move of Tanner Houck to the back end of the bullpen, the relief corps has gained greater structure with improved effectiveness. It’s still far from an elite group, but the game-losing meltdowns have become fewer.
While the relievers deserve some credit for that development, both the starters and lineup deserve at least as much for the safer passage through the late innings.
West Coast chum
The Red Sox’ poor start came while getting steamrolled by their primary competition. They are 7-14 against the AL East and have lost all six series they’ve played against divisional foes.
Their standings surge, by contrast, has come almost entirely while feeding on AL West carrion, with a 19-7 record against that division. But with the Athletics’ departure from Fenway, the degree of difficulty is about to shift.
The Sox have just seven remaining games against the AL West (three of those in Houston). Meanwhile, a whopping 55 games remain against the AL East, with a looming stretch of 20 in 23 games from June 27 through July 24 against the Blue Jays (six games), Yankees (seven), and Rays (seven).
“I think it’s the best division in professional sports,” said Bloom. “And it never seems to get easier.
“We know what the standings look like right now. If the season ended, there would be four of us that advance. That tells you all you need to know about the state of the division and how tough it is. But it’s also what makes this fun, and makes it so satisfying to get to the postseason out of this division.”
Indeed, the Sox feel emboldened about the prospect of a return to the division. Unquestionably, they’ve benefited from playing second-division teams, but they feel they are playing well enough that the forthcoming stretch leading to the trade deadline represents an opportunity as much as it does a test.
“We want to bridge that gap [by playing in the division],” said outfielder Alex Verdugo. “We want to get closer and closer and basically just get back in the standings.”