High-powered Red Sox are looking like MLB's top team on offense
On Thursday night, the Red Sox beat the Astros and their struggling ace, Dallas Keuchel, 11–1—an encouraging win for Boston for a variety of reasons. On the mound, David Price turned in his best home start at Fenway Park, striking out 12 in 6 2/3 innings and regaining some of his lost velocity after correcting a flaw in his mechanics discovered by second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Price will have to repeat those results for them to have significance, but repetition hasn’t been a problem for the Red Sox’s lineup. The 11 runs Boston put up against Houston marked the fourth straight game in which the Sox have scored 11 or more runs. That’s the longest such streak since the 2007 Braves also scored 11 or more runs in four straight games, and the only team with a longer streak of games with 11 runs or more since 1913 was the 1929 New York Giants, who reached that tally in six straight games.
The Red Sox have averaged 5.91 runs per game this season, second in the majors only to the Cubs, who have averaged 5.94 in two fewer games. It’s not difficult to argue that Boston has indeed been the best offense in the majors to this point: It leads all of baseball in batting average (.295), slugging percentage (.485), OPS+ (125) and net steals (27 for 29 as a team, netting 25 bags), not to mention hits (367), doubles (90), total bases (603) and runs (207).
All of that production has been fairly well distributed throughout the lineup. The Red Sox enter Friday’s action with seven qualified players boasting an OPS+ of 110 or higher, the most in the majors. One of the two exceptions in the everyday lineup is 23-year-old rightfielder Mookie Betts, who entered the season with a 119 OPS+ in 867 major league plate appearances and was the team’s best player a year ago. Betts is a very good bet to improve as the season progresses and is also leading the team in steals, having gone a perfect 7-for-7 on the bases. The other exception is 25-year-old catcher Christian Vazquez, who returned from Tommy John rehab on April 15 and has hit like a league-average catcher since his return and better than league average, regardless of position, since April 23.
Vazquez is an example of the philosophy that has helped shaped the Red Sox on both sides of the ball this season: Performance equals playing time. Disenchanted with Opening Day starter Blake Swihart’s work behind the plate, Boston replaced him with Vazquez at the first opportunity. Poor springs from Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo resulted in both losing their starting jobs and, ultimately, roster spots despite their significant contracts. Injuries forced Steven Wright into the rotation, but he has pitched so well since that it may take another injury to get him out.
Two months ago, the idea of Sandoval possibly being lost for the season due to shoulder surgery, Swihart being converted to the outfield in Triple A, Castillo struggling at that level and Wright being a key member of the rotation would have sounded like disaster for Boston. The depth of the Red Sox' lineup, however, was one reason for many optimistic evaluations, and that depth has paid off tremendously for Boston thus far.
An All-Star utility man last year, Brock Holt has taken yet another step forward at the plate as the team’s leftfielder in his age-28 season, cutting down on his strikeouts and adding power while still spotting in the infield on occasion. Coming off a promising rookie showing at first base last year, 26-year-old Travis Shaw has been a revelation at third base, hitting .320/.387/.539 (148 OPS+) and, even more surprisingly, proving more than capable in the field. Shaw won’t hit .320 all season (his .416 BABIP is unsustainable), but he could shed 50 points of average from that line and still be an above-average major league third baseman.
Hanley Ramirez has been converted from a liability in leftfield back into an asset at first base. Comfortable in the field, he is heating up at the plate, hitting three home runs in his last nine games after going deep just once in his first 24 and slashing .396/.482/.646 over the last two weeks. Also heating up is Jackie Bradley Jr., who is currently showing that his hot August last year was not a fluke by hitting .412/.452/.838 with six home runs in his last 18 games. Both of those performances are spikes lifted by good luck on balls in play, but they are nonetheless evidence of life in two bats who were dormant too often last year. Perhaps most encouraging for Bradley is the power he has shown. In addition to the six homers, he has hit five doubles and three triples, giving him a .426 isolated slugging percentage over that span. Again, that’s a spike, but it proves that there’s power in his bat and that he can indeed hit major league pitching after all.
The veterans are pulling their weight, as well. In addition to fixing Price, Pedroia is healthy and enjoying his best season at the plate since his age-27 season in 2011. Meanwhile, 40-year-old David Ortiz is currently sporting career-highs in slugging percentage (.672) and OPS+ (184), making his retirement plans look either crazy or like incredible motivation for a blockbuster final season.
The Red Sox' lineup has been so good from top to bottom that we’re all missing Xander Bogaerts’s emergence as one of the best players in baseball. Still just 23, Bogaerts continues to improve in all facets of the game in his fourth big-league season. Last year, he bettered his defense, dropped his strikeout rate and spiked his batting average. This season, he has maintained those improvements (including the high average) and added power, patience and speed. The result has been a .331/.385/.479 (133 OPS+) line and six steals in as many attempts in 34 games after having stolen just 13 bases in 18 attempts through his first 318 games. Sandwiched between Pedroia and Ortiz, Bogaerts is in an ideal position to continue to thrive and develop.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, appear to be in position to run away with the American League East. With the Orioles a strong candidate for regression on both sides off the ball, the Blue Jays scuffling and the Rays and Yankees proving to be non-factors, Boston—which just got Price fixed and Carson Smith off the disabled list to fortify an already impressive bullpen—looks like it's starting to hit its stride. That’s bad news for Houston’s Lance McCullers, who returns from the disabled list to make his season debut at Fenway on Friday night, and bad news for the rest of the AL, as well.