After winning six straight games to finally put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack in the AL East, the Red Sox lost four of their last five games to put both the Yankees and the Rays three and a half games out entering the All Star break. That’s the small picture. The big picture, though, is that the Red Sox have dealt with a LOT this year — from the flu, to injuries, to season-ending surgeries, to almost season-ending surgeries, to clubhouse drama — and yet here they sit, alone in first place at the unofficial halfway point. Let’s take a look at some of the storylines that have gotten them to this point.
Chris Sale — I mean, what more can you say about this motherfucker that hasn’t already been said? It seems like every time he’s taken the mound, we’ve had to take the record book out to see what record of Pedro Martinez’s he’s broken. I can’t think of another situation where a player has come to Boston with so much hype and then gone on to exceed those expectations. Curt Schilling, maybe? But even there, the expectation was a World Series title and that’s what he helped to deliver. With Sale, Red Sox fans certainly expected an ace, but I don’t think anybody expected an ace that, at the All Star break, would be on pace to strike out 324 batters. He’s been everything that the Red Sox have needed him to be and more, and there’s zero debate over who the team’s first half MVP has been. It’s Sale.
David Price — I remember asking other media guys back in March and April, “Over/under 2.5 starts for David Price this year,” to which I don’t think anybody took the over. He wasn’t even supposed to contribute to this 2017 team, and if he did take the mound, it was expected to be a disaster. After yesterday’s start against the Rays, Price logged yet another good outing. Really, that stinker in New York has been his only major blemish since returning from an injury that sidelined him for the first two months of the season. Without that New York start, Price has a 3.19 ERA in his other eight starts. He still needs to be going at least seven innings more consistently, but he’s been a lot better than people expected him to be. Off the field has been a separate issue in which he hasn’t done himself any favors, but I don’t think he cares how he’s perceived anymore. And as long as he continues to pitch well, Red Sox fans shouldn’t care too much about that, either.
Rick Porcello — I think we all expected some regression from a Cy Young season in 2016 in regards to Rick Porcello, but I personally did not expect it to be this much. I expected Porcello to fall back to sort of where he was during in his 2014 season with Detroit — still be able to give you 200 innings, and have an ERA in the mid-threes somewhere. He’s been better of late with a 3.71 ERA over his last four starts, and finally has gotten his ERA under five for the season, but it was tough to watch him struggle like that, having these starts where he’s going out and giving up five, six, seven, EIGHT earned runs. He’s better than that, and he’s been showing that over the last month. The Red Sox need him to carry that into the second half if they’re going to be a legitimate threat come October.
Drew Pomeranz — I haven’t heard any complaints about Dave Dombrowski not reversing the trade with the Padres recently. That’s because Drew Pomeranz has been the second best starter in the rotation for the last six weeks. He started the season on the disabled list, had an ERA of 5.29 through his first seven starts and was averaging 4.2 innings per start as late as May 20. The criticism that you or I had of Pomeranz by that point was more than valid. He was a dud. But then something happened — he started to use his cutter more. And since May 25, he’s sporting the best ERA in the Red Sox rotation (2.60). I would file Pomeranz under “pleasant surprises” for the first half.
Eduardo Rodriguez — The forgotten man. When Eduardo Rodriguez went down with yet another knee injury back on June 1, he had been the second best pitcher in that rotation behind Sale. To his credit, Pomeranz has made it easy to forget about Rodriguez, because he’s certainly carried the torch in Rodriguez’s absence. But when he returns in the second half, are we looking at one of the best rotations in baseball? With Sale leading the way, Price pitching well, Porcello turning a corner, and Pomeranz being what he’s been — if Rodriguez is anything close to what he was prior to his injury, you have a rotation where you have a good chance to win that ballgame pretty much every day. Who’s the weak link? Last year’s Cy Young award winner? Yikes.
Mitch Moreland — What a hell of a first half for Mitchy Two Bags. Nobody was going to replace David Ortiz, but most Red Sox fans wanted them to try with Edwin Encarnacion. When the Red Sox passed at the chance to sign Encarnacion and went with Moreland instead, expectations were fairly low. And then he started hammering doubles left and right, at one point leading the league in two-baggers by a pretty large margin. He’s had his hot and cold streaks, but overall, Moreland has been one hell of a surprise. He’s third on the team in doubles (19) just one behind Xander Bogaerts for runner-up, third in homers (12) just one behind Hanley Ramirez, and he’s tied with Dustin Pedroia for the third most RBI (41). Perpaps the most impressive feat of Moreland’s season was when he fractured his toe and continued to play every single day, which prompted manager John Farrell to point to him as an example of what he wanted all of his players to be.
Dustin Pedroia — Here’s a guy who doesn’t get enough credit for what he (still) brings to the table. Sure, he’s not hammering 50 doubles or popping 20 dingers anymore, but he leads the team in on-base percentage (.382), he’s tied with Bogaerts for the team lead in batting average (.303), he has the second lowest strikeout percentage (9.4%), and he still plays a Gold Glove caliber second base every single night. He’s had his injuries this year, much like he does in most years, but he’s still very much a key cog for this team.
Xander Bogaerts — Are we still complaining about the lack of homers? He’s got six. The only other starters with fewer homers than Xander Bogaerts are Pedroia (4), Deven Marrero (3), and the catchers if you want to count them. I don’t care about the homers. What’s his OPS? Well, it’s .806, third best on the team. He also leads the team in hits (97), and is second on the squad in doubles (20). Here’s the thing, though. He’s been known to fade in the second half. Could this be the year that he shakes that reputation? That’d be nice.
Third base — Let’s loop them all in here. Deven Marrero has basically been a savior for you this season. If I told you back in March that at the All Star break, Marrero will have played more games at third base than anyone else, would you have believed me? Maybe, because Pablo Sandoval sucks so bad, but nobody could’ve predicted the Brock Holt vertigo, the Marco Hernandez injury or the Josh Rutledge concussion. Now, is Marrero single-handedly winning you ballgames? No. Is Tzu-Wei Lin? No. But those two have saved your ass from having to panic and either cough up something good for a third baseman for the time being, or call up Rafael Devers before he’s ready. Will Dombrowski still look to upgrade here at the deadline? Most likely, but I’m fine with it if he doesn’t, as long as we never have to see that useless piece of shit Sandoval over there ever again. The Red Sox have one more week to decide Sandoval’s fate, and it better be the snip snip.
Catcher — You’ve got to loop Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon in together here, too. Clearly there isn’t an everyday starting catcher on this team, as Vazquez has played 49 games and Leon has played 48. And to be honest with you, this plan of having the time split evenly has worked out quite well for the Red Sox. We didn’t know if Leon’s 2016 was a fluke, but most probably knew he wasn’t going to have an OPS over 1.000 again, and Vazquez as the “catcher who couldn’t hit” has done an okay job in that regard this year. Combined, they’re hitting .255 with a .666 OPS, which isn’t tremendous, but you’ll certainly take it, especially with some of the best defense in the game behind the plate.
Andrew Benintendi — People forget that Andrew Benintendi skipped Triple-A entirely last year. He was drafted in 2015 and on a big league roster within a year. Baseball executives and talent evaluators always like to see a top prospect struggle and overcome adversity before they’re ready for a big promotion. Benintendi never had that at Triple-A, and basically had to deal with that at the major league level this year amidst calls for his demotion or being dropped down in the order. Benintendi, as expected, overcame that adversity, and remains one of the best hitters in that Red Sox lineup. He’s in a three-way tie for third most homers on the team, he’s third in hits (85), and fourth in OPS (.803), not far off from Bogaerts. Thanks to Aaron Judge, though, I think we can kiss his chances of winning the Rookie of the Year award goodbye.
Jackie Bradley Jr. — For the past couple of years, we’ve entered the season wondering which Jackie Bradley Jr. we were gonna get. When he’s hot, he’s HOT. But when he’s cold, he’s ice cold. The man had lived on opposite ends of the spectrum for most of his young major league career, but this year has been more of the Bradley that I expected him to become. I think he’s more than capable of hitting somewhere in the neighborhood of .270 with an OPS over .800. At the break, Bradley’s hitting .280 with a team-leading .853 OPS. This was also a player who was benched in early May because of how poorly he was hitting, but he’s gone on to hit .312 with a .954 OPS since then (May 10). If Moreland and Pomeranz are the biggest surprises, then Bradley has to be the most underappreciated story.
Mookie Betts — Coming off an MVP runner-up season a year ago, the expectations for Mookie Betts this season were really, really high. I don’t think it’s fair to say that he’s “taken a step back” in 2017 — he’s still having a great year, as he’s starting for the American League All Star team tomorrow night — but I just think the bar has been set really high this year, given what Judge has been doing for the Bronx Bombers. He’s still the major league leader in doubles with 29, but I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Mookie Betts in 2017 yet. The other thing to keep in mind here is that Mookie had a monster second half last year, and he’s certainly more than capable of doing that again.
Hanley Ramirez — With David Ortiz out of the picture, the torch had officially been passed to Hanley Ramirez as Boston’s new designated hitter. With the responsibility of having to play the field now off his plate, I’d say the expectations for Hanley at DH were pretty high, especially since he had mashed the ball in limited time as a DH the past couple of years. Assuming that Sandoval doesn’t even count anymore, Hanley would have to be the biggest disappointment of the year right next to Porcello. As recently as June 21, Hanley had been hitting .239 with a .736 OPS. A recent surge has inflated those numbers, but the larger sample has been extremely underwhelming. For a team that lacks any sort of pop whatsoever, they’re going to need Hanley to heat up in the second half and not just for a short burst.
Craig Kimbrel — Last but not least, Craig Kimbrel has been the best reliever in the American League this year, arguably in the entire game next to Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. How quickly we forget that Kimbrel was labeled as a “heart attack closer” last year. Sure, he has two blown saves this year, but the Red Sox are 2-0 in both of those games and 34-2 in the games that he’s appeared in. Kimbrel has recorded 113 outs so far this year, and 68 of them have been strikeouts. That means that 60.1% of the outs that he’s recorded have been strikeouts, which is absolutely insane. If the obvious answer for first-half Red Sox MVP weren’t Sale, you could make a very, very strong case for Kimbrel.