10 early surprises from the 2016 Red Sox season

Jackie Bradley Jr.'s hitting streak ended at 29 games Thursday night.
Jackie Bradley Jr., Chris Young, and Mookie Betts celebrate a win over Colorado. –Charles Krupa / AP

COMMENTARY

This has been quite the young season for the Red Sox. As we all settle in for the long weekend, we’re coming in on the two-month mark of the season, and more than one quarter of the games have been played. It feels like a good time to talk about what have been the biggest surprises of the season to date.

10. Marco Hernandez. I’m not going to lie to you, before the season started I had no idea who Marco Hernandez was. Now that I chase two kids around most of the day, I don’t pay as much attention to the minor leagues as I used to, but it’s still rare that a prospect sneaks up on me. Hernandez did, and that’s the most fun kind of surprise. That he’s just what the team needs – a utility infielder who can run fast and field well, and who might just have some pop – is a bonus.

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9. David Price’s struggles. Players need time to adjust to a new environment, and Price has maintained good strikeout and walk numbers all season, but the way he was knocked around to start the season registered as a minor surprise. Hopefully that’s all behind him now.

8. Blake Swihart’s demotion from catcher. I’ve covered this already, but briefly: after the Red Sox committed to Swihart for the entire second half of 2015, and the early part of this season, he was unceremoniously pushed off of catcher. At least he’s back in the majors. The extra-base hits started flowing last night, when he hit two triples – just the 78th time that’s happened in recorded Red Sox history – and more will be on the way soon.

7. Pablo Sandoval’s shoulder. It was open season on Sandoval when he showed up to camp overweight, but somewhere along the way, he developed a legitimate shoulder injury. The weight was a known issue, but I didn’t see a season-ending injury coming.

6. Happy, Hustlin’ Hanley. Was your general impression of Hanley Ramirez that he sulked his way through the 2015 season? That was my impression. This season he has been a revelation. By Speed Score, he has rebounded from 2014 and 2015 when he posted below average speeds, to an above average mark again this season that is more in line with his career averages. He is always digging on the basepaths, even when he can’t run full speed. And he’s seemingly always smiling. To wit:

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Now, #HustlinHanley is becoming a thing on Red Sox Twitter. For a guy who was once accused of getting Fredi Gonzalez fired as Marlins manager, and who had plenty of red flags  when the Sox signed him (contrast the pic in that link with the above pic), Ramirez’s play and level of joy this year is a most welcome change.

5. Steven Wright’s emergence. Had Eduardo Rodriguez been healthy to start the season, there’s a good chance that Wright would have wound up back in Pawtucket. Instead, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the game. By Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which often punishes knuckleball pitchers, he’s been the 25th-best pitcher in the game. Wright’s ERA has been 40 percent better than league average, and only 11 pitchers – guys like Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard and Chris Sale — have been better. Not bad.

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4. The awesome bullpen. When the Sox landed Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, things looked more encouraging for the bullpen than they had in 2015, but quality depth still looked to be an issue. And then when Smith came up lame, the bullpen situation again seemed precarious. We expected Kimbrel and Koji Uehara to be good, but what about Junichi Tazawa, who was gassed at the end of last year? Lights out. Robbie Ross Jr.? Lights out. Heath Hembree has been a pleasant surprise. Best still, nobody has been a disaster. Noe Ramirez was bad, and he was sent down. But no one has been “cover your eyes and pray” bad. Add it all up, and the Sox have had the seventh-best bullpen by WAR and the fifth-most Shutdowns in the majors a year after ranking 30th and 22nd by those statistics, respectively.

3. John Farrell still has his job. When the season started, the Red Sox skipper was on uneven ground at best. Two straight last place finishes don’t inspire a ton of confidence. When the team finished its first homestand with a 7-8 record overall, with two three-game losing streaks mixed in, the wolves were approaching the door. Then the Sox went out and won four of five in Houston and Atlanta, and they have been rolling since. Now the team is in first place, and first-place managers generally don’t get fired. Farrell might not be the best tactical manager, but right now all he has to do is post the lineup card on the clubhouse wall and get the hell out of the way.

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2. We’re going streaking! After Wednesday’s game, Jackie Bradley Jr. had a 29-game hitting streak and Xander Bogaerts had an 18-game hitting streak. If that seems rare to you, it’s because it is. The last time two active players on the Red Sox had 15+ game hitting streaks at the same time was July 31, 2002. On that day, Christopher Trotman Nixon singled, to give himself a 16-game hitting streak. Jason Varitek, who was off that day, was also sitting on a 16-gamer. The next night both put up 0-fers.

Fourteen years later, Bogaerts and Bradley are going streaking. Not all hitting streaks are created equal, but Bradley’s has been legit. By more than one advanced metric, Bradley has already produced more value during his streak than Dom DiMaggio did during his team-longest 34-gamer back in 1949, and has been one of the 11 best streaks in the majors in terms of total value since 1916.

I also found in my research that the Red Sox have never had two players with simultaneous 20-game hit streaks, so if both players keep it moving for another few days, they’ll have made legitimate Red Sox history together.

1. All of the position players. As I noted on Wednesday, six Red Sox position players rank in the top 30 in the majors, and in the top 20 in the American League. That’s a major surprise, and quite extraordinary. If you told me David Ortiz was going to have a great final season, I’d have believed you. If you told me Xander Bogaerts would turn into a superstar, I’d have believed you. If you told me Jackie Bradley Jr. and Travis Shaw really were for real, I’d have believed you. If you told me Mookie Betts would keep emerging, I’d have believed you. If you told me that Dustin Pedroia was going to bounce back and once again be one of the best second basemen in baseball, I’d have believed you. If you told me all of these things would happen at the same time, there’s no chance I’d believe you. But they have, at least so far. That’s a hell of a thing.

Who are the Red Sox all-time statistical leaders? 

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