Steven Wright, the 31-year-old knuckleballer with seven career wins prior to this season, made the All-Star team and even had a case to be the American League’s starting pitcher.
David Price, the $31-million salaried fireballer with five career All-Star appearances prior to this season, most certainly did not make the midsummer classic roster and has been the Red Sox’ third-best starter — and that’s a distant third-best to Wright and Rick Porcello.
That contrast got me thinking while I was watching Wright’s start — which ultimately was a struggle and eventual loss — against the Tigers Monday night:
Do the Red Sox have an uncommon number of overachievers and underachievers this season?
Sometimes it seems like they do, though I’m not sure what actually qualifies as an unusual number.
I decided to take a somewhat sideways look at that question and order the Red Sox’ roster from biggest surprise to most bitter disappointment, relative to the expectations of that particular player entering the season.
It was trickier than I thought — the forever polarizing Hanley Ramirez was especially tough to rank — but here’s my best attempt at doing so.
I’ve included only players who began the season in the organization, and excluded a few who are currently on the disabled list, like Chris Young. Here is the breakdown, from pleasant revelations to unexpected aggravations:
Wright: He’s fallen off that All-Star pace lately, with a 6.29 ERA in his last six starts, including Monday night’s career-worst performance of eight earned runs in 4.2 innings. Concerning? Sure. He has been the Red Sox’ most reliable pitcher this year, which is remarkable given that he made the roster basically because he was out of minor league options. Because he was so good in the first half, the Red Sox are now depending on him to be dependable, if that makes sense. But we can’t be too concerned, because we’ve seen this scene before, only with another player in the starring role. After watching Tim Wakefield through 17 years of ebbs and flows, we know the whims of the knuckleball are never going to go according to any plan. Wright had an outstanding first half. He’s been so-so lately. Wakefield taught us that we just have to roll with it, and more often than not, it will turn out fine.
Sandy Leon: Lots of talk this week, what with Mike Piazza being inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame over the weekend, about the best hitting catchers of all time. The debate seems to be whether Piazza or Johnny Bench deserves the distinction. Well, let me tell you this, friend: Sandy Leon is slashing .388/.435/.635 this season. That’s a 1.070 OPS. 1.070! Did Piazza ever have a 1.070 OPS in a season? OK, he did once, in 1997, when he hit .362, but I’m going to ask you to ignore that. Did Bench? No, sir, he did not either. Therefore, Sandy Leon is the best hitting catcher of all time, except for maybe Piazza in 1997, I guess. Case rested. (Hyperbole? You be the judge. At the least, we can agree he’s been a godsend with the ineffectiveness/injuries of Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez, and Ryan Hanigan.)
Rick Porcello: Speaking of hyperbole, he’s been more Clemens (Rocket) than Clement (Matt), am I right? OK, maybe that’s a little much — he’s hardly a strikeout pitcher — but he has been a stalwart (13-2, 3.57 ERA) in his second year in Boston and his first on the four-year, $82.5 million extension he signed in April 2015. That deal was perceived as a blunder by Ben Cherington. Now it’s looking like the deposed former Red Sox general manager actually did correctly identify Porcello as a young veteran pitcher who was about to come into his own.
Jackie Bradley Jr.: It wasn’t that long ago — April, really — when we were wondering whether he could hit MLB pitching at an effective enough rate to justify keeping his super glove in the lineup every day. Well, here we are in late July, and the extra-base hit count stands as such: Bradley, 47. Mike Trout, 46.
David Ortiz: If any Red Sox player ever has deserved to go out on top, it is Papi. He didn’t just convince us born-and-raised cynics that victory was possible in October, he personally delivered so many of those victories when they seemed impossible. We all hoped he’d have a fitting final season. Instead, at 40, he’s having a transcendent one. He is the most important player in franchise history. I’ll miss him when he’s gone. But I’m smart enough to marvel at and savor this while he’s still here.
Dustin Pedroia: He’s having a pretty typical Pedroia season: .303/.369/.451, with 11 homers and reliable defense in 97 games. His .820 OPS would stand as his highest since the 2011 season. But the real surprise — and the reason he ranks so high on this list — is that he has stayed healthy. Thirty-one year old second basemen who play with his reckless abandon have a fairly high attrition rate. Yet he’s already played more games this year than he did a season ago (93).
Xander Bogaerts: I expected the Red Sox’ incredibly talented and likable 23-year-old to have a exceptional season. But I wasn’t sure he was going to hit .320 again, and thought we might need to wait another year or two for a surge in power. Instead, he’s hitting .332, and his career-best .467 slugging percentage is higher than that of Bryce Harper, Chris Davis and Adrian Beltre.
Mookie Betts: I expected the Red Sox’ other incredibly talented and likable 23-year-old to have … well, yes, an exceptional season. How did you know? But I didn’t expect him to have 20 homers and a league-best 225 total bases before he’d even played 100 games. Betts — and Bogaerts — are exceeding even the hopes of our most relentless optimists. So this is what it must have been like to watch Rice and Lynn in the summer of ’75.
Hanley Ramirez: He’s been a pleasant surprise defensively, but his bat (just 13 homers, five in the last eight days) hasn’t quite lived up to his reputation or his spot in the batting order. I’ll never lump him in with Pablo Sandoval again, though. This has been a fairly fun redemption.
Matt Barnes: Suddenly, he’s essential, and despite giving up a couple of runs to the Twins Sunday night, he still has a 2.55 ERA over his last 13 appearances. The Red Sox are depending on his breakthrough being real. So far, it looks like it is.
Junichi Tazawa: He remains stout despite John Farrell’s transparent attempt to send him to a second Tommy John surgery. His 9.9 K/9-rate is the best of his career since he became a full-time reliever.
Bryce Brentz: Hey, he’s in the majors, and hitting .286 with a homer in 17 games. Considering the Red Sox seemed to have applied the Quadruple A label to him at least a year ago, that counts as overachieving somewhat, right?
Travis Shaw: Shaw has now played 160 games as a member of the Red Sox, with 25 homers, an .800 OPS, and a .267/.327/.473 slash line. In his first two seasons with the Red Sox, Brian Daubach averaged 28 homers per 162 games, with an .823 OPS and a .268/.334/.498 slash line. I expected Shaw to be Brian Daubach. Shaw is Brian Daubach.
Brock Holt: I think we’ve found our median. In 2014, Holt had a .711 OPS and a 98 adjusted OPS. Last season, he went .727/97. This year thus far? .747/96. I think we can say safely that this is what Brock Holt is: a versatile, hard-playing, more or less average offensive player. (I’ve seen about enough of him in the outfield, though.)
Craig Kimbrel: Might as well include him since he’ll be back any day now from the disabled list. Maybe Koji Uehara spoiled us all those years with his entertaining yet ruthless efficiency, but Kimbrel’s electrifying rate stats — 13.6 strikeouts and just 5.7 hits allowed per nine — don’t do much to assuage the sense that he’s been underwhelming at key times.
Robbie Ross Jr.: He’s outstanding at catching home run balls in the bullpen but merely adequate at pitching out of it. There’s no ’04 Alan Embree or ’07 Hideki Okajima in the bullpen right now.
Tommy Layne: Like Ross, he’s been competent, but a lights-out specialist in that role should not be a luxury. Lefties do have a .367 on-base percentage against him. He’s upgradeable. Wonder if the price will come down for someone like the Brewers’ Will Smith.
Koji Uehara: He has a 4.50 ERA, has allowed a Wasdinesque, eight homers in 36 innings, and is currently sidelined with a pectoral injury. I suppose none of this should be a total surprise, given that he’s 41 years old. But the saves machine from the 2013 champions has supplied his abstract brand of excellence for so long that it seemed possible that he could do it again, for at least one more year. I miss him already.
Ryan Hanigan: The quintessential wise, tattered veteran catcher — he’s like Jake Taylor in the real world — is hitting .176 and can’t stay healthy. I suspect Sandy Leon stole whatever powers he had left.
Eduardo Rodriguez: He departed Wednesday’s relatively decent start with a 6.51 ERA. That’s 2.66 runs higher than his ERA from his encouraging rookie season. Of course, the spring training knee injury did set him back; that’s a reason for his struggles more than an excuse. But pitchers with his talent aren’t supposed to have allowed 12 homers in 47 innings. Hell, batting practice pitchers don’t do that.
Joe Kelly: This is from MLB.com’s writeup of Kelly’s first relief appearance of the season Monday night:
While Kelly consistently hit triple digits on the radar gun, his fastball lacked location and he had trouble getting his secondary pitches over for strikes.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would take to perfectly encapsulate the Kelly experience, the answer, apparently, is just 31 words. He’s the modern-day Wes Gardner, and Red Sox fans should never expect much of him unless they are gluttons for disappointment.
Clay Buchholz: The perception around here is that he sucks, he has always sucked, and he will forever suck. Right now, few outside of his extended family would dispute that the former is true: He has a 5.99 ERA while nose-diving from perceived middle-of-the-rotation starter to mop-up guy. This disaster-in-progress makes it really easy to forget nowadays that he was very good once (17 wins, 2.33 ERA in ’10, 12-1, 1.74 ERA in ’13), and pretty good recently (he had a 3.26 ERA in 18 starts just last year), and came into this season with legitimate expectations of competence. It’s probably not salvageable for him here as he’s failed to seize any of the half-dozen This is Your Final Chance, We Mean It For Real This Time opportunities John Farrell has given him. I bet he’s a good major league pitcher again someday; the Royals are smart to be interested in him. Kansas City seems like his kind of place. But this? This isn’t his kind of place anymore. Maybe it never was, even when he, you know, didn’t suck.
David Price: Does he throw too many strikes? (Maybe.) Is he rattled by Boston’s intense atmosphere? (Gimme a break.) Has he had lousy luck? (Sometimes.) Has he made his own lousy luck? (Oh, yes, a lot of the time.) Is this merely an adjustment period, like the one ’06 Josh Beckett required? (Better hope so.) Are there still a million unanswered questions about why one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last half-dozen years has a 4.51 ERA this season? (A million might be a conservative estimate.) What’s going on here? (You tell me, brother. I gave you my weak answers.)