After a couple of quick exits from the American League Division Series, there were plenty of lingering doubts when the Red Sox started the season with a record of 17-2. Wait-and-see seemed to be the prevailing wisdom from a fan base leery from a pair of 93-win campaigns that were ultimately unfulfilling.
But when the team that opened 17-2 subsequently bookends its torrid start by going 16-3 in its final stretch before the All-Star break, it’s time to put the skepticism aside. At least until October.
The natural skepticism of these parts is a better fit for years like 2012, when Bobby Valentine took over in the wake of the chicken and beer scandal, and this team won 69 games for the entire season. With their next victory, the 2018 team will match that, likely by its 100th game.
They have the best record in the major leagues at baseball’s unofficial halfway mark, having won more games before the All-Star break than any team in history, and having opened up a 4.5-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East with a record of 68-30.
That leaves them with 64 contests to go, and if they merely split those by going 32-32 they’ll become the first Red Sox team since 1946 to win at least 100 games in a season. If they continue playing at their current pace, they’ll pile up 112 victories.
Is a .694 winning percentage sustainable? Likely not – although neither was putting together three separate winning streaks of at least eight games while never losing more than two in a row. Here’s a look at how the individual pieces have contributed to that collective success as the team pauses for the midsummer classic:
30. Bobby Poyner (Not ranked last week): His strikeout rate is rising at Triple-A, where he has been more than merely a lefty specialist – but if he carves out a role in Boston this season, that figures to be his duty based on the way the bullpen is built.
29. Tzu-Wei Lin (NR): The opportunity for more big-league playing time could be there for Lin, but even after Saturday’s single he’s just 1 for his last 31 in the majors.
28. Brandon Phillips (29 last week): The 37-year-old graduated from Lowell and made his way to Pawtucket last week, so he’s now just one stop away from the majors. When the Sox signed him, it was said he would play both second and third base, but to this point he’s worked exclusively at second while also serving as the designated hitter in four of his seven appearances. With Dustin Pedroia potentially done, perhaps the plans have changed.
27. Steven Wright (27): His latest rehab process after cartilage restoration in his left knee is going slower than expected, and the hopes of him returning soon after the All-Star break have been dashed. His value to the 2018 team is in question at this point.
26. Christian Vazquez (22): Surgery was successful on the catcher’s broken pinky, but it could be September before he returns. So far, though, the Sox’ pitching staff has shown no ill-effects in his absence.
25. Tyler Thornburg (25): Sunday was potentially significant for the righthander, who was brought into the game with Boston leading by three, and left it there with a scoreless frame. It marked his first hold as a member of the Red Sox, and maybe a bump in earning the trust of his manager.
24. Hector Velazquez (24): According to the Baseball-Reference calculation of wins above replacement (WAR), Velazquez has been the 12th-most valuable Red Sox player this season, worth 1.5 wins above a call-up level substitute.
23. Brian Johnson (26): He walked four over 4.2 innings, but nevertheless it was another successful spot start for the lefty, who had been disabled by hip inflammation. He’s taken three turns since June 28 and posted a combined 3.38 ERA in them, with the Sox winning each.
22. Drew Pomeranz (17): The southpaw who’s ERA is 6.81 over eight big-league starts this season has yet to figure things out during his rehab assignment, and isn’t being considered as an option to take the ball Friday when the Sox resume things in Detroit. This can’t be the way Pomeranz was hoping his contract year would play out.
21. Blake Swihart (21): With fairly regular playing time finally afforded him, Swihart doubled his season total of doubles this past week, bringing that total to four. What’s been most interesting about his recent action is that despite being one of only two catchers on the roster he still played 16 innings at first base in the Toronto series. The idea of him being a super-utility option, or showcasing him, hasn’t been squashed by the Vazquez injury.
20. Brandon Workman (23): If the Red Sox fail to land a late-inning reliever before the trade deadline, might their solution already be on the roster? Workman’s ERA is 1.62, he’s allowed runs in only two of his 19 appearances, and he hasn’t walked a batter in nine July outings. He doesn’t have the strikeout numbers that are ideal for someone in a primary setup role, and only three times has he been summoned with the Sox leading by three runs or less – but a more prominent, important job was his in the 2013 World Series, so why not give it a shot?
19. Eduardo Nunez (20): In 21 plate appearances last week, Nunez had five hits – all singles, and he didn’t draw a walk. Of the 164 qualifying hitters in baseball, he enters the break with the 13th-worst on-base percentage (.283) and 12th-worst OPS (.644).
18. Heath Hembree (18): It was a solid first half for the right-hander, who finished it with 13 holds after pitching himself around three hits in an inning of work on Sunday afternoon. Hembree got the eighth inning of that one with the Sox holding a three-run lead, which is a role worth monitoring as the Sox firm up roles over the final couple of months.
17. Brock Holt (19): His OPS+ of 102 suggests he’s been adequate offensively, and he hasn’t made an error at any of the five defensive positions he’s played this season. The Sox probably don’t want to him to be their everyday second baseman the rest of the way, but those who questioned Holt’s hold on a roster spot after spring training have been reminded of his value over the first half.
16. Jackie Bradley Jr. (16): Since homering on June 17, Bradley is hitting .282 with an .852 OPS. He’s yet to go on the type of month-long tear we’ve seen in the past, and yet his bat has been eminently capable of late. When combined with his defense, he’s summed to a slightly better-than-average player over the first half.
15. Sandy Leon (13): Friday night’s ugly loss to Toronto was the Sox’ first with Leon behind the plate since June 19, and the Sox’ staff ERA when throwing to him his down to 3.25. That more than offsets the .205 batting average he has for July.
14. Rafael Devers (14): An inflamed shoulder forced him to the DL, and his defensive liabilities could prompt the Sox to look for depth at third base over the next couple weeks, but if he keeps up a pace that has him in line for 25 home runs and more than 50 extra-base hits, the Sox will take that from a 20-year-old, first-year starter.
13. David Price (15): The lefty deserves credit. On the heels of two poor outings, his latest began with a two-run homer in the first inning – but he hung in and left to cheers from the Fenway crowd in the middle of the seventh inning. He picked up his 10th win of the season, and in the process took a step in the right direction.
12. Steve Pearce (11): When the Sox acquired Pearce it was partially because they were struggling against left-handed pitching – and while it’s not entirely to his credit, the club now enters the break with an OPS among baseball’s 10 best against southpaws, and Pearce’s smashing arrival in Boston is certainly part of that equation.
11. Joe Kelly (10): Kelly’s days as Boston’s eighth-inning setup man should be numbered, if they’re not already done. In two appearances, the righty allowed five runs over two-thirds of an inning over the weekend, and he’s now been scored upon in five of his past nine performances. He hasn’t been entrusted with an inherited runner in nearly a month and, last Thursday, Alex Cora wasted no time in yanking the struggling Kelly after he’d faced just three hitters.
10. Eduardo Rodriguez (12): According to WAR, the fourth-most valuable Red Sox during the club’s epic first half was Rodriguez – who was worth three wins above the average, just ahead of Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Benintendi – so what Cora deemed “serious damage” to his ankle is potentially catastrophic for the Sox. Rodriguez does not have a history of recovering quickly from injury, and the Sox say it will be two weeks in a boot before his injury is even reevaluated. After dropping his ERA to 3.44, Rodriguez was rounding into Boston’s No. 2 starter come October. The focus should now be on making sure he’s ready to take the mound at all by then.
9. Mitch Moreland (9): The All-Star has slowed a bit, now having gone since June 23 without a multi-hit game, and without an extra-base hit for the month of July. He wore down while last season, too, so the Sox have to hope that he’s invigorated by his visit to Washington and the down time around it.
8. Rick Porcello (7): Friday night was in particular a stinker – when he gave up seven hits, four walks, and eight runs in two innings – but his final four starts before the break were collectively concerning, considering Porcello allowed two homers in three of the four contests. To that point he’d allowed only eight long balls over the season’s first 16 starts, and had seemingly rectified whatever caused him to cough up a major-league high 38 gopher balls a year ago. Now Porcello’s ERA is up to 4.13, and there’s cause for concern.
7. Matt Barnes (8): He’s been making it look so easy for the past month, it was affirming to see Barnes work his way out of trouble against the Blue Jays last Thursday. He surrendered three hits as well as his first run since June 15, but with a couple of strikeouts he managed to keep the Sox lead intact, and get the ball into the hands of his closer. His breakout, career year continues on.
6. Andrew Benintendi (5): His .897 OPS ranks sixth in the majors among qualifying outfielders, even after he ranked 35th on that list after a sluggish April. Through age 22, Baseball-Reference says the player he compares to most closely is hall of famer Dave Winfield – and, halfway though his second full season, that doesn’t seem outlandish.
5. Xander Bogaerts (6): Two Red Sox players had exactly 103 plate appearances over the four weeks leading up to the All-Star break. Player A had 15 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, eight walks, and 25 strikeouts. Player B had 15 extra-base hits, 23 RBI, 13 walks, and 13 strikeouts. Player A is J.D. Martinez. Player B is Xander Bogaerts, whose walkoff grand slam could prove the launching point for a monstrous second half.
4. Craig Kimbrel (4): In his past nine appearances, the All-Star has three four-out saves, five saves in which he’s pitched the ninth-inning, a win in extra innings, and has three times thrown scoreless innings on back-to-back days. Having a weapon like him has allowed Cora to be aggressive in the setup innings, making Kimbrel a shining example of the way a dominant closer can change the complexion of an entire bullpen.
3. J.D. Martinez (3): His 29 homers would lead the team (by five), his 80 RBI would rank third, and his 228 total bases would rank fourth on the 2017 Red Sox – for the entire season. In 2018, he leads the majors in all three of those categories at the break, and the 58 bombs and 145 runs he’s knocked home over the past calendar year make a compelling case that he’s been the best hitter in the game over that span.
2. Chris Sale (1): At the time he starts the All-Star game for a third consecutive season on Tuesday night, Sale will do so as Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings AND in strikeout-to-walk ratio. That suggests his combination of power and command is on par with that of any pitcher in history, and encapsulates the dominance Red Sox fans have witnessed over his first 52 starts for Boston during which he’s notched nearly twice as many strikeouts (496) as hits allowed (250) in 343.1 innings.
1. Mookie Betts (2): Boston’s sensational first half received its signature moment last Thursday night, when Betts blasted the 13th pitch of a battle with Blue Jays’ starter J.A. Happ beyond the left field wall, then celebrated his grand slam with such a boisterous show of joy and satisfaction that it had to arouse even the skeptics and cynics who’ve resisted wrapping their arms around these Red Sox – or baseball, in general. The best player on the best team, Betts is the American League’s MVP at this point, and, really, it shouldn’t be much of a debate.