These superlatives are mostly . . . well, superlative. That’s what happens when you’re assessing a Red Sox team that at the All-Star break that has:
■ The best record in baseball (68-30, 4.5 games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East).
■ The most wins at the break of any team ever.
■ The 11th-best winning percentage (.694) of any team at this point of the season.
Alex Cora’s first year at the helm has gone so well that the biggest concern at the break is whether the Sox will be able to sustain this level of play in the postseason. Think about that: Making the playoffs is a mere formality, and August hasn’t even arrived yet.
There have been gripes, but they’ve had little effect. David Price is annoying in his humorless sarcasm, weird and temporarily debilitating injuries, and inability to pitch well against the Yankees. That $31 million salary suggests he should be far better than average (99 adjusted ERA). But he does have as many wins (10) as Chris Sale, and he’s on the fringes of the top 10 in innings pitched and strikeouts. When he’s your biggest frustration, that means you don’t have a lot of frustrations.
Nope, there have not been many worsts among the bests so far this season. But it’s sad to worry about how they’ll fare in the playoffs right now, when the journey has mostly been one joy on top of another. Keep enjoying it when the Red Sox get back to work Friday against the Tigers. For now, here’s a look at the best and worst (and more bests) of what we’ve seen so far …
BEST GRAND SLAM (AND BEST MOMENT)
It’s only right that it’s a grand slam. The Red Sox have hit nine slams this season, including three by shortstop Xander Bogaerts. His most recent slam — a 10th inning walk-off to beat the Blue Jays Saturday, the first game-ending slam since one by Rico Brogna in 2000 — might be a fine candidate for this honor if not for a more obvious choice that occurred in the same series.
The gripes that baseball is slow and boring, that there is nothing super about its superstars, have been growing louder this season, which I’m certain is a major reason Fox miked up Mike Trout, encouraged players to take on-field selfies, and had Ken Rosenthal practically chase interviewees Mookie Betts and Javy Baez to the batter’s box during the All-Star game broadcast Tuesday night. It kind of worked, too. The players came off as affable, if not exactly oozing charisma. It’s a start.
I’ve always found Betts extremely likable and genuine, and of course he is electrifying on the field, but he should have a higher national profile than he does. Being soft-spoken and nice does little for the Q-Rating, I guess. But there’s nothing that makes you appreciate and connect with a player more than when he shows genuine emotion after a compelling on-field accomplishment.
So when Betts culminated a 13-pitch at-bat against Jays pitcher J.A. Happ by launching the baseball over the Monster and completely out of Fenway Park, then celebrated his grand slam with unrestrained joy as he circled the bases, it wasn’t just the most memorable moment of the season so far. It was the most memorable achievement of Betts’s stellar career, one that might just foreshadow more big-moment successes in the spotlight to come.
Pull. It. Off. The. Table. PLEASE. https://t.co/dKA3w41aP9— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) January 17, 2018
Martinez is slashing .328/.393/.644 with a league-leading 29 homers and 80 RBIs at the break. Not only has he been the post-Papi slugger the Red Sox lacked last year, but he’s apparently also a better hitting coach than Chili Davis.
Martinez was traded to the Diamondbacks from the Tigers on this date exactly one year ago. In that span, he has played 154 games. In those 154 games, he has batted .317 with 58 home runs, 145 RBIs, 114 runs, 186 hits, and exactly 400 total bases.
The only reason for the Red Sox to pull that offer off the table would have been to eliminate the opt-out he has after next season. There is proof that there is such a thing as a $110-million bargain.
Red White & Blue Sox pic.twitter.com/hCett8Liyt— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) July 4, 2018
Mookie is the runner-up, but it’s not close. In terms of style, Sale is the David Beckham of dressing in Fourth of July accessories found at The Party Store.
BEST HOT STREAK
Lots of candidates here, which is probably not a surprise given that the Sox are 38 games over .500 and haven’t played their 100th game yet. Pretty much the entire Red Sox season, save for an occasional hiccup, has been a hot streak. The same can be said for Martinez’s and Betts’s individual seasons. When your compiling hitting achievements in tandem that Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz didn’t reach, you’re doing all right.
But in a micro sense, there are a couple of Andrew Benintendi hot stretches that have stood out. Earlier this month, he reached base in 10 straight plate appearances over two games against the Royals, including six times in one game. Any streak that evokes Ted Williams’s record, set in 1957, of reaching base 16 straight times is cool with me.
A more impressive and extended Benintendi hot streak happened in . . . well, basically the entire month of May. The sweet-swinging left fielder started slow this season. He was hitting .239 with a .376 slugging percentage through May 4. But something clicked, just as you knew it eventually would, and from May 5 through the end of the month he hit .368 with a .684 slugging percentage, hitting 6 homers and driving in 23 runs in 95 at-bats. As a hitter, he’s heading toward 1988 Mike Greenwell territory, and as ol’ Greenie will tell you, he should have been the AL MVP that year.
WORST COLD STREAK
I imagine the consensus choice would be Jackie Bradley Jr. here, and it’s not exactly a tough argument to make. After going 0 for 3 against the Orioles on May 19, Bradley was slashing .161/.261/.242 through 38 games and 142 at-bats. He’s always been streaky, but he was so inept that the possibility seemed real that his quest to find his swing might take him to Pawtucket.
He’s been better, if hardly spectacular, in the 48 games he has played since that date, putting up a .248/.326/.427 line with 19 extra-base hits in 178 plate appearances. A .753 OPS is more than fine for a center fielder of his defensive prowess, and I’m glad he’s here given that his defense is one of the daily joys of watching this team. But, of course, the concern as always with Bradley is whether another prolonged slump is just a frustrating 0-for-5 away.
BEST KYLE FARNSWORTH IMITATION
Remember that stretch of a few weeks when Joe Kelly had a fan-favorite phase as a lights-out reliever who attempted to punch out the lights of Yankees mound-charger Tyler Austin? That was fun, if fleeting.
BEST SNEAKY-GOOD SEASON
I’ll hear your nomination for Matt Barnes (2.62 ERA, 62 Ks in 42 innings, 1.095 WHIP) or even Brock Holt (.289 average, bailed the team out at second base, loses points for failed run as Andrew Benintendi’s All-Star campaign chief). But you know who has been really good and really unheralded for the Sox? Hector Velasquez, that’s who. He’s 6-0 with a 2.66 ERA in 28 appearances, including three starts. In his two-year Red Sox career, he’s now 9-1 with a 2.75 ERA and a 163 adjusted ERA. Not bad for someone who you sometimes forget is on the roster.
BEST REASON FOR ME TO GLOAT
Wrote this in March:
No other player in the Red Sox lineup should benefit more from [Alex Cora’s hiring] and the philosophical shift [to be more aggressive] than Bogaerts, who has the talent to be a force and has been one for long stretches, just not recently enough.
He’s been too patient at the plate, and that at times has tested fans’ patience with him. Here’s to mastering that newfound aggressiveness that, with good health and a little luck, should once and for all unleash all of his offensive talent.
Believe it along with me: Bogaerts’s bounceback is going to be something to behold.
Ahem. I might just have to start a @CorrectTakesCelebrated Twitter feed so I can pat myself on the back a little more.
At the break, Bogaerts is slashing .284/.353/.535 with 16 homers, 44 extra-base hits, and 64 RBIs. He went into the break with a bang, homering in his last two games, including a walk-off grand slam Saturday to beat the Jays.
I recognize that he has to do it in the second half as well, given his occasional habit of second-half fades. Hear me again: He will. I’ll never get those of you who wanted to give up on him.
The talent we’re seeing now was there all along. It’s not like we didn’t see it before. It’s going to be tough with Francisco Lindor launching all those bombs in Cleveland, but here’s to Bogaerts winning a Silver Slugger Award — his third, not his first.
WORST CAREER ARC
I suppose it has to be Hanley Ramirez given that it’s a fairly bizarre circumstance for a No. 3 hitter on a winning team to be released. I wonder if we’ll ever see him in a major league game again.
But Dustin Pedroia has to be the runnerup, and that’s sad. He’s played just three games this season — managing one hit in 11 at-bats — before his return from knee surgery proved premature. He’s now out indefinitely, and indefinitely can become permanently for a hard-playing 34-year-old second baseman with a knee that won’t cooperate. I imagine we’ll see him again, but it’s hard to believe it will be for any significant length of time. This is how it sometimes ends for players at baseball’s most overlooked grueling position.
I know his image took a self-inflicted hit last year with his it-ain’t-me behavior during the Manny Machado incident, and his overall public shrinking from a leadership role. During his heyday as perhaps the most universally beloved Red Sox player, I always thought there was something of a correction necessary with the perception. He always benefited greatly from David Ortiz’s front-facing leadership and was never really the rally-the-troops type. It was more than his self-interest always jibed well with the team’s best interests.
I do think that correction in perception has gone too far. He’s been a terrific player here — his MVP season in 2008, with a .326 average and 54 doubles, truly was exceptional — and really does care about winning. It’s a bummer that he’s not part of this, especially since second base has been one of the team’s few issues. I hope he finds his way back, in every way.