When the Red Sox limped out of Yankee Stadium in the wee hours of July 2, licking the wounds of a particularly ugly loss to the Yankees, they did so tied for the top spot in the American League East. A divisional dogfight loomed despite three months of dominance – but so, too, did an opportunity.
And it’s an opportunity the Red Sox have most certainly taken advantage of.
Boston headed to Washington that day to meet a middling Nationals team, then it was on to Kansas City before returning to face a couple of sub-.500 teams at Fenway Park. The schedule afforded them a stretch where they would play 17 of 22 at home. So after last leaving Yankee Stadium the Sox were looking at a 40-game stretch during which they had a chance to really clean up before Terry Francona’s Indians came to town August 20.
They went 32-8. They swept the Yankees at Fenway. And they added 9.5 games to their lead in the division.
Yes, the schedule was kind – but Boston deserves credit for taking care of business and beating the teams they’re supposed to beat. Baseball isn’t designed for teams to play .800 ball over a stretch as long as a quarter of the season, but there’s a reason Boston enters that Cleveland series 51 games over .500.
Collectively they’ve asserted themselves as the team to beat in the American League; here’s the latest look at how they rate individually:
30. Durbin Feltman (Not ranked last time): The Red Sox say they have no plans for the 100th pick in this year’s draft to contribute this season, but he’s already been promoted twice and has continued to impressive at High-A Salem. That’s a long way from the big leagues, but Dave Dombrowski has been aggressive in promoting high picks in the past – so could TCU’s all-time saves leader pitch his way into Boston’s bullpen mix?
29. Christian Vazquez (NR): He’s working out as he recovers from right pinkie surgery, and figures to be back sometime around the roster expansion of September 1. But it’s hard to picture what Vazquez’s role would be at this point. Sandy Leon has earned the regular starter’s role, and Blake Swihart has been adequate enough defensively while also boasting a better bat. Vazquez is under team control through 2021, but for 2018 he looks like the third option.
28. Brandon Workman (27 last time): The righty made a return trip on the soon-to-be-Worcester-to-Boston shuttle when Chris Sale was sent to the disabled list, then hopped on the mound and retired all six batters he faced Sunday afternoon. His numbers remain solid (2.39 ERA, 1.06 WHIP), but the coaching staff is still hesitant to heap more responsibility upon him.
27. Drew Pomeranz (25): His third relief appearance saw him summoned with the Sox trailing by one in the seventh inning – and ended with Boston trailing by four. He had 17 wins and the AL’s seventh-best ERA last year, is the only lefty currently working out of the Sox’ bullpen, is a free agent this fall – and yet he probably wouldn’t be on the playoff roster if it were selected today.
26. Rafael Devers (21): Three DL stints in a five-week span calls into question how reliable Devers will be the rest of the way. Could it also intensify Boston’s interest in acquiring a third baseman to help down the stretch? Too bad both Adrian Beltre and Josh Donaldson are injury concerns themselves, but another veteran upgrade over Eduardo Nunez shouldn’t be out of the question.
25. Hector Velazquez (28): Every time he takes the ball, he’s competitive. It’s not always clean, but it’s effective, and makes him a useful asset at the bottom of the Boston roster. In fact, Baseball-Reference rates him 10th on the Red Sox in WAR, with 1.8 – between bullpen mates Craig Kimbrel and Matt Barnes.
24. Blake Swihart (26): He’s hitless since returning from the DL last week, but caught two of the three games against Tampa Bay and was reliable defensively. Leon’s workload needs to be regulated, so if Swihart can regain the offensive rhythm he developed during July he could play a bunch moving forward.
23. Joe Kelly (20): The righty has a 1.80 ERA over his last 10 appearances, and was called upon in a tie game twice on the Sox’ recent road trip. One went well, and he got a win; he allowed a walk and a triple and was tagged with a loss in the other. Consistency remains elusive.
22. Eduardo Nunez (19): He walked on both July 28 and 29 – and entering Monday hadn’t earned a free pass since. He had six multi-hit efforts in a nine-game span near the start of that period, but was a .205 hitter over the next two weeks. The Sox need more if he is going to be an everyday player.
21. Brock Holt (23): Despite a seven-game hitting streak and his pinch-hit, game-winning home run in Philadelphia, he began the Cleveland series hitting just .220 for August. Still, he’s a tougher at-bat than Nunez, and deserves to share some of the duties with Devers out.
20. Tyler Thornburg (24): Only once in the 11 appearances leading into Monday had Thornburg been scored upon, which is a a credit to his ability to pitch out of trouble. Twice in his past four outings he’s put at least two men aboard, but both times escaped unscathed. Only once has Alex Cora brought him on in the middle of an inning, though perhaps those opportunities could be coming.
19. Mitch Moreland (17): Since making his first All-Star team, Moreland’s .557 OPS ranks second-worst among major-league first baseman with at least 80 second-half plate appearances (through Sunday), with his .214 OBP dead last among the 31 qualifiers. There are a lot of right-handed starters awaiting this October, and the Sox will be counting on a rebound from Moreland.
18. Brian Johnson (18): With the Pomeranz and Sale situations, Johnson is on track to be one of five Sox hurlers who’ll toss 100 innings this season. He’s filled a couple of roles, and so far has posted above-average numbers. Not bad for a guy who probably only made the team out of spring training because he was out of options.
17. Steve Pearce (10): In the eight games following his three-homer outburst against the Yankees, Pearce went 3-for-20 – yet still managed an .820 OPS on the strength of six walks and two taters, so his OPS through 26 games with Boston remained a robust 1.039.
16. Nathan Eovaldi (14): After setting an impossible standard for himself by throwing 15 scoreless innings over his first two Sox starts, Eovaldi’s Boston ERA is 1.99. However, only five of the 11 runs he’s allowed in his last two outings have been considered earned runs, so 17 hits and a couple of walks in 7.2 innings is troubling.
15. Jackie Bradley Jr. (15): Metrics say Bradley has saved the Red Sox more runs than any outfielder in the majors this season, and through Sunday he ranked fourth among Boston hitters in OPS (.835) since the All-Star break, just ahead of Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi.
14. Ian Kinsler (12): If he can continue the hot streak he’d been riding before hitting the DL, Kinsler could be a huge factor for the Sox. If his numbers align with the rest of 2018, however, Kinsler is not very different from Bradley – a defensive whiz at an important position, but an underwhelming hitter the club hopes will get warm again at the right time.
13. Eduardo Rodriguez (16): The lefty was scheduled to throw four innings at Double-A on Monday – and every rehab outing should be watched closely by Sox fans, because as injuries mount Rodriguez is becoming more and more vital to what this club is trying to accomplish in the next two-plus months.
12. Heath Hembree (11): Across the majors, 31 percent of runners inherited by a reliever come around to score. Hembree’s rate is 17 percent, and from the start of July through Sunday only two of the 17 baserunners he inherited had scored. This, despite entering with men on in 10 of 18 appearances. A note of caution, though: Since the All-Star break, the percentage of contact against Hembree has been higher than against any other MLB reliever – so those numbers could be on the cusp of catching up to each other.
11. Sandy Leon (13): Rick Porcello recently called Leon the best catcher he’s ever worked with, and entering Monday the Sox staff had a 3.04 ERA throwing to him, which was second-best in the AL and fourth in the majors among backstops who’d caught at least 1,000 plate appearances this season. Since the break he’s 8-for-62 (.129), yet the team is 16-2 in his starts.
10. Rick Porcello (9): August has been an aberration for the righty, who has sandwiched a one-hitter and seven innings of two-hit ball between a disastrous four-inning start. More typical is his average outing this season, which has been six innings, 5.5 hits, 1.4 walks, six strikeouts, and a 4.04 ERA.
9. Ryan Brasier (22): Between Pawtucket and Boston this season, Brasier had thrown 58.1 innings and surrendered just eight runs on 38 hits, only one homer, and walked 13 against 58 strikeouts. His ERA in the majors began Monday at 1.00, and his last three appearances had come in high-leverage spot with Boston protecting a late lead. He has worked his way into the manager’s circle of trust.
8. Matt Barnes (6): From the All-Star break through Sunday, Barnes led all relievers with an average of 18 strikeouts per nine innings, and save for one out recorded in July he’s done all of that work in the eighth inning or later with Boston holding a lead. He’s given up a run in four of six outings going into the Cleveland series, but Cora continues to trust Barnes’ power.
7. Craig Kimbrel (5): Opponents had a .330 OPS against the Sox closer in June. That climbed to .556 in July. Entering Monday, it was .899 in August, paired with a 4.50 ERA. The good news is that after blowing two saves in three chances, Kimbrel has recovered with four consecutive conversions, and the three leading into Monday have been scoreless.
6. Xander Bogaerts (7): The shortstop’s two doubles and triple in the Friday night opener against Tampa were a welcome show of force for a player who’d demonstrated little power since getting hit on the hand July 31. He still has just one homer since the All-Star break, but he posted his 36th double over the weekend and his .875 OPS began Monday fourth-best among all qualifying shortstops.
5. Andrew Benintendi (4): Month to month the left fielder has been consistent since a sluggish April, delivering an OPS of .827 or better in each. Lately, though, the run production has slowed. Benintendi began Monday with only two homers since the start of July, and after ranking sixth among outfielders in Bill James’ runs-created stat during the first half, he’d slid to 26th the midsummer intermission.
4. David Price (8): The southpaw reminded everyone of his paycheck after posting his 13th win – and his timing was appropriate, because he’s finally pitching like a $31 million asset. In seven starts since getting obliterated by the Yankees he’s posted a 2.42 ERA, and since the All-Star break that shrinks to 1.35. That was the fourth-best mark in baseball, through the weekend, and buoyed hopes that if Sale goes down Price might be rounding into a form capable of shouldering greater playoff responsibility.
3. Chris Sale (3): Both the pitcher and the ballclub insist there’s nothing to worry about, but when Sale landed on the DL for the second time with the same injury (mild shoulder inflammation) it raised legitimate concerns about his durability going forward. The Sox should – and presumably will – give him extra time before bringing him back again, but the fact it’s resurfaced once does not foster confidence the same issue won’t arise in October, when modern-day modifications suggest a team’s best pitcher could be used three or four times in a series.
2. Mookie Betts (1): Entering the four-game foray with the Indians, Betts had homered just once in his previous 12 games – but still had an OPS of 1.097 in that span. That’s because although the ball wasn’t clearing the wall, he still had 10 extra-base hits in that span, bringing his total to 68 for the season. That ranked fourth in the majors, despite the fact he spent time on the DL earlier.
1. J.D. Martinez (2): If he can close the gap on Betts in batting average – Mookie leads .343-.331 through Sunday – there’s a chance Martinez could win the triple crown during his first season in Boston. And still, remarkably, Martinez’s numbers get even better in big spots. According to Baseball-Reference he’s at his best with two outs and runners in scoring position, and in high-leverage at-bats. He’s changed this lineup dramatically, as illustrated by the fact that on August 11 he surpassed last year’s leader in total bases. At this point, his is the most compelling case for MVP.