Despite the best effort of Terry Francona’s Indians to cast some doubt, the 88-39 Red Sox’ body of work so far this season is such that we must begin to consider them for a very short list of the most well-rounded teams they’ve ever had.
The iconic 2004 World Series winners would be in that conversation, as would their fellow champs from 2007, who added the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Mike Lowell to the remaining core of that star-studded ’04 squad.
Francona himself thought his ’08 team, which lost to David Price and the Rays in a seven-game American League Championship Series, was in the conversation for most complete Sox team that he oversaw.
If the ’18 Red Sox put their current mini-slump behind them and continue on the path to breaking the franchise single-season record for wins (106, set in 1912), they will not just belong in that conversation, they’ll end it.
What’s interesting is that if you look a little more closely at this roster, it becomes clearer that their high-end talent is doing more of the heavy lifting than we might have realized.
Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, and Chris Sale have submitted seasons for the ages. The Red Sox are getting good-to-excellent seasons from several other players. But in comparing the Red Sox’ regular at each position, they don’t stack up as well statistically in a couple of spots as we might have believed.
What follows is a position-by-position look at the Red Sox, measuring how their starter at a given spot ranks in terms of baseball-reference’s version of WAR to other players at the position around the major leagues. Because WAR is a compelling measure but hardly a be-all, end-all, I’ve also included my own objectively subjective ranking.
bWAR: 0.4, 24th of 27 among catchers who have played at least half of their games at the positon and had at least 225 plate appearances
Leon is slashing a Tony Pena-like .206/.260/.322 with five homers. That’s the production of your standard-issue career backup. But like Pena, the Red Sox’ upbeat and charismatic good-field, no-hit catcher from 1990-93, it matters that his teammates swear by his value. Rick Porcello recently called Leon “The best catcher I’ve ever thrown to,’’ and Sale has been quick to praise him. His production is low, but everything else about his game is held in high regard. Leon, who rates just below the Yankees’ .188-hitting Gary Sanchez (0.5 WAR) in the rankings, is proof that there is intangible value at the catcher position. I don’t think this is Christian Vazquez’s job when he comes back.
Objectively subjective ranking: Leon is the 20th-best catcher in the majors, but just about the best catcher for the Red Sox right now.
bWAR: 1.0, 15th among 26 first basemen that have played at least half of their games at the position
Great player? No, though he was for the season’s first two months, when he had 10 homers and a 1.000 OPS through the first 45 games. Good player, great value? You know it. Moreland, who is slashing .257/.325/.466 with 14 homers through 100 games, rates just below the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo (what weird year he is having) on this list. And he rates just ahead of the Padres’ Eric Hosmer and the Phillies’ Carlos Santana, who signed for a combined $204 million this past offseason. Moreland returned to the Red Sox on a two-year deal worth a total of $13 million. The Red Sox knew what to expect from him, and he’s met those expectations.
Objectively subjective ranking: Moreland is the 12th best first baseman in the majors. I’d take him over the likes of Justin Smoak, Yuli Gurriel, and Jose Martinez, all of whom have provided more WAR.
bWAR: minus-1.6 (24th among 24 second basemen that have played at least half of their games at the position
Not that second base has been a sinkhole with creaky-kneed Dustin Pedroia limited to all of 27 innings this year, but Nunez is the only regular or quasi-regular second baseman in baseball worth negative WAR. He’s at .257/.283/.371 for the season, and while he showed signs of life in July (.289/.308/.434), he’s regressed in August to a line of .250/.250/.367. Yep, no walks this month.
Brock Holt (0.6 WAR, 407⅓ innings at 2B) has picked up some of the slack, but Nunez (627⅓ innings) has been the closest thing the Red Sox have had to a regular second baseman. And he’s been a mess. Get healthy, Ian Kinsler (2.5 WAR between the Angels and Red Sox).
Objectively subjective ranking: Nunez is the 27th best second baseman in the majors, at least until someone else meets the criteria. Then he’ll fall to 28th.
bWAR: 3.1, tied for eighth among 25 shortstops that have played at least half of their games at the position
I’ll admit it: The primary purpose of this exercise way to gauge where Bogaerts stacks up against the other super-talented young shortstops in the American League, specifically the Indians’ dynamic Francisco Lindor, who is in town this week for a four-game series. The answer? Well, we’ve got some variables to juggle here.
For instance: Bogaerts, who is having a steadily excellent season (.872 OPS, 17 homers, 78 RBIs), is tied for eighth with Miami’s Miguel Rojas (.661 OPS) and Arizona’s Nick Ahmed (.746 OPS). Though they both might be defensively superior to Bogaerts, it’s not like he’s 40-year-old statue Derek Jeter with the glove. He’s become reliable at worst.
He’s also below Manny Machado, a wonderful hitter and defensive third baseman, yet a range-less butcher at short. He’s playing out of position even if he doesn’t know it.
I’ll hear the argument for the Angels’ Andrelton Simmons (second, 4.9 WAR) and the Yankees’ Didi Gregorius (sixth, 3.4 WAR) over their former World Baseball Classic teammate on The Netherlands’ fun squad. But they’re both three years older than Bogaerts, who is younger than all but two of the top 10: the Rockies’ Trevor Story (third, 4.4 WAR), who is 45 days younger than Bogaerts. And Lindor (first, 6.9 WAR), who, frankly, is on his own level this year with Carlos Correa (16th, 2.2 WAR) enduring an injury-plagued season.
Objectively subjective ranking: Bogaerts is the third-best shortstop in baseball this year, behind only Lindor and Simmons. I considered putting him behind Story, but he has a 1.048 OPS at Coors Field and a .780 OPS on the road.
bWAR: minus-0.2, 23rd among 24 third basemen that have played at least half of their games at the position
Devers has endured a relatively challenging sophomore season, but didn’t you kind of expect this? He’s 21 years old and rocketed to the majors without any hiccups. Even the likes of Betts and Mike Trout had growing pains. Yet he has hit more homers than Andrew Benintendi this season (16 to 15), possesses the talent to tattoo an Aroldis Chapman fastball, and in 611 career at-bats, he has delivered 26 homers and 85 RBIs. I’m not saying he’ll be the next Adrian Beltre. Beltre is arguably one of the top half-dozen third basemen of all-time, not to mention a national treasure. But their first few seasons aren’t dissimilar as hitters. Devers’s defense is a mild worry now. There should be no worries whatsoever about his future.
Objectively subjective ranking: Devers is the 17th-best third baseman in baseball this year. The only third baseman he beats right now is the Jays’ Yangervis Solarte (minus-0.3 WAR). But I’d take him over the likes of the Rays’ Matt Duffy, the Padres’ Christian Villanueva, the White Sox’ Carlos Sanchez, and the Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario without a second thought.
bWAR: 4.0, first among 24 left fielders that have played at least half of their games at the position
First? Among all left fielders? I did not expect this. Did you? I knew he was having a fine year (.878 OPS, an outstanding .380 on-base percentage, 34 doubles, 20 of 22 on stolen bases), but it also feels like he’s been prone to good and bad streaks. There have been temptations to compare him to Yaz (for the follow-through of his swing if nothing else), or Fred Lynn, or even young Mike Greenwell, who was an MVP candidate in his own right before he got distracted and dedicated his career to running over Ellis Burks as much as he could. That’s heady company, but Benintendi is headed in their direction. Can’t wait to see what he is in three years. Or a year. Or heck, in October.
Objectively subjective ranking: Benintendi is the best left fielder in baseball this year. WAR ain’t lying.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
bWAR: 1.6, 13th among 22 center fielders that have played at least half of their games at the position.
Bradley, whose offense is competent but often exasperating and whose beautiful defense should inspire a Terry Cashman song, is as polarizing as any Red Sox player in memory. No minds are going to be changed here. He’s in his sixth season of his uneven career. You’re going to see what you want to see and say what you want to say about him at this point. I’m pro-Bradley. He’s the best defensive center fielder who has played for the Red Sox in my lifetime, and I strongly suspect he’s a better defensive center fielder than anyone they had before my lifetime. There was a time when defense-first players were admired as much as the hitting stars. Bradley would be beloved if he had been a ’60s Oriole like Paul Blair or a ’70s Philly like Garry Maddox. Instead, we wonder why he can’t hit 26 homers every year.
Objectively subjective ranking: Bradley is the seventh-best center fielder in baseball. Among those with more WAR than him: Albert Almora, Ender Inciarte, and Mallex Smith. Among those with fewer: Adam Jones, who should not be a center fielder anymore, and Charlie Blackmon, who has been worth minus-2.6 WAR on defense alone and rates dead-last on this list.
bWAR: 8.3, first among 19 right fielders that have played at least half of their games at the position
Betts’s 8.3 WAR actually does not lead the majors. Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer has been worth 8.6 WAR. But Mookie is tops among all offensive players, his 8.3 equaling Jose Altuve’s majors-leading WAR over the full 2017 season. I’m not ready to declare Betts the best player in baseball. I believe that undersells what Mike Trout — whose top three career comps through age 25 are Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mickey Mantle — has accomplished over the last six-plus years. But Betts is the best player in baseball right now, this season, at this moment, and he might just be the best going forward. Man, are we lucky to watch him every day.
Objectively subjective ranking: Betts is the best right fielder in baseball. He is embodiment of everything good about the sport. That probably applies in bowling too.
bWAR: 5.8, first among 12 designated hitters that have played at least half of their games at the position
He’s having a Manny Ramirez kind of season at the plate, which is just about the greatest compliment a righthanded hitter can get. Ramirez, for all of the ancillary quirks and frustrations, was easily the best big-ticket free agent signing in Red Sox history, and one of the best in baseball history. (David Ortiz is the best bargain, undoubtedly. Greg Maddux has to be the best on a lucrative deal, though the definition of lucrative sure has changed over the years. His original 1993 deal with the Braves was for five years and $28 million, and no, that’s not per season.) The five-year, $110 million contract Martinez signed in February is a big-money deal and a bargain at once. If he keeps hitting like this — and he’s been worth 6.1 offensive WAR, remarkable if slightly less than Betts’s 6.7 oWAR — he’s going to raise his salary by at least 50 percent should he opt out after Year 2, 3 or 4 of his contract.
Objectively subjective ranking: Martinez is the best designated hitter in baseball. I predict he finishes third in the MVP voting, behind Betts and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez.
bWAR: 6.4, fourth among 73 pitchers that are qualified for the ERA title
Well, this is where the season hinges, right? If the inflammation in Sale’s left shoulder is nothing more than a nuisance, perhaps this second recent stint on the 10-day disabled list will prove a blessing in disguise. I suppose it was encouraging that he was so dominating when he came back from the first absence, striking out 12 on just 68 pitches in his lone start before the inflammation returned. As easy as it is to wish he were pitching in this Cleveland series, caution isn’t just the best approach here, it’s the only approach. Presuming Sale returns in two weeks or so and continues his Pedro-ish season, he should secure his first AL Cy Young award this year. He trails three National League starters in WAR (Scherzer, the Phillies’ Aaron Nola, and the Mets’ Jacob DeGrom) and leads the majors in adjusted ERA (220). Fingers crossed, people.
bWAR: 2.0, sixth among relief pitchers with at least 10 saves
Broadening the scope a little, Kimbrel is ninth among relievers with at least five saves, trailing, among others, the Athletics’ Blake Treinen (3.1 WAR, leads all relievers), the Rockies’ and Northeastern’s Adam Ottavino (3.0), and the Mariners’ saves machine Edwin Diaz. Kimbrel has had an excellent season in a lot of ways (37 saves, 13.6 K/9, 5.1 H/9). But the red flags are obvious. He’s allowed a career-high seven homers in 51 innings, and he’s walking 4.1 batters per 9, the third-worst mark of his career. It’s those walks that are the main reason Red Sox fans are skeptical of the bullpen. Matt Barnes’s otherwise superb year has been marred by 27 walks in 54 innings.
Objectively subjective ranking: Kimbrel is the sixth-best closer in baseball. It’s not a perfect alignment statistically, but he reminds me right now of Jonathan Papelbon toward the end of his Red Sox career.