The 2018 Red Sox, you may have heard a couple times, opened 17-2. The bullpen blew one on Opening Day, then was a part of five one-run wins before the lopsided scorelines showed up: 14-1 on the Yankees, 10-3 on the Orioles, 27-3 over three against the West-leading Angels. It was good for a plus-70 run differential 19 games in — 123 scored, 53 allowed — and it sparked a hot streak that only ended with a trophy in October.
It felt like a long time ago at the beginning of this season, as 1-3 became 2-8 and 6-13 and 9-15 when Detroit swept that doubleheader at Fenway on April 23.
That was the same day the Bruins ousted the Maple Leafs, and just as they’ve romped since that day, so have the Red Sox. While the B’s were making the Carolina Hurricanes truly look like the Hartford Whalers on Sunday afternoon, the Sox finished off a free-falling Seattle team exactly as you’d dream: 11-2, following 14-1 on Friday and 9-5 on Saturday.
With those three wins, the 2019 Red Sox are 13-4 in their last 17, with — you guessed it — a plus-70 run differential from 121 scored and 51 allowed in that span.
That stretch, you may have noticed, more or less coincides with the coming of Michael Chavis. He destroyed a baseball in the second game of that Tigers doubleheader for his first MLB homer, on his way to six in his first 48 at-bats. He promptly went on an 0-for-19 skid, then broke it in a big way on Sunday: 3 for 5, 5 RBIs, putting him at .282/.407/.563 with 19 RBIs and an average HR distance of 429 feet in 20 big-league games.
“I’ve been scuffling along a little bit but I’m seeing the ball well and I’ve been working, obviously,” said Chavis to reporters on Sunday, following a reported hour-plus in the batting cage. “The work’s not done so I’m going to keep working and making adjustments.”
Know who else has made some adjustments? Rafael Devers, 14 months Chavis’s junior, who’s been doing what Chavis does on his home runs to the majority of everything he hits.
“Throughout the season, he’s been consistent,” manager Alex Cora said on Saturday. “He’s been staying in the zone. His on-base percentage against righties is over .500. He’s actually handling lefties OK. … I think if he keeps dominating the strike zone the way he is, then that part of the game is going to happen.”
Cora’s smartly in no rush to be critical of Devers, hitting .336/.408/.456 after his own Sunday 3 for 5, including his team-best 12th double. ‘That part’ he’s referring to is home runs, of which Devers has just two from 170 plate appearances. (He hit 21 in 490 last season.) Though Devers is hitting the ball as consistently hard as almost anyone in the majors — according to Baseball Savant, Devers is in the top 10 percent of several categories — he isn’t lifting it.
No matter. In this 17-game surge, the only Sox hitter who’s been better than Devers and his 1.037 OPS is Mookie Betts (1.107). Much like a year ago, Devers is being picked up by his teammates, who’ve slugged 24 homers in 12 games and multiple in five straight.
A year ago, the Red Sox gave the keys to third base to a 21-year-old playing his first full big-league season. It was arguably one of the biggest concerns on the team, and Devers did little to contradict it. He wasn’t a hindrance at third, but that’s literally the nicest thing you can say: He had a Baseball Reference WAR of 0.0, done in by a sub-.300 on-base and a ghastly 24 errors — his minus-13 defensive runs saved, second-worst at third base.
In October, however, he was electric in big spots, going 5-for-13 with runners in scoring position and breaking the ninth-inning tie in Game 4 of the World Series as a pinch hitter. He built off that in the winter, responding to a direct challenge from Cora and coming to camp ready to roll. As Chavis impressed in Florida, so too did Devers, moving better and showing better reactions between the lines.
The defense, as anyone who watches the Sox knows, remains a work in progress. He’s already made nine errors, and his six just from fielding are more than all but two other third baseman have, period. And yet, he’s also made his share of highlight reels, routine plays and throws most of his problem.
Not that he’s unique in that regard.
“I was his age, and I made a good amount of errors at that age,” Xander Bogaerts, who made 20 errors as a 22-year-old in 2014, told the Providence Journal last month. “I kind of know what he’s going through.”
Devers’s offensive evolution makes that easier to stomach. He’s feasted on fastballs thus far this season, hitting .375 against them despite missing on nearly a quarter of his swings, and though he’s pulling the ball more than he has earlier in his career, he’s still hitting to all fields, and it’s with that aforementioned authority.
Devers has three of the top five, and nine of the top 18 hardest hit balls on the Red Sox this season. (Mitch Moreland, he of the team-leading 12 homers, has four of the top seven. His, however, have all been in the air.)
“He can make adjustments now. Sometimes, it takes an at-bat or it takes a day, but he understands where he’s at and what he has to do,” Cora told reporters last month. “I think that’s the biggest difference.”
The Red Sox infield sits at a transitional point. Bogaerts and Christian Vazquez are locked in, but Dustin Pedroia’s latest setback reminds that his completing the remaining three years of his contract is a long shot at best. The first-base platoon of Moreland and Steve Pearce are both impending free agents. Both Chavis and Bobby Dalbec, the team’s No. 4 prospect, will need places to play sooner than later.
It’s not out of the realm to imagine an all homegrown infield, though it could take some positional shoehorning and none of the youngsters mentioned track as Gold Glove candidates. That’s for down the road, though.
At the time being, the Sox are coming together as the team we thought they’d be — with a bullpen better than we could’ve hoped. And if you’re going to talk about the kid mashing the ball as the offense rages, just in time for playoff teams Colorado and Houston to visit, you’ve got a couple to choose from.