Red Sox

8 observations on the 2021 Red Sox as spring training begins

The Red Sox return one of the league's top offenses from last season, but their pitching staff is full of fresh faces.

Xander Bogaerts is one of the longest tenured Red Sox'. AP Photo/Winslow Townson

Here’s a little inside baseball about something that’s … well, inside baseball.

You know all of those tidbits of statistical data that your friendly neighborhood beat writer (or wise-acre columnist) uses to populate their stories with facts and context on a daily basis?

Not all of them come from the writers’ own accounting and research.  Some do, maybe even most for the more enterprising writers who have mastered baseball-reference.com’s Stathead search feature.

But even independent homework is often buttressed by information provided by the daily notes packet provided by Justin Long and the Red Sox public relations staff. During the season, the packet is a marvel, requiring daily updates to information like, “Xander Bogaerts has hit six home runs in his last 12 games versus California-born righthanded pitchers at Camden Yards,” or “The veteran lefthander has allowed seven home runs in his last 17 innings and may want to consider an apprenticeship in a trade over the winter. Plumbers make real good money, you know.”

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OK, you know I’m kidding on that last one. There’s no snark, editorializing, or change-of-career suggestions in the game notes. No, sir. Just the facts, and lots of ‘em. They’re hugely helpful, not to mention fun to peruse just for the heck of it to get a baseball fix before the games begin.

So it was a pleasant surprise – and one of the best confirmations yet that, yes, the season and hopefully better days are finally near – when an email from long showed up in my inbox Tuesday, titled Red Sox Spring Training Game Notes.

The notes were full of interesting information on the makeup of the Red Sox’ 40-man roster – and let me tell you, is that ever needed, with so much turnover from last year’s ball club.

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Here are some of the notes’ revelations and factoids, followed by my usual digressions and tangents on what they mean …

Twelve of their 31 RHPs are new to the Red Sox organization in 2021. Quick, how many of that dozen can you name off the top of your head? There’s Adam Ottavino, whom you may have heard pitched for Northeastern. (That’s the baseball version of “Did you know Chris Hogan played lacrosse?”) There’s Garrett Richards, his intriguing spin rate, and his Carl Pavano-like injury history. There’s Matt Andriese, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Rule 5 pickup Garrett Whitlock.

How many is that? Just five? Hmmm … is Alfredo Aceves back? John Wasdin? The original Pat Mahomes? Maybe Dominican mystery man Robinson Checo has finally arrived at camp? (The correct answers are:  non-roster invitees Matt Carasiti, Frank German, Daniel Gossett, Zac Grotz, Kevin McCarthy, Kaleb Ort, and Josh Winckowski. Don’t worry,  I won’t ask you to identify them in a lineup of their headshots.)

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The Sox led the AL with a .265 batting average in 2020. They also ranked third in on-base percentage (.330), slugging (.445), and OPS (.776). Not that batting average is still the glamour stat it was during Wade Boggs’s heyday, but I have to admit, I had no idea the Red Sox were first in the league in hitting last season – or that they were third in those other important categories. The Rangers, conversely, hit .217 as a team. How does that even happen? They were basically a lineup of modern-day Stan Papis (.218 career average.)

Anyway, even though the Red Sox were just fifth in runs per game last season (4.87), this is further confirmation that offense is not and will not be the problem for this team, especially if J.D. Martinez can start turning on fastballs again.

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The 2020 Red Sox used an MLB-high 16 starters, three of whom started only one game as “openers.” And this, friends, is further confirmation that the pitching staff was holding open auditions last season while putting up a franchise-worst 5.58 ERA. Even factoring in the use of openers – something we’re just going to have to get used to as baseball fans – 16 starters is an absurd total, especially for a 60-game season. In 2004, the Red Sox used eight starters in 162 games, with Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Bronson Arroyo, and Tim Wakefield making 157 of those starts. (Pedro Astacio, Abe Alvarez, and Byung-Hyun Kim made the other five.) The 2007 champs used nine starters, while the ’13 and ’18 champs each used 11.

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The most important thing for the 2021 Red Sox, by far, is that the starting rotation – whether via the return of Eduardo Rodriguez and, in the summer, Chris Sale, the emergence of Tanner Houck or Nick Pivetta, the good health and form of Richards and Nathan Eovaldi, or all of the above – provides reliability and quality. Last year, they had neither.

The oldest Red Sox player in camp is 35-year-old Adam Ottavino. Maybe it’s because his collegiate years with the Huskies were revisited so much after the Red Sox acquired him from the Yankees earlier this month, but I had no idea he was their oldest player. Everyone else on the roster is 33 or younger. As Chaim Bloom builds up the quality depth on the 40-man roster, he’s also making the Red Sox younger on the fringes. The plan is taking shape. You see it, right?

Christian Vázquez (2008 June Draft), Xander Bogaerts (2009 international free agent), and Matt Barnes (2011 June Draft) are the longest-tenured members of the Red Sox organization. Count this as more proof of the relative youth of the Red Sox roster, or, with some justifiable cynicism, use it to broadly note that veteran players don’t get the opportunities to extend their careers deep into their 30s like they used to. But it should also be noted that in terms of MLB service time, Vazquez (six years, 31 days), Bogaerts (seven years, 42 days), and Barnes (five years, 110 days) have less cumulative time with the Red Sox than Carl Yastrzemski had himself entering the 1980 season.

Matt Barnes has made 323 relief appearances for the Red Sox, fourth-most in franchise history behind only Bob Stanley (552), Mike Timlin (394), and Jonathan Papelbon (393): This Barnes fact didn’t surprise me. He’s been the late-inning relief pitcher who is just effective enough to remain in an important role for five seasons now. (He’s such a mainstay in the bullpen that it’s easy to forget he’s started games for the Red Sox, a pair in 2015.) But I was impressed, if not surprised, that Timlin is second on the Red Sox relief appearances standings, if only because he was almost 37 years old when Theo Epstein signed him in January 2003. If Koji Uehara was the ultimate low-anxiety closer, the one who always kept calm and got outs, then Timlin owns that title for setup men. The Sox should have cloned him for future generations when they had him.

Only two duos have ever started as many as four consecutive Opening Days at SS and 3B for the Red Sox. Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, who have formed the left side of the infield for three Opening Days so far, are poised to join company that includes shortstop Freddy Parent/third baseman  Jimmy Collins (1901-06) and Everett Scott/Larry Gardner (1914-17). As a child of the ‘70s, I will admit to surprise and blinding bitterness that Rick Burleson and Butch Hobson did not make the cut here. They started together in 1977-78 and ’80, but Jack Brohamer got the start at third base alongside The Rooster on Opening Day ’79. Hobson was still recovering from – you guessed it – elbow surgery.

Among MLB and the NFL, NBA, and NHL, the only other franchises to win as many as the Red Sox’ four championships since the start of 2002 are the New England Patriots (6), San Antonio Spurs (4), and Los Angeles Lakers (4).

You’d never know that listening to us, would ya? Imagine telling your devastated October 1978 self, or your crushed October 1986 self, or your bitter October 2003 self that there would be a time someday when they’d have won four World Series championships in a 19-year span, and we’d still be finding ways to be fed up with them.

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