Red Sox

The 2021 Red Sox have been all streaks and shuffles, but there’s been one constant

The Red Sox are dancing in the outfield again after a 9-4 start that has them among baseball's best teams.

COMMENTARY

The baseball season is a six-month search for context, and the Red Sox aren’t making that part of the process easy. Been fun to watch, though.

They were not as bad as the 0-3 start would suggest, nor are they as good as the 112-win pace they’re on after a nine-game winning streak — ended at Minnesota, 4-3, on Thursday despite a three-run comeback in the eighth. The last team to do anything like this, as you may have heard, was the 1991 Seattle Mariners, who opened 0-6, then won eight in a row.

Those Mariners did that much of the year, looking back: Nine separate streaks of at least five games, including winning 12 of 13 in May, then immediately losing 8 of 9. (Ivar from Tacoma was beside himself on talk radio all summer.) It’s a heck of a route to 83-79 and a fifth-place finish that was exactly what was predicted, and those numbers are right around where most of the smarts pegged these Red Sox will end up.

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We can, however, look back at our 13-game 2021 sample and see some intriguing things. As we talked about last time, they’ve rediscovered that never-say-die attitude of the 2018 world beaters, already having erased more deficits in the seventh inning or later (3) in 13 games than the 2020 Dead Sox did in 60. (I’ll give the 2020 team credit for a fourth in the late innings of a seven-inning doubleheader game.) That’s a good-team trait.

More than that, though, what we thought was going to be an all-hit, no-pitch Sox team like the ones that peppered the 1990s has opened far more rounded. They do lead the American League in all the major averages and in runs scored, but the starting pitchers are a surprising fifth in staff ERA and fourth in innings pitched, averaging a slight shade better than five per game.

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They’ve had one dud: Garrett Richards lasting two innings during the opening sweep by Baltimore. There’s been just one quality start (at least six innings, allowing three runs or fewer) all season, though that’s colored by the Wednesday doubleheader. (Nate Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez both could’ve gone deeper than five had the game required it.) Regardless, Boston’s starters have, nearly every day, done enough to hand winnable games to a rested bullpen.

For a team that carried an extra reliever into the season, it looks like things working to plan. Right down to Alex Cora’s return coinciding with some returns to form.

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“Sometimes, some of these guys, they forget that [they’re good],” Cora told reporters in Minnesota. “They’re so humble, they’re such good kids, that they forget they’re good players. Xander Bogaerts is one of the best shortstops in the league and I think sometimes he forgets that part. Our third baseman [Rafael Devers] is one of the best young players in the big leagues. … J.D. [Martinez] is talking baseball again. He’s talking hitting.

“Everybody is contributing.”

Devers has been reunited with Cora and, on cue, produced MLB’s strongest positive turnaround from his final 50 plate appearances of 2020 to his first 50 of 2021. His .935 OPS is a product of arguably the best 12-game offensive stretch of his career, with his five homers averaging about 430 feet each, and all on a different pitch type. His “barrels” per PA as calculated by Baseball Savant, roughly defined as how often he just crushes a baseball, trails only Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuña Jr. across the majors.

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J.D. Martinez ranks one spot behind him in fourth, and Alex Verdugo, dreadful this spring, likewise just had one of the best 12-game runs of his career. The .833 OPS isn’t near as gaudy, but he’s hitting to all fields the same as a year ago and offering the same infectious dynamism that the Dodgers talked up during his 2019 breakout.

“I was completely locked in,” Verdugo said Thursday about the 10-pitch at-bat and three-run double that nearly saved the game. “If I took Adderall, that’s probably what I would feel like right there. I was zoned in, locked in, and I wasn’t going to let anything go. Anything close, let it go and let’s see. Good things happened.”

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Sorta feels like a thing you’d say if you took Adderall, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.

None of these performances, even Devers at the plate, feel out of the realm for these guys. They’re small samples, but they’re in character. Matt Barnes probably isn’t going to strike out 61 percent of the batters he faces this season without allowing a hit, but a guy with 13 strikeouts per nine innings and a .213/.311/.344 line against the prior four years could certainly manifest into one of baseball’s premier relievers. (Especially with free agency looming, though Adam Ottavino’s flat start certainly doesn’t help.)

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Good teams need guys like these to build around, then need unexpected support to supplement. Those are the kinds of things that 162 games usually fleshes out. Kiké Hernández and Bobby Dalbec have hit the ball harder than their combined .200 batting average would imply, but Franchy Cordero’s caught most of the offensive breaks for that half of the lineup.

Christian Arroyo’s got five doubles in 33 plate appearances … is this his first-round pedigree finally coming out? Garrett Whitlock remains an absurdly feel-good story, a Rule 5 pick reinvigorated after Tommy John surgery saves his career tossing 6 1/3 scoreless, walkless innings to begin his MLB career. (Combined with the spring, Whitlock’s faced 57 batters, allowed 11 hits, and walked … zero. He might solve baseball’s problems all by himself.)

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The Minnesota series was supposed to be a wakeup call for the Red Sox, who got six out of the blocks with dreadful Baltimore. Instead, it was the Twins who came in reeling and are now spinning worse, in a logjam near the bottom of the American League with a bunch of teams (Detroit, Oakland, and Texas) expected to be down there. The White Sox are in that 6-7 club as well as they land at Fenway for four straight this weekend, led offensive by Yermin Mercedes, whose 20-for-42 start to his career channels the “Sandy Leon is the only active Hall of Famer” laughs of a couple years ago.

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(Yes, Mercedes has only DH’d in the majors, but he was a catcher on the way up. Don’t deny me my meme.)

It’s been a near constant shuffle, Cora using 12 lineups in 13 games despite largely settling on a Christian Vázquez-Dalbec-Arroyo-Devers-Bogaerts-Cordero-Hernández-Hunter Renfroe-Martinez alignment. More often than not, it’s worked so far, and the good start so many thought the team needed to capture our attention has come to fruition.

We wait to see what happens when it doesn’t. Not for any love of pessimism, of course, but because that’s the only way to really learn what this team is.

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