Playing nine innings while wondering how much of an underestimation “sneaky-good” was …
1. The 2013 Red Sox are the easy and understandable comparison for this season’s surprising (to most) edition. That team, like this one, was coming off a last-place finish, but featured a quality core that was supplemented by the acquisition of several unheralded, high-character veterans. No one should go so far right now as to suggest the October outcome will be the same, but the vibe of the ’13 and ’21 Red Sox is similar.
I think there’s a more fitting comparison, though, a little deeper down the franchise’s season-by-season baseball-reference.com page. These Sox remind me more and more of the 1995 Red Sox. That group remains one of the most unheralded successful teams in franchise lore.
Expectations were low. The previous summer, a boring and lethargic club finished fourth in the AL East with a 54-61 record before the players’ strike wiped out the last two months.
But general manager Dan Duquette – after contract agreements during the strike with Sammy Sosa, John Wetteland, and Kevin Appier were voided – pieced together a likable roster with inexpensive acquisitions such as Erik Hanson, Luis Alicea, and Troy O’Leary. Those Sox finished 86-58, winning the division by seven games over the Yankees before getting swept by a loaded Indians club in the playoffs.
The comp isn’t perfect. There is no Roger Clemens on this Sox team, though further confirming how much the game has changed, Nate Eovaldi, a decent starter but never a star, probably throws harder than The Rocket ever did.
But the parallels are irresistible. J.D. Martinez is Jose Canseco, the slugging designated hitter. Rafael Devers is Mo Vaughn, the lefty masher who probably should be a DH. Xander Bogaerts is John Valentin, and if you think that’s selling Bogaerts short, I’ll wait while you go check out Johnny Val’s numbers in ’95. He had a better case for AL MVP than the winner, Vaughn.
Now all Chaim Bloom needs to do is go out and find a knuckleballer to go 14-1 out of the gate, like Tim Wakefield did in ’95.
2. Heck, maybe it could be Wakefield. I’m only being semi-facetious when I say that plenty of fans would prefer a Wakefield comeback at age 54 to watching Garrett Richards make another start. At least we’d never have to hear jokes about his spin rate. Richards, who has sandwiched two ugly starts around two adequate ones, has been frustrating for sure – there are few things more annoying to a fan than a pitcher with a quality repertoire who can’t or won’t throw strikes.
3. But Richards isn’t not going anywhere given his salary, and he shouldn’t. Tanner Houck has been excellent in his brief major league experience, but he needs to hone a third pitch, and organizational depth is going to help them get through the long summer. Richards’s velocity and stuff are there. It’s a matter of straightening out his command. Maybe he won’t be the ’95 Erik Hanson of this staff, but there’s still upside here.
Garrett Richards has no fastball command or control through 2 innings. You rarely see this many misses by this large a margin with a fastball. pic.twitter.com/gHgbMxXI75
— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) April 22, 2021
4. Bear with me, if you will, for one more ’95 reference/connection: Christian Arroyo reminds me of someone Duquette would have taken a chance on, a one-time top-100 prospect (Baseball America had him at No. 62 entering the 2016 season, a spot ahead of the Braves’ Ozzie Albies) who hadn’t yet seized an opportunity. Arroyo has been legitimately good so far, putting up a .927 OPS through his first 47 plate appearances. Small-sample, sure, but he’s passing the eye test too.
5. I was shocked to learn, via baseball-reference.com whiz Adam Darowski’s informative @baseballtwit Twitter feed, that Hunter Renfroe has the 13th-most home runs all-time for a player in his first 325 major league games. Ryan Howard is first with an even 100. Then there are names like Joe DiMaggio, Mark McGwire, and Ronald Acuna. And, yep, then there’s Renfroe, checking in at No. 13 with 80. He has nine since the start of last season, and he’s hitting .160 over that span. But that power should get him a long look.
Most home runs in first 325 career games (this was going into today). pic.twitter.com/Y8D6EQASSI
— Adam Darowski (@baseballtwit) April 15, 2021
6. I’m not sweating the back end of the rotation. Martin Perez is fine for the role he’s in, so is Pivetta, and I’ve said my piece on Richards. Plus, Houck is in reserve, and it sounds like there’s a real shot Chris Sale helps this year. With the depth of the Red Sox bullpen, a starter that gives up two runs in five innings (3.60 ERA) is fine, and even one that gives up three runs in five innings (5.40 ERA) is tolerable.
7. Give me the name of a player you underestimated and were completely wrong about. Me first? Easy: Christian Vazquez. When he was coming up through the Red Sox system, his profile as a cannon-armed, light-hitting catcher made me think he was going to be an honorary Molina brother at best. Instead, he’s become one of the most complete catchers in the American League. OK, your turn.
8. Tough break for the Red Sox that they don’t get to play the Yankees until June 4. They’re in complete disarray with a 6-11 record, including losses in five of their last six games. The panic is such that one columnist suggested Gleyber Torres, who is clearly playing out of position at shortstop, should be sent to the minors. The Yankees are hitting .205 with a .630 OPS as a team. That will change, probably soon.
9. Feels like a lot longer ago than 2018 that we were having debates about whether Aaron Judge or Andrew Benintendi would have the better career. Judge can’t stay on the field, and Benintendi – hitting .197 so far without a homer for the Royals – seems to have permanently sacrificed his natural swing to the launch-angle gods.
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