Red Sox

Our preseason expectations for the Red Sox were wrong. But what should they be now?

This isn't a bad team anymore, but is it a serious contender?

Red Sox relief pitcher Matt Barnes, right, celebrates the win with catcher Christian Vazquez, left, during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Saturday, May 22, 2021, in Philadelphia. The Red Sox won 4-3. AP

COMMENTARY

In my 40-plus years of watching the Red Sox, I’m not sure I’ve witnessed a season where expectations were drastically recalibrated in an optimistic direction before Memorial Day like they have been this year.

The 1986 and ’88 Red Sox both won the American League East after finishing fifth the previous year. But those teams were rich in veteran talent. The emergence of well-regarded young players into true stars – AL Cy Young winner and Most Valuable Player Roger Clemens in ’86 and MVP runner-up Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks in ’88 – took them to another level.

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The 1995 Red Sox were a surprise division champ after going 54-61 in the strike-shortened ’94 season. There are some parallels to this year’s team, as I’ve written about before, especially in the front office’s knack for finding helpful players in the margins of free agency and the waiver wire. You say Garrett Richards, I say Erik Hanson.

The most similar team to this one was probably the ’13 Red Sox, who went 69-93 under preening debacle Bobby Valentine in ’12, dumped him and brought John Farrell (an extremely popular hire at the time) over from the Blue Jays, added more than a half-dozen respected veteran free agents, and became an avatar for the city’s hope and healing after the Marathon bombings en route to winning the franchise’s third World Series in 10 years.

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But I’d argue that the ’13 team entered its season with more optimism than the ’20 Red Sox did. David Ortiz missed 72 games in ’12, but he was still a monster at the plate (1.026 OPS). Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury were all entering their age-29 seasons, still in their prime. Will Middlebrooks looked like the classic power-hitting third baseman in the ’77 Butch Hobson mold, and top prospect Xander Bogaerts was on his way.

There was hope. If a few things broke right, they might be pretty good. As it turned out, everything broke right on the field, and the clubhouse was as unified as any we’ve seen, including 2004. If ’13 is your favorite Red Sox team, I understand why.

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I’m not sure anyone outside of the Red Sox clubhouse and front office had high expectations for this 2021 entry – and I’m not convinced everyone within those walls thought they’d be better than adequate this year. I pegged them for around 83 wins and a spot on the fringe of the playoff race in September, which brought on charges of being excessively bullish after last year’s abbreviated 24-36 disaster. Those charges were probably fair, too.

I figured they’d score runs by the barrel, especially if J.D. Martinez found his swing (has he ever), and that roster architect Chaim Bloom had added quality depth and versatility to the roster. Weeding out the half-dozen to a dozen 2020 pitchers that had no business on a major league roster has also helped. Fare thee well, Mike Kickham.

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But I did not expect this – a 29-19 record as they begin a three-game series with the Braves Tuesday, and a spot a half-game back of the scorching Rays (11 wins in a row) in the AL East standings. The Red Sox are second to the Astros (are we sure the trash cans have been silenced?) in runs per game (5.19) among American League teams, and rank a respectable sixth in fewest runs allowed (4.21; the AL average is 4.46).

After losing three straight games to the Orioles to open the season – a here-we-go-again bummer in which they were outscored 18-5 – the Red Sox have outscored their opponents 244-184, a margin of 60 runs over their last 45 games.

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That’s crazy-impressive given that they’ve had legitimate issues to overcome, such as finding the bridge to Matt Barnes in the bullpen, getting production from the bottom of the order, and recent inconsistency from presumed ace Eduardo Rodriguez as he makes his way back from a season lost to COVID-19 and the aftereffects.

That they’ve been resilient, their collective confidence never waning, is a reflection of manager Alex Cora and their leader and MVP candidate Bogaerts, but it also suggests that like in ’13, taking character into consideration while building a team is paying off in the win column.

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I’ve seen enough, roughly a third of the way into the schedule, to believe drastically recalibrating those preseason expectations is absolutely the correct thing to do. The question is no longer whether this team can be decent, or whether the excellent April is for real, or whether it will be in the playoff picture come late September.

The question is whether we should expect them to win the AL East. Fangraphs’ projection model gives the Red Sox an 18 percent chance of winning the division, a 60.7 percent chance of earning a postseason berth, and a 4.9 percent shot at winning the World Series. Baseball-reference’s model (the methodology of which eludes the C+-in-Algebra capabilities of my brain) is more skeptical, putting the Red Sox’ playoff chances at 30.7 percent, with just a 3.6 percent chance at taking the division, and 1.2 percent to win the World Series.

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Baseball-reference, my go-to for stuff like this, is much higher on the Rays (96.9 percent chance at the playoffs, 15.2 to win the Series) and Yankees (84 percent, 7.6 percent), who have won six in a row, than it is the Red Sox. Some of that is due to  strength of schedule – the Red Sox have already played the Orioles 10 times, twice as often as they’ve played any other team. They have played the Rays just three times, sweeping them in their lone series, and won’t face the Yankees until the first week of June.

It seemed like the Red Sox were miles ahead of everyone in April, but their biggest lead was only 3.5 games on May 9. I think we knew then that the Yankees and Rays would have their say soon enough, and that time has come.

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It’s going to be a summer-long battle for the division, carrying into fall. The projections might not like the Red Sox’ chances, but projections can’t account for the palpable sense that something good is going on here. The Red Sox’ lead in the division is gone, at least for the moment, but they’re not going away. There’s a reason those early expectations can be recalibrated: We’ve seen enough to know, even before Memorial Day, that these Red Sox are for real.

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