There are so many pleasant surprises dotting the 2021 Red Sox roster that it’s probably more efficient to acknowledge the players who have produced exactly as expected than it is to tip a cap to every individual who has made helped make this season a pure, unexpected joy through 88 games and 54 victories.
So here’s who I have in the Just What We Expected Club: Xander Bogaerts. And he’s pretty much it.
Bogaerts leads the American League with 27 doubles, is slashing .323/.385/.535, and has contributed 13 homers and 100 hits. His adjusted OPS is 145, meaning he’s 45 percent better than a league-average batter.
There are few players who are as reliably excellent as Bogaerts. Here is his adjusted OPS in the last three seasons, beginning in 2018: 135, 140, 130. I still think he’s underrated around baseball, vastly so. But Red Sox fans know what they have.
The Red Sox do have a couple of other players whose high level of performance is not necessarily a surprise but rather a best-case scenario of all the ways their season could have gone.
There’s nothing stunning about Rafael Devers (.921 OPS, 21 home runs) pummeling the baseball, or Alex Verdugo (.276/.342/.429, 9 homers in 342 plate appearances) providing a season that looks a lot like Andrew Benintendi’s 2017 campaign (.271/.352/.421, 20 homers in 658 plate appearances). It’s just that there seemed to be more potential variance to their contributions than to the ever-steady Bogaerts.
Of course, it would be close to a dereliction of duty to discuss this Red Sox season without touching on at least a couple of individual revelations. With only a three-game set with the Phillies standing as the final series before the All-Star break, the results so far must be considered a massive pleasant surprise as a whole, even for those of us who thought the Red Sox had a shot to at least be on the fringes of the playoff race.
So here are four players, among many, who have outpaced my expectations while helping make this season a delight we never saw coming:
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I just didn’t expect him to bounce back like this. When he went in the third round of a fantasy baseball draft back in March in a league I’m in, I remember thinking that was about 10 rounds too early. Couldn’t have been more wrong about that one. Martinez hit .213 with a .680 OPS and 7 homers in 54 games last season — a 21-homer pace over a full season — while struggling to catch up to fastballs. At 33, it was reasonable to wonder whether his mid-career renaissance had reached its end.
Turns out he just wasn’t right at a time when it was perfectly understandable for anyone in any walk of life to be out of sorts. Martinez has returned to excellence this season, with a .913 OPS and 17 homers. I should note, too, that he was especially excellent in the second series of the season, a three-game sweep of the Rays in which he drove in eight runs and helped stem some of the tide of negativity after the Red Sox lost the first three games of the year to the Orioles.
The rookie reliever, a Rule 5 selection coming back from Tommy John surgery, felt like more of a look-see flier than a sure contributor when spring training began. Instead, he’s become an essential member of the staff, with a 1.50 ERA over 25 appearances and 42 innings. His startling three-pitch repertoire suggests an even more significant role, perhaps as a starter, could be in his future. Oh, and did we mention he was pilfered from the Yankees? With apologies to Lenny DiNardo, Mike Trujillo, and John Trautwein, Whitlock is already the best Rule 5 pick in franchise history.
I can’t believe how good this guy has been out of the bullpen. That line applies to several Red Sox relievers, but none more than the 28-year-old lefthander. Taylor broke through in 2019 with a 3.04 ERA in 52 games but missed most of last season after contracting COVID-19 and wasn’t good in the limited time he did pitch (9.82 ERA in eight games). When he started slowly this season, allowing six runs in three innings over his first three appearances, it was reasonable to wonder whether he was long for the team. On April 21, he still had a 10.80 ERA. In 27 games and 23⅓ innings since, he’s allowed one earned run for an 0.39 ERA. What a turnaround.
This is exactly the kind of player I expected Chaim Bloom to unearth as the Red Sox chief baseball officer: a former high draft pick with a top-prospect pedigree who for understandable reasons hasn’t yet panned out. Arroyo was a first-round pick of the Giants in the 2013 draft — he went 25th, 13 picks after current teammate Hunter Renfroe — and was the prime prospect sent the Rays’ way in San Francisco’s trade for Evan Longoria four years later.
He had some exceptional stretches in the minors — in 102 plate appearances with Triple A Sacramento in 2017, he hit .396 — but an array of injuries interfered with his attempts to stick in the big leagues. He’s dealt with injuries again this season, but when he’s been healthy he’s been an energetic, productive (.766 OPS) player who has shown a knack for connecting for the clutch homer. At 26, he looks like someone who was a top pick and coveted prospect, and still fully capable of living up to those early projections.
Honorable mention pleasant surprises
Renfroe (why did we not recognize his past power production?), Nick Pivetta (now 9-3 as a member of the Red Sox with 7.3 hits per nine innings), Matt Barnes (he’s made the leap from dependable reliever to lights-out closer), Hirokazu Sawamura (looked lost early in spring training, Mr. Reliable now), and about a half-dozen other players.