Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Red Sox Roll into Second Half

Boston's strong finish to the 1st half looks like a sign of things to come (CBS)
Well, it's officially the All-Star break and the Red Sox are right where they're supposed to be; leading the AL East and on pace for 90-plus wins. It hasn't been the smoothest ride, but Boston had an uneven first half last year too en route to winning 93 games and the division. And although they limped into the break by losing four of their last five, that came on the heels of a six-game winning streak that equaled their season-high. Overall, the Sox are in good shape heading into the second half, having gone 29-16 since May 21 as several of their top hitters and pitchers have come around.

On the hitting side of things, Boston rates fourth in the AL in runs per game and total runs despite ranking dead last in home runs. They've compensated with a contact-heavy approach that's yielded the league's second-highest batting average and third-fewest strikeouts. The lineup has proven to be deep and balanced, with regulars posting an OPS+ over 100 at every position except catcher and third base. Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts are both batting .303, Mitch Moreland's having one of the best years of his career, and each member of the Killer B's outfield has an OPS north of .800. Hanley Ramirez had another slow first half, but he caught fire towards the end and looks poised to go on a tear post-All-Star break.

Still, this clearly isn't the same offense that led the sport in runs last year. They've missed David Ortiz in the heart of their lineup, as it seems unlikely that anyone will replicate his standard 30 homers and 100 RBIs (not to mention his leadership). Catcher and third base have been black holes, with the Sox tied for last in the AL in fWAR at both positions. Third base has been a revolving door thanks to Pablo Sandoval's ineptitude, and while Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon are fine receivers, neither can hit. Not much can be done about the catching situation given the dearth of quality backstops available, but Todd Frazier is on the block should Boston be inclined to upgrade externally rather than promote Rafael Devers.

The Red Sox have graded out as top-10 defensive team, which isn't surprising given their young, athletic outfield and their stellar double-play combination of Pedroia and Bogaerts. This has undoubtedly aided the pitching staff, which hasn't been the super-rotation that some predicted but still ranks second in the AL in ERA. BoSox pitchers have been terrific on their own merit, however, issuing the fewest walks in the league and ranking third in strikeouts with more than one whiff per inning. So while their offense has been predicated on avoiding whiffs, their pitchers have thrived by racking them up.

It's impossible to over-state the impact that Chris Sale has had this year, as he's accounted for 1/6 of the team's innings and has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Boston hasn't had a pitcher this dominant since Pedro Martinez, and he's been a true savior since the day he donned a Red Sox uniform, making up for Rick Porcello's regression and the injury woes of David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez (both of whom have been effective when healthy). He's their MVP of the first half. Drew Pomeranz has also stepped up and appears to have settled into Boston after struggling in the second half last year and early this year.

The bullpen has also flourished despite getting nothing from two of the club's top relievers, Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg. Craig Kimbrel has rebounded after scuffling in his first year with Boston and is having one of the best seasons ever by a modern closer. Joe Kelly has been nearly as good setting him up, becoming the shutdown reliever everyone knew he would be once he was finally freed from the rotation. Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree have been solid in middle relief, while Fernando Abad has pitched much better than his last name would suggest. This strong stable of relievers have helped Boston maintain a winning record (11-9) in one-run games and, more importantly, should be enough to prevent Dave Dombrowski from shipping out more prospects at the trade deadline.

Add it all up and the Red Sox have played as well as their record suggests, with a 51-38 Pythagorean W-L record (plus-65 run differential) to match their 50-39 actual record. They've been lucky in extra-inning games (7-1), but everything else about them appears legitimate and they are trending in the right direction. The rotation will finally be at full strength when Rodriguez returns after the All-Star break, which could allow Boston to pull away from the pack if everyone stays healthy. The Red Sox will also look to capitalize on a favorable schedule that puts 42 of their remaining 73 games at home, where they've gone 25-14 (.641) this year.

Accordingly, the Red Sox don't need to make any major moves at the trade deadline. They're a well-rounded, mostly-complete team with few holes to fill. An upgrade at the hot corner would be nice, but not worthwhile if the plan is to bring Devers up in September (or, if by some miracle, Jhonny Peralta finds his swing in Triple-A). Pitching depth is always appreciated, but not a priority. Firing John Farrell would be a dream come true, but for now that's all it is; a dream.

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