It's still extremely early, but it's already obvious that the 2013 Boston Red Sox are a different team.
The biggest difference? That would be that these new Red Sox look like they actually give a damn.
These new Red Sox have Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com—who was ripping Boston's lack of chemistry after the collapse of 2011—praising their new attitude. These new Red Sox have John Tomase of the Boston Herald writing about how much fun they are to watch.
Most importantly, these new Red Sox are not too shabby a ballclub.
Boston won four out of six on the road to open the season, and took its home opener at Fenway Park against the Baltimore Orioles by the final of 3-1. Clay Buchholz set 'em up with seven shutout innings, and Daniel Nava knocked 'em down with a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh.
Boston's hot start should feel like a big tease. It should feel like the Red Sox are doomed for a sudden and brutal regression that will suck the life out of the team and invite back all the bad headlines.
Yet, amazingly, it doesn't.
A banana peel will appear in Boston's path eventually, but that doesn't mean Red Sox Nation can't be optimistic. The energy is great, but what must not be overlooked is the fact that, shoot, there's some real talent on this Red Sox team.
And unlike in the last two seasons, a good chunk of this talent is located on the mound.
Starting Pitching: Talent at the Top Again
Boston's starting pitching was a constant source of frustration in 2012, as Red Sox starters combined to post a 5.19 ERA and give up 1.31 home runs per nine innings, according to FanGraphs. Among Red Sox starters who made at least 10 starts, nobody had an ERA below 4.50.
But as I'm writing this, FanGraphs is showing that Boston starters currently have the best ERA in the American League at 2.45, a number that is equal parts misleading and very, very encouraging.
It's misleading because two Boston starters were "meh" in their 2013 debuts. Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster both gave up three earned runs in five innings, and it was par for the course for both. Doubront had pitch-count issues all last year, and Dempster often had to fight for his life in his first foray into the American League with the Rangers.
Then there's John Lackey. He looked superb in his first start since September of 2011 after missing 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, but then his right bicep acted up on him and forced him out after four-and-a-third. Tony Lee of ESPNBoston.com says an MRI revealed no tear, but the Red Sox are going to be in wait-and-see mode for a little while longer.
So though the Red Sox currently have the best ERA in the American League, three-fifths of their starting rotation is a question mark. Odds are their ERA is going to rise. Just a hunch.
There is, however, the "very, very encouraging" part, which has everything to do with Buchholz and Jon Lester. They've made two starts apiece, and they look like they're back.
Combined, Buchholz and Lester have logged 26 innings in four starts, allowing only three earned runs with 25 strikeouts and eight walks. That's a 1.04 ERA and a 3.13 K/BB ratio.
Lester's turnaround is particularly encouraging. He never looked like himself last year, as his stuff was flat and his confidence was lacking all season. Now he's throwing the ball with some conviction, and his 26-percent strikeout rate (see FanGraphs) tells tales of good stuff.
The last time Buchholz and Lester were productive in Boston's rotation at the same time was in 2010, a year in which Red Sox starters tied for the fifth-best ERA in the American League, despite sub-par seasons from Lackey, Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
If Buchholz and Lester can anchor Boston's starting staff in 2013 like they did in 2010, absolute disaster will stay safely at bay.
To boot, the Red Sox are in a position where even getting passable starting pitching is going to be good enough most days. That has to do with the club's biggest strength.
Bullpen: Gotta Love the Late-Inning Arms
Last week, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com tweeted this:
But if you take Alfredo Aceves and his 10.38 ERA out of the equation...
Joel Hanrahan is already up to three saves, and BrooksBaseball.net shows that he's averaging better than 98 miles per hour with his heater. Andrew Bailey is throwing hard, too, and he's struck out four of the nine batters he's faced. Koji Uehara has thrown two perfect innings. Junichi Tazawa was very sharp in his first two outings before the Blue Jays got to him last Friday.
This is a strong collection of late-inning relievers, and they've lived up to their billing. If they continue to do so, the Red Sox are going to be in good shape every time they have a lead after six. That's a reality that'll come in handy on days when one of the club's lesser starters is on the mound.
Now, about the offense.
Offense: A Mixed Bag, But Wait for It...
According to FanGraphs, the Red Sox currently rank third in on-base percentage, thanks in large part to a 10.0 walk rate. Last year's club had a walk rate of 6.9 percent, second-lowest in all of baseball. On top of that, the 2013 Red Sox rank seventh in the league in slugging percentage.
These numbers, however, are inflated by Boston's explosion against R.A. Dickey and the Blue Jays on Sunday. There are also some question marks here and there.
Boston hitters have been handled by left-handed starters since they rocked CC Sabathia on Opening Day. Andy Pettitte and J.A. Happ had their way with Red Sox hitters, and Wei-Yin Chen was experiencing smooth sailing on Monday at Fenway Park before he ran out of gas.
With guys like Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes in the mix, the Red Sox were supposed to have a lineup that would be death on lefties. The way things have gone, it may not be so simple.
Beyond that, we know the following things. Nava is not a .500 hitter. Jose Iglesias is not a .450 hitter. Dustin Pedroia is a good hitter, but not .357 with a .455 OBP good. Victorino has been a pleasant surprise, but he's too inconsistent against right-handers to keep up a .310 average and .375 OBP.
But the good news?
Eventually, Stephen Drew and David Ortiz are going to find themselves in John Farrell's starting nine. The word from Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com is that Drew will be back Wednesday. Ortiz was finally able to play in a simulated game on Monday, according to Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald.
The Red Sox won't be getting the 2008 version of Drew, but they can safely assume that he'll be a more productive hitter in the long run than Iglesias. Big Papi's health is going to have to be closely guarded all season, but when he returns, the Red Sox will be welcoming back a guy who had a 1.026 OPS last season before he got hurt.
If there's any more where that came from, the Red Sox are going to have an elite middle-of-the-order hitter in a lineup that already has some solid depth. That won't make Boston's lineup the equal of that of the 1927 Yankees, mind you, but it will be a lineup that pitchers aren't going to look forward to facing.
Chemistry: The Experiment Looks Like a Success
In terms of talent in the realms of starting pitching, relief pitching and offense, the Red Sox are far from hopeless. This has been the case for a while now, of course, as the club the Red Sox have trotted out early in the season looks a lot like the club they had down on paper many months ago.
If that's the case, there's a question begging to be asked: Why weren't any of the experts jumping on the Boston bandwagon months ago?
Heck, not even I, a guy who's sitting here singing Boston's praises, didn't feel safe in picking them to do damage in the AL East. I suppose that qualifies me to answer the above question.
In the preseason, all you can do is latch onto the paper champions. In the AL East, that was the revamped Blue Jays, not the Red Sox.
When it came to the Red Sox, even those optimistic about their chances in 2013 had to break out a common caveat: "If all their new pieces come together..."
This same caveat applies to the vast majority of clubs every spring, but it didn't apply to any team this year quite like the Red Sox. Their new pieces coming together was of utmost importance because general manager Ben Cherington made the moves he made over the offseason with the idea that the pieces would come together.
It's one thing to accumulate talent. Cherington accumulated talent, while at the same time trying to build a clubhouse culture. Talk about easier said than done.
Well, guess what? As young as the 2013 season is, the mission looks like it's been accomplished. The Red Sox are playing with a different kind of energy, and the key new guys have provided some glowing testimonials.
"There's a tremendous amount of energy with this group," said Farrell after Opening Day, via MacMullan's column. "The word we've been using is relentless."
Said Napoli, via Tomase's column:
Sometimes you get good players, but if you get players that care about each other, it’s not just about them and what superstar they are. I believe it’s not enough to have superstars. You have to have the right superstars. You can have really good players, but if you’re not a team guy and you don’t want to do it together, it’s hard to win that way. These guys, they care. They want to win. We’ve got the right mix.
Said Victorino to Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe:
I think having stars, having chemistry is a good mesh. We have guys who have been to All-Star Games. We have MVPs. You have guys who have been part of championship teams. And having the characters that were brought in this year, the personalities that are kind of uplifting. Sometimes that brings the best out of the guys, too, to have that mentality. When you walk in the door, you kind of check it at the door. We’re all one and we’re going to go out there and be one.
It wasn't all that long ago that the Globe's Bob Hohler was taking a sledgehammer to the 2011 Red Sox with a damning article that featured the following subheading: "Dedication waned, unity unraveled, and manager lost influence as a once-inspiring Red Sox season ended in epic failure."
On paper, the 2013 Red Sox are not as good as the 2011 Red Sox. That club featured superstars all over the place, and those superstars helped make the Red Sox the best team in baseball for a time.
But if ever there were evidence that even the most talented teams can be undone by a lack of camaraderie, look no further than the 2011 Red Sox. The moral of their story is that chemistry certainly isn't the only thing that matters, but not having it can be a killer.
Then you have clubs that can vouch for the value of clubhouse chemistry. In recent history, that group includes the 2012 Oakland A's and Orioles, the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays and, stretching back a bit further, the 2004 Red Sox.
These were some talented teams, but they were all the more dangerous because their chemistry made them, to borrow Farrell's word, relentless.
The 2013 Red Sox are looking to be next in line, and they have the proper ingredients. The talent is there, and they also have the vibe they were hoping they'd have when the roster was being remodeled over the winter months.
So what are we looking at? A World Series contender?
Um, no. You can only go far with early-season optimism, and that's too far.
But a potential division champion?
The 2013 Red Sox have had that potential all along. As loaded as the Blue Jays looked heading into the season, the AL East looked like a team in which each team could finish in last just as easy as first. Given the depth of the division, 90 wins could do the trick this year.
A 90-win season looks even less out of reach for the Red Sox now. We knew what they had, and now we know how they play the game.
The latter is the exciting part, and it's what could allow this Red Sox team to make the locals forget that 2011 and 2012 ever happened.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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