Boston Red Sox: Grading the Team Through the 1st Quarter of the Season

Bryan ShafferFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2013

Boston Red Sox: Grading the Team Through the 1st Quarter of the Season

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    With three quarters of the 2013 season yet to be played, it is a good time to give the Boston Red Sox marks on their players' performances over the first quarter of the year.

    Boston has ridden a roller coaster over the season's first 39 games. They ascended to the top of the American League with a 20-8 start, before quickly plummeting to a more pedestrian 22-17 record, courtesy of a 2-9 slump over the next 11 games.

    The successes and failures of this team can be credited to the key players. Some guys have elevated their games to help with the ascent, while others have assisted more with the tumbling.

    When it comes to doling out grades, players are rated based on both performance and expectation. If a guy grossly outperforms his projections, that kind of over-achievement deserves consideration in his grade.

    Conversely, if a star player posts mediocre numbers, the disappointment will also bear out in his grading.

Clay Buchholz, RHP

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    If there were a first-quarter season Cy Young Award, Clay Buchholz might have it in the bag.

    The 28-year-old righty has been miraculous this season, boasting a pristine 6-0 record, complemented nicely by his 1.69 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. He leads the American League with 2.8 WAR, and has overpowered hitters all year, holding his opponents to a .560 OPS, and striking out 60 of them in 58.2 innings.

    Reports of Buchholz's alleged doctoring of baseballs, which surfaced after a game in Toronto earlier in May, threatened to sully the his hot start to the 2013 season. In his next start, Buchholz scuffled a little early, giving up two runs in the first inning against the Twins.

    Since that frame, he has got back on track, surrendering just four runs in 13.0 innings, including an eight-inning, two-run performance against the Blue Jays.

    Buchholz has been the MVP of this team, giving them a true ace at the top of the rotation. While it is a unlikely Buchholz will remain as unhittable as he has been, continued excellence will be required of him if the Red Sox hope to contend for a playoff spot.

    Grade: A

Jon Lester, LHP

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    Clay Buchholz has rightfully received all the attention, but Jon Lester has put together a fine season himself.

    After a dismal 2012 campaign, Lester have proven that he is truly a top pitcher in the league.

    But for a subpar outing in Toronto, Lester has been astounding. Like Buchholz, Lester has a lossless record. To go along with that 5-0 mark, he has a nifty ERA of 2.73 and a WHIP of 0.99.  

    His most recent outing underscores his brilliance. Lester went the distance in a crucial game against the Blue Jays, relinquishing a single hit and zero walks over a full nine frames, giving the Red Sox a 5-0 win.

    The win was even more prolific given that his team was coming off a 1-6 stretch. The complete game saved a tired bullpen from the taxing innings it incurred over the losing stretch.

    The kind of presence that Lester brings to the front of the rotation is special. It is nice to see the Red Sox have their ace back in top form, at least for his first eight starts of the season.

    Grade: A-

Ryan Dempster, RHP

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    One of the travesties of baseball statistics is that wins are overly stocked among pitchers. When it comes down to it, baseball is a team game.

    Ryan Dempster's debut season with the Red Sox is a testament to this fact. He has been good so far in Boston, giving the Red Sox just what they wanted from their third starter. His record is a pretty disappointing 2-4, but his ERA is 3.75, and his WHIP sits at a brilliant 1.15.

    The most impressive part of Dempster's season has been his ability to strike batters out. He already has 61 punch-outs in just 48 innings. That number puts his strikeouts-per-nine at 11.44, which is fourth-best in all of baseball.

    While he has not been as good as either Lester or Buchholz, Dempster has been outstanding for a No. 3 starter. Given the expectations put on a 35-year-old starter, this has been as good a season as any Red Sox supporter could have wished for. If he continues to pitch like this, Dempster should find the wins he has been lacking thus far.

    Grade: B

John Lackey, RHP

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    The toughest thing about grading John Lackey is figuring out what standard we compare him to.

    Is it the standard we hold pitchers playing for $82.5 million contracts?

    If so, he gets a flat D.

    If we are grading him as a guy who is coming off a 2011 where his ERA looked more like Adrian Peterson's yards per carry, and a 2012 that was spent recovering from Tommy John surgery, we can give him a B.

    But the fairest standard lies somewhere between the two. And Lackey has given the Red Sox all they could have expected of him so far this season.

    While his record stands at 1-4, he has kept his ERA at a respectable 4.05, and has stuck out 27 batters in 26.2 innings. Those numbers have been compiled over just five starts, because Lackey missed a couple turns with a biceps injury.

    His ERA might be a little deceiving, as he surrendered four unearned runs in the sixth inning of a May 7 start against the Minnesota Twins, all of which came after Lackey committed a throwing error earlier in the inning.

    Lackey has given the Red Sox a dependable fourth starter, and consistency from him will be vital down the stretch run. Again, if he weren't paid so much, his mark might be a little higher.

    Grade: C-

Felix Doubront, LHP

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    The Red Sox certainly wish the Jacoby Ellsbury-for-Felix Hernandez rumors had come to fruition, because their current Felix is no king at all.

    That might be a little harsh way to introduce a 25-year-old pitcher who has had little experience in the big leagues, but his play calls for nothing kinder.

    He entered spring training out of shape, and he has been spiraling from mediocrity to dreadfulness.

    Over his first four starts of the season, he kept his ERA at 4.24, and compiled a nifty 3-0 record. His record belies his actual pitching performances, though, as he labored through every start, and was spotted at least six runs of support each time out.

    In his past two outings, that ERA has ballooned to 6.40, and his WHIP sits at 1.82. Those numbers are not indicative of a player who should be starting games in the majors.

    He has lost so much speed off his fastball, that he has become incredibly hittable. The Red Sox brass are befuddled by the dip in his velocity, which seems to a big part of his issue. If he is to turn things around, Doubront needs to get that figured out.

    Doubront is a four-A pitcher who seems to be regressing before our eyes. But, given the paucity of starting pitching depth available on the trading market, the Red Sox might be stuck with him. If fortune holds, he will not be handed the ball if the Red Sox make it to the postseason.

    Grade: D+

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF

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    When Jacoby Ellsbury is healthy, he is someone fans have come to expect a lot out of.

    In 2011, he finished second in AL MVP voting, largely due to his .321 batting average, 32 home runs, 105 RBI and 39 stolen bases.

    In a contract year, one would expect Ellsbury to have the extra incentive to perform as he did two years ago to build a strong case for some team to make a long-term investment in him.

    That has not been the case out of the gate, as Ellsbury has posted the very pedestrian numbers of one home run and 13 RBI, to go along with a .256 batting average and a .321 on-base percentage.

    He has been a dynamic player when he finds his way onto the base paths, leading the league in steals with 12. He has also scored 22 runs in 39 games, which is pretty great considering the low percentage of time he has reached base.

    The best that can be said about Ellsbury is that he has played in every game this season, while posting a solid 0.6 defensive WAR in center field. As far as expectations go, however, Ellsbury has been a huge disappointment, and must be better if the Red Sox hope to contend late in the season.

    Grade: D

Shane Victorino, RF

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    Shane Victorino has begun his Red Sox career very nicely.

    Victorino has a .297 batting average in his Boston tenure, to go along with a .358 on-base percentage. He has been a productive run scorer, touching home 18 times in 30 games played this season.

    Victorino's speed has slotted nicely into the spacious right field at Fenway Park. Over the season, he has yet to make an error, and has posted a 0.8 defensive WAR. He has the athleticism to cover a lot of ground out there, and along with Jacoby Ellsbury, the right side of the outfield is secure.

    As good as Victorino's stats are this season, a lot of his value has come from his gritty play. In a May 13 game against the Blue Jays, he ran into the right-field wall at Fenway Park trying to rob a home run. Though plays like that can put a player on the disabled list, it is a breath of fresh air to see that kind of effort from a ballplayer.

    His intangibles have not gone unnoticed, either. Victorino has been a great clubhouse personality for his entire career, a characteristic that the Red Sox have been missing for the past couple seasons. He won a World Series in Philadelphia, and brings the kind of winning, veteran leadership that guys like Adrian Gonzalez simply did not have.  

    Grade: A-

Dustin Pedroia, 2B

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    If someone were to consider only home run totals, Dustin Pedroia's 2013 grade could fairly be matched by the initial of his first name.

    Fortunately, the 29-year-old second baseman brings more to the table than just round-trippers.

    Pedroia has been Boston's most consistent player this season, contributing both at the plate and in the field.

    Aside from home runs, Pedroia has been his usual self at the plate, hitting .331 on the season, and posting a .423 on-base percentage. He has swiped eight bags on the season, against a single failed attempt.

    The one detractor from his excellent quarter-season at the plate has been his lack of power. He has just 10 extra-base hits on the season, only one of which is a home run.

    In the field, he has brought his usual matchless defense, committing no errors on the season. He ranks fourth in the league among second basemen with a 0.7 defensive WAR.

    Overall, there is little to complain about the perennial All-Star's performance thus far. He has been certifiably excellent a quarter of the way through.

    Grade: A-

David Ortiz, DH

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    David Ortiz has put together a very nice beginning to the 2013 season.

    Without a spring training, Ortiz came back from an Achilles tendon injury on April 20 as hot as ever.

    Ortiz collected hits in each of his first 15 games in 2013, extending his hitting streak from last season to 27 games. That streak included multi-hit games in seven of his first nine starts, as well as 17 RBI.

    He has cooled down since, but his stat line is still quite impressive. The 37-year-old has a batting average of .329, an on-base percentage of .365, and a RBI total of 20. Those numbers fit nicely with the nine doubles and five home runs he has hit in this young season.

    Ortiz continues to prove the critics wrong and play productive baseball late into his career. This Red Sox legend gets very high marks for the beginning to his 11th season in Boston.

    Grade: A

Mike Napoli, 1B

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    While Mike Napoli is probably upset that his three-year, $39 million deal was nixed because of concerns about his hips, he is not showing it on the field.

    He has given the Red Sox a run-producing right-handed bat in the middle of their order. In the 39 games he has played this season, Napoli has achieved a .361 batting average, a .319 on-base percentage and a .523 slugging percentage.

    The most impressive of his statistics are his 33 RBI and his 17 doubles. The RBI number is tied for third-best in the American League, while the doubles number paces the majors.

    His numbers have come in bunches this season, with 31 of his RBI coming before May 2, and 14 of his doubles before that date.

    The Red Sox were 19-8 during that stretch, and have gone 3-9 since, underscoring the importance that Napoli brings to the lineup. A lot of what the Red Sox offense will be able to do for the remainder of the season will hinge on Napoli's ability to drive in runs in the middle of the order.

    Grade: A-

Daniel Nava, LF

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    Considering how deeply buried Daniel Nava was on the depth chart at the beginning of the season, his performance has been fantastic.

    After Jackie Bradley Jr. vacated the left field spot, Nava quickly gave Boston a viable option at that position. He has been the most pleasant surprise on the roster this season, posting a batting average of .288, an on-base percentage of .391 and a slugging percentage of .500.

    Additionally, he has hit five home runs, driven in 24 RBI and scored 21 runs, all in the span of just 32 games. One of his five home runs was one of the most memorable moments of the season thus far. On April 20, just five days after the tragic events at the Boston Marathon, Nava hit a memorable three-run game winning shot against the Kansas City Royals.

    Nava's season would be good by any standards, but for a player who was not expected to be more than a fourth or fifth outfielder, he has been incredible.

    Grade: A

Will Middlebrooks, 3B

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    After collecting 15 home runs and 54 RBI in his first 75 games of big-league action last season, Will Middlebrooks seemed well-positioned to give the Red Sox a power bat in the middle of their lineup.

    The right-handed hitting third baseman has not delivered on that promise thus far, as he has provided nothing but a black hole in Boston's lineup.

    Middlebrooks has posted a woeful .200 batting average in 2013, to go along with an unacceptable .231 on-base percentage. His six home runs and 13 RBI hardly make those dreadful numbers worthwhile. His 44 strikeouts and just five walks don't make much of a case for him, either.

    On a slightly more positive note, his .932 fielding percentage and -0.6 defensive WAR don't seem to be indicative of the defense he has played at the hot corner. Still, even Brooks Robinson's glove wouldn't begin to make up for those putrid numbers at the plate.

    The Red Sox hope that Middlebrooks is simply in the midst of a sophomore slump. If not, and his current level of production persists, their third baseman of the future may yet to be on the roster.

    Grade: D-

Stephen Drew, SS

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    Stephen Drew battled through a concussion to begin the season. When he finally saw the field, he then battled through a horrid slump, during which he batted .119 in his first 13 games.

    After that time, Drew has certainly improved. Since April 27, he has batted .321 and has posted an on-base percentage of .358. 

    He continues to be a solid shortstop in the field, as well. He has a very respectable .990 fielding percentage, as well as a 0.5 defensive WAR.

    The recent hot streak aside, Drew is a player who has hit .232 on the season and driven in just 14 runs. Prognostications might be rightfully positive, but as it stands, his contributions to the Red Sox over the first quarter of the season have been spotty and subpar.

    Grade: C-

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C

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    If this report card were given a month ago, there is little doubt that Jarrod Saltalamacchia would have been lucky to skate by with a D.

    After the first game of a double header against the Kansas City Royals, Saltalamacchia's average sat at .205, and his on-base percentage rested at .286. Other than his three Opening Day walks, he reached base on free passes just twice in 12 games and struck out 17 times in that span.

    In the 16 games since that time, his play has shown marked improvement. His batting average and on-base percentage during that time have been .314 and .375, respectively. Though he has struck out 19 times over that recent stretch of games, at least he is making it count when he makes contact.

    His defensive inabilities have cost the Red Sox in the field. Other than Carlos Santana, his -0.5 defensive WAR the lowest of any catcher in the majors. Additionally, he has caught only 6.3 percent of potential base stealers, putting him last in the league in that category.

    Not making matters any better is the fact that Red Sox pitchers have a 4.80 ERA when Saltalamacchia is behind the plate. That's a far cry from the 2.69 ERA they post when teammate David Ross is catching.

    With his terrible defense and his inconsistencies at the plate, Saltalamacchia has been one of the weakest links of the Red Sox this season. His recent improvement at the plate is all that saves him from getting a failing mark.

    Grade: D+

Bullpen

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    Entering the 2013 season, bullpen issues were at the bottom of the list of concerns regarding the Red Sox.

    The team had traded for two-time All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, signed the phenomenal Koji Uehara and anticipated the recovery of former closer Andrew Bailey. In addition to the returns of Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa, the relief staff seemed to be in great position.

    Flash forward to mid-May, and all that has gone out the window. Hanrahan has endured two DL stints, including a current one necessitated by season-ending Tommy John surgery. When healthy, Hanrahan was nothing like advertised, posting a 9.82 ERA to go along with a pair of blown saves in just nine appearances.

    Bailey, though effective when healthy, has yet to shake concerns about his durability, as he has already found himself nursing an early-season biceps injury.

    Miller has regressed to his old self, giving the team 18 strikeouts in just 10.0 innings, but sporting a 5.40 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in the process.

    Tazawa has been forced into the closer's role, and he has two blown saves against zero successful ones. Those numbers make Red Sox fans feel wish the 26-year-old could go back to being a dominant seventh or eighth inning man, rather than a spotty closer.

    As a unit, the Red Sox bullpen has posted a 4.62 ERA, second worst in the American League. They have also blown six of 21 save opportunities, which comes out to a dismal 60 percent conversion rate.

    In hindsight, if the Red Sox organization had made the right moves, the bullpen might be one of the strengths this year.

    After the 2011 season, Boston chose to let closer Jonathan Papelbon walk in free agency and join the Philadelphia Phillies. Papelbon has been one of the few bright spots of the past couple seasons in Philadelphia, converting 45 of his 49 save opportunities.

    The Red Sox should be getting Bailey back in a week or so, which should help get things back in order a little for the bullpen. But as it stands, the bullpen has been the weakest point for the 2013 Red Sox.

    Grade: D-