At 52-34, the Boston Red Sox hold the best record in the American League. Just 10 months removed from a 69-93 fiasco, that statement is truly hard to believe. Justifiably, many Red Sox fans still harbor skepticism about the sustainability of this surprising squad.
This Red Sox team is not an indestructible juggernaut. There are visible flaws, from the team's head-scratching closer problems to inconsistency from several expected stalwarts. But in a wide-open American League, the Red Sox are still better off than most of their competition.
It's only July, and a quick look at the standings on July 1 of last season shows that not all goes according to plan. Still, here are four factors that will keep Boston playing into October.
Better Pitching Depth
For years, the Red Sox have had no response when injuries have inevitably hit their starting rotation. In 2011, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez rather pathetically tried to blame the team's collapse on injures, particularly to the starting rotation. Indeed, attrition clearly broke the starting staff, which finished with the worst September ERA in the entire league.
However, in spite of lengthy DL stints by ace Clay Buchholz and John Lackey, the spot starters have not totally collapsed as in years past. The Red Sox have already had eight different pitchers make a start. For perspective, that's close to what they typically use in an entire season.
After being exiled to Triple-A, Alfredo Aceves has delivered two wins in fill-in starts, posting a 1.64 ERA. Mid-rotation starters Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront have combined for 186 innings of above-average work, a necessary anchor given the flux at the top of their rotation.
The depth has been even more critical in the bullpen, where Boston relievers have pitched the most innings of any team. Under-the-radar acquisition Koji Uehara has been a godsend, pitching the second-most innings of any Sox reliever while also taking over for slumping Andrew Bailey as closer. In addition, fringe players like Alex Wilson and Andrew Miller have been among the most valuable performers thus far.
The high innings count is an undeniable concern, but one inflated by the Red Sox's AL-high 86 games played. As Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal notes, the toughest part of Boston's schedule is already behind them:
The Red Sox played 18 straight days in May and then played 29 games in 30 days in June, a bullpen-wringer if ever there was one. The Red Sox now have three relievers–Tazawa, Uehara and Andrew Miller–with at least 35 appearances.
And it's about to get a little easier. July started with a day off on Monday, and the All-Star break looms in just two weeks. There's no need for Farrell and Cherington to overreact to an arduous May and June schedule now that it's July.
With the return of Buchholz expected after the All-Star break, the bullpen should get some relief in the second half. More than any other unit, they need the midsummer respite to recharge for the stretch run.
A Complete Offense
The Red Sox are an offense without a weakness. Seriously, take a look. The team is in the top five or 10 of virtually every offensive category. Though some of that is due to the typically stellar production of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, it's the secondary players that have stepped up more than ever.
This season, the Red Sox have nine position players (min. 100 at-bats) who have compiled at least 1.0 WAR, and we're barely more than halfway through the season. For comparison, they only had 10 the entire year in 2012, and eight on the 90-win 2011 team.
Again, the key has been depth, as unheralded players like Daniel Nava and Mike Carp have kept the offense humming in the absence of Ortiz and Shane Victorino. The 30-year-old Nava has completed his remarkable journey to become a viable major league regular, while Carp has mashed right-handed starters to a slash line of .326/.393/.695. For reference, that would give him the second-highest slugging percentage in the majors.
Perhaps no win better epitomizes this invaluable depth than last Sunday's win over the Blue Jays, when career minor leaguer Brandon Snyder scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth after the Jays had just tied it in the top of the inning. Per Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston, Manager John Farrell noted how the bench's consistency has been a huge asset in the team's impressive record:
Farrell said the record speaks to the team's consistency, and the depth of the roster, underscored again on a day in which DH David Ortiz and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia were given the afternoon off.
It's been well-documented, those guys that have needed days off and guys that have been missed for periods of time, Farrell said. There's been some inconsistencies performance-wise. But I think it just speaks to the overall depth of this team.
Last year, a series of debilitating injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks and Ortiz thrust the likes of Marlon Byrd and Scott Podsednik into the limelight, and no one could pick up the slack. Of course, it never hurts to have your best players healthy.
Clay Buchholz's puzzling situation notwithstanding, the Red Sox have enjoyed fairly solid health and no catastrophic long-term injuries. So far, no cracked ribs, shoulder subluxations, broken feet or strained Achilles have sidetracked any of Boston's most valuable players (knock on wood).
That stroke of luck has enabled the Red Sox's stars to sustain a stable foundation of production that teams like, say, the Yankees, haven't enjoyed. Ortiz is third in OPS at 1.009. Pedroia is sixth in OBP at .405. And most refreshingly, Ellsbury once again leads the majors with 33 stolen bases.
Indeed, Ellsbury's speed and high on-base percentage is an invaluable asset that's gotten a bit overlooked this year due to the lack of power production. Ellsbury may never hit 32 home runs in a season again, but that was never his role in the first place. In fact, his leadoff skills have actually put him on pace to create more runs (wRC+) than he did in his MVP runner-up campaign.
Besides luck with injuries, Ellsbury's resurgence could be a byproduct of increased focus on the field. Earlier this season, it appeared he was pressing and swinging for the fences every pitch, the shadow of 2011 clearly looming over his psyche. However, according to Andrew Luistro of Yahoo, the tabling of contract discussions has allowed Ellsbury to focus on his natural skill set:
Perhaps the biggest thing Ellsbury must keep out of his mind is the fact that he's playing for a contract. Early in the season he was taking big swings–seemingly trying to earn millions with each–and generally looked like he lacked the subtle confidence he once had.
So when news broke on May 23 that general manager Ben Cherrington and Ellsbury's agent Scott Boras had always agreed to wait on talking numbers until after the season was over, it was curious timing to say the least. Oddly enough, that announcement has almost perfectly coincided with his dramatic turn around.
If the core of Ortiz, Pedroia and Ellsbury can continue wreaking havoc atop the lineup, it would alleviate lots of pressure off the stretched pitching staff.
John Farrell and the Clubhouse
"[He] is not going to be the guy who's cracking the whip. I can tell you that right now. He's going to be a players' manager, but he's going to command respect...I think what [He's] going to try to do is demand that players be professional."
Those were former Mets GM Omar Minaya's words upon the Red Sox's hiring of Bobby Valentine before last season. Unlike Valentine, Farrell has actually succeeded in managing large personalities in arguably the most pressure-packed job in baseball.
While the front office helped out by adding reputable high-character players, the large majority of the 2012 disaster remains in place. Consequently, it seems unfair to excoriate the players' behavior when their manager humiliated them by doing things like this and this.
Although some have pointed out Farrell's somewhat mediocre game-management skills, he hasn't been a Charlie Manuel-esque disaster. With the talent already in place, Farrell's main priority was holding together a clubhouse that clearly cracked under the pressure of the past two seasons.
True, this isn't exactly the most scientific factor in the Red Sox's success. There are no sabermetrics to measure clubhouse unity or a manger's people skills, though you don't need Bill James to tell you that Farrell immensely surpasses Valentine in this regard.
But Farrell's calm, laid-back demeanor is reminiscent of the golden years during Terry Francona's tenure, when his relationships with the players instilled a sense of trust that propelled the team to consistent championship levels. With a Francona disciple back at the helm, it seems safe to believe in the Red Sox once again.
*All stats courtesy Fangraphs.com. Stats accurate as of Thursday, July 4.