As the second month of the 2014 MLB season gets underway, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox are a .500 ball club. While there is still a lot of baseball remaining, Boston has already played roughly 20 percent of the games on its schedule. That's enough of a sample size to begin to make some conclusions about this year's edition of the Red Sox. Here are the five biggest takeaways based on what we've seen so far:
1. Jon Lester is Pitching Like an Ace
Don't let his 3-4 record fool you. Lester hasn't given up more than four earned runs in any of his seven outings, and he's allowed two or fewer in five of them. Unfortunately for him the Red Sox are averaging just 2.57 runs per game when he's on the mound.
Lester has thrown 48.2 innings, the most in the American League for pitchers who have yet to make eight starts. His 58 strikeouts rank him second in the AL, and his 2.59 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and .277 opponent's on-base percentage are all in the top 10.
In a vintage effort that will be placed right up next to his no-hitter in 2008 and his many outstanding postseason performances, Lester struck out a career-high 15 in eight shutout innings of a 6-3 win over Oakland on Saturday. It was the most strikeouts by a Red Sox pitcher since Pedro Martinez more than 13 years ago and the highest total for a Boston lefty in a nine-inning game. Ever.
Lester has anchored a pitching staff with a 3.61 ERA overall, good for third best in the AL. Boston's offense is the bigger issue, in large part because...
2. The Red Sox Miss Jacoby Ellsbury
In 2013, Ellsbury batted leadoff in 134 games for Boston, hitting .298 with a .355 on-base percentage. This season Red Sox leadoff men are batting a combined .221 with an OBP of .309. Through 34 games Boston has also used five different players at the top of the order—although Dustin Pedroia now appears to be settling into the role, having hit first in the Red Sox's last 12 contests.
In addition to Ellsbury's spark at the beginning of the lineup, Boston sorely misses his speed as well. As a team the Red Sox have stolen 11 bases this year, dead last in the American League and just one more than the 10 Ellsbury has on his own.
In 2013 Boston scored an average of 5.27 runs per game, but this season that number is down to 4.15. While the departure of Ellsbury is definitely a contributing factor, it's far from the only reason...
3. Everybody Needs to Start Hitting
The Red Sox led all of baseball in runs scored a season ago, and by a wide margin (853, to the second-place Detroit Tigers' 796). To this point in 2014 Boston is tied for thirteenth. Last year the Red Sox's team batting average was .277, currently it stands at .247.
Three regulars are hitting .225 (Jonny Gomes) or below (Will Middlebrooks, .216 and Jackie Bradley Jr., .210), and Daniel Nava was batting just .149 before getting demoted to Triple-A.
Boston's stars are underperforming as well. Dustin Pedroia is a career .302 hitter but is only batting .284, while David Ortiz's .258 average is well below his career mark of .286.
The offense will likely heat up as the season continues, but...
4. It's not 2013
The Red Sox caught lightning in a bottle last year, turning a 69-93 team from 2012 into World Series winners 12 months later. It's unreasonable to expect all the same magic to happen again in 2014.
Thirty-eight-year-old Koji Uehara, the team's third option at closer after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey went down with injuries, became unhittable; posting a 1.09 ERA and 0.57 WHIP while striking out 101 batters in 74.1 innings.
Clay Buchholz went 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA in his first 12 starts before going on the disabled list in June.
Coming off Tommy John surgery, John Lackey (3.52 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) had his best season since 2007.
And David Ortiz, at 37 years old, batted .309 with 30 home runs and 103 RBI before putting forth one of the greatest World Series performances of all time (.688 average, .760 OPB).
Red Sox fans were somewhat spoiled by these and other unexpected surprises that led to 97 wins in 2013, and now we take it for granted and assume they'll all happen again. Luckily, they may not have to...
5. The AL East is Extremely Mediocre
As of May 9 Boston is 17-17 and in fourth place in the division. But it's only two games behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles, who are 18-14. The New York Yankees (18-15) and Toronto Blue Jays (18-17) are wedged in between, while even the last-place Tampa Bay Rays sit just 4.5 games out at 15-20.
Following a 4-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds that got Boston back to .500 for the first time since it was 2-2, first baseman Mike Napoli had this to say about his squad's outlook (via ESPN Boston's Gordon Edes):
Everyone's bunched up in our division. We know that. We're just trying to play good baseball.
It's going to be a tough division. I mean, the way we beat each other up, everyone's good. I expect it to be close, but do I believe in our team? Yeah. Do I believe we can win the division? Yeah. I don't see anyone going away from everyone. Good division. The players, pitchers, hitters, the way we all play the game. Should be fun.
It's quite possible the Red Sox won't need to repeat their greatness of 2013 in order to win the AL East this year. "Pretty good" may be enough to get the job done.
Statistics courtesy of RedSox.com.