The world champion Boston Red Sox stumbled out of the gate this year, posting a 13-16 record through May 1. Since then the Red Sox have won six of their last eight games and all three series they've played.
Now 19-18, Boston owns a winning record for the first time in nearly six weeks, and is only 1.5 games back of the division lead.
It is a small sample size, but that doesn't mean the recent success can't be attributed to an improving ballclub. Here are three specific areas in which the Red Sox have gotten better, all of which suggest Boston's current hot streak could be a sign of things to come:
1. Consistency at the Leadoff Spot
Boston began the season struggling to find a replacement for Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order. Red Sox hitters are batting just .231 from the leadoff position, with an on-base percentage of .324. Through its first 22 games, Boston used five different players at the beginning of the lineup.
However, it now appears the issue is resolved.
Dustin Pedroia has hit first in each of the Red Sox's last 15 contests. Like the rest of the team, Pedroia started slowly, batting only .264 with a .322 OPB and a .349 slugging percentage in April. But since the calender turned to May, Pedroia has reverted back to his All-Star form, hitting .341 with a .449 OPB and .610 SLG.
From Jason Mastrodonato of Mass Live, Red Sox manager John Farrell said the following about Pedroia bating leadoff full-time:
I just asked if he was open to it. Dustin is all about what we are as a team and doing whatever he can to best our needs and impact the game in a positive way. He's the ultimate unselfish player. Given our need, he's more than open to doing it, so there was no time limitation on this.
If Pedroia continues to put up numbers like we expect from his new spot in the order, it will make a world of difference for Boston's run production going forward.
2. A.J. Pierzynski is Settling in at Catcher
The Red Sox kept the same starting five from the rotation that won a championship a year ago, but they replaced regular catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia with A.J. Pierzynski. It should come as no surprise that this change might require an adjustment period before things begin to run smoothly.
In late April, the Boston Herald's John Tomase wrote:
Two weeks into the season, the Red Sox had the makings of a catching controversy.
Starter A.J. Pierzynski was struggling to adapt to a new pitching staff, and there appeared to be friction between the headstrong veteran and members of the rotation.
The Red Sox went 2-6 in Pierzynski’s first eight starts while he posted a catcher’s ERA of 4.50. Meanwhile, backup David Ross simultaneously piloted the Red Sox to a 5-1 record and an ERA of 2.00.
Pierzynksi has now started 25 games behind the plate for Boston, and his catcher's ERA stands at a very respectable 3.76, fifth-best in the American League. His .992 fielding percentage also ties him for fifth among AL backstops.
He’s an aggressive game-caller. I think I pitch pretty aggressively. I think I mesh pretty well, in fact. I think he’s right on with the rhythm thing. When things are flowing like that it does help to throw strikes for sure.
The 37-year-old Pierzynski is more than holding his own on offense as well. After batting .275 in April, he's hitting .286 in May, and his .277 season average is second to only Pedroia (.289) on the Red Sox. Pierzynski's 18 RBI are also tied for fourth-most in the AL by a catcher.
3. The Red Sox Are Now Healthy
When 22 percent of your starting lineup is on the DL, simply getting those players back in action can be enough to qualify as an improvement. Right fielder Shane Victorino missed Boston's first 22 games of the year, and third baseman Will Middlebrooks was out for 19 contests over the same time period.
Victorino's return to the No. 2 spot in the order helped facilitate Pedroia's transition to leading off.
Middlebrooks' comeback allowed weak-hitting Jonathan Herrera (.184 batting average, .184 slugging percentage) to reclaim his proper position on the bench as a utility infielder.
The Red Sox are 7-4 in the 11 games that both Victorino and Middlebrooks have played in. The ability to consistently run out its intended starting lineup should give Boston the added boost necessary to continue playing good baseball.
Statistics courtesy of RedSox.com.