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It's Early, but the Red-Hot Red Sox Are a Problem for Cold Yankees and AL East

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 15, 2021

Boston Red Sox's J.D. Martinez, right, is greeted near home plate by Xander Bogaerts after hitting a solo home run off Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Jorge Lopez during the third inning of a baseball game, Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Following a three-game sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles to open their 2021 season, the Boston Red Sox were right back where they ended up in 2020: last place in the American League East.

Well, now they're in first place.

The Red Sox have taken the quickest route to the top, responding to their opening flop by winning nine straight against the Tampa Bay Rays, Orioles and Minnesota Twins. The winning streak is Boston's longest since 2018, which was a fairly good season for the franchise.

Because the season is only two weeks old, the Red Sox haven't rewritten the book on the division. But since the other four teams—including Boston's nemesis, the New York Yankees—are having issues striking sparks, it's not too soon for a lightly edited reassessment.

     

AL East Standings

  • 1. Boston Red Sox: 9-3
  • 2: Toronto Blue Jays: 6-6
  • 3: Baltimore Orioles: 5-6
  • T-4: New York Yankees: 5-7
  • T-4: Tampa Bay Rays: 5-7
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How the Red Sox Are Beating Expectations

Even after the Red Sox rehired manager Alex Cora and outfitted their roster with plenty of new faces during the offseason, it was nonetheless hard to find optimistic projections.

To wit, DraftKings set the over/under for their win total at 80.5 games. There's still a good chance the under will come to fruition, if for no other reason than the starting rotation remains highly suspect even though its ERA is down from 5.34 in 2020 to 4.03.

It's unclear how many innings Boston expects from ace left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez after he missed all of 2020 with a heart condition. Fireballers Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Richards come with durability questions of their own, while Martin Perez is really only good for five innings.

Setting aside the unlikely possibility that this house of cards will stay strong against any winds it encounters, the Red Sox will need to excel in other areas to see their hot start through to the finish. Fortunately for them, they are already showing how they might do it.

For starters, the lineup has been terrific. It leads the American League with 72 runs, and that figure is backed by AL-high marks of a .283 average, .343 on-base percentage and .474 slugging percentage.

On an individual level, by far the most important development has been the return to form of J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers. As a duo, 2021 is looking a lot more like 2019 and a lot less like 2020 for them:

  • 2019: .927 OPS and 68 HR
  • 2020: .739 OPS and 18 HR
  • 2021: 1.165 OPS and 10 HR

More broadly, it's not a great look that the Red Sox have the lowest walk rate (7.1 percent) in the American League. Yet that's partially by design, as Cora has endorsed an aggressive style since his return to the manager's chair following his firing and temporary banishment in 2020.

As Cora put it last week, according to Jordan Horrobin of MLB.com: "I tell them, jokingly, that I live my offensive struggles through them. Kind of like, whatever I wanted to do, but I wasn't able to do; I love when they swing 3-0, I love when they swing 2-0. I didn't do that. It's kind of like my fantasy team, you know? Like, go ahead. It's cool."

Despite the dearth of walks, Boston is making it work. Courtesy of the AL's second-lowest strikeout rate (21.7 percent), it's making plenty of contact. What's more, only the San Diego Padres and Houston Astros are doing a better job of generating hard contact (95-plus mph) on a per-swing basis:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Meanwhile, lost in the shadow of the offense is a bullpen that's pitched better than even its solid 3.21 ERA indicates. Red Sox relievers have whiffed just over a quarter (26 percent) of the batters they've faced and, crucially, allowed just one home run.

There's good stuff between newcomers Adam Ottavino, Garrett Whitlock, Hirokazu Sawamura and Matt Andriese. Better yet, incumbent Matt Barnes is finally mixing in control to go with his swing-and-miss stuff. He's struck out 14 and walked just two of the 23 batters he's faced.

And while the Red Sox have limitations on defense, Cora has shown he can maximize his team's fielding efficiency by using his bench. For example, it was because Cora had inserted Enrique Hernandez into center field that Alex Verdugo was in position to make a game-saving catch in left field Wednesday.

      

How the Yankees Aren't Beating Expectations

Contrary to the Red Sox, the Yankees came into the year widely regarded as the team to beat in the AL East. Maybe even the entire AL, per their over/under of 95.5 wins.

But in light of last year's pedestrian 33-27 record and an offseason unmarked by big-ticket acquisitions, there always was room for pessimism on New York's chances. Naturally, there's even more room now.

Even after Aaron Judge slugged two home runs against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, the Yankees are still nowhere near the top of the AL in home runs (13, tied for seventh) or runs (48, tied for 12th). They certainly need more from slugger Giancarlo Stanton and shortstop Gleyber Torres, who have a .557 OPS and one homer between them.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The Yankees also have issues in their rotation. Though Gerrit Cole has been spectacular and Jordan Montgomery has been solid, the other three starters have a collective 7.36 ERA.

Because the lineup still has a lot in common with the home run and run-scoring machines that terrorized MLB from 2017 to 2020, chances are it will be fine. It will certainly help when reigning home run champion Luke Voit returns from knee surgery.

In the meantime, though, New York simply needs to do better than its .647 OPS with runners in scoring position. It also doesn't bode well that Judge, who missed nearly 40 percent of games with injuries from 2018 to 2020, has already had an injury scare.

Defense is still another concern in the Bronx, specifically as it relates to Torres' work at shortstop. He simply hasn't gotten the job done since he inherited the position from Didi Gregorius last season, prompting speculation that a trade might be in order.

The Yankees might also have to turn to the trade market for answers to their rotation problems. They've already had to option Domingo German. And while newcomers Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon might simply need time to get their legs under them after pitching all of one combined inning in 2020, it stands out that both hurlers (see here and here) are showing career-low velocity.

     

Elsewhere in the American League East

Since the Blue Jays and Rays likewise enjoyed playoff runs in 2020, it obviously wasn't just the Yankees the Red Sox were hoping to sneak up on.

But it's no fluke the Rays are struggling to conjure the magic that carried them to the World Series last season. They came into this year with major questions about their rotation after parting ways with Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. Those questions are now bright red flags with starters not named Tyler Glasnow bearing a 5.94 ERA.

With $150 million free-agent signee George Springer still working his way back from injuries, the Blue Jays deserve some credit for treading water as well as they have. Yet they can't be happy with their collective .235/.311/.389 slash line, much less the 9.53 ERA put up by starters Ross Stripling and Tanner Roark.

The Orioles, meanwhile, are doing just fine...to validate fans and pundits who wrote them off as contenders. Their hitters are getting on base at a .295 clip, and the post-John Means section of the rotation boasts an ugly 7.43 ERA.

All this is to say that the Red Sox must like what they see both within and without. And while mileage will vary regarding expectations, they've at least done enough to alter projections.

At the start of the season, FanGraphs had Boston's chances of winning the AL East about 7 percentage points lower than Toronto's and a whopping 57 percentage points lower than New York's. The Red Sox have since leapfrogged the former and are now just 31.6 percentage points from the latter.

In other words, what they're doing matters.

      

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.