This week’s All-Star Break marks the unofficial end of the first half of the baseball season, and the Red Sox are exactly where they want to be: first in the AL East, best record in the American League. Boston’s vaunted offense ranks first in the majors in batting average, runs, on-base and slugging. Boston’s pitching is holding opposing teams to a .239 average, fifth-lowest. And the defense ranks ranks second in the AL in errors and third in fielding percentage.
This Red Sox squad finds way to win without ever being 100 percent healthy. The thought of a healthy squad strikes terror in opposing pitchers and teams.
Here are five other thoughts from the first 90 games:
1) Adrian Gonzalez has come as advertised. Say what you will about Theo Epstein’s inability to gauge major-league talent, but he hit the nail on the head with Gonzalez, tied for tops in the majors with a .354 average. He leads the league with 128 hits, 29 doubles and 77 RBIs. He also ranks first in total bases (213) and extra-base hits (48). His .591 slugging and 1.006 OPS rank him second in the AL. Gonzalez has perfect mechanics and a gorgeous swing, and it’s worked out rather well for him. As Epstein thought, Fenway has been a godsend for Gonzalez, who is batting .382 with 21 extra-base hits at home. He also plays near-perfect defense.
2) Odd-numbered years continue to work for Josh Beckett. As has been the case for Josh Beckett’s entire career in Boston, Beckett has bounced back from a terrible 2010 with a fantastic 2011, to the tune of an 8-3 record, a 2.27 ERA, and a .187 opposing batting average. Just as important if not more so has been Beckett’s health. Four Red Sox starters have gone on the DL this season, but Beckett hasn’t. He leads all active Red Sox pitchers with 17 starts – 12 quality starts – and 111.0 innings. Jon Lester’s challenge for Beckett’s job as staff ace has lit a competitive fire in Beckett, and the Red Sox have benefited from the competition. The Red Sox will need both Beckett and Lester (and Clay Buchholz) to win in the playoffs, but Beckett has single-handedly made sure that no Red Sox losing streak lasts too long.
3) Red Sox need a right-handed outfielder. All three of Boston’s starting outfielders – Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew – are lefties, as is backup/recent starter Josh Reddick. Ellsbury hasn’t had a problem with lefty pitchers, getting on base at a .328 clip. Crawford (.207 OBP) and Drew (.209 BA), however, have. The Red Sox need a right-handed option in the outfield, and Darnell McDonald, with his .143 batting average, no power and almost 5-1 strikeout-walk ratio, isn’t it. So who might they go after? I’m liking Milwaukee’s Corey Hart, a right-fielder who can also play left and center. He’s a .270 hitter this season who’s good against lefties (.294 career average) and has some power (23 extra-base hits, including 10 homers). With Hart on the books for $4.8 million this season, the Red Sox wouldn’t have to pay much more than $2 million to rent him through October. The Brewers are looking to deal, and the Red Sox have the prospects to get him. If not Hart, Boston might try for San Francisco’s Cody Hart, a cheap corner outfielder who’s hitting .314 against lefties this season.
4) Bottom third of the lineup still looks vulnerable: The Red Sox are fine 1-6 in the lineup, but their 7-9 hitters? Not so much. Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Jason Varitek (doesn’t matter), and Marco Scutaro have batted a combined .245, with 54 extra-base hits between them. They have struck out a combined 155 times. The Red Sox lineup will get stronger after the return of Crawford and Jed Lowrie, provided they return to their pre-injury hot streaks, and so far Saltalamacchia has been the slightly better offensive catcher (.437 vs. 435 slugging). Lester’s injury should mean less games for Varitek, who needs to catch Beckett and Lester but no one else. The lineup has the potential to lengthen over the next few weeks, but until it does, Boston’s power hitters will need to continue to rake, because after Reddick the team’s scoring chances shrink considerably.
5) Bullpen finds a way to work, it just isn’t always pretty. Boston’s bullpen ranks eighth in the AL with a .239 opposing batting average, and ninth with a 3.64 ERA. They’ve thrown 259.1 innings, fourth-most in the AL. Of the 14 AL relievers with double-digit saves this season, Jonathan Papelbon ranks 10th with a 3.93 ERA. The bullpen isn’t exactly “dominant,” and yet it works. Boston’s relievers have blown only seven saves, tied for third-fewest in the AL, and have held opposing hitters to .372 slugging, fourth-lowest. Daniel Bard has been an absolute rock, now on a scoreless streak of 19.1 innings that stretches across 18 appearances since giving up a run on May 23 against the Indians (his last blown save and loss). Bard leads the AL with 21 holds, and his .164 BAA ranks fourth among relievers with 20+ innings. Add in Matt Albers‘ 2.55 ERA (on pace to be a career-best), .221 BAA and ability to pitch multiple innings, and you have a bullpen that pieces together wins despite injuries, poor signings (Bobby Jenks and to a lesser extent Dan Wheeler) and an at-times frustrating closer.