Many pre-season predictions viewed the Boston Red Sox as a last-place AL East team this season.
At the midseason mark of the midsummer classic however, Boston holds the American League’s best record at 58-39 and a 2.5 game lead over the Rays.
Naysayers will naysay that Boston’s success thus far can be attributed to luck and chance, but the Sox record refutes that. The most impressive part of their early success is the adversity they’ve worked through such as injuries and unexpectedly poor performance from some.
The problems begin with Stephen Drew’s services. His .233 batting average and hamstring injury contributed to him losing the starting Shortstop job. Star Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s lack of power continues to worsen; he’s hit 6 homers in his last two seasons after hitting 32 in 2011. Shane Victorino’s continued regression at the dish and Will Middlebrooks severe sophomore slump, climaxing in a demotion to AAA, are all issues for the club.
The bullpen, thought to be a Sox strongpoint, has seen a general collapse. Joel Hanrahan, acquired from Pittsburgh to be the dominant Closer, underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in May. Andrew Bailey, Hanrahan’s replacement, has converted as many saves (8) as he’s blown (5). Bailey’s ineffective pitching forced the Sox to move on to their third closer in as many months with Koji Uehara. Injuries to bullpen stalwarts Franklin Morales and Andrew Miller have also decreased the depth for the Sox.
Boston re-acquired their former pitching coach John Farrell from Toronto this offseason to manage the team. They hoped the pitching savant would reclaim Sox pitchers with his mound inclined mind. Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester led the project list. Initial fruition was immediate. Bucholz owns a Major League-leading 1.71 ERA and a sparkling 9-0 record. Lester had a 4-0 April with a 3.11 ERA. The success was fleeting as Bucholz landed on the Disabled List on June 18th with a neck strain and isn’t expected back until late July; he’s missed six starts thus far. Lester’s performance also ebbed to a 2-2 June with a 7.62 ERA.
Though Lester and Bucholz’s stats scream “Regression!” the Sox team hasn’t slid back at all. Boston has regular records in close games as an indicator that the Sox can be believed in. The Sox are an average 10-7 in one-run contests and 4-2 in extra innings. That sort of record exhibits sustainability because they weren’t doing too well, they weren’t just getting lucky. They were, as the old baseball mantra goes, winning some and losing some. That shows the team is on an even keel and can endure the hardship of defeat after a long, tough contest.
Some think they’ve found why the Sox are fortuitous this season. In the June 24th issue of Sports Illustrated, Joe Sheehan cited the fact that Farrell has used 52 different batting orders in 70 games as a reason for success. He juxtaposed the Sox with the less successful Detroit Tigers, leaders of the AL-Central, who have employed only 43 different batting orders in the same span. I’m all for doing what works, but it appears that a constantly changing order possesses little correlation with success. For example, the 2004 Red Sox won it all using 141 different lineups in 162 games, but the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, who also won the World Series, used nearly half with 77. Teams can win either way.
After all the maladies (the team’s Disabled List looks as large as their roster), a failure to produce from vital positions, and bullpen woes, the Sox are still in first place. Boston remains a contender despite all of those grievances and there’s no reason why they won’t get better as they get healthier. From a team that was forecasted to be a division cellar-dweller, forecasted to be less talented, forecasted to be rebuilding it still wouldn’t be a shock if they made the post-season. Such is the way of Boston sustaining their surprising success.