The Red Sox had a day off on April 18. They’d just lost two in a row at Yankee Stadium. They were three weeks into the season, and they’d won only six times. They were seven games below .500, 8 1/2 games out of first place.
Their record through 19 games: 6-13.
The Red Sox had another day off on Thursday. They’d just won two in a row at Camden Yards. Another three weeks had passed, and the Sox had won 13 times. They’d played their way to a .500 record and pulled within five games of the division lead.
Their record the past 19 games: 13-6.
As bad as they were when the season started, the Red Sox have been a mirror image since that one-day break in the middle of April. They’ve played their way back to a 19-19 record with the Mariners coming to Fenway Park on Friday. Seems fitting that the Red Sox faced that same Mariners team in the first series of the year.
“I don’t want to say the season starts Friday,” manager Alex Cora said. “But, the season starts Friday.”
Obviously, that’s not entirely true. The Red Sox are still in a hole. Getting back to .500 doesn’t erase the damage done, but it does offer a fresh perspective and context in which to look at these past six weeks. It’s almost as if one team played the first three weeks, and a whole new team played the next three weeks.
Throughout the winter and into spring training, the Red Sox made clear that their rotation would be their strength. But it didn’t play out that way when the season started. Here are the numbers for the team’s starting pitchers:
Arguably nothing captured the Red Sox early woes like the struggles of Chris Sale. The Red Sox ace wasn’t himself in any way. His fastball velocity was down, his ERA was up, and the Red Sox lost each of his first six starts. This from the guy who might have been the Cy Young winner last year if not for a late shoulder injury.
- • Sale in the first 19 games: Four starts, 18 innings, 8.50 ERA.
• Sale in the past 19 games: Four starts, 26 innings, 1.73 ERA.
Rick Porcello was in a similar boat, going from an 11.12 ERA in the first three weeks to a 2.45 in the past three weeks. Eduardo Rodriguez went from a 7.98 to a 3.68. Only David Price has held steady with roughly a 3.75 ERA throughout.
The Red Sox are getting inconsistency from their spot starters filling in for the injured Nathan Eovaldi, but the rest of their rotation has turned a corner in a big way.
One hard-to-quantify aspect of the rotation’s improvement is the return of Sandy Leon. Leon arrived on April 16 – right before the Red Sox got on a roll – and he’s become the primary catcher for Sale and Porcello. The Red Sox have won six of the eight games Leon has started behind the plate including each of his past five.
There’s good and bad in the Red Sox bullpen, and it’s been that way all year. Their top relievers have been good in the late innings, but their other bullpen arms have been vulnerable in the middle. One big difference between the first three weeks and the last three weeks is how often Cora’s been able to use his top guys.
- • Most relief innings in the first 19 games: Heath Hembree (9 games, 10 innings), Tyler Thornburg (8 games, 8 1/3 innings), Ryan Brasier (9 games, 8 1/3 innings).
• Most relief innings in the past 19 games: Marcus Walden (8 games, 12 1/3 innings), Brandon Workman(10 games, 10 innings), Matt Barnes(9 games, 9 innings)
That’s a pretty clear divide. In those first three weeks, the back-end relievers might have been pitching well, but there weren’t enough opportunities to use them in key situations. Workman pitched in nine games during that time, but only 7 1/3 innings total. Walden pitched eight innings during that span, but he had not yet emerged as a high-leverage option.
More recently, Walden’s become a go-to option for keeping winnable games in reach, while Workman and Barnes have been trusted regularly with late leads. No other Red Sox reliever has pitched more than 7 1/3 innings these past three weeks
Worth noting, too, that Hembree has become a much better middle-inning option, cutting opponents’ OPS 100 points in the past three weeks compared to the first three weeks. Little surprise that he was ultimately trusted to get his first career save when Wednesday’s game went into extra innings.
Second base playing time
Second base was the position of least predictability heading into this season. That was largely because of Dustin Pedroia’s return from knee surgery, but also because of uncertainty about how often and how well Eduardo Nunez and Brock Holt would play. As it turned out, the real wild card at the position might have been a slugging third baseman in Triple-A.
Here are the number of second base starts during the first and second chunks of this season:
- • First 19 games: Nunez 10, Pedroia 4, Holt 4, Christian Vazquez 1
• Past 19 games: Michael Chavis 13, Tzu-Wei Lin 4, Nunez 2
Things got so desperate in those first three weeks that Vazquez made his first big league appearance at second base. The Red Sox were thin, they were banged up, and they were struggling.
The team’s second basemen in the first three weeks combined for a .337 OPS and a negative-13 wRC+. Not sure what wRC+ means? Well, a score of 100 is considered league average and the Red Sox were 13 points below zero! Only one other team had a score below 35 in that time frame. The Red Sox second basemen were shockingly bad.
Then Chavis showed up.
He joined the team on April 19, so his debut coincided perfectly with the turnaround. Since he showed up, the Red Sox second base production is up to 96 wRC+, while Chavis alone – seeing time also at first and third – has a 177 wRC+ with a 1.060 OPS. He’s provided the impact and the stability the Red Sox lacked those first three weeks.
It likely goes without saying that the whole offense has been better in recent weeks. The Red Sox had a .675 OPS in their first 19 games and a .798 OPS in their past 19 games. They’re still not as potent as last season, but they have gone from ranking 20th in runs scored during the first three weeks, to scoring the third-most runs in baseball the past three weeks.
Can’t pin all of that on one guy, but the difference in Mookie Betts’ numbers is fairly stunning.
Betts’ turnaround came exactly as the Red Sox started winning. He went 0-for-10 in three straight games April 15-17, and after the April 18 off day, he promptly went 6-for-12 during the three-game sweep April 19-21.
Since he found some traction, Betts has spent three weeks hitting beyond his MVP numbers of a year ago. He’s been so good, in fact, that he’s back among the top 25 players in baseball according to FanGraphs’ WAR. His OPS has even climbed ahead of J.D. Martinez, who was one of the few bright spots early in the year, but whose numbers have actually declined during the team’s hot streak.
Adding Chavis to the lineup, getting more extra-base hits from Rafael Devers and more consistent production from Christian Vazquez has also helped the offensive turnaround, but there’s no one quite like Betts on the Red Sox roster, and as he played better, so did the team.