Even though the All-Star break, the ‘midway point’ of the season, is still days away, Game 81 was earlier this week, which means the regular season is more than half over already.
It has been the weirdest, most confusing, frustrating first half. In some ways, it’s a relief that the season is flying by; in other, more real ways, the postseason or possible lack thereof is looming like the iceberg that took down the Titanic. Most of the time, all I can do is just laugh a very tired, borderline-psychotic laugh.
The Red Sox are not good. They’re not terrible (most of the time), but they should be doing so much better. The two words that come to mind almost every time I think about them are ‘unacceptable’ and ‘confounding.’ Because factually speaking, this team, comprised of these specific players, should be much better than they are.
That’s what makes it such a nightmare: it’s like being in the Twilight Zone, seeing things that look familiar, but weirdly distorted. This team is, but it isn’t.
It’s very ‘broken record’ to keep saying, “This is the same team that won a World Series and set a new franchise regular-season win record last fall!” over and over, but it’s the truth. And most of the time, this team would be the envy of almost every other Major League team. But instead, they’ve been making teams like the Orioles and Blue Jays look good. They, meanwhile, look pathetic.
There have, of course, been some very bright spots. Xander Bogaerts is arguably the best shortstop in the league, leading in almost every offensive and defensive category, as well as leading his own team in RBIs. Rafael Devers, now in his third season in the big show, has exploded as a hitter, exactly the way David Ortiz predicted it. The team has doubled in a ridiculous 24 straight games, the longest active streak in MLB; Raffy, the little brother of the team, had a 4-hit game the other night, with three of said hits being doubles. Rookie Michael Chavis, while leading the team in strikeouts, has also had some huge hits at key moments since making his debut at the end of April; his have been some of the farthest and hardest-hit balls on the team. Catcher Christian Vazquez has not only set a new career-high in home runs, with ten so far this season, he’s actually hit more home runs than in his last four seasons combined. And Jackie Bradley Jr. has stepped up in a big way the last month; he’s gone 22-for-80, slashing .275/.396/.525 with 4 homers, 9 runs, 13 RBI, 13 walks, 6 doubles, and a triple.
Unfortunately, so far, the negatives have far outweighed the positives. The Red Sox are 44-38, in third place in the division, nine games behind the first-place Yankees. They are barely holding on to a .500 record at home, another perplexing fact when you consider how well Red Sox teams have fared at Fenway.
Mookie Betts, despite being back in the leadoff spot in the lineup, has been painful to watch. To call it a slump is putting it kindly; his batting average is down 85 points from last year at .261, and his slugging percentage is down almost 200 points, from .640 to .459. What makes it even more confusing is that Betts is actually drawing more walks and striking out less than last year. He’s just not hitting. Over his last month alone, he’s only been a .214/.347/.429 hitter, going 21-for-98. And whenever Mookie is struggling, this team struggles. Both he and fellow slugger JD Martinez have looked lost at the plate for most of this season. Not one Sox batter has more than 17 home runs this season; Brewers star Christian Yelich has 29.
Chris Sale has been another perplexing puzzle. Yes, he’s struck out ten or more batters in 9 of his last 11 starts. But he also gave up five runs in his last start against his former team, the Sox from Chicago. He also continues to never receive any offensive support; his run support average is one of the lowest in the league. Luckily for him, David Price has stepped up as the ace of this team, and Eduardo Rodriguez owns the highest run support average among all qualified MLB starters. Nathan Eovaldi has been sidelined since April will hopefully return soon and in good form, but in general, the starting rotation needs to be better.
Of course, there are some things that are beyond this team and its manager’s control, namely the bullpen. There is only so much Alex Cora can do with what Dave Dombrowski has given him, and Dombrowski has given him jack. Not re-signing Kelly and Kimbrel was the right move, financially, but to not even attempt to find someone to compensate for losing the closer and his 42 saves last season, was foolhardy and cocky. There were plenty of affordable names on the market this winter, like Babe Ruth-destroyer Adam Ottavino. Dombrowski, to put it bluntly, made a huge mistake. The current bullpen owns an AL-most 16 blown saves, including managing to blow two saves in one game last week. No lead is safe, as proven by the 6-1 lead they blew against Toronto earlier this week. Dombrowski let Kimbrel and Kelly, two of his most-used arms, walk away, and seems content with letting the inferior arms they didn’t trust last year do more pitching this year. Last year, I said that the only reason the bullpen wasn’t ruining the season was because the starting rotation and offense were so powerful, they disguised a very flawed, weak bullpen. This year, the bullpen is exposed, and it is ugly.
So what can we expect from the second-half Sox? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when and how Nathan Eovaldi comes back. Hitting coach Tim Hyers said recently that he feels Mookie is “really close” to figuring it out. Xander and Devers will hopefully continue their offensive explosion, but they’ll need their teammates to pitch in, pun intended. But two things we know for sure: this team needs to hit better, and they need some new blood in their bullpen. Otherwise, the season will, at best, be over in early October. If then.