The Red Sox seem to be uniquely suited for a short season.
This 60-game season is like nothing the game of baseball has seen before. A hot streak could turn a rebuilding team into a front-runner, and a slump could knock a powerhouse team out of postseason contention. While the Boston Red Sox were not initially considered a potential playoff team for 2020, this new schedule could have changed that.
This was supposed to be the team’s rebuilding year. They traded a former MVP along with one of their top starting pitchers to the Dodgers, and refused to sign any free agent for more than $6 million in order to duck the luxury tax threshold. Even super-utility man Brock Holt, who signed with the Brewers for just 1 year and $3.25 million, was allowed to walk.
On the day that was previously scheduled to be Opening Day (March 26), ESPN put out a list of power rankings for the 30 MLB teams. The Red Sox were 19th.
The 19th best team in the MLB last year was the Cincinnati Reds, who finished with a record of 75-87. Obviously, people had a variety of opinions about this. Some thought this was too high. After all, the Red Sox lost one of the best players in MLB in Mookie Betts and a solid veteran pitcher in David Price. Holt got replaced with what is essentially a worse version of himself, and ace Chris Sale will miss the entire season.
Those four guys were worth 12.5 bWAR last year, even in a down season. Many Red Sox players had career-best seasons in 2019 (Christian Vazquez, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts), and if they aren’t able to put up the same numbers again, the team could sink.
On the other hand, others believe that ESPN sold the Sox short. After all, they had a 87-75 Pythagorean W-L last year, indicating that they could have won three more games if not for some bad luck. Equipped with a very roster featuring three of the top 40 players in baseball, the Red Sox should be able to pile up some victories.
Who is right? Is it the people who think the Red Sox are overrated, or those who believe they should be even lower in the power rankings?
Well, maybe both of them.
With a few players on the Red Sox, you know exactly what you’re going to get. J.D. Martinez and Bogaerts will perform like the elite players they are, and guys like Martin Perez and Ryan Weber can be counted on to put up an ERA somewhere in the 4s or low 5s. But their roster is full of players who are extremely unpredictable―even in a 162 game season. Now in 2020, their impact is amplified.
Andrew Benintendi has shown flashes both of greatness and mediocrity throughout his career. He impressed greatly after being called up in 2016, but proceeded to hit .271 the next year and finished with an OPS below .800. In 2018, he posted an fWAR of 4.4, which was 31st out of all position players in the entire MLB. However, he followed that up with a season in which he hit just .266 with 13 home runs. He also posted a -0.5 dWAR.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is famously streaky. In his first 60 games of 2016, he hit .309 with 11 home runs and a .967 OPS. He even went on a 29-game hit streak that year and earned a starting spot in the All-Star Game. But he was unable to break through the Mendoza Line after his first 60 games of 2018, when he hit .181 with 3 home runs and a .561 OPS. This season, we could see JBJ put the team on his back or produce one of the worst single-season stat lines in MLB history. There’s just no way of knowing which one.
Alex Verdugo was excellent in his age-23 season with the Dodgers, but it’s far from guaranteed that he’ll be able to sustain that level of production. The main concerns with Verdugo have always been injury-related, and even a bit of missed time could take up a large portion of the season.
Michael Chavis has a ton of raw power, mashing 18 home runs in 347 at-bats last year. But he slumped badly towards the end of last season, in large part due to his inability to catch up to a high fastball. His situation may be similar to JBJ’s―he could be a candidate for MVP, he could hit .140, and everything in between.
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Mitch Moreland hit .300 with 10 home runs through his first 61 games of 2018 and was named to the AL All-Star Team, but then hit .191 with 5 home runs in his last 63 games. Which version of Moreland will we see this season?
Christian Vazquez hit .207 with 3 home runs and was one of baseball’s worst offensive catchers in 2018. He hit .276 with 23 home runs in 2019, and was one of the best offensive backstops. Was last season a true breakout for Vazquez, or will he turn back into his old self again?
Eduardo Rodriguez and Brandon Workman both hit new highs in 2019, with the former finishing sixth in Cy Young voting and the latter posting the second lowest ERA in the MLB (min. 70 innings). But both have been plagued with injuries and inconsistency in the past.
Good performance is contagious, and so are struggles at the dish or on the mound. If these players can get hot, there’s no one who can stand in the way of the Red Sox. They’re still underdogs― Houston, Minnesota, and New York will likely win their divisions; Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland all won more than 90 games last season; and Los Angeles and Chicago both made massive upgrades in the offseason.
Fortunately, baseball is the game of the underdog. After all, over the last decade, the wild card team defeated the top seed in the ALDS 40% of the time. Three of those teams even went on to win the World Series. Perhaps the Red Sox’s bats go quiet and the team finishes below .500. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll find a way to get hot and make a run at the postseason. Boston sports fans aren’t used to seeing their teams as underdogs anymore. But don’t give up on these guys just yet. They might just make some noise.