June 6th, 2022
After sweeping the Oakland A’s on the road this past weekend, the Red Sox are a .500 baseball team for the first time since April 22nd. While reaching the definition of mediocrity should not generally be perceived as an achievement for any Boston sports franchise, I can’t help but feel positive about the way this team has turned their season around.
We all watched the Sox trip over themselves for the first six weeks, racking up losses with a unique blend of ineptitude from their lineup and bullpen despite continually exceptional performances from the starting pitching. A team that was built around its offense, and was perceived in the offseason to have very little talent in the rotation, swung the bat through early May like the Jimy Williams-managed offense that once featured Damon Buford in the cleanup spot.
I’ll readily admit that sweeping the A’s (a squad where Buford may actually qualify to hit fourth) is nothing to write home about, even though the series took place in RingCentral Coliseum. The A’s are straight trash, but since this Red Sox team has had plenty of trouble defeating even trash teams, I’ve embraced this sweep with the same level of warmth and gratitude that I felt upon accepting my Sega Genesis on Christmas Day of 1990.
Naturally, the Yankees swept the Tigers while the Red Sox dismantled the A’s. Although the Red Sox are 17-8 since Alex Cora shaved off the reprehensible beard that has caused so much pain and devastation this season (credit: @BallParkBuzz on Twitter), they are still 12 games behind a Yankee team that has been a wagon on par with the Boston Red Sox of June 2011 (like what I did there?). Boston turnaround aside, things look no better for the prospect of winning the AL East now than they did back when they were 10-19.
However, it’s impossible to overlook the leaps and bounds this team has made toward improvement during the last month. A team that formerly viewed scoring a run from third with less than two outs on par with executing an inside-the-infield home run is now fourth in baseball in team OPS, fifth in runs scored, third in batting average, and sixth in run differential. The Red Sox are now delivering the type of product that they were created to deliver: a blistering offense with questions on the pitching side that is talented enough to compete for a championship.
I’ve spoken to a few Red Sox fans in recent days that take little solace in the fact that they are no longer playing like the blundering turds we saw earlier in the season. Such fanatics believe that there is no excuse for a Boston Red Sox team to be essentially playing for a wild card spot and, until the team finds themselves in the mix for the division title, there is pretty much no reason to celebrate anything.
I agree that a big market team with Boston’s pedigree should always begin the year with their sights set on winning the division. But I also see little point in dwelling on past events that cannot be changed. The performance we were subjected to during the first six weeks of the season was abysmal, shameful, and indefensible. The whole team stayed cold offensively for over a month, and the bullpen showed to have more holes than even the most pessimistic of us could have suspected.
However, that part of the season is over. There is nothing any of us can do to rectify the giant hole the Red Sox put themselves in early on. It’s natural to look back on that period with anger, but to remain angry and bitter about it in light of the way they have played lately is useless and kind of silly. They are hitting the way they are supposed to hit, their starting pitching has been dominant, and they have 108 games left to play. We’ve all seen countless teams start off a season terribly and bounce back to have great season. The last two world series champions (remember that 2020 was a fake season) are perfect examples. The 2019 Nationals started their season 19-31, and last year’s Atlanta Braves didn’t reach .500 until August 6th, 111 games into their season.
Don’t get me wrong. The Red Sox may very well be swept by the Angles this week and fall right back into an ugly slump. A season-saving turnaround resulting in a playoff run is far from assured, especially considering what we’ve seen so far this season. But turning a bungled early season into a success in spite of being under .500 on June 5th is not only unexceptional, it’s pretty typical.
While guys like Kike Hernandez and Alex Verdugo are still fighting to regain the form they showed at their peak levels of 2021, the 2022 Red Sox offense is beginning to resemble the dynamic attack that led Boston to last year’s ALCS.
In my opinion, the most exciting development toward that objective has been the development of Franchy Cordero. A walking strikeout last year, hacking feebly at every pitch he saw like Kit Keller on a steady diet of high fastballs, Cordero has inexplicably transformed himself into a disciplined hitter that is having better at-bats than anybody else in a lineup that includes Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez.
The trade of Andrew Benintendi to Kansas City in exchange for Cordero, Josh Winckowski, Luis de la Rosa, Grant Gambrell, and Freddy Valdez has long been the biggest blemish on Chaim Bloom’s list of transactions, frequently exploited by Bloom haters as proof positive that the GM has been poison for the Red Sox franchise. That rhetoric reached its peak at the beginning of this season, when Benintendi flirted with .400 through April before settling to a sizzling .321 batting average and .384 on-base percentage as of now.
Franchy is only hitting .247 at the moment with an OBP of .308, but the transaction looks much easier to stomach when you look deeper into the numbers.
Benintendi has been a singles machine in 193 at-bats this year, adding eight doubles, two triples, two home runs, and 21 RBI. In exactly 100 fewer at-bats, Cordero has notched seven doubles, one triple, three home runs, and 18 RBI.
While it would be foolish to now presume that Cordero will prove to be more valuable than Benintendi based on their 2022 numbers alone, it is very exciting to ponder the kind of dynamic player Franchy can be based on what he has done thus far in 2022 with his new, mature approach at the plate. He has the kind of speed and strength that can considerably deepen the Red Sox lineup moving forward, as he demonstrated with the opposite field, 407 foot home run he pulverized Sunday.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is another much maligned current member of the Red Sox that replaced an outfielder who quickly won our hearts over. Renfroe’s 31 homers, 96 RBI, and missiles to the plate from right field were instantaneously missed when the trade sending him to Milwaukee in exchange for Bradley and prospects David Hamilton and Alex Binelas was announced. The wrath for Bloom snowballed when Renfroe started the year socking more dingers as Bradley continually punched out.
However, similarly to Cordero, the evolution of Bradley’s approach has been on display lately. Particularly at Fenway Park, JBJ has taken aim to left, driving double after double to the opposite field and driving in runs at a level we have not seen from him in years. In just 150 at-bats, Bradley has already tied his 2021 season total in doubles (14 in 387 at-bats). Bradley, who has only hit one home run, also now has one more RBI than last year’s Red Sox right fielder, who has hit nine home runs thus far.
This begs the question: considering the elite level of defense Bradley has brought to right field this year (compared to the 12 errors Renfroe racked up along with his 16 outfield assists), how much more valuable would Hunter Renfroe truly have been to Boston this year if the trade never took place?
Christian Vazquez has also seen an offensive resurgence this year, and Trevor Story seems to be driving in multiple runs with each hit he compiles now that his freezing start to the season is behind him. Verdugo has also been showing some signs of life, and Hernandez has finally managed to square up a few fastballs.
Last year’s Red Sox offense slowed down during the second half of 2021, but managed to recover in time to salvage a playoff berth. What if the 2022 version of the offense has already passed their prolonged slump and can keep their current momentum going through the balance of the season?
They would qualify for a playoff spot if the 2022 season ended Sunday. If Cordero, Bradley, Vazquez, Story, and the other non-superstar members of the offense can continue their recent level of play with some consistency, there is every reason to believe that they can score enough runs to compete with the rest of the top-tier American League teams.
The biggest question, as well all know, is can they figure out how to give up less runs than the competition for the rest of the season. Current run differential aside, the Red Sox bullpen has given us no reason to trust them to close out tough games once Alex Cora takes the ball out of the capable hands of Boston’s starting pitchers and hands it over to the relievers.
Jake Diekman, Matt Strahm, Ryan Briasier, Hirokzau Sawamura, Matt Barnes, Kutter Crawford, and Hansel Robles have all failed us in spectacular ways in multiple instances this season. Tyler Danish, Austin Davis, and John Schreiber have shown to be somewhat reliable, but their elevated status in the minds of Red Sox fans exists only on a comparative level among their embattled colleagues.
This is a common problem in Major League Baseball. All teams have frequent turnover in their bullpens, quite simply, due to the nature of the job. Much of the workload of relief pitchers takes place during high leverage situations where, if you blow it, everyone remembers for quite awhile. Fans are always going to remember the two times you failed to get three guys out without giving up any runs much longer than they remember the seven times you got the job done … and that’s if the bullpen is successful.
In a situation like the 2022 Boston Red Sox bullpen, us fans develop brand new ulcers each night that the Red Sox are not up by at least five runs heading into the seventh inning. Eventually, the starting pitcher is going to come out of the game and make way for a far less reliable option.
I don’t think this defeatist mindset is limited to fans either. Once a bullpen is beleaguered, the pitchers that make up the relief core are just as likely to let those same pessimistic tendencies leak into their own psyches. I think these Boston relievers are, if not expecting to blow each game, at least afraid to blow the game.
Fear is death in baseball. It’s a game of pure anticipation. You never know what’s ahead of you, but you need to be ready for every possibility at all times. The pitch being thrown to you, the hard grounder being hit at you, the questionable umpiring decision being handed down to you … anything can happen at any time.
I always sucked growing up because, as an infielder, I was always worried about the ball being hit to me in an important situation. I was too afraid to make an error that would screw the team over. Not that I was very talented to begin with, but I gave myself no chance whatsoever to succeed simply because of my negative mindset. Baseball players need to be confident … no, screw that … cocky in order to play at a high level. And this Red Sox bullpen is short on confidence.
If you have a 98 mph fastball like Jake Diekman or Hansel Robles, and you blow games because you keep throwing sliders that miss the plate, there is a big problem. You need to dance with what brung ya. When you are interviewed in the locker room after a blown save, do you want to say that you threw your best pitch and the hitter beat you? Or do you want to have to admit that you walked in the winning run or hung the pitch that gave up the walk-off hit because you got too cute and threw a C+ junk ball instead of your A- out pitch?
This bullpen is in need of an attitude adjustment. They need to remember that they are some of the best in the world at what they do — throwing pitches that retire hitters.
It’s not brain surgery. Be deceptive when you can, but when crunch time comes, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Don’t try to hit a dime-sized target. Don’t try to retire an all star with your third best pitch.
What this bullpen needs is to stop thinking so much. They need something to take their mind off of the seriousness of what they do. Something that will help them focus on the utter simplicity of what they do: throwing pitches past people.
The offense has their laundry cart schtick to help keep the players loose and enjoy themselves. Last week on Instagram (@bleacher_brawls), I suggested that the Red Sox relievers tape up their fists before each game. Go into the game the way a fighter goes into a bout. Think over your game plan, visualize yourself dominating the competition, breathe easily, and break every element of the game down to its simplest terms.
Once the fourth or fifth inning arrives, take the tape off and start loosening up like normal. But go into the game thinking like a badass that’s looking to knock somebody the f*** out. Not a scientist trying to outthink the competition.
The vast majority of baseball is mental, but most of the players who succeed are the ones that think the least. All their thinking is done beforehand so that once the time comes to make the play, all the thinking has been hardwired and pre-programmed into their brains. The actual play is made because of the well-practiced and rehearsed movements and machinations of the best baseball players in the world.
In other words, just throw the damn ball!
Ever since I began trying to make #tapedfists a thing last Friday, the Red Sox are 3-0. You can’t argue with my success rate!
Don’t be afraid to get excited about this team and their prospects for 2022. This is the Boston Red Sox. No team has won as many World Series in the twenty-first century than them. Check that 1990s loser mentality at the door.
Get used to the winning.