The 2023 Boston Red Sox have played 118 baseball games, and we’re still not sure what kind of team they are.
Well, let’s amend that a bit.
We know they are a team in transition. They have a starting rotation comprised of injury-plagued ex-aces and up-and-coming youngsters with ceilings that are still to be determined. They have a starting lineup with one cornerstone superstar, a few solid veterans in varying stages of recovery, an intriguing professional hitter from a foreign land, and a couple electric gamechangers getting acclimated to the major league grind. They have a bullpen loaded with talent that has been heavily leaned on all season.
Most Red Sox fans can agree that the next couple years look to be extremely exciting. But the 2023 team?
Who the hell knows?
This has been as streaky a Red Sox team as I can ever recall. The weird thing is the timing of their ups and downs. Whenever they’ve looked on the brink of collapse and come upon a rough-looking patch in their schedule, they’ve gotten their shiz together and played well. Then, after putting together a couple good weeks, they come up against a couple lambs with no playoff aspirations and fold like single ply toilet paper.
This team has consistently played well against good teams, elating us with pleasant surprises against top-tier contenders teams like the Orioles, Rangers, Braves, and Blue Jays. Then they’ve turned around and played terribly against bad teams, depressing us with humiliating efforts against shoddy teams like the Pirates, White Sox, Cardinals and Rockies.
As a single unit, this Red Sox team has more personalities than the dude with the crazy eyes from Identity.
In short, life this season has been an emotional rollercoaster.
Reports that certain members of the team were deflated at Chaim Bloom’s “failure” to add players at the deadline complicate the team’s psychological profile even further. Trevor Story, Chris Sale, Garrett Whitlock, and Tanner Houck are certainly very talented players. But what kind of production will the Red Sox get from those four “deadline acquisitions,” considering the physical ailments they are recovering from?
Pitching on Paper
The bullpen has been the only consistent unit on the Red Sox this season, and I expect to see no less from them during the final 44 games.
Kenley Jansen and Chris Martin form one of the best shutdown tandems in the big leagues, and adding Garrett Whitlock to a middle relief squad that already features John Schreiber, Brennan Bernardino, and workhorse extraordinaire Josh Winckowski is only going to make this bullpen even more impressive. Now that the team actually has five starting pitchers, Chris Murphy (another impressive rookie) will remain as the lefthanded long relief option to compliment Winckowski. Barring injury (which is always a big risk with this team), the days of needing high-leverage contributions from Joe Jacques, Ryan Barraclough, and Brandon Walter are hopefully behind us.
When you look at each man in the starting rotation through the lens of the best stuff that they have delivered this season, you can see the potential for a fantastic starting rotation for the last six weeks of 2023.
Chris Sale was back to his old self for about five weeks season before hitting the IL yet again. James Paxton has been the ace of the staff. Brayan Bello has dazzled us for most of the year. Kutter Crawford has performed like a very good number three starter, at least on the road. Tanner Houck shut down virtually every team he faced for the first three or four innings. Nick Pivetta rose from the dead after being sent to the bullpen and now has some of us thinking he may actually be a starting pitcher after all.
On the other hand, we’ve seen regression from Paxton and Bello of late. Crawford has been poor at Fenway all season. Sale and Houck have been laid up for quite some time (though Sale looked great in his return start Friday night). And Pivetta is pretty much the perfect representation of this Red Sox team: awesome right up until you’re convinced that he’s got it figured out, at which point he crumbles.
I didn’t think that these Red Sox were capable of such a long stretch of lackluster hitting, but they have not been themselves since arriving in San Francisco at the end of July. They have slashed .245/.300/.409/.710 as a team in August compared to their season slash line of .262/.328/.432/.760. The main culprits are basically everybody except Triston Casas, who now has me convinced that he will be an MVP in the not-too-distant future.
Masataka Yoshida in particular is scraping the bottom of the barrel right now. His August slash line is a trashy .234/.245/.319/.564 compared to his full season averages of .300/.357/.468/.825, and he has amazingly walked only three times in the past 28 days. The grind of the MLB season is clearly wearing on Masa, who has never before competed in a league where teams play 162 games and don’t have a guaranteed off day every week. He is going to need a handful of off-days during the final 44 games if he has any chance of helping the Red Sox get into the postseason.
Jarren Duran also seems to be bottoming out. One of the hottest hitters in baseball throughout July, Duran’s August has been even more sobering than the lackluster May he endured after coming out guns blazing in April. In 13 games this month, Duran is hitting .175/.233/.375/.608 in comparison with his season averages of .298/.349/.491/.839. Unlike Yoshida, Jarren’s struggles appear to be approach-oriented. He seems to be far less patient in the box lately, swinging earlier in the count and settling for weak contact rather than waiting for his pitch. He needs to sit back more and cut down on his hacking if he wants to get back to being the dynamic spark that hit leadoff throughout Boston’s sizzling July.
Then there’s Raffy, whose last month has been an interesting case study. Devers has only one home run so far in August, with only three round trippers in the past four weeks. However, as his slugging has gone down, his hitting has gone through the roof. Devers is hitting .284 with a .361 on-base percentage in the last four weeks, with a .308 average and a .400 OBP in August. When we contrast those figures with his season batting average of .265 and OBP of .336, we can see that Devers is making a genuine effort to cut down on his swing and stop trying to mash so much, opting instead for hard contact that keeps the line moving. You may recall that his average had dropped down to .237 as recently as June 21st, with an OBP that had plummeted to a dreadful .288 at the end of May. Devers’ approach at the plate has matured considerably as this season has progressed, and he no longer looks likes a guy who is trying to justify his 11-year, $331 million contract.
While Devers has hit well lately, Triston Casas has been the only hitter that you could consider hot over the past few weeks. Team MVP Justin Turner is still swinging the bat well, but he has already missed several games due to the heel injury he suffered in Seattle, which will continue to plague for the rest of the season.
If the Red Sox want to play past Game 162 this year, they can’t keep depending on a 23-year-old rookie to be the hoss that leads the charge.
The abundance of talent in the Red Sox lineup, along with the bi-polar nature of the 2023 team, indicate to me that the bats will start raking again any day now. The law of averages are bound to catch up with them sooner or later, and the overall data tells us that the Red Sox are a very good offensive team.
Trevor Story has been added back to the mix, giving a much more balanced look to a lineup that had been predominantly lefty-dependent until his return. His constant presence in the order should help offset Turner’s periodic absences, and his 4-4 performance on Sunday seems to indicate that he is regaining his timing at the plate.
Yoshida is a far better hitter than he has been over the past month, Duran’s days as a subpar offensive player are far behind him, and the balls off Devers’ bat are bound to start flying out of the yard again as long as he keeps making consistent contact.
Alex Verdugo has been a half-season player his whole career, so his large-scale production is likely cooked. But between he, Duvall, and the occasional Herculean efforts of Rob Refsnyder and Connor Wong, there should certainly be enough ancillary pop in the lineup to support the efforts of the prime time players in the top half of the order.
It’s All About the …
As always in baseball, it’s going to come down to the pitching. And as loaded as the Red Sox bullpen is, the starting pitching is just as loaded with doubts and potential pratfalls. If the Red Sox don’t make the playoffs this season, it will be because the starting rotation’s magazine did not have enough bullets.
As serially unhealthy as Chris Sale and Garrett Whitlock have been, they’ve both been nurtured and swaddled for two months while preparing for this stretch run. While I wouldn’t trust either of them at this point (or probably ever again) to get through an entire MLB season without a serious injury, I’m confident that they can endure the final six weeks of the 2023 season. It’s the other guys that worry me most.
James Paxton has lost a couple MPHs off his fastball over the past few weeks, and Brayan Bello is having a lot of difficulty putting hitters away with two strikes. These could very well be indications that each of them are wearing down over hefty workloads that one of them hasn’t carried in four years and the other has never carried in his life. The Red Sox may be able to overcome the loss of one of these two pitchers due to the arms that are just now returning to the team, but they could never withstand the loss of both.
The Wild Cards
I predict that the fate of this Red Sox season will come down to the performance of two key players.
Tanner Houck and Nick Pivetta.
Until he got hit in the face with a line drive, Houck was the guy that the Red Sox could count on to take the ball at any time in whatever role they threw at him. Be it as a starter, closer, middle reliever, or setup man, Houck has been a durable pitcher that has always gotten good results with the Red Sox. Some may have an issue with his numbers as a starting pitcher this year, but anyone that has tracked his progress start-by-start has seen a very good player that is just starting to evolve into the best version of himself. If Houck can get back to pitching three or four good innings per appearance, be it in a starting or relief role, he can play a pivotal part in elevating the Red Sox from a streaky enigma into a steady playoff team.
Pivetta will have to make the transition from the bullpen, where he has been electric, back to the rotation, where he was a train wreck at the start of this season. The bulk relief role where he dominated this summer demanded a very similar workload to that of a starting pitcher. Thus, he has the talent to deliver that same efficiency as a starter. The problem with Pivetta has always been between his ears, and there’s no mechanical antidote to a frazzled mind. If Pivetta can resolve the issues that have so often beleaguered him as a starting pitcher, the Red Sox should have enough depth to survive whatever injuries or spurts of ineffectiveness come up during the last six weeks of the season.
After visiting Washington and the Bronx this week, Boston will face a gauntlet of top teams. 28 of their final 44 games are against the Astros, Orioles, Rays, Dodgers, Blue Jays, and Rangers. However, the 2023 Red Sox can usually be counted on to do the exact opposite of what is expected. They are 22-18 against the ten teams left on the schedule, and they have done very well against winning teams this season. Considering the talent, youth, health, and state of mind of this team, they are just as likely to bulldoze through these final ten teams as they are to peter out embarrass themselves.
The safest way to go about the rest of this season as a fan is to clear your mind of any and all expectations. In a season where nothing whatsoever has been predictable, we can only be sure of one thing.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be emotional.