The first month of the season's come and gone, and mostly what we've learned is that the Red Sox are, in fact, a baseball team. Really. They have the uniforms and everything. Whether they're a good or a bad baseball team... Jury's still out. I mean, it's pretty likely they're not a bad baseball team. It is still possible they'll be a mediocre team, which apparently makes them bad in the eyes of modern-day Red Sox Nation. It is similarly still possible that they'll be a fantastic team, which makes them acceptably decent in the eyes of modern-day Red Sox Nation.
But it's been a whole month, which constitutes a totally significant sample. Not in hitting, of course. Any stat person will tell you it takes at least 200 plate appearances to get a sense of whether a player is really performing at a sustainable level. For most offensive stats, it's significantly longer. It's not really useful in pitching, either. The innings leader on the Sox right now (Josh Beckett) has only thrown 32.1 innings, which is barely a blip on the graph. I could try to talk about defensive stats after a month, but that way lies utter madness.
Fine, the first month doesn't tell us all that much statistically. But it's 22 games in, and we've all seen enough of this team in action to get a feel for what we've got. The strengths (pitcher-pulping offense) have made themselves clear. The weaknesses (single-ply bullpen) have revealed themselves as well. So, let's take a look at where the Sox stand after a month of play, and where they might wind up as the season heads into the summer months.
OFFENSE: We'll start with the good. The Red Sox offense has scored 127 runs through 22 games, best in MLB. That's a rate of 5.77 per game, which is in technical terms extremely good. In silly early-season "on pace for" terms, if the Sox keep this up, they'll score 935 runs this season. For reference, no team has scored 900 runs since the '09 Yankees, and the last Sox team to score at least 935 was the '04 edition. Are the 2012 Red Sox that good offensively? Probably not. But let's look at how they've put up those numbers.
At the center of Boston's pitch-crushing machine has been David Ortiz. The 36-year-old DH has been simply destroying the ball, with a ridiculous .405/.457/.726 line through the first month. Most impressive, he's been great against lefties. Going into last night's game, his OPS was 1.098 against lefties, 1.099 against righties. Then he pounded two home runs against Oakland left-hander Tommy Milone. Coming off a season where he actually hit significantly better against lefties (.989 vs. .934 OPS), it's worth wondering whether Papi's offseason training was actually on Dagobah. He's not going to keep hitting .405. But a David Ortiz who can pound lefties and righties with equal force is a hell of a thing. Not bad for a guy we all figured was cooked three Aprils ago.
It's been important to have Ortiz hitting like Ted Williams, because the other sluggers in the lineup have been a bit shaky. Adrian Gonzalez has gotten off to a relatively slow start, hitting only .277/.337/.400. Kevin Youkilis has been even worse, hitting .219/.292/.344, and missing several games due to nagging injuries. Gonzalez had a fairly quiet April last year before exploding in May and June, so he may not be worth worrying about, but after the last two seasons, Youk's struggles have seemed much more significant. Not helping matters in terms of roster calm is Will Middlebrooks, whose current AAA line is, frankly, terrifying. Youk's earned the right to fight through his slump, and slugging .708 in the International League is a whole lot easier than standing in against CC Sabathia and David Price. But if we're still having this conversation in June, it might be time to consider a move.
So with the corner infielders, traditional pillars of the offense, scuffling, where have all those runs come from? Mostly the new or new-ish guys. Papi leads the team with six homers, but right behind him at five are the celebrated Bash Brothers themselves, Mike Aviles and Cody Ross. Mike Aviles right now has more home runs than any other shortstop. Sure, it's April. But Aviles has trotted around the bases more than Troy Tulowitzki. Over any stretch, that's a little impressive. Throwing in a little extra why-not offense, Ryan Sweeney leads the league in doubles. He had 11 doubles in 108 games with Oakland last year, and he has 11 in 18 games with the Sox this year. Lesson of that, and Cody Ross's five home runs: leaving the Bay Area is good for hitters.
PITCHING: It hasn't been a complete failure! All right, it's been not good. Recall how I said the Sox are first in the league in runs and runs per game? Same's true in pitching. They've allowed 124 runs, which means that despite their legitimately awesome offensive production, they're currently sporting a +3 run differential. In a coincidence that is not a coincidence, their record is 11-11. So what's happened?
Partly, they're still getting over a truly horrific first week. Both Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz got smacked around by the Tigers on opening weekend. The entire team got destroyed by Texas in an 18-3 drubbing. There was a game last Saturday of which we shall never speak ever again. There have been some bad outings, is the point. Beckett, for example, gave up seven runs in his first start, and has allowed nine in the subsequent four. Jon Lester completely melted down in the aforementioned 18-3 Texas game, but outdueled Jake Peavy on Saturday night. Clay Buchholz has been flat-out terrible. Except for last night, when he was pretty solid until he was left in too long. But that's fine; no harm has ever come to the Red Sox because a starter was left in too long.
All the talk in the offseason was about the fourth and fifth slot in the rotation. Any number of trade or free agent targets were mentioned. Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, Gavin Floyd, all were dreamcasted into the rotation. Even John Lannan, because some people's dreams are sad. Instead, the Red Sox filled the slots with internal options: a minor-leaguer getting his literal last opportunity, and a setup man converted out of desperation. And so far, they've been arguably the best guys on the staff. Felix Doubront has struck out a batter an inning, and despite some inefficiency, has provided good innings each time out. Daniel Bard is also racking up strikeouts, and has seemed to get better each start. His last game, a seven-inning, six-strikeout win against Chicago, was the sort of start you'd appreciate from anyone, let alone the fifth starter. Small sample, as everything else here. But the initial signs are good.
Now we come to the bullpen. I don't want to talk about the damn bullpen. It's been a horror show. Mark Melancon, who only pitched two innings before being sent down to Pawtucket, is still in the top ten in the AL in homers allowed. I'm going to repeat that. Mark Melancon, who only saw action in four games, and who hasn't pitched in two weeks, is still tied for eighth in homers allowed. His slugging percentage against was 1.733(!) No one else has covered himself in glory, but those Melancon numbers still haunt my dreams.
Even when they hold a lead, the bullpen can't seem to help doing so in the most ridiculously nerve-wracking way possible. Recall the bit in Aliens, when the Marines, already having lost their troopship, knowing that their rescue won't arrive for three weeks, and surrounded by the title xenomorphs, find out that on top of everything else, the nuclear reactor at the heart of the colony is going to explode? Less doom-ridden than a Sox bullpen outing. Home runs, walked-in runs, hit batsmen... I'm honestly amazed that a Sox reliever hasn't yet burst into flames and then had his pained flailings called a balk.
Of course, the bullpen's explosions wouldn't seem so bad if they weren't seemingly always set up to fail. Which brings us to:
MANAGEMENT: In 1920, the Republican Party chose as their presidential nominee a senator from Ohio named Warren G. Harding. Harding was not particularly well-known, nor accomplished. From most accounts, he didn't even much want to be president. But he was bland, and he was handsome, and nobody hated him. There was no excitement with Harding, and that was a serious asset. In the last two years, America had seen its troops fight across the trenches of France and Belgium in the Great War, its civilians sickened and killed by the great influenza pandemic, and its political world roiled by the first Red Scare. Harding's campaign billed itself as a "return to normalcy." Normalcy wasn't even really a word then, but people were so desperate for not constant panic that they didn't care.
Harding won the election, and proceeded to be a terrible, scandal-ridden president who died in office and left us Calvin Coolidge and the seeds of the Great Depression. Still, for that first year in office, the country did indeed calm the hell down. The country didn't need a great president then, they needed someone they could think of as in charge and moderately not crazy. Lyndon Johnson was a better president than Harding, but probably would have been a terrible pick in 1920. "Calming" is not a word ever, ever used to describe LBJ.
This brings us to Bobby Valentine. There was nothing surrounding the Boston Red Sox that was calm coming out of last year and into this. An epic collapse, a vicious battle over who was to blame, and an offseason of minor moves on the margins were the storylines of the winter, and it led to pretty serious unrest among the media and fanbase. Part of the job of a baseball manager, maybe the biggest part, is keeping everyone on an even keel. In a market as crazed (for good and ill) as Boston, that requirement extends beyond the clubhouse. One of the best qualities of Terry Francona, maybe his best quality, was his intuitive understanding of that. No matter the situation, six games up or ten games back, Terry personified calm. And Bobby Valentine, for all his other qualities, doesn't have a calm bone in his body.
We've already gone over his mistakes on the site, at length. You're very familiar with them, having yelled profanities and hurled beers at your televisions every time you see him screw up. I've been using the same phrases I can't use on this blog, and wasting good craft brews at the same rate. Even so, I think he's going to turn out fine. I think he's smart and flexible and that his early season hiccups have mostly been a symptom of his long absence from the American pro game. I'm also confident that if he starts to get out of hand, the front office has the gumption to step in and tell him to stop starting Nick Punto or letting his pitchers go well past the point when they're out of gas. But I won't say I wouldn't rather have a more Harding-like guy sitting there muttering "Team's doing fine, we just need to win one" past a mouthful of chaw some nights.
WHAT LIES AHEAD: The Sox are 11-11 and in last place. Against Detroit, Texas, Tampa, and New York, last year's playoff teams, they're 3-8. Their bullpen ERA is 6.34. The theoretical guy who was supposed to close won't be available until August. Their manager has showed an unusually slow hook and a strange affinity for Justin Thomas. They've got two All-Star outfielders on the shelf. Clay Buchholz keeps giving up home runs to non-Oakland ballclubs (i.e. the ones that can hit home runs). Kevin Youkilis might well be cooked. Most terrifying of all, they continue to play songs and serve ice cream at Fenway Park.
They've also got 140 games left to play. They're only 3.5 back in the toughest division in the league. They've got an offense that's scoring almost six runs a game despite the lack of Jacoby Ellsbury and the struggles of Adrian Gonzalez and Youkilis. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have begun to look like their old selves, and Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront are showing serious promise. The bullpen's still lousy, but Rich Hill and Junichi Tazawa should help. Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka look good as later-season pitching depth. Ellsbury should be back by Flag Day. New York's suddenly saddled with pitching issues, and the Sox did quite well against Tampa two weeks ago.
What have we learned from April? We learned that established starters can still get smashed by Miguel Cabrera, and that untested starters can rise to a challenge. Ryan Sweeney must have really hated it in the Coliseum, and teams shouldn't bother shifting against Papi. It is in fact possible to get blown out despite leading 9-1 in the seventh. Bobby Valentine always speaks his mind, even when he really, really shouldn't. Cody Ross's bat flip is only annoying if he's not on your team. Nick Punto still should not start on a major-league ballclub. And April, no matter how excellent or how frustrating, is only one month, and there's still five months of baseball to play.