The Red Sox lineup has been a point of contention all year long for Boston fans, as the group has been inconsistent at best and wildly frustrating at worst. Although the team has been either atop or within sniffing distance of the division all year, at times it has seemed as if this offense couldn’t possibly be that of a postseason worthy team. That sentiment was almost certainly just an overreaction to slumps, it’s hard to blame anyone for saying so while watching this lineup during one of its down stretches. The biggest reason you’ll hear for the frustrating offensive performance is, of course, the absence of David Ortiz. Though we’re almost through a whole year since the legend retired, his presence is still discussed in Boston. It’s not crazy to bring up his name, either, because I think many of us took for granted the advantage of having a hitter like him in the middle of the lineup. Without him, the Red Sox don’t really have that big bat to make sure the team doesn’t go into long slumps.
Of course, that talk has died down of late. The Red Sox are on a roll and their offense has been a big reason why. Though it won’t ever be the focal point of the roster (more on that later), this lineup is better than they had been playing in July. They’re showing that now. Clearly, it’d be preferable to have had someone step into Ortiz’ shoes and provide that big, intimidating bat in the middle of the lineup every day. That hasn’t happened, but the Red Sox have shown they can still get by, and there are a couple reasons for it.
For one thing, they were always going to improve. There were too many players that were playing far below their true-talent level. Boston may not have anyone who is among the handful of best hitters in all of baseball, but they have a lot of very good hitters. Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts have all shown over the years that they are easily above-average bats. That’s a lot of talent even if none of it is true standout talent.
Despite that, there are people (justifiably) pointing out that this offense doesn’t really have a leader. If you look around the league, the other playoff teams have that one guy you have to fear in the lineup. Whether it be Aaron Judge (yes I still fear him), Gary Sanchez, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Correa, George Springer, or whoever you want to pick, not many playoff contenders have a lack of a big stick like Boston. Right now, Betts, Pedroia and Benintendi are tied for the team lead in wRC+ — a stat that adjusts overall offensive performance for league-average and park factors. They are tied for 83rd among qualified hitters in baseball, and other players with the same 108 mark are Matt Joyce, Curtis Granderson and Jedd Gyorko. Those are not exactly intimidating works.
To figure out how the Red Sox can make this work, you needn’t look further than the last couple of weeks. The lineup may not have one bat you can lean on for an entire season, but they have enough that there is generally one on which you can lean for stretches at a time. We’ve already seen it in action plenty of late. At one point, when the rest of the offense was scuffling, Pedroia was carrying the group. It was during a stretch where wins were hard to come by, but the second baseman single-handedly willed this lineup to a handful of victories. After that stretch, Eduardo Nuñez and Rafael Devers carried the group for a minute. Right now, we’re in the middle of the Benintendi stretch. Guys like Bradley, Betts and Bogaerts all have the ability to have their own hot streaks, and I’d fully expect it to happen.
The downside to this, you’ll argue, is that there are times when no one is hitting. We’ve seen it plenty this year, and it’s hard to argue against that point. However, there is one key difference between now and then: Devers and Nuñez. Neither of these players are the godlike hitters they appeared to be upon first joining the roster, but they are both considerable upgrades over the likes of Deven Marrero, Tzu-Wei Lin, Josh Rutledge and Pablo Sandoval. Just by removing the cast of characters that created a black hole at the bottom of the lineup for much of the year, the Red Sox have a better chance at playing someone who can/will catch fire.
The most important thing to remember about this lineup, though, is that it will never be the focal point of this roster. For as much as everyone wants to talk about how disappointing this lineup can be at times, this Red Sox team was always and still is built to win on pitching and defense. There is no reason to believe they cannot. The rotation, led by Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz, is as good 1-4 (and 1-5 when David Price is healthy) as any in baseball. The bullpen, Friday night notwithstanding, can/will preserve leads as often as any team in the league. The infield defense isn’t going to jump out at anyone, but the outfield defense is elite and the pitching staff is the most flyball-heavy in baseball. Boston is going to prevent runs to win games, as has been the plan since December.
In the meantime, there will be hitters stepping up and carrying the lineup for weeks at a time. It’s not the steadiest, safest or best way to build a lineup, but it’s where the Red Sox have been left for the moment. More importantly, it’s gotten them this far, and there’s no reason to think it can’t carry them into October and beyond.