The Red Sox have been almost unbelievably good for the entire season. There really hasn’t been a portion of the year in which we felt bad about this team, and their worst single-season month by win percentage is .621. That’s a 101-win pace over a full season, for what it’s worth. Despite all that success, there have been some issues here and there throughout the year. Right now, it’s the bullpen, which is a real concern even if it’s being overblown. Earlier in the year, however, it was on the position player side of things. Although the offense has been great all year, for most of the season there were three players receiving the brunt of the criticism around the team. Those three are Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Núñez and Blake Swihart, and all three of them are starting to turn things around, making this position player group look even better than it already did. Let’s take a look at each of their turnarounds, because it’s been an underrated portion of the team’s sustained success.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
In this group of three, there is no doubt that Bradley is the most important player of the trio. It really wasn’t that long ago that a not-insignificant portion of the fan base wanted Bradley off the roster all together. He was struggling at the plate, and not even his amazing defense was going to overshadow that. Prior to the All-Star break, Bradley was hitting an awful .210/.297/.354, a line that put him 28 percent worse than the league average hitter, and that was actually an improvement over his first two months of the year. Simply put, his performance was becoming untenable. Well, since July and particularly in the second half, the Red Sox outfielder is crushing the ball and seeing the results. He’s hitting .250/.341/.556 in the second half, putting him 38 percent better than the league average. Bradley is hitting the ball in the air, hitting at a higher launch angle and using the whole field more often. We know Bradley has a tendency to go hot and cold, and his current hot streak may not last forever. Still, there’s no denying that he looks great at the plate right now, and it’s a massive development for the team. They could survive without Bradley hitting, but being able to put him in center field with J.D. Martinez at DH most nights and not worry about the bottom of the lineup makes them an entirely more terrifying opponent.
Throughout all the ups and downs (insofar as there have been downs) of the year, no one has gotten the brunt of the fanbase’s ire quite like Eduardo Núñez. After being such a big spark in 2017, it would seem surprising that he quickly became so hated, though his play on the field makes it clear. With Dustin Pedroia out essentially the entire season, Núñez has served as the closest thing the team has had to a regular second baseman in 2018. In that role, he struggled mightily at the plate and hardly hit anything with authority, couldn’t run like he had at his best, and most importantly played perhaps the worst second base I’ve ever seen. He’s been bad in all facets of the game for pretty much the entire season, and it was hard to see it turning around. Well, it’s turning around. He’s been particularly good over the last three weeks or so, hitting .318/.338/.500 in 16 games. Obviously, it’s not a huge sample but he is passing the eye test of late. The big difference in terms of batted ball isn’t so much that he’s hitting the ball hard, but rather avoiding soft contact. His soft contact rate is down from 29 percent to 19 percent in the second half, and his pop up rate has fallen from 24 percent to just 4 percent. He’s always been able to turn even moderately-hit balls into hits thanks to his speed, and speaking of which he’s also running a lot better of late. The defense isn’t better at second base, but with Ian Kinsler (hopefully) returning within the next few games, Núñez should go back to playing third base where he is much better suited. The Red Sox still don’t want him playing every day, but Núñez is looking much better of late and appears to be a good depth piece for the last six weeks as well as October.
Núñez was the focus of most of the fanbase’s ire, but Swihart was the focus of most of my ire. For most of the year, it seemed he was just unnecessarily clogging a roster spot. There wasn’t much reason to believe he could contribute beyond a hot stretch in spring training, and there was no indication the team had any faith in his ability to contribute. Multiple times through the year, I advocated for moving on and using that roster spot for someone who actually played. Well, then Christian Vazquez went down with a long-term injury, and Swihart became important. Not only that, but he started to hit. Once he got regular playing time, he’s hit. The catcher has been on the shelf for most of August, but in his last 22 games since getting more regular playing time he is hitting .314/.364/.451 in 55 plate appearances. The sample size is small enough that questioning the performance is reasonable, but there’s no doubt he looks better. If this continues, there will be a legitimate question about the future of the catching position on this roster, though that’s not a concern right now. In 2018, Swihart’s emergence gives the Red Sox another legitimate catcher and someone who can come off the bench and contribute when needed in multiple roles. That is huge in this day of expanded bullpens.