The Red Sox, against all odds, have the best record in the American League heading into their four-game set against the White Sox this week, with the Dodgers being the only team standing in their way for the best record in all of baseball. After winning nine in a row, they finally lost their first game since the season’s opening series on Thursday, but they still have had tremendous performances across the board. Generally speaking, it’s too early in the season to say much has changed in terms of evaluations from before the season, but there are always a few performances early that, rightly or wrongly, shift opinion. That was this week’s roundtable, with everyone picking someone on whom their opinion has changed following this early season-opening stretch.
It’s so early in the season, but Franchy Cordero has given me a great first impression. I was a bit skeptical of him when he came over from Kansas City, and wasn’t so sure if he was an upgrade over Andrew Benintendi. While it’s too early to tell who got the better end of that trade, Cordero has been solid over the first couple of weeks of the season. He’s looked competent in left field and has even had a couple of big clutch moments in this young 2021 season (his run-saving catch up against the Monster and ninth inning hit to help push the O’s game to extras). Showing up in big moments is an easy way to win Boston fans over quickly. Although I still have issues with his injury history and swing-and-miss troubles, this has been a promising start for the young outfielder and something he can build on.
I could write an entire article about how I feel about this team early in the season, as I write this on Tuesday after the first 10 games of the season. The main ones that I want to hit on involve the pitching. While not a changed opinion, I think Hirokazu Sawamura and Garrett Whitlock both look even better than I had expected, and I expected both to look pretty great. On the flipside, I kind of never want to see Austin Brice or Josh Taylor in a winnable game ever again. Finally for the bullpen, I have to admit I’m going to be taking a massive L in the “most disappointing” category of our OTM superlatives this year, as I chose Matt Barnes, who I felt would succumb to the pressure of a contract year. As it turns out, every word I said was wrong and he’s looking like one of the best relievers in baseball. Great to be wrong there.
Defensively, Rafael Devers looks even worse than I remember it being, to where I can’t wait for an alternative to arrive at some point. I’m not sure his eventual home is first base, but I feel pretty convinced he is not a third baseman. On the offensive end, nothing so far has actually surprised me much. We already knew this team was going to hit. That they have done what we (or I) expected doesn’t leave much room for changing my opinion of them. If I had to pick on somebody, I guess I was a little discouraged by Bobby Dalbec until Tuesday’s game, but he still strikes out more than I’m really comfortable with.
I know the season just started but I just want to say: This. Team. It started off rough but everyone has been fire since the first series against the Orioles. The three through six spots in the lineup (J.D. Martinez through Christian Vázquez) have been very difficult outs, and Alex Verdugo and Cordero have been starting to heat up as well. I’m glad I’m not a starting pitcher, that is for sure.
We all knew the starting pitching was going to be the soft spot of the roster but Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and (shock) Nick Pivetta have really held their own. The bullpen has been shaky but Matt Barnes has been lights out. I hope to feel the same about the team during the dog days of summer and with all of this momentum, I starting to feel as optimistic as Jake D (scary) about their chances.
For the most part, the entire team has taken me by surprise. I was a doubter and thought this would be a rough year. Even though it still could be, the Red Sox have already looked way better than I was expecting. I apologize for my lack of belief.
Speaking of, to pick one player who has shocked me the most, I’d go with Nathan Eovaldi. I knew he was solid last year, but I was still concerned about his ability to be a frontline starter, let alone the team’s ace with Eduardo Rodriguez out to start the season. But Eovaldi has been incredible. He’s avoiding hard contact and his fastball has had as much zip as I’ve seen from him. With a ton of depth already at the MLB level, not to mention Rodriguez being healthy again, Chris Sale eventually coming back and Tanner Houck waiting in the wings, the Red Sox suddenly have the making of a very good and very deep rotation. Eovaldi pitching like a number one or two starter is a big reason for that.
One hundred percent J.D. Martinez. I didn’t think he was DFA material but 2020 was dreadful and we’ve seen again and again hitters fall off a cliff after a small decline. But small sample or not this isn’t the J.D. Martinez of 2020 who looked lost. And with his bat recovered, assuming this ability, not necessarily Player of the Week honors, continues all year, the Red Sox offense is much, much better.
My opinion has changed on Matt Barnes. Coming into the season I did not think he could hold down the closer’s gig but so far this season he’s been the best pitcher the Red Sox have had. Over the last two seasons, Barnes has led the AL in blown saves and has had major walk issues. The big reason for his success so far this year is he’s walking no one. He’s always had elite strikeout ability but when your control is as inconsistent as he was it’s hard to take advantage of that. This season he’s strikeout out a mind-blowing 18 per nine innings. He has been really fun to watch.
Aside from 2 plate appearances against the Twins where he went the other way, Bobby Dalbec has done nothing to show me that he belongs in the majors. He looks completely overmatched at the plate, indicated by his striking out at a 35.3% clip while letting good pitches go by and swinging at bad ones. Of course, this is only 34 plate appearances. Some of the advanced metrics like xWOBA and xSLG don’t spell gloom and doom for him, but so many of his ABs this season have been brutal. His career strikeout percentage is hovering right over 40 percent and it makes me wonder what the Sox’s plan for him will be if he continues to struggle.
Without a doubt the player who I have changed my mind most about in the early going is J.D. Martinez. Prior to this year Martinez was coming off two seasons in a row where his skills slipped. The first sign of trouble was seeing his skills slip against right handed pitching in 2019. In 2018, Martinez had posted a wRC+ of 175 vs RHP, but at the close of the 2019 season that number had cratered to 103—barely above league-average. The good news is that he crushed lefties in both 2018 and 2019, but since the league has a majority or right-handed pitchers this seemed like it could be a huge issue.
Fast forward to 2020 and things went from average to horrible against righties, and from really good to horrible against lefties — all of a sudden Martinez couldn’t do anything well. He posted wRC+ marks of just 74 and 78 against lefties and righties, respectively. He clearly looked like a player in decline. This year, with the aid of video, Martinez has flipped the script and in the early going is smashing righties to the tune of a 319 wRC+. His mark against southpaws is less impressive at 91, but that sample has only been 15 PA. If he can return to his old ways this offense is transformed into easily a top three offense in the American League.
Has my impression on anyone changed?!? My impression of everyone has changed. Except for maybe Xander Bogaerts and Alex Verdugo, I see surprises from just about everyone. That includes J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers and the big bats, and the smaller ones, your Christian Arroyo types, and of course the pitchers too, all of the non Garrett Richards starters, and relievers from Garrett Whitlock to yes, Matt Barnes. Everyone has impressed me, and I didn’t expect that. Here’s to another nine in a row!
I have to go with Garrett Whitlock here. I was definitely skeptical of the righty even through most of camp. Rule 5 picks work out so rarely that my baseline expectation is always that they are going to be middling at best, and all of the talk of his stuff seemed like the organization trying to pump up their own player. But seeing him in action both in camp and so far in the regular season, I’m buying in. I’m not sure what his long-term future is, but the changeup in particular makes me convinced he is going to make an impact this year and stick long-term in some sort of role.