After last night’s win over the Rangers, the Red Sox ended the first month of the season at 17-10. Even without considering the preseason expectations, 17-10 is a good month by any standard you choose to set. It’s a .630 winning percentage, which over the course of 162 games extrapolates to 102 wins. To go back to the preconceptions, 17-10 should blow away even the most optimistic of Red Sox fans. So, how did they get here?
You have to start with the offensive production, particularly from the big hitters in the lineup. J.D. Martinez hit .351/.430/.745 with nine home runs. Rafael Devers finished the month at .293/.371/.587 with seven home runs. Xander Bogaerts slashed .330/.369/.546 with seven homers of his own. Alex Verdugo didn’t have quite the power stroke, with only three big flies, but he hit .300/.363/.500 to round out the offensive core of the team. When those four are hitting, this team is going to have a good time.
But it’s not just the core of the lineup; the Red Sox also got great offensive production from Christian Arroyo (.293/.349/.414), and had some early noise from both Christian Vázquez and Enrique Hernández, although the numbers for the latter two have slid a bit in the last two weeks.
There were some negatives in the lineup as well, though. Hunter Renfroe, Kevin Plawecki, and Franchy Cordero all had a rough time in April, with Renfroe’s 36 wRC+ being the “gold” standard for that grouping of players. With Jarren Duran and Danny Santana on the outside looking in, Renfroe and Cordero may not have much time to make a case for full-time action if they keep up this level of play. Plawecki’s role should be safe, as there is no catcher close to the majors who is threatening his position. Connor Wong and Ronaldi Hernández in the pipeline are interesting, but they need more development time before they can truly be considered for the big-league roster.
Meanwhile, the pitching was able to hold up their end of the bargain as well. The Red Sox starters combined for 139 1⁄3 innings pitched and a 3.88 ERA. It’s early and there’s plenty of time for it to blow up in their faces, but the performances of Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Nick Pivetta in particular stood out to me among the starting staff.
Starting with Rodriguez, you wouldn’t be faulted for coming into the season with low expectations. After all, his situation coming back from COVID and myocarditis is not something we’ve experienced before. Despite missing all of last season, the lefty looks like he never missed a beat. Rodriguez has thrown 23 innings over four outings, is striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings, and has also managed a 3.57 ERA in his first month of action. The true secret to his success however has been going straight at hitters and trusting his stuff. He has only walked only two batters on the entire season.
Eovaldi, meanwhile is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, and I will scream it into the heavens. Pitcher fWAR is not my favorite stat, but you can’t just ignore a 1.3 mark, which is far and away the best among pitchers on the roster. Your mileage may vary on pitcher WAR in general, the point is that Eovaldi was incredibly good in April. Eovaldi did it thanks to compiling 34 2⁄3 innings, most on the staff by a pretty wide margin.
Acquiring Nick Pivetta from the Phillies last year is looking like a shrewder move by the day. Generating such praise as “he could be Boston’s answer to Tyler Glasnow”, with raves about his pure stuff, we got our first look at what he could truly be this past month, as he fired six innings of one-hit baseball against the Mariners, and then followed it up with five innings of one-hit baseball against the Mets. All told, he held batters to 15 hits in 25 2⁄3 innings, good for the lowest batting average against among starting pitchers on the team (.174). Some work still needs to be done with his general efficiency, as he is averaging 4.38 pitches per batter, but his work to this point has been nothing short of great.
On the more negative side, we’re going to leave the book open on Garrett Richards. The veteran had a mixed bag of a month, starting his Red Sox career about as poorly as you could have ever expected. After his first disastrous first outing against the Orioles to start the year, Richards has quieted down, with a 2.91 ERA in his other four starts over 21 2⁄3 innings. His last outing against the Mets in which he struck out 10 over seven strong innings ended the month on a particularly strong note. I’m still not entirely sure just how good Richards can be, but it’s hard to scoff at his work after his first game.
The final area of the team that has led to a strong start in the early season is the bullpen. Much like the rotation, it was a big weakness in 2020. Much like the rotation, there was a significant amount of turnover. Much like in the rotation, the results early on have been stellar.
The Red Sox ranked 7th in bullpen ERA among all of baseball, sporting a 3.09 ERA in 99 innings of work. The entirety of the pen, save for one or two arms, has contributed to this massive improvement. To name the chief contributors though, you have to start with Matt Barnes, Matt Andriese, and of course, Garrett Whitlock.
Barnes emerged as one of the best relievers in all of baseball early on this season, staking claim to the closer role that had seemingly been in the air at the start of the season. It’s his role now, and he’s not giving it up. Right now, Barnes leads MLB relievers in pitching fWAR, and is striking out a jaw-dropping 16 batters per nine innings right now. The Red Sox have had exactly two seasons where a reliever struck out 15 batters per nine innings or more since 2000. In fact, early on, the pitcher I am most reminded of when watching Matt Barnes this season may be 2017 Kimbrel, which is one of the highest compliments I can give a reliever. Kimbrel finished sixth in Cy Young voting that year. Barnes may just be heading for a similar finish if he keeps up this level of performance.
Andriese has been a surprise out of the pen in more ways than one. While many were a little wary to allow Andriese to handle high-leverage roles, he has quietly been a difficult puzzle to solve for opposing hitters, largely because he isn’t going to walk them. Despite his innings and use in high leverage situations, Andriese has not yielded to the pressure and has continued to do his job.
But what Andriese has done that might be most valuable to the Red Sox is helping Whitlock out with his changeup. Whatever magic they worked out together is definitely on display early on, as Whitlock has exploded onto the scene in Boston as one of the premier relievers of the season in his own right. There’ve been enough articles detailing how what Whitlock has done to this point is impressive, but some bears repeating. He’s got the lowest walk rate of any reliever on the team while striking out 12 per nine innings. He’s done both of those without giving up a single run in April, capping off one of the most impressive months we’ve seen by any reliever, let alone rookie. While there’s talk that his future is in the rotation, the Red Sox should expect more of the same out of the pen in 2021.
Much like with Richards, I think Darwinzon Hernandez merits a closer look. While Hernandez was wild early, he’s actually been one of the more quietly excellent pitchers on the staff. Over the last five outings, he has walked two batters in 4 1⁄3 innings. Over his last two games in particular, it looks like he had unlocked some potential that seemed out of reach in the off-season. He’ll be a name to watch in May to see if there’s fire where this smoke was found.
Ultimately, the Red Sox as a whole played great baseball, and whatever negatives there were have been counteracted by the positives, resulting in a month that very few people can honestly say they saw coming.
These grades are just my personal tier list for how a player performed with regards to what I feel public expectations for them were.
A: J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo, Xander Bogaerts, Nathan Eovaldi, Matt Barnes, Garrett Whitlock, Eduardo Rodriguez
B: Christian Arroyo, Christian Vazquez, Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta, Matt Andriese, Garrett Richards
C: Enrique Hernandez, Martin Perez, Adam Ottavino, Phillips Valdez, Eduard Bazardo, Hirokazu Sawamura, Darwinzon Hernandez
D: Marwin Gonzalez, Bobby Dalbec, Austin Brice
F: Franchy Cordero, Hunter Renfroe, Kevin Plawecki, Josh Taylor
For the whole month, and the whole team, I’m going to give the Red Sox an A+. While they could have theoretically been better, expecting a start better than 17-10 from any team is a little silly. The Red Sox were not expected to contend. To be leading the division after a month is the best-case scenario.
For three players to watch, I have my eyes on Garrett Richards, Darwinzon Hernandez, and Bobby Dalbec. I am curious if the Richards we saw the other night is who we’re getting the rest of the way. If he’s anywhere near that good, this team just found gold. Hernandez has looked downright filthy in his most recent games. Has he turned a corner, or is this a blip on the radar? Dalbec has hit a lot of barrels in the past month, but has very little to show for it. Are the hits going to come in bunches?