Last September, things were bleak around these parts, as the Red Sox were finishing up a painful 2020 season in which they put together a dismal 24-36 record and finished last in the American League East. With a host of shortcomings weighing them down, they looked like a team that had hit rock bottom, which usually means it would be time for a slow climb back to relevancy.
In the midst of the drudgery, I wrote a two-part series projecting how the rebuild might go and what the next contending Red Sox team might look like. At the time, I conservatively pegged the Red Sox’s rebuild to bear fruit by 2023, with the hope that it might surface as early as 2022. At no point did I really think the Red Sox were going to pull another worst-to-first turnaround as they did in 2013 or in 2016, even if there was certainly a roadmap to such a result.
Well, now that we’ve passed the midway point of the 2021 season, I think it is beyond safe to say that I missed on this one. As of writing, the Red Sox are 54-34 and lead the AL East by 2.5 games. They’ll also be sending a league-high five players to the All-Star Game next week, showing that this is a star-studded squad that knows how to win. It’s quite the departure from where the Red Sox were last fall. So what has really accelerated this turnaround or, more precisely for this post, what did I miss when I peered into my crystal ball last fall?
We’ll start at the individual level. The Red Sox’s turnaround has certainly been a team effort, but some individual performances have really stuck out, and I’m not really talking about the ones from All-Stars like Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, although those have clearly been massively important as well.
Instead, let’s start with Hunter Renfroe. In my piece last fall examining what the Red Sox would look like from a position player perspective over the next few years, it was clear that the outfield makeup would be quite different than it was in 2020. While I was right that Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi would not be on the team the next time the Red Sox were good again, I assumed that a new wave of young outfielders would take their place. Instead, Renfroe has splendidly filled in the gap in right field, meaning the Red Sox haven’t had to tread as much water while they wait for their up-and-coming outfield prospects.
Renfroe, whose career-high in fWAR is just 1.9, already has a mark of 1.0 this season and he’s doing so by producing above-average offensive results (105 wRC+) to go with exceptional work in the outfield, especially with his arm. While losing Bradley Jr. and Benintendi meant the Red Sox would be looking for new outfielders, I expected them to be filling the gaps and biding time rather than finding a certified fixture outside of Alex Verdugo, but Renfroe has provided that. There’s still work to be done in the outfield, but having two-thirds of it filled in with above-average players is a nice place to be.
One of the Red Sox’s other major weak spots in the lineup last year was at second base. Red Sox second basemen combined for -0.2 fWAR in 2020, tying for 25th in all of baseball. They seemed to address this in the offseason by throwing their chips behind versatility with guys like Enrique Hernández and Marwin Gonzalez. But now that we’re halfway through the year, we can see that the Red Sox may have solved their second base problem last August when they picked up Christian Arroyo off waivers. At just 26, Arroyo should have the bulk of his MLB career ahead of him, and when you combine his flair for the dramatic with some real improvements at the plate (107 wRC+), there’s reason to feel good about how the Red Sox are set up at the keystone. That’s not to say Arroyo has cemented himself as the full-time starter, but he’s certainly providing optimism that the Red Sox won’t have to wait until Jeter Downs is ready before they have a solid guy at the position, which is what I expected last fall.
Of course, the biggest surprise on the roster this year is on the pitching side, as Garrett Whitlock has become a dynamic reliever in his first half-season with the Red Sox since coming over from the Yankees as a Rule 5 draft pick. As Matt wrote earlier this week, there’s an argument to be made that Whitlock should be an All-Star and when you look at his numbers (1.50 ERA, 33 ERA-, 27.2 percent strikeout rate), it’s easy to see why. However, it wasn’t so easy to see last fall, when the Red Sox’s bullpen looked like it would need a complete overhaul before it would even approach respectability.
In 2020, Red Sox relievers were horrendous, ranking 26th in fWAR (-0.6) as a group. If you watched any of the Red Sox’s games last season, that number might even seem too high. With Whitlock and fellow surprise bullpen ace Josh Taylor stepping into larger roles and providing effective work, the Red Sox’s bullpen has been really good. You could even it call it one of the team’s primary strengths. It’s also helped that Matt Barnes has morphed into an All-Star, that Adam Ottavino has settled into his role as the No. 2 pitcher in the bullpen and that Hirokazu Sawamura and Darwinzon Hernandez have made a habit of limiting runs from scoring.
In many ways, the Red Sox did overhaul the bullpen, but expecting every single guy they’ve plugged into prominent spots to deliver as they have would have taken prognostication powers I clearly don’t possess, especially as the Red Sox didn’t go out and make a ton of big splashes in free agency to address this part of the roster. In addition, expecting the Yankees to cede not one but two of the Red Sox’s most important bullpen pieces this past offseason (or any offseason) wouldn’t have seemed to be a safe bet, but here we are.
The incredible rejuvenation of the bullpen looks like nothing compared with what the Red Sox have managed with their rotation. Last year’s Red Sox starting staff was among the worst in baseball by multiple measures. Oftentimes, it didn’t even feel like there was one cohesive starting rotation as much as a hodgepodge of guys of varying (and often lacking) degrees of starting ability who went out and threw. When the Red Sox did nothing more than bring back Martín Pérez and sign Garrett Richards this past offseason, it didn’t assuage my fears that rebuilding the rotation would take multiple years, even with Eduardo Rodriguez and (eventually) Chris Sale returning.
Yet somehow, the Red Sox’s rotation has been solid if not outright good. Sure, Richards has struggled lately and Rodriguez has had a bumpy road, but Red Sox starters have accumulated 8.2 fWAR as a group this season, which ranks seventh in MLB. In many ways, the Red Sox are just reaping the benefits of going from a wildly ineffective group of starters last year to a solid collection this year. Just having pitchers that can go out and provide average to above average innings most of the time will do wonders, and that’s just what the Red Sox have gotten.
These are just a few of the things that have gone exceptionally right for the Red Sox (we didn’t even touch on J.D. Martinez’s bounce-back season) and turned what was supposed to be a rebuilding year into a contending one. Even if there are some flaws to be ironed out the rest of the way, any thought that the Red Sox would have to wait multiple years to contend after last year’s struggles is completely out the window. I just wish I had seen that coming sooner.