We are still in the early days of the 2022 season, with the Red Sox sitting at 7-8 15 games in. Overall it’s been a tough team to figure out, with the offense struggling despite it being expected to be the team’s strength coming into the year, while the bullpen, which was expected to be a major weakness, has really helped keep the team afloat. I think it’s clearly still too early to make sweeping judgements about this roster less than 10 percent of the way through the season, but it’s not too early for early standouts. This was the topic of the staff roundtable this week, with everyone tasked with picking the player who has stood out the most early this year, either positively or negatively.
I would say the one player who has stood out to me the most early on in the season is Matt Strahm. When the Red Sox signed Strahm to a one-year deal back in March, I was not really sure what to expect from the left-hander since he was limited to just 6 2⁄3 innings with the Padres in 2021 due to a knee injury. That being said, I have been pleasantly surprised with what I have seen from him so far this season. The 30-year-old has gotten off to a hot start through his first handful of appearances this season and has already proven capable of pitching in a variety of roles. In short, I think I am going to watch Strahm’s Red Sox career with great interest.
To get it out of the way: Garrett Whitlock has been fantastic. However he’s been so good I assume someone - or possibly several someones - will mention him. Instead I’m looking at the positive contributions of Jake Diekman. With Matt Barnes still wandering the road to recovery the veteran Diekman has looked good. He allowed a run and issued a walk in his first appearance but nothing more since. His spring was a little rough but it looks like he’s ready for the season now and gives Alex Cora another tool to rely on in the ‘pen.
Jackie Bradley Jr. has pleasantly surprised me this year. Considering how abysmal his offensive performance was with Milwaukee last year, his .229/.308/.343 slash line is more than good enough for me as a usual eight or nine-hole hitter. Additionally, it is good to have his defense back in the outfield, even if it is mostly in right field rather than center. If he can keep up similar numbers to his start of the season marks, he would be a pleasant surprise, at least for me, to have back in this lineup. I think this is doubly as gratifying considering the disappointing start that Hunter Renfroe has had in Milwaukee (considering his career year in Boston last season).
Alex Verdugo has positively exceeded my expectations this season, looking like a hitter who has another level. After last season, I was beginning to think that I knew who Verdugo was as a hitter, with a limited power ceiling. I mentioned in his end-of-season review, however, that his improvements in whiff rate and exit velocity against fastballs showed an improvement in bat speed that it would be nice to see continue. The whiff rate has improved even further in the early going from 15.4 percent to 13.3 percent, and the Exit Velocity ticking up from 90.7 to 93.1 against fastballs. His Statcast barrel and hard-hit numbers have been improving year over year and, most importantly, the strikeout of 9.8 percent is in the top five percentile thus far this season. If Alex Verdugo, who has hit clean-up the last two nights, can be a .300 hitter with 20 bombs, the rest of the lineup should catch up eventually and be the formidable foe we expected entering 2022.
The player that has stood out to me the most so far this season is Xander Bogaerts. He not only leads the team in AVG/OBP/SLG but is hitting a career-high Barrel/PA with 7.4. The last few season he has been hovering around the 6-6.8 territory. I never thought we would see this amount of excellent contact from Xander. He is also being more aggressive at the plate and pulling the ball more often. To me, it sounds like Xander is trying to showcase more power. Hopefully, that increase in power will force ownership’s hand into giving him an extension and we won’t have to see another great homegrown player leave Fenway.
Bayleigh Von Schneider
Easily the player that has stood out the most this early season is Alex Verdugo. We’re talking a slash line of, .313/.364/.542 and a wRC+ of 154. Quite simply, Verdugo has been astonishing in the early going. Verdugo has had flashes of brilliance, but due to nagging injuries, hasn’t put it all together yet. He looks like the picture of health right now, and might be entering into All Star territory.
Phillips Valdez is the guy for me. I had my worries about this bullpen coming into this season like most people, and as a whole it has been exceptionally good. The biggest individual surprise to me is Valdez. He’s now started the season with eight scoreless innings and ten strikeouts across six appearances and gives this bullpen depth it has never had before in the Alex Cora era.
Alex Verdugo has been the biggest and most important surprise so far during this season so far. Not only has he made strides on defense and proven it with a couple of highlight reel catches, but he’s absolutely raking too. According to Baseball Savant, Verdugo’s average exit velocity is at a career high through limited games and his strikeout rate is under 10 percent, which would also be a career high if maintained through the end of the year. Those are lofty expectations, but even some regression back towards the average means that Verdugo is a massively productive player In a top-heavy Red Sox lineup, he is a massive X-factor. The rest of the lineup still needs to find their groove somewhat, but once they do, there will be ample opportunities for Alex to deliver clutch hits and drive in some runs.
Everyone’s been so positive, so I’ll put on my negative nancy cap and pick a standout from the other end of the equation. Specifically, I’ll go with Bobby Dalbec, who has just been brutal to watch at the plate. After his hot August and September a season ago, the hope was that he’d be able to carry that momentum into the 2022 season. Instead, he’s got a 51 wRC+ entering Sunday’s action. Now, his strikeout rate is down at 25 percent, which is a win for him, but he’s back to expanding the zone and just isn’t making a lot of solid contact. He’s getting plenty of chances with the top six getting on ahead of him, and this offense will look a lot better if and when he starts to hit even at a league-average level.