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Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox

Monday Morning Brushback: The Audacity of Hope

The Red Sox week in review dives into Verdugo, Winckowski, and shoeys at Fenway.

Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before (or at this point, multiple times), but the 2023 Boston Red Sox wrapped up a week at around the .500 mark.

I’m not sure how many times I can keep opening the week in review blog with something along the lines of “Hey, the Sox basically finished the week where they started it,” but you can go ahead and chalk up another one of those instances for this past slate of games. A 4-3 run brings the ledger to a 12-11 mark on the campaign. Insert your favorite flavor of “some days were good, some days were bad” and “no matter what, it’s still early” comments here.

I do think this past week presented some encouraging signs, though! The energy is shifting (shoutout to Jaylen Brown) and there are a few players who you can thank for that. And hey, don’t look now, but the Sox have won three straight serieseseses (what’s the plural of “series” anyways? Is it “series” still? Is it like “deer”?).

The team as a whole looked better than they had previously—I think the losses on Monday to the Angels, Wednesday to the Twins, and Saturday to the Brewers can primarily be chalked up to poor pitching from starters Brayan Bello (and the rain, I guess?), Corey Kluber, and Garrett Whitlock respectively. The first and third examples there are a bit more disappointing given Bello and Whit’s potential, sure, but these weren’t examples of full-blown dysfunction similar to what we saw down in Tampa recently. There isn’t much else to diagnose other than that. Those days over the course of a 162 game journey are the ones that sometimes, to vaguely quote Oasis, you just gotta roll with.

But enough with the stuff that went belly up—there are some positive Sox developments that I wanna dive into to brighten up the start of your week.

It’s Monday Morning Brushback time, y’all.

Teach Me How To Dugie

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

One of the early Red Sox storylines this season has been Alex Verdugo’s campaign to become the best right fielder wearing number 99 in the American League East. So far, so good!

But seriously: how impressive has Dugie been to open the year? The sample size isn’t massive, but everything he’s shown in the box thus far has been leaps and bounds better than what we’ve come to expect from him. On-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+, strikeout rate, average exit velocity: all on or around the pace for career highs for the 26-going-on-27-year-old. I don’t think those ages flow as nicely as 16 and 17 do in The Sound Of Music, but I digress.

Just look at Alex’s Savant page. I like to call him Playboi Carti, because all I see is a Whole Lotta Red.

Of all those impressive metrics, the high percentile in xwOBA is especially encouraging. For the uninitiated, that stat measures the expected offensive output of a hitter using things that are within his control: think exit velocity, launch angle, and other quality of contact components as opposed to something like the opposing defense. Long story short: Verdugo’s been putting great wood on the ball.

Perhaps the league-wide defensive shift limitations have had something to do with that early success. With the right side of the infield opened up, Verdugo’s pulled the ball more than he has in the past few seasons—he’s been pulling the ball to right at about a 33% rate this year, compared to roughly 25% over the previous two years. Important to note: Verdugo’s OPS+ over 2021 and 2022 combined stood at 105; he’s logged an OPS+ that’s been sniffing 150 thus far in 2023. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. He can sit back a bit more on a pitch when he has to, as you can see from his spray chart, but of course it’s great to pull the ball with authority whenever possible.

Dugie’s seeing the ball well, making great contact when he gets his pitches, and keeping the ball “fucking fair” (his words, not mine) when the team needs it most.

The Red Sox have found themselves their proper leadoff hitter—at least against righties—and Alex Verdugo might find himself at the negotiation table for contract extension talks sooner rather than later.

Can’t Spell His Name Without “Win”

MLB: APR 21 Red Sox at Brewers Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As annoying as the starting pitching performances have been, the bullpen kept chuggin’ along this past week. Kenley Jansen looks fantastic, while Kutter Crawford notably gave a valiant effort in relief during the loss on Marathon Monday to Los Angeles, surrendering just a single hit and no runs over 6.1 innings to give Boston a chance at a comeback win.

I wanted to take the time to highlight Josh Winckowski though, as he’s offered some much needed depth late in games. He threw 4.1 innings over the course of the week, allowing just one run while registering a sub-one WHIP and retiring seven dudes by way of the K.

I’ve gotta admit: I was worried about Winck entering this season. He left a lot to be desired in 2022, putting up a 5.89 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP. His hard-hit percentage was damn near 50% last year while his strikeout percentage was within the bottom 3% of the league, per Savant. Those factors can be back-breaking for a pitcher who relies on location and command as opposed to sheer power. When he was missing his spots (which he did so often enough) and not registering enough swings and misses (which he also did so often enough), he paid the price.

So what does the man do to follow that up but become a great tool out of the bullpen this year? Winckowski’s command has been marvelous, living on the corners and edges of the zone with his best offerings.

Two—count ‘em, two—things jump out to me when thinking about Winck’s success thus far in 2023.

The first is the much improved sinker. That pitch was always the primary weapon in his arsenal, but it was mashed last year as it was catching WAAYYYYHAYHAYHAYYYYYYYY too much of the plate.

But now he’s got a little extra mustard on the pitch (the velocity is up a tick to 95 MPH on average, according to Savant—man, what would I do without that website?) and the location has been sublime. It’s pretty easy to see how the slugging percentage against the pitch has fallen from 2022’s mark of *gulp* .563 to *sigh of relief* .227.

Put it in terms of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: the 2022 Josh Winckowski sinker was a rusty claymore, while the 2023 Josh Winckowski sinker has been the Master Sword. The difference has been night and day—here’s hoping a blood moon doesn’t rise and the sinker doesn’t go back to its former self.

The other thing that I’ve noticed is the increased use of the cutter. After offering the cut fastball only about 10% of the time last year, opposing batters have seen that pitch from Winck at a nearly 25% clip. It’s a damn good pitch, too! He’s been pounding the glove-side part of the dish and the whiff rate on it is at about 30%.

What’s made the cutter from Winckowski so notable this year is the fact that he’s...well, just been throwing it more often. It’s really that simple. It’s not like there’s been a huge velo jump on it or he’s made more dudes swing and miss when throwing it; the whiff rate and the average speed of the cutter look to be in line with 2022’s marks. The pitch was always solid enough, so mixing it more into the plan was a good idea that has paid off thus far.

Winckowski is emerging as an arm with three legitimate offerings. There are only so many pitchers who can live with only two primary options while logging multiple innings; Atlanta’s Spencer Strider comes to mind as one of those few examples. Winck’s now got a trio of pitches he uses at around a 25% rate—if not more—which can cause some headaches for the opposition. The sinker-slider-cutter combination offers good mixes in speed to go with movement to both the glove and arm sides as well as some vertical dive.

If that’s the Josh Winckowski experience going forward, then sign me up!

The Summer of the Shoey

Los Angeles Angels (5) Vs. Boston Red Sox (4) at Fenway Park Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

If you were expecting this third segment to be another analytical deep dive into a Red Sox playing showing encouraging signs, then you’re sadly mistaken. We’re talkin’ acting like a barbarian in the bleachers of Fenway Park, folks.

The phenomenon of drinking beer out of footwear—commonly known as a “shoey” in places like Australia—has taken over America’s Most Beloved Ballpark. I, for one, welcome our new shoey overlords. The shirtless brigade that braved the elements on Marathon Monday provided the proof of concept.

Now will I, personally, be doing shoeys? No...unless we make the playoffs, then maybe we can talk. But this energy from the crowd is just what the doctor ordered. The kids are alright, baby.

Our fearless leader Dan Secatore already spoke about this overall topic in length, but I’d like to co-sign the point that Fenway Park has a different vibe to it as of late. The atmosphere of the place feels a little less Pablo Sandoval Panda Hat Giveaway Night-y and a little more like the scenes I’d only hear about in anecdotes from my dad in the the pre-Monster Seats era. The walls might not be able to talk to recall those days, but at least this new generation of Sox fans can write their own neanderthal-esque stories.

I believe the ballpark shoey movement is a symptom of this overall energy shift, and it might be contagious once the weather gets to be consistently warmer. Who knows what the fate of the 2023 Red Sox is, but it seems like we’re in for a few months of fun shenanigans in the bleachers and grandstands. Tickets to Fenway have been relatively cheaper than what they were in the past—probably because the perception of the team among the general public is lower, I know—and Boston has always been a baseball-crazed town. Mix that all together, and you can see why it’s shaping up to be a Subaru shoey summer.

Maybe the Red Sox end up sucking ass, I don’t know. But if they do, at least we’ll have fun as the ship sinks. The band will play on, and the beers will be deleted via shoes.

Song Of The Week: “Lovin’ Each Day” by Ronan Keating

This was a pretty positive retrospective piece, so let’s let the good times roll with this dose of nostalgia. Let the infectious chorus and the 90’s-ass music video flow through you, and let’s have a great week.

Same time and same place next Monday. Go Sox.

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