Blistering Bats, Bullpen Have Boston Back in the Hunt

Lucas Giolito is a terrifying pitcher. His fastball looks like it was fired out of a gun, and it isn’t even his best pitch; his changeup is one of the best in the sport, and his slider induced whiffs on over half the swings hitters took against it last year. He had a 2.55 ERA in his first three starts of this season, and that undersold how good he’d been: He was boasting the majors’ ninth-best FIP, sixth-best xFIP, and eighth-highest strikeout percentage. He’s as likely to throw a no-hitter on any given day as any other pitcher in baseball. And on Monday, the Red Sox mindlessly swatted him away like a fly buzzing around their ear.

Giolito retired just three of the 13 hitters he faced that morning in Boston, allowing eight runs on eight hits, two walks and two homers. He induced a whiff on just five of 31 swings, did not strike out anyone, and was knocked out in the second inning of a game the Red Sox went on to win, 11–4.

If you’re looking at this game in a vacuum, Giolito just had a very bad day. His fastball was poker-straight, and he couldn’t persuade his changeup to dip below the hitters’ thighs. The result was a complete inability to put guys away: Each of the first four batters he faced picked up a hit in two-strike counts. But the Red Sox have been turning in offensive monsoons like this with regularity this year. After getting swept by the Orioles in three games to start the season, they rattled off nine straight victories and entered Tuesday’s off-day winners of 12 of their last 15 games. In that time, they have scored double-digit runs in a game three times and averaged over six runs per contest. Overall, their 127 wRC+ this season is the best in baseball, and their 12–6 record is tops in the American League.

MLB’s Elite Offenses Thru 4/21
Red Sox 673 22 100 7.4% 21.7% 0.183 0.342 0.287 0.347 0.470 127
Angels 573 21 81 8.0% 22.5% 0.169 0.314 0.266 0.329 0.434 118
Dodgers 714 23 94 11.5% 22.8% 0.186 0.298 0.248 0.345 0.433 116
Reds 611 25 95 8.8% 23.6% 0.203 0.309 0.261 0.338 0.464 115
White Sox 689 19 89 9.7% 22.9% 0.150 0.300 0.246 0.330 0.396 111

The last time we saw the Red Sox, they were scuffling to a 24–36 record and a last-place finish in the AL East in the shortened 2020 season. The team made modest additions in the offseason but allowed a similar amount of talent to leave either via trade or free agency. Because of that, there wasn’t much expectation that this year would be much better. We gave the Sox a 38.9% shot at making the postseason on Opening Day, and because of the way our measures tend to undervalue a team like the Rays, I’d estimate their actual chances were even worse. Today, those playoff odds stand at 62%, as the team’s hot streak has coincided with slow starts in Toronto and Tampa Bay and a full-on tire-spinning in the Bronx.

The offense wasn’t the problem for the Red Sox last year — their 106 wRC+ ranked in the top half of baseball — but there has been one major turnaround in the lineup in 2021: J.D. Martinez. When Boston made its historic World Series title run in 2018, Martinez was a powerhouse in the middle of the lineup, hitting .330/.402/.629 for a 170 wRC+ and 5.9 WAR. Two years later and at just 32 years old, he hit an anemic .213/.291/.389 with seven homers in 54 games. His strikeout-to-walk ratio hit its worst point since 2015, but his biggest problem was that he wasn’t hitting the ball with nearly as much authority as years previous: He failed to hit any ball harder than 110.7 mph in 2020 after cracking 111 mph 26 times over the previous three seasons. Move the barrier down to 105 mph, and the difference is just as stark.

J.D. Martinez Exit Velos, 2017-20
Year Batted Balls No. ≥ 105 mph Percentage
2017 308 56 18.2%
2018 430 84 19.5%
2019 442 63 14.3%
2020* 154 8 5.2%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*2020 MLB average = 7.9%

Though we’re still dealing with small samples in 2021, Martinez’s power seems to be back with a vengeance. He’s already recorded 14 exit velocities of at least 105 mph this season on just 50 batted balls — a rate of 28%. He’s also met or exceeded his max exit velocity from 2020 three times already, the hardest of which was this 112.3 mph double:

Overall, Martinez has a blistering slash line of .375/.429/.766 in 70 plate appearances and has risen to the 90th percentile of hitters in xwOBA and 93rd percentile in xSLG.

He’s far from the only Red Sox hitter crushing the ball. Xander Bogaerts (.393/.439/.557), Rafael Devers (.271/.362/.542) and Alex Verdugo (.295/.357/.525) are all boasting a wRC+ of 140 or greater after at least 60 plate appearances. Christian Vázquez, Christian Arroyo and Enrique Hernández have all been above-average at the plate as well. And that doesn’t include rookie Bobby Dalbec, whose actual numbers lag well behind a .434 xwOBA that places him in the 91st percentile of all hitters.

The Red Sox are demolishing the ball right now, and that’s something they had to do if they wanted to win this year. Boston’s pitching was below replacement level in 2020, posting the majors’ worst FIP (5.19) and third-worst ERA (5.58). Sixteen pitchers started games for the team last year, most of whom were very bad, and the bullpen was a raging dumpster fire. Despite that, the team didn’t make the most inspiring attempts to fix any of this. Free-agent signings Garrett Richards, Hirokazu Sawamura, and Matt Andriese cost just over $11.5 million combined this year, and the Yankees paid Boston to take Adam Ottavino off their hands after he underperformed in 2020. There wasn’t any reason to believe this pitching staff would be one of the best in baseball this year.

It is with great confusion, then, that I report that Boston’s pitching staff is one of the best in baseball this year. Across the majors, only three teams have a better FIP than the Red Sox (3.21), and while their 3.60 ERA is a bit behind that, it still ranks ninth in baseball. The Dodgers didn’t feel so guilty about the Mookie Betts trade that they donated half their pitching staff to Boston just before Opening Day, so what happened here?

Starting with the rotation, the return of Eduardo Rodriguez hasn’t hurt. After missing all of 2020 recovering from a truly terrifying COVID-19 case, the 28-year-old lefty has made three starts this season and looked sharp, allowing six runs on 12 hits and walking just two against 18 strikeouts in 16 innings.

His return has been the biggest boost to the rotation, but he isn’t the only starter pitching well. Nathan Eovaldi is throwing like a legitimate ace early on, owning a 3.04 ERA and 1.70 FIP over his first four starts. Tanner Houck currently stands as the odd man out of the rotation, but that may not be for long; he’s now made six career big league pitching appearances with a 1.90 ERA and 2.90 FIP. Richards, Nick Pivetta and Martín Pérez have all been acceptable so far, but if any of them struggle going forward, the flexibility Houck’s options give the Red Sox (not to mention any possible service time trickery) may not be enough to keep him out of the rotation. It’s not the most intimidating group you’ve ever seen, but it should be a big step forward from what the team had last year.

The bullpen, meanwhile, has been electric. All six Red Sox relievers who have thrown at least six innings this season have an ERA of 2.45 or lower. Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock has been dominant, throwing nine shutout frames with 11 strikeouts, three hits and no walks. Matt Barnes hasn’t been far behind him, allowing just one run in his nine innings with 16 strikeouts and only two walks. Throw in good starts to the season by Andriese, Sawamura, Darwinzon Hernandez and Phillips Valdez, and you have a bullpen that ranks second in the majors in FIP and fifth in ERA.

A lot of things are breaking the right way for Boston right now, and that luck is eventually going to change. But with the exception of Whitlock — a 24-year-old right-hander who last pitched in Double A in 2019 and who clocked in at No. 30 on our Red Sox top prospect list in January — no one I’ve listed is someone you’re shocked to see doing well. That underscores how talented of a team this is, and how badly things had to go last year for Boston to finish where it did.

The Red Sox still have a lot to prove, and their suspect pitching depth will be put to the test again sooner or later. But for now, they stand atop the AL East, and knocking them out of that spot is going to take an awfully big flyswatter.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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1 year ago

All off-season I was beating the “Redsox are not that bad” drum. Thing is, their 2020 season was a compete outlier. The worst pitching staff I have ever seen. Guys like Hart, Maza, Brewer, Weber, among others made up the bulk of their innings. Martin Perez’ starts jokingly become “Perez day” given how great he was in comparison to the others (and he had a 4.50 era!)

I predicted them for ~84 wins coming into the season. However, JD’s resurgence, a potential Verdugo breakout, and Whitlock looking truly awesome has me thinking this could be a playoff team.

Maybe not division leaders, but maybe a team that snags that 2nd wild card with 88-91 wins.

1 year ago
Reply to  Brock244

A Verdugo breakout might be something interesting to watch.

Obviously it’s a SSS, but he’s raised his launch angle 5 degrees while maintaining a nutso 90% overall contact rate. Adding some more power to elite contact skills and solid center/right defense could move him from solid regular to all-star territory.

1 year ago
Reply to  proiste

Verdugo was the guy I called preseason as the most likely guy that everyone is like “how did we miss this obvious breakout? ” It makes a ton of sense, guy has a career 116 wRC+ in only one plate appearance more than a person has had in a season prior (felt like looking it up, 778PA by Rollins once, yowzers). And while having been in the MLB since 2017, he was stuck in a spot where he would be unlikely to get full time plate appearances. He is 24, and has a great approach and beautiful swing. I could easily see him increase his loft a little and turn into a .300/400/500 25-30 home run superstar. I mean his career line is .291/346/464, it isn’t too much of a stretch, especially now that maybe he is striking out less as well.