BOSTON — David Dombrowski, president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox, has a wonderful view of the pregame foot traffic outside Fenway Park from his office overlooking Lansdowne Street. When he wants to get a read on what the fans are thinking — rather than where they’re walking — he just needs to go for a coffee or a bite to eat around the park or in his neighborhood in the ‘burbs.
The Red Sox have a .698 winning percentage, so Dombrowski is a magnet for positive feedback these days.
“People are great,” he says. “Once in a while you hear, ‘Hey, we could use this or that.’ But it’s more a case of, ‘Thank you, we love the team.’ The fans are absolutely as complimentary as can be.”
David Price earned his fifth straight win for the Red Sox, who had three bases-loaded doubles in a six-run fifth to help split a four-game series vs. the Indians.
Injuries have hit some of the top teams’ starting pitchers. Who is best positioned to weather the storm through the push for the playoffs?
The Red Sox are still No. 1 atop a pile of quality clubs in the AL, but hot hitters are powering rising challengers from the NL.
But they’re still Red Sox fans, and beneath the euphoria and new-found sense of entitlement stemming from three world championships since 2004, a time-honored sense of fatalism endures. A dogged core of Red Sox die-hards (and maybe a bigger one, among the media) subscribes to the notion that if everything seems great, something not-so-great is on the horizon.
When the Cleveland Indians won the first two games of a four-game series at Fenway this week and took an early 2-0 lead Wednesday on an Edwin Encarnacion home run, the Red Sox were at risk of suffering their first four-game losing streak of 2018. Then they flipped the switch and rallied to outscore the Tribe 17-4 to earn a split of the matchup of division leaders. FanGraphs gives the Sox a 96.4 percent chance of winning the American League East, and every Boston victory turns the screws on the Yankees a little tighter.
As manager Alex Cora and the Boston players move on to a weekend series in Tampa Bay, life is one big series of postgame handshakes and joyous renditions of “Sweet Caroline.”
Only the ending is in doubt. Are the 2018 Red Sox destined to be the 1998 Yankees, a regular-season juggernaut that steamrolled the competition in October, or the 2001 Mariners, who won 116 games on the way to a winter of torment and might-have-beens? Here are nine questions that will play out in September — and October — and determine the team’s place in history:
Are the Red Sox as good as their record?
At 90-39, the Sox need to go 16-17 the rest of the way to break the franchise record of 105 wins set in 1912. Watch out, Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper and Smoky Joe Wood.
In a season notable for haves and have-nots in the American League, the Red Sox have obliterated weaker competition. They’re 26-6 against Toronto and Baltimore, the AL East’s two afterthoughts. Throw in a 17-2 record against Texas, Kansas City and the Angels, and they really start to look like schoolyard bullies.
But that consistency and ability to bring it every day can just as easily be perceived as a strength. In spring training, Cora preached the importance of winning series and grinding out the inevitable 1 p.m. getaway rubber games on Sundays. His players took heed, and they’re a group that won’t be burdened by history or the weight of expectations. If the Red Sox have a notable attribute this season beyond their talent, it’s their tunnel vision.
“We work on everything because you’ve got to be good at everything to win a World Series,” says Mookie Betts. “One little small area, whether it’s running the bases or backing up bases or whatever, can show up big. We know that and take pride in every aspect of the game.”
Is a lull inevitable?
The question, on the face of it, seemed absurd: After months of smooth sailing and almost incessant winning, Cora was asked if it might be a relief to dispense with the inevitable rough patch. He refused to buy into the premise.
“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘It would be good for them if they start losing,'” Cora says. “I don’t see that. What good comes out of that?
“Even winning, we’re learning about our team. We knew the baserunning had to be better, and it’s been better. Certain situations, we need to be better. There’s a lot of learning when you win. I know there’s learning when you lose too. But that whole thing about us needing to go through a bad stretch? Not really. People don’t like to lose.”
If the Red Sox go all 162 without a single stretch of ugly baseball, they’ll be the rare outlier. Consider the 2017 Dodgers, who looked invincible when they were 91-36 and leading the National League West by 21 games at precisely this stage a year ago. The Dodgers went 12-22 down the stretch and lost 10 games off their division lead in September before getting their act together and advancing to the World Series.
The lesson: If a rough patch is going to come for the Red Sox, it’ll come without wishing for it. And barring a series of injuries, it won’t necessarily be fatal to their chances in October.
What’s their Achilles’ heel?
“One of the tricks, when you address your weaknesses, is that something else becomes your weakness,” says Dombrowski, sounding very much like a man who has been running teams since 1988.
The Red Sox had some issues against left-handed pitching earlier this season, so the front office addressed the problem by acquiring Steve Pearce and Ian Kinsler in trades. Pearce, who has a longstanding reputation as a lefty killer, ingratiated himself with the fan base with a three-homer, six-RBI performance in a 15-7 rout of the Yankees on Aug. 2.
“We work on everything because you’ve got to be good at everything to win a World Series.”
Dombrowski took some mild criticism at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, when he fell short of acquiring an established eight-inning guy in a trade. But the Boston bullpen ranks fifth in the majors with a 3.31 ERA and sixth overall with a .227 batting average against, and what it lacks in name recognition, it makes up for in stuff.
So maybe it’s the defense. The Red Sox rank 20th among the 30 MLB clubs in Defensive Runs Saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions. The metrics aren’t pretty in the infield, where the second base, third base and shortstop positions have a combined DRS of minus-49.
But Kinsler has helped tighten things up at second, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts is probably better than his minus-18 DRS suggests. “I trust him on balls in his area,” says a scout. “And he’s going to make some plays on balls out of his area too.”
The Red Sox have a bona fide pitcher whisperer in Sandy Leon, who receives rave reviews up and down the staff. Rick Porcello recently called Leon “the best catcher I’ve ever thrown to,” and Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions ranks Leon as the third best pitch framer in the game behind Houston’s Max Stassi and the Dodgers’ Austin Barnes.
The outfield is also terrific, even though the defensive metrics don’t rate Jackie Bradley Jr. or Andrew Benintendi nearly as well as the eye test suggests. “If a ball is in the air, and it’s not crushed, they have a pretty good chance of catching it,” Cora says. “I know I’m biased as manager of the Red Sox, but when you see Jackie on a daily basis, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ I do feel he’s the best defensive center fielder in the big leagues.”
Will Chris Sale be dominant when it counts?
Sale’s reputation as a great pitcher who fades late in the season is substantiated by the numbers. He’s 11-16 with a 3.78 ERA for his career in September. His 1.24 WHIP is the worst of any month, and he has allowed a career-high 38 homers in September. Worse yet, he was knocked around in two division series outings against Houston during his postseason debut last October.
Now, Sale is on the shelf for the second time in a month with shoulder inflammation. After striking out 12 batters in five innings and 68 pitches against Baltimore on Aug. 12, he made his second trip to the DL with the same malady.
Sale has yet to resume throwing, and the Red Sox will give him all the time he needs. While the down time will hinder his Cy Young Award aspirations, the innings he conserves now could leave him with more in the tank down the stretch.
“I think it’s been part of their year-long plan with him,” says a scout. “If they could, they would bottle him up in a sealed container and open him up on playoff game No. 1. His stuff in Baltimore was beyond dominant after coming off the DL. That is what was eye-popping. This is not an injured pitcher.”
Is Sale’s shoulder balky enough for the Red Sox to take precautions? Sure. If they’re “fudging” things with the DL visit, as one talent evaluator suggests, it’s nothing the Dodgers didn’t do with their starters last season. However you assess it, Sale’s hiatus ensures that he won’t be running on fumes in October, when the Red Sox need him most.
How strong is the rest of the rotation?
It’s pretty good. David Price has thrived while throttling back on the use of his fastball and curve, and ramping things up with his cutter and change. He’s noticeably more relaxed and comfortable than last season, when injuries and some off-field histrionics put a crimp in his Boston experience.
“His velo is down from when he was younger, but he looks like the guy he was in Tampa,” says a scout. “He has pitchability, execution, command and feel for the way he wants to set up hitters and put them away. I’ve seen him twice recently, and I sure wouldn’t want to face him.”
Price inevitably will encounter questions about his career 2-8 record and 5.03 ERA in the postseason, but at some point that’s going to serve as a motivator as much as a burden. Rick Porcello, Boston’s nominal No. 3 starter, is two years removed from winning a Cy Young Award and can carve up opponents with his diverse repertoire. Porcello’s 86-pitch one-hitter against the Yankees on Aug. 3 was the most Maddux-like outing in MLB this season.
The Red Sox’s sizable lead and several off days in the schedule will allow Cora to use his starters judiciously and back off their workloads in the final month. “This not only applies to Chris, but the whole pitching staff — we want them to be trending up in September,” he says.
Next month could serve as an audition for Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez for the No. 4 spot in the postseason rotation. Eovaldi was dominant in his first two outings after coming over from Tampa Bay, but he has been more hittable in his past three starts. Rodriguez, who has been out with a sprained ankle, looked sharp in a rehab start with Double-A Portland this week.
Who’s the bridge to Craig Kimbrel?
One scout who has followed the Red Sox of late observes that Kimbrel isn’t the same guy this year. “He’s not quite as sharp when it comes to locating the ball,” the scout says. But warts are all relative. Kimbrel ranks sixth among MLB relievers with a 17.0 swinging strike percentage, and he’s whiffing an average of 13.6 hitters per nine innings. If that’s a down year, heaven help opposing hitters.
The big question is, who’ll be entrusted with recording the pivotal outs in the seventh and eighth innings in October? Ryan Brasier, Brandon Workman, Joe Kelly, Tyler Thornburg and Matt Barnes have combined for 47 strikeouts, 14 walks and a 2.45 ERA in 44 innings this month, and any one of them might heighten his profile with continued good work down the stretch.
Brasier, 30, is making up for the time he lost after undergoing Tommy John surgery with the Angels in 2014. “He’s not a big name, but it’s a big arm,” says a scout. Barnes has 86 strikeouts in 55 innings, and he has induced lots of awkward swings with his upper-90s fastball and sharp breaking curve. “He’s filthy,” Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie says.
As they’re presently constructed, the Red Sox don’t have a lockdown situational lefty, so the next few weeks could bring some clarity. Can Drew Pomeranz be that guy? Or Rodriguez, if Eovaldi wins the fourth starting spot? Or will the Sox simply rely on their arsenal of righty relievers, several of whom have solid numbers vs. lefties?
It’s going to require some creativity and experimentation, but the raw materials are there. The Red Sox have several bullpen arms who have yet to perform on the big stage in October. But that doesn’t mean they’re not capable, given the opportunity.
What particular challenges does their lineup present to opponents?
A lot of managers worry about whether they can find a way to squeeze out three runs a night. Cora’s big issue is deciding whether to bat J.D. Martinez in the No. 3 spot or at cleanup. Either way, it’s hard to overstate the impact Martinez has had this season after David Ortiz’s departure left the Red Sox anchorless in the middle of the order in 2017.
“There are two things that J.D. likes to do — hit and play the outfield,” Cora says. “He doesn’t care. There’s no difference with him — regardless of whether it’s a righty or a lefty, men on, bases empty, leading off an inning or two outs. That’s what makes him great. I would love to be in his mind with him in the batter’s box. It’s probably a very lonely place.”
The Red Sox lead the majors with 694 runs and a .798 team OPS, and they’ve shown an impressive blend of power and contact ability. Last year they ranked last in the American League with 168 home runs. This year, they’ve already hit 172 homers. And they’re one of only six major league clubs yet to pass the 1,000-strikeout mark.
Martinez and Betts are MVP candidates, and Benintendi and Bogaerts are All-Star-caliber players entering their peak years. Mitch Moreland, signed for two years and $13 million, has given the Red Sox an .800 OPS and plus defense at first. And Kinsler, Pearce, Bradley, Eduardo Nunez, Brock Holt and Rafael Devers give Cora plenty of right-left maneuverability.
Beyond their output at the plate, the Red Sox can do damage when they reach base. Betts, Benintendi and Bradley have combined for 56 stolen bases in 63 attempts this season. Overall, the Red Sox rank second in the AL in steals (98) and stolen base success rate (79.67 percent).
“The number of steals isn’t as important as being safe,” Indians manager Terry Francona says. “Teams that can hit the ball out of the ballpark and run the bases make it difficult. Now you’re asking pitchers to slide step. They’ve got runners who can go from first to third. It creates another dimension that you have to plan for. It’s one of the first things I look for when we come and play a team.”
Can they hit good pitching?
It’s relatively easy to beat up on mediocre pitching from April through September. But how do the Red Sox fare against the iron? ESPN’s Sarah Langs took the top 20 pitchers in the AL in ERA this season and threw their numbers in a blender, and here’s what she found:
• Overall, those top 20 starters have combined for a 3.23 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, a .228 opponents batting average, a .659 opponents OPS, a 26.0 strikeout percentage, a 6.5 walk percentage and a 2.8 home run percentage this season.
• Against the Red Sox specifically, that contingent has a 3.54 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, a .242 opponents batting average and .657 OPS, a 23.9 percent strikeout rate, a 6.6 percent walk rate and a 2.0 percent home run rate.
The Boston lineup beats the averages almost across the board. The Red Sox also have an 11-14 record against starters with ERAs among the top 20 in the league. While that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, we’re talking about opponents like Luis Severino, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Blake Snell, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole. More often than not, the Red Sox have pushed those marquee starters with one relentless at-bat after another.
“The best lineups in history have always been lineups that suffocate the other team,” Kinsler says. “They use all 27 outs as best they can. And usually the outs they’re making are still productive, whether it’s moving a guy over or seeing a bunch of pitches in an at-bat, or whatever it takes to have a team-productive at-bat. That’s usually what sets lineups like this apart. I know everybody in here prides themselves on that.”
Can the manager run the gauntlet?
Gabe Kapler survived some early mess-ups before getting things on track in Philadelphia, and Dave Martinez and Mickey Callaway have been through the wringer in their first seasons in the dugout. In the Bronx, Aaron Boone has been subject to some criticism lately for his bullpen management and analytics-based approach to resting players and setting lineups.
Cora, in contrast, has lived a charmed existence as Boston’s new prince of the city. He established a positive tone in spring training, and he has checked all the boxes for a rookie manager.
“He’s very knowledgeable about the game,” Dombrowski says. “He’s always been a leader, and very well-respected. He’s very intelligent and a good communicator, in all directions. He’s good with the media. He knows the rules. And we’ve got a great staff around him. He’s got a fire in him. But he just keeps a very calm demeanor about him.”
Time will tell how Cora responds in the postseason if he leaves a starter in too long or messes up a replay challenge and it’s time to sit down at that podium and face a grilling. But he experienced life in the October cauldron as A.J. Hinch’s bench coach in Houston last season, and nothing in his demeanor suggests he won’t be able to handle the scrutiny.
It helps to have a clubhouse filled with professional players who have his back. The Red Sox aren’t as colorful at the 2004 Idiots, and they don’t have the same external motivation as the 2013 club, which rode the Boston Strong mantra and the emotional aftermath of the marathon bombings to a title. But they’ve developed a palpable chemistry through winning.
Betts, who might be the frontrunner for AL MVP, was asked what characteristic of this Boston team stands out the most to him.
“It’s how close-knit we are as a core, as a group,” he says. “We’re all playing for each other. It’s not just one guy trying to put up numbers. It’s one unit, trying to win a game.”
The Red Sox have won a lot of games, and they’ll keep grinding on their way to that franchise record. Can they run the table all the way through October? For both the optimists and fatalists in the Boston fan base, it’ll be fun finding out.