With the halfway point of the season just around the corner and the All Star break following soon after let’s step back for a moment and hand out some midseason grades for the 2007 Red Sox.
Offense The Sox offense has been sufficient so far. In the vital categories of runs, home runs and batting average the Red Sox rank sixth, sixth, and fifth in the league respectively. Good enough all things considered but in the words of Johnny Drama the haggler, “I like it–I don’t love it.” For an offense that should be in the top two or three statistically in the AL, there are two glaring reasons for their rather ordinary offensive standing. Their team batting average of .273 has been heavily weighed down by Julio Lugo, who has the worst batting average (.193) among everyday players in baseball. As for their lack of run production and home runs, look no further than the men in the middle, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Combined they have fewer home runs (24) than each league leader, Alex Rodriguez (28) and Prince Fielder (26). For some reason or another they don’t seem to be sweating it, and neither should we. Both are hitting over .300 and if Manny ever spoke to the media he’d likely be the first to point out that he’s hitting .400 over the last month (with a whopping four home runs and 13 RBI). But in all seriousness the only people who need worry about Manny and Papi are opposing pitching staffs (like, maybe Texas and Tampa Bay’s when they arrive at Fenway at the end of the week. Just sayin.) The runs haven’t come in bunches just yet, but they will. Grade: B
Starting Pitching The performance of the starting staff this year is undoubtedly the most significant reason the Red Sox have the best record in baseball. The two elder statesmen of the rotation, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, have had their ups and downs but are still a combined 13-12 with a 4.35 ERA. Schilling appeared to have expended a little too much too early in the season against Oakland a couple weeks ago when he nearly threw a no-hitter. The result was consecutive starts against Colorado and Atlanta in which he had no velocity on his fastball and little control of his all-important splitter. The ever-streaky Wakefield has had his fair share of struggles as well, but he continues to battle and rarely exits a game before the sixth inning. At this stage of his career we know what we’re getting from Wake.
The most unexpected lift has come from Julian Tavarez. After a horrid start Tavarez has pitched exceptionally. Over the last five weeks he’s unbeaten in seven starts (six of them Red Sox wins) with a 4-0 record and an ERA of about three and a half. Then there’s the dynamic duo of Josh Beckett and Dice-K. Quite simply they are the most dominant top-two tag team in baseball. They’re both on pace for 20 wins and both have answered the critics. Beckett has effectively changed speeds on his fastball this season, as opposed to trying to blow everyone away with 97 mph heat. He’s also fine-tuned his breaking ball to the point where it has become a primary out-pitch. Matsuzaka meanwhile, has given up a total of five runs in his last four starts, while striking out 34 in 26 innings. Wildness in the early to middle innings continues to be his only significant problem, but he is clearly getting better with each start, and has lived up to his proclamation of being a slow starter. With no structural damage in Schilling’s shoulder and the possibility of Mark Buehrle arriving via trade it sure looks like this already-potent staff is only going to get stronger. Grade: A-
Bullpen A case can be made that Hideki Okajima is the best setup man in baseball. One can also be made that Jonathan Papelbon is the best closer in baseball. Aright, I’ll take the honors. Okajima has a 0.98 ERA with a 2-0 record, four saves and 12 holds. Opponents are hitting .151 against him and he’s given up four runs all season (one of which came on his first big league pitch). Papelbon has 18 saves in 19 chances and a 1.65 ERA; 38 strikeouts in 21.1 innings pitched. Opponents are hitting .153 against him, and are consistently overmatched and/or blatantly intimidated when facing him. Cases closed. The rest of the bullpen has been solid as well. As a core, the Sox relievers have the second-lowest ERA in baseball behind San Diego. Brendan Donnelly was earning his paycheck before he landed on the 15-day DL. Kyle Snyder and Javier Lopez have been workmanlike and productive as matchup relievers. And now Manny Delcarmen is slowing being reintegrated back into the pen. With far less of the load on his young shoulders this season look for Delcarmen to make significant strides and become more important as the campaign continues (especially if Donnelly is slow to return). All and all the AL’s deepest and best bullpen. Grade: A
Overall It’s hard to be a Red Sox fan not loving life these days. At 48-26 they are the best team in baseball, they have an 11.5-game lead over the Yankees and are 4-2 on their current high-mileage road trip (through Atlanta, San Diego and Seattle). Because of their strong pitching staff they’ve only once lost more than two games in succession. And the curious way in which Manny and Papi are hitting (ie very well with little power) makes me wonder if they have some sort of wager on who can get to the All Star break with the fewest home runs and still crack 45 this year. It’s been that kind of season for the Sox. Through all the question marks, from Schilling to Lugo and J.D. Drew, from Coco Crisp to Manny and Ortiz, the wins have just kept coming, and there ain’t nothin wrong with that. October baseball will be returning to Fenway this fall, that much I can assure you of. And if all goes well October baseball will be going through Fenway this fall. In the meantime though, sit back, relax and enjoy the boys of summer. Grade: A-