Brock Holt and Mookie Betts

Are The Red Sox Really Contenders?

The Rays and Blue Jays both lost yesterday. Mathematically speaking neither event was abnormal. The losses pushed the Jays to .500 and the Rays to two games below. The Orioles didn’t play so congratulations to them for not losing. The Yankees did play and they won, which they’ve managed to do more than they’ve played and lost which makes them an anomaly in this year’s AL East.
That brings us to the Red Sox, the subject of both this website and this article. The Red Sox are in last place, 5.5 games back. That’s not bad considering they were 10 back after losing to Kansas City on June 20. Even so, most people seem to be discounting their chances. Should they? Probably, yes. But that doesn’t mean the Red Sox aren’t already in the process of turning their season around.

We’ll start with the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report gives Boston a 17.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, 9.9 percent of which comes from winning the AL East. Neither an under 20 percent overall shot nor a 10 percent shot at the division are good odds, but with 66 games to go and many games remaining against the teams ahead of them (including the first of a three-game series against the Yankees today), those odds are hardly deterministic.

They’re also not pulled from nowhere. Taken as a whole, the season has been quite disappointing. The Red Sox find themselves in the middle of a crowded AL in terms of runs scored. Considering run scoring was supposed to be the rock the 2015 team was built upon, that’s not so good. The news is worse when you look at the pitching staff. Boston has the worst ERA in the AL and is ahead of only the Phillies, who are terrible, and the Rockies, who play in a park only slightly less friendly to major league hitters than that little league field down the block.

Five and a half games back with 66 games to go sounds doable, and especially so if you concede the fact that the 2015 Red Sox are a good team that has put up an uncharacteristically bad first half of the season. But if you look at the Red Sox’s underlying numbers, it’s debatable how good a team they really are. As Alex Speier of the Boston Globe noted in his newsletter, 108 Stitches, the Red Sox are the recipients of the good graces of opposing defenses. They’ve scored 57 unearned runs, 15 more than any other team as of Thursday morning. And even so, they’ve been outscored by 39 runs on the season. Do good teams get outscored by 39 runs? In case you were wondering, no, they don’t. So then, if you’re a Red Sox fan, you have to go looking for reasons why they might be better than that -39 run differential.

There are a few, of course, but many rest on the same presumption that holds up the hope for rest of the team, and that is past performance. Throughout his career, Pablo Sandoval has been a better player than his overall performance has showed this season. The same can be said for Rick Porcello, who’s more recent seasons in Detroit have been significantly better than what he’s done so far this season. Forget his salary for a second and ask yourself how much better Boston would be if he were simply 10 percent below average rather than 32 percent.

If you’re a Red Sox fan, you have to go looking for reasons why they might be better than that -39 run differential.

Hanley Ramirez’s defense doesn’t quite fall into that category, but it’s worth mentioning. It was as bad as any I’ve ever seen from a major league player. But over the past few weeks, if not a month, Ramirez has gone from stupendously horrendous to simply bad, at least according to my eyes. That’s a huge improvement. I wouldn’t make the argument that he can ever be an asset in left field, but if he can be simply playable defensively then the Red Sox lineup all of a sudden makes some sense.

Further, the Red Sox have compiled their season stats with Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly in the starting rotation, and went a while without Eduardo Rodriguez. Less of the first two and more of the second should make a significant difference in the next part of the season.

But even with all of that, this is clearly a flawed team. The bullpen perpetually seems on the verge of falling to pieces, as John Farrell (rightly) doesn’t trust but three or four guys. Playing David Ortiz at first base to avoid the black hole that has enveloped Mike Napoli’s skills isn’t a sustainable strategy long term for Ortiz’s health. Right field has bizarrely been manned by Alejandro De Aza, who has played spectacularly (yes, this is a weird sentence to write, just let me get through it, please), but who could easily turn back into a pumpkin at any moment. The remainder of the depth that was supposed to protect the right side of the field in Allen Craig, Jackie Bradley, and Daniel Nava, are playing or rehabbing in Pawtucket.

The thing that should give Red Sox fans hope perhaps most of all is that while the Red Sox are flawed, so are the Yankees, Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays. Toronto has no pitching to speak of, Tampa has no hitting (this feels like the beginning of a nursery rhyme), the mediocre Orioles team we’ve been expecting to see for three years has finally arrived, and the Yankees are painfully old and balanced on the edge of a razor blade injury-wise.

There isn’t a team in the division that doesn’t need help, but it’s rare that trade deadline acquisitions make the difference in divisional races. Mostly, teams are what they are at this point. Our own projected standings report here at BP says the Red Sox will win more games than any divisional opponent from here on out. That’s a nod to the strength of this roster, or at least what we thought were the strengths at the beginning of the season. The prognosticators may not be counting them in, but the numbers say the Red Sox are back in this thing, even if they’re not the favorites.

That’s today, though. The Red Sox aren’t in a position where they can drop five straight or get swept by the Yankees this weekend. They’ve used up their mistakes. They’ve used up their low points and periods of struggle. The edges of contention are slippery and as the season continues to its conclusion, many teams will fall. For the Red Sox to play meaningful ball up until the end, they’re going to have to hold on tight, and that’s going to mean good players playing well, from Porcello to Sandoval to the rest of the roster. They can start tonight against New York. In fact, it’s not ‘can.’ It’s now ‘have to.’

Photo by Brett Davis/USA Today Sports Images

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