When I moved to Boston in 1999, the Red Sox were Pedro Martinez’s team. That’s not to say other players weren’t important. But Pedro was the star. His was the mojo that made them go. Then in 2004, the Red Sox became David Ortiz’s team. Ortiz’s star powered the Sox through 2016, which is perhaps why this season, the first without him, has been so oddly jarring. Mookie Betts spoke about that a few months into the season, discussing how the Red Sox missed Ortiz off the field as much as on. So, despite a core of players among the most youthful and talented in the game, the Red Sox experienced a bit of a star power vacuum in 2017.
It is hard to put numbers to this, admittedly. Watching the team though, you got a sense there was something missing. Not just Ortiz the man, but the team was missing something vital, the keystone to a bridge or the top of a pyramid. Initially I expected Dustin Pedroia to take over that role from Ortiz and Pedroia has to some extent. However, there is still something missing. Maybe it’s because Pedroia hasn’t had the MVP-type season this year, or because he’s struggled with injuries, or simply because, through no fault of his own, Pedroia isn’t Ortiz. Whatever it is, the star power on the field and the will to win that Ortiz exerted haven’t been there.
Teams can win without “star power” and winning clubhouses are happy clubhouses, usually in that order. But having watched this team all year long, there has been something missing. It’s like a decent chili that doesn’t have that kick.
I know this probably sounds like some hocus-pocus-y crap. Teams can win without “star power” and winning clubhouses are happy clubhouses, usually in that order. But having watched this team all year long, there has been something missing. It’s like a decent chili that doesn’t have that kick. Or a car that looks good and runs fine, but there isn’t any extra when you really put the pedal down. I know this kind of analysis is maybe more suited for the mainstream media than Baseball Prospectus, or even your high school cousin’s Red Sox blogspot page. And yet I can’t shake this thought: it isn’t a coincidence that the Red Sox came back in the ninth inning Wednesday, on a night when Xander Bogaerts homered and Mookie Betts had three hits.
Those have been rare events especially lately this season. Bogaerts hit 21 homers last season. He has seven now and his slugging percentage is down 40 points from last season. Betts has been fine overall. His WAR numbers look good because he’s a fantastic baserunner and an exquisite fielder. But offensively he’s taken a couple steps back from last year. The on-base is down 20 points and the power is down 80 points.
There are reasons for those downturns in performance, of course. Bogaerts has been dealing with injuries, playing through them because the team needed him on the field, even though his performance suffered for it. Betts has been healthy (as far as we know) but pitchers have been beating him to death with sliders and he’s worked himself into some bad habits. It’s not a coincidence that the Red Sox had their worst month in July (they went 13-14), with Bogaerts hitting .163/.227/.225 and Betts hitting .243/.313/.383.
The Red Sox have gone 11-2 in August which you could say kinda blows my argument that the Red Sox are now Mookie and Xander’s team out of the water, because neither guy has done much beyond mere adequacy since the calendar flipped. But the point isn’t that Mookie and Xander won those 11 games by themselves. It’s not that they did anything to win those games at all. It’s that if this Red Sox team is going to do anything special, anything worth remembering, it’s going to be with those two driving the bus.
And that’s not just 2017. It goes for the next few seasons as well. Despite protestations to the contrary, the 2018 Red Sox aren’t likely to feature Giancarlo Stanton, or for that matter, Manny Machado or Mike Trout. Stanton ain’t coming through that door, people. And while it would be exciting, in the end it isn’t necessary if Mookie and Xander play like the superstars they can be. Betts doesn’t have to finish second in the MVP and Xander doesn’t have to have hit 21 homers every season, but for this iteration of the Red Sox to do anything, those two have to be the David Ortiz. They have to stand up and deliver. They have to bring it when it needs to be brought.
Which brings us back to the ninth inning against St. Louis two nights ago. Down 4-2 with Xander up, Red Sox fans were hoping for an infield single. Maybe a pop-up down the line that falls in. Something lucky needs to happen because Xander simply hasn’t been hitting the ball hard. And then he did! And it went over the monster! That was…unexpected. I’m not sure that ball is out at any other ballpark, and I wouldn’t claim he got all of it (it may have gone higher than it did far) but I’ll be damned if it didn’t count either way. That at-bat was the best possible outcome, both for that night and the future.
Then, down a run with two outs and runners on first and second, Mookie Betts came up. Mookie’s clutch stats are all over the map this year, which makes sense given what we know about clutchness. With two outs and runners in scoring position he has a .972 OPS (good). In late and close situations (defined by Baseball Reference) he has a .745 OPS (bad). This situation was late and close and there were two outs and a runner in scoring position (???). And Mookie lined one off the wall scoring two runs for the win. Huge. Simply huge.
Look, I know the ball he hit wasn’t scorched and I know it was a slider that didn’t slide, but like Xander, Mookie hit it hard enough. Performing when you don’t have your best stuff isn’t always pretty, but both guys made it happen on Wednesday when the team needed them to the most.
The 2017 season has yet to fully unfold, but what we do know now is that this Red Sox team needs both Mookie and Xander if they’re going to win the division and make noise in the playoffs. But I’d argue their contribution to the Red Sox is bigger than that, just like that of Ortiz before them and Pedro before him. This team for the next few seasons will be defined by the successes and failures of Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. Other players will come and go and make impacts (good and bad) while they are here, but this Red Sox team belongs to and depends on Betts and Bogaerts. That was never more clear than Wednesday night, when, lit by Fenway’s lights and scored by its crowd, Mookie stood center stage, arms outstretched and beaming in a shower of red Gatorade. It’s good to have a king again. It’s even better to have two.
Photo by David Butler II – USA TODAY Sports