This Isn’t Even Their Final Form

The best start in Red Sox history continued this week against the Angels. Their latest high-profile victim: Angels’ young phenom Shohei Ohtani, who lasted only two innings before a blister forced him out of the game.

It’s easy to talk about how good the Red Sox are right now. They’re really, really good — two games better than the Mets, even! Still, as weird as it might be to say, some spotty performances and injury mishaps could say that the Sox haven’t even hit their actual ceiling just yet. As ridiculous as the Red Sox have been to open this season, what we’ve seen may not even be their best selves.

The bullpen is the most obvious complaint in the early going. The season kicked off with an unfortunate late-inning implosion, after all. Boston’s league-leading pitching numbers look even more impressive when you consider that they currently roster seven arms with ERAs higher than 4.00 when pitching out of the ‘pen — Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree, Brian Johnson, Marcus Walden, Hector Velazquez, and Carson Smith. Craig Kimbrel is an eldritch bullpen horror and Bobby Poyner looks like a nice middle-inning/lefty specialist find, but the team’s potential answers in high-leverage, late-inning scenarios seem limited. A lot of these guys are underperforming their peripherals, and Smith in particular should improve as he settles in as a healthy contributor for the first time since 2015. Still, this is an area I could really see the Red Sox addressing at the trade deadline, as they could benefit greatly from one or two more reliable arms.

Offensively, the Red Sox have looked simultaneously impressive and inconsistent. Runs were a little hard to come by in the early going, as they put up four or fewer in six of the first seven games (two of which went into extras), but they’ve been flowing fairly regularly ever since. Mookie Betts has been ridiculous, as have Xander Bogaerts and Hanley Ramirez. Last year’s power drought feels like ancient history.

And yet, there’s room for a little more there, too. J.D. Martinez is heating up, but he’s still far from his lofty 2017 level and even a ways off from the slightly more modest seasons before that. He’s striking out a little more than usual, and walking a little less. Andrew Benintendi is walking quite a bit and his contact rate is up, but that contact has been weaker — only 17.8 percent of his batted balls are classified as hard-hit on Fangraphs, way down from his 34.3 percent mark last season. Rafael Devers is enduring some growing pains, slugging almost 100 points worse than his 58-game taste of the majors last season.

It’s a safe bet these trends will fix themselves before long, because all three of these hitters are just more talented than we’ve seen from them so far. Martinez probably isn’t going to slug nearly .700 again, but he’s a more disciplined hitter than we’ve seen to this point. He’s also absolutely crushing the ball — a whopping 64 percent of his batted balls are hit hard, across from only seven percent soft contact. Benintendi and Devers are young, but considering what we know about them as prospects, better days should be on the horizon. Even the “bad” version of Benintendi we’ve seen so far has an OBP over .400 and a walk rate near 19 percent in the two-hole of the lineup right now.

Another dimension at play here is that the Boston Sports Injury Plague of 2018 seems to be nipping at the Red Sox heels. Xander Bogaerts hit the 15-day DL almost immediately, cracking a bone in his foot on an awkward slide into the Tampa Bay Rays’ dugout. While the Red Sox seemed to have lucked out in losing him for only about two weeks, the injury drudged up unfortunate memories of seeing about half the Boston Celtics’ roster end their seasons just a few days apart.

Bogaerts will be back soon, but he’s not the only player missing time, either: Eduardo Rodriguez only just returned, Drew Pomeranz is on the way, and Tyler Thornburg is… somewhere. Dustin Pedroia’s new bionic leg is still a work in progress, but he could be ready to go sometime early in May. Between Rodriguez, Pomeranz, and Pedroia, that’s about seven wins (per fWAR) from last year’s team currently sitting on the DL. No team makes it through the year without injuries, and the Red Sox will certainly see other guys miss games, but getting that group back will help.

There’s also the curious case of Mr. David Price, who has managed to make a sterling 2.25 ERA start to the season feel a little nerve-wracking. Three of Price’s four starts have been great, as he’s only allowed one run combined between them. Then there’s the New York start — on April 11, Price allowed four runs in only one inning before leaving the game due to numbness in his pitching hand. It seems that Price is fine, especially in an impressive follow-up performance Tuesday against Mike Trout and the Angels. Still, it was a weird injury that still hasn’t been fully explained, and further issues with Price could compromise what currently looks to be impressive depth in the starting rotation. Considering the city of Boston seems to be cursed by the Pagan God of Sports Injuries, it’s something that will have to sit in the back of fans’ minds for the time being.

These are all things that, in a vacuum, could lead to an even better Red Sox team in 2018 than we’ve seen so far. It’s certainly possible! Baseball, though, is famously not played in a vacuum. The most likely outcome for the Red Sox is probably some kind of middle ground. Some of the early standout performers will come down to Earth eventually, and some players we expect to perform well could underwhelm. These are normal things for any team in any season.

Teams that get off to this kind of start often have a lot of regression down to the mean ahead of them. The Red Sox are unique in that, despite being off to such a hot start, they seem to have nearly as much room to improve as they do to regress. They probably won’t win 86 percent of their games for the entire season, but with some better breaks in terms of health and performance, they may not slow down as much as one might expect. That could turn out to be the recipe for a very special 2018 Red Sox season.

Header photo by Kirby Lee — USA TODAY Sports

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