Tomase: First-half superlatives for a seriously good Red Sox team originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The first half of the Boston Red Sox‘ season is mathematically in the books after a rain-delayed 6-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and it’s time to hand out some superlatives.
If the Red Sox duplicate their 50-31 first half, they’ll win 100 games. If they go 33-48, they’ll still beat their Vegas over-under of 82 wins.
There’s been so much to like during this unexpected run to the best record in the American League that we won’t belabor the intermittent failures, though a couple of those deserve mention. What matters is that the Red Sox are relevant.
“Our expectations are to win the World Series and we’re not even close,” Cora said. “We had a great first half and we played well for a while. If you put everything in perspective this month, we didn’t play well and we won 18 games. That’s how good we are. We can get away with mistakes, but we hate making mistakes. We have to clean that up and keep getting better.”
Anyway, here are some highlights of three months that should make for, in the words of Cora, a “fun summer.”
Organizational MVP: Alex Cora
This could easily go to chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom for working within his ownership-mandated payroll constraints to build an overachiever, but Bloom’s best move was overcoming his own doubts and rehiring Cora. It wasn’t an easy decision, not after Cora left the job in disgrace for his part in the Astros cheating scandal, but it has paid massive dividends.
Cora brings accountability, energy, and just the right amount of swagger. He has also clearly been humbled by his misstep and he hasn’t run from it, giving him even more credibility. He’s the engine that makes this all work.
So many candidates for this one, too, from Xander Bogaerts to J.D. Martinez to Matt Barnes. But we’re going Devers for his ability to dominate even great pitching, especially now that he has closed the one hole in his swing and started mashing fastballs again.
Devers, in case anyone has forgotten, is traditionally a second-half player. Imagine what the future might hold after a 19-homer first half? He’s a monster, and he’s only getting better.
This one comes down to Whitlock or outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who should win his first Gold Glove. But Whitlock gets the nod for the sheer improbability of his story: from unheralded Yankees prospect to Tommy John recipient to rule 5 pick scouted via Instagram to mainstay of what has very quietly become one of baseball’s best bullpens.
Whitlock is a multi-inning weapon, and Cora has fought the urge to use him more than two or three times a week. He’ll be in the rotation next year.
Richards started horrifically, righted the ship, and then capsized in a sea of his own misery. The right-hander remains talented, as evidenced by some belated adjustments he made in his last start. But on a team that never says die, his wallowing brand of self-pity feels like it belongs on a pre-2004 Red Sox roster.
He’s depressed about his inability to doctor a baseball, which he’s not shy about sharing. That said, there’s more than enough ability in his right arm to overcome these issues, if only he’d stop throwing up his hands in surrender.
Heart and Soul Player: Kiké Hernández
Hernández was a fan favorite in Los Angeles despite playing a super utility role that never guaranteed him daily at-bats. Cora believed in him enough to bat him leadoff — where the results have been decidedly mixed — because he liked his ability to hunt fastballs as a tone-setter.
Hernández would’ve fit right in with the 2004 Idiots, and one of the many drawbacks of this post-COVID season is that we haven’t been exposed to his personality on a daily basis. Hernández is a lovable clown off the field and a vicious competitor on it, and that’s a winning combination.
Comeback Player: J.D. Martinez
Martinez admits he didn’t treat 2020 properly, easing off the accelerator when it looked like the season might not happen. He spent that entire truncated campaign out of sorts and didn’t even consider opting out of his contract after hitting .213.
A year later, however, he is most definitely back, hitting over .300 with 16 home runs. Were it not for Shohei Ohtani going supernova, he’d be the best designated in baseball. He’ll have to settle for residing at the center of one of the game’s best lineups.
Most entertaining: Alex Verdugo
Verdugo is one of those guys who veterans may occasionally roll their eyes at, but his enthusiasm is genuine and he doesn’t care who sees it. Nobody is better when mic’d up — do yourself a favor and find the video of Verdugo interacting with bleacher creatures in the Bronx — and few hitters on the Red Sox have exhibited a better flair for the dramatic this season, either.
The centerpiece of the Mookie Betts trade is quirky and joyful and consistently fun to watch.
Most Overpowering: Matt Barnes
Anyone who says analytics are ruining baseball or that coaching doesn’t matter should talk to Barnes. He has been a good reliever for a while now, but in 2021 he has finally broken through by remaking not so much his arsenal, but his approach.
Finding his groove
Barnes’ K/BB ratio in 2020
Barnes’ K/BB ratio in 2021
The Red Sox presented him with data that showed how dominant he is when ahead 0-1 in the count, convincing him to abandon his old approach of “strike out three before walking four.” He’s attacking from the first pitch and striking out over 15 per nine with 18 saves.
Where the Hell Did that Come From? Josh Taylor
There was a time when Taylor seemed as expendable as struggling relievers like Austin Brice or Phillips Valdez. He allowed runs in first three appearances and still owned an ERA over 10.00 as late as April 21. Then, on April 30, he tossed a scoreless inning in a 6-1 win over the Rangers.
That started a streak of 24 straight scoreless outings that has established the left-hander as one of the most reliably dominant relievers in the game. Left, right, runners on, starting an inning clean, it doesn’t matter — Taylor has become practically untouchable.
Needs to Figure it Out: Marwin Gonzalez
The Red Sox signed Gonzalez as a complement to Hernández, a player who could start anywhere and produce. While he has had his moments defensively and is by all accounts a leader in the clubhouse, the offensive production simply hasn’t materialized.
Gonzalez has struggled to hit fastballs, finally boosting his average to .200 on Wednesday. With prospect Jarren Duran expected to arrive sometime in July or August, Christian Arroyo due to return from the injured list, and further offensive help possibly coming at the trade deadline, Gonzalez could find himself on the bench.
Biggest Reinforcement: Chris Sale
Speaking of the trade deadline, who needs it? While this could end up being Duran, let’s be real — the difference between the Red Sox overachieving their way to the playoffs and actually making a run at a title comes down to a left-hander who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs pretty much nothing.
Sale has taken the slow-and-steady approach to Tommy John rehab, and he’s nearing a return. Whether it’s late July or early August, he’ll be given every opportunity to put his stamp on the pennant race, and his impact could be as massive as his wingspan.