Much has been written about the Boston Red Sox hot start, especially after they rode a seven-game win streak to the top of the American League East. The surging Red Sox have caught many baseball fans and pundits alike by surprise, leading them to wonder whether the Olde Towne Team, now 15-7 after last night’s win over the Houston Astros is for real. I was bullish about the Red Sox during spring training, and after three weeks of phenomenal baseball, I feel confident they’re legit. While I’m not ready to hand them the division just yet, it’s clear they’re here to stay and are going to contend in 2013.
Here are five signs their fortunes have turned for the better:
1. The starting pitching is great. Boston sports the second best ERA in the American League largely because the rotation is thriving. After abominable seasons last year, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are pitching like it’s 2010 again. Lester has rediscovered the form that once made him an annual preseason Cy Young favorite, but Buchholz has been even better. Ryan Dempster has surpassed expectations by piling up 33 strikeouts in 24 innings. Fellow strikeout machine Felix Doubront still hasn’t reached his ceiling yet. Even John Lackey looked good before promptly returning to the disabled list. Whatever John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves are doing differently, it’s working.
2. Players are healthy (knock on wood). The Red Sox were crippled by injuries last year, but fortunately none of them have lingered into this season. Granted, it’s still early, and health is impossible to predict, but so far the returns are encouraging. Mike Napoli has shown no ill effects from the degenerative hip condition that scared Boston into restructuring his contract over the winter. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are fully healthy, unlike last year when they were banged up for large chunks of the season. Will Middlebrooks appears recovered from the broken hand that cut his rookie season short last August. David Ortiz has come back strong. Now, if they can just get Stephen Drew going …
3. The lineup is more patient. Last year, the Red Sox strayed so far from their disciplined ways that they walked less than every team in baseball except for the Kansas City Royals, who at least had the excuse of being the MLB’s youngest team. GM Ben Cherington rectified that during the offseason by bringing in several hitters known for grinding out at-bats and making opponents work, namely Napoli, Jonny Gomes, and J.D. Drew‘s younger brother. These additions have the Red Sox back on track; among AL teams, only Billy Beane‘s Oakland A’s have drawn more walks.
The scary thing is, the lineup should get even better. Napoli’s knocked in a lot of runs, but his OBP is a full 30 points below his career average. Middlebrooks has been miserable aside from his three-homer outburst in Toronto but has nowhere to go but up. Pedroia, Shane Victorino and Gomes have yet to find their power strokes. Yes, Daniel Nava will cool off eventually, but it’s hardly going to matter once the offense starts firing on all cylinders.
4. The bullpen is just as good as anticipated. Hailed by many as the team’s greatest strength coming into the season, Boston’s relief corps has lived up to its billing. Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa, and newcomer Koji Uehara have all been lights out. Joel Hanrahan‘s April 10th meltdown disguised the fact that he pitched very well in his first four appearances of the year. The pen will be even better once he returns from his DL stint, which could be as soon as Sunday.
5. The defense is sound. One of the least-discussed reasons for the Red Sox early success is their outstanding defense, which leads the majors in fewest errors committed (six) and ranks second in fielding percentage (.992). Napoli is no Adrian Gonzalez at first, but Pedroia plays gold-glove defense at the keystone position. Drew and Middlebrooks are solid defenders as well, but the D is anchored by its speedy outfielders — Ellsbury in center and Victorino in right. What they lack in arm strength they make up for in range and their ability to cover ground in Fenway’s deceptively spacious outfield. If and when Jackie Bradley Jr. returns to the Show, the Red Sox will feature speed at all three outfield positions.