Red Sox

Red Sox

The Red Sox won't win 108 games again, but that doesn't mean they can't improve upon aspects of 2018. And here's one possibility that few of us saw coming -- what if the offense is even better?

On Sunday, the Red Sox remained scorching with an 11-2 thrashing of the Mariners. They battered Seattle pitching for 34 runs during a three-game sweep that emphatically atoned for a season-opening stumble out West. Their 11th win in 13 games boosted them to 22-19 and sliced their deficit in the AL East to just three games.

At this rate, they'll be back in first place by the weekend, never mind mid-June.

While they're suddenly giving us a lot to feel good about, what the weekend specifically highlighted was the truly scary potential of their offense. The Red Sox led baseball in runs with 876 last year and figured to regress, because that's how these things usually work. MVP and batting champ Mookie Betts would probably re-enter our orbit, and even if J.D. Martinez cemented his place as a criminally underrated slugger, what were the odds he'd contend for another Triple Crown?

By and large, both of those predictions have come true. It's everyone else we underestimated.

Through 41 games, last year's Red Sox had scored 223 runs. Now they're at 220, but with a bullet. After reaching 10 runs once in their first 31 games, they've cleared that barrier three times in the last eight days.

"Offensively, we knew it was just a matter of time. Obviously, there were some guys that were scuffling -- Mookie, the bottom of the lineup," manager Alex Cora told reporters on Sunday. "Early in the season, I think we were expanding the zone. We do a pretty good job of hitting fastballs and taking breaking balls off the plate. (Saturday) we walked so many times. . . . We're controlling the zone. We're getting there."

 

Juxtaposing 2018 vs. 2019 reveals some surprising trends. For one, Betts and Martinez are legitimately down. The former was hitting .362 with 13 homers and 27 RBIs a year ago, and is now at .289-7-22. Martinez, meanwhile, has fallen from .346-11-34 to .313-7-24. They both remain All-Stars, and Martinez, in particular, has suffered from some bad luck on hard-hit outs, but neither is producing at last year's rate.

The rest of the lineup is showing improvement virtually across the board, though. Andrew Benintendi has raised his average 20 points and more than doubled his home runs. Rafael Devers is very quietly hitting .336, 80 points higher than this time last year. Mitch Moreland needs only three more homers to match last year's total of 15. Catcher Christian Vazquez has more than doubled his slugging percentage from .217 to .485. No Red Sox second baseman produced anywhere close to what Michael Chavis has provided with six home runs and 19 RBIs (including 5 on Sunday) in just 20 games.

That leaves shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who is producing at roughly the same level as last year, and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who's worse, but not as far off as you think -- at this point in 2018, he was hitting .171, which is only marginally better than his .149 today.

Besides Bradley, every starter owns an OPS above .800. Only four regulars could make that claim a year ago, and one of them -- veteran slugger Hanley Ramirez -- was two weeks away from being DFA'd.

The Red Sox received below-average production at catcher, second base, and center field through the first quarter of last season. Since Chavis arrived, this year's team can really only make that claim in center, where Bradley provides value with game-saving catches while we await one of his annual hot streaks.

With the 30-something Martinez playing such a pivotal role in the offense and a group of veteran pitches leading the staff, it was easy to forget how young last year's team actually was. Betts (25), Bogaerts (25), Benintendi (23), and Devers (21) hadn't yet reached their respective primes, which left room to grow.

For Benintendi, that means hitting for more power without sacrificing average. For Bogaerts, it's a jump from four walks to 23. For Devers, it's about pitch recognition and selectivity, which has him on pace for a monster breakout as soon as he starts elevating the ball and matching launch angle to his exit velocity.

Add Vazquez's unexpected power (5 HRs) and Chavis's surprising emergence after injuries left the Sox without an experienced second baseman, and you've got the makings of a pretty complete offense.

It might even be better than the last one.

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