Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Surviving the Grind

Starting April 18, the Red Sox played 13 games against AL East opponents and another three against the Oakland A's, a team they could potentially be fighting with for a wild-card spot come October.

Over those 16 games, the Sox went 8-7. And yet somehow they went from last place and three games out of first to third place and 1.5 games out of first. Though since they are tied with Tampa and Toronto at 15-17 you could say they are still in last. But let's say third instead.

And while the Yankees are in first you could argue that the cracks are starting to show. 4-6 over their last 10 games. Their -19 run differential is tied for second-worst in the AL. And their pitching is starting to lag. Only 15 quality starts and a staff ERA of 4.31 is not the foundation for a playoff run.

But enough about the Yankees. Let's focus on Boston for a moment.

Last Saturday, Jon Lester reminded everyone that he has a hell of a lot of talent in that left arm of his. He put on a straight-up pitching clinic. Eight innings, one hit, 15 strikeouts.

I have said here before that Lester is a #2, that the Sox don't have a true ace. And I still believe that - Lester can be a little inconsistent. But being able to do what he did against the A's...maybe he is more like a 1.5. A very good pitcher who can reach great heights but not with consistency.

Lester was outstanding against Oakland

Which is frustrating. Especially when you look at his post-season numbers. 6-4 with a 2.11 ERA and a 1.043 WHIP. Never mind the World Series where he becomes Pedro-esque: 3-0, 0.43 ERA, 0.762 WHIP. If Lester could be that pitcher in the regular-season, we wouldn't even be wondering if Boston would sign him to an extension because it'd have been done a long time ago.

Lester is the best lefty the Sox have had since Bruce Hurst. You could argue that he is the best left-handed starter for the Sox since Lefty Grove, although I think Mel Parnell fans may dispute that idea. And good left-handers are a rare commodity. Which is why at the end of the day I think Boston pays up to keep Jon around. He's the best pitcher with a 3-4 record in the game today, because he should be 6-1.

Another reason the Sox are surviving their April/May doldrums is Dustin Pedroia returning to form. On April 18 Pedroia had a .554 OPS and an OBP of just .264. Numbers that are wildly out-of-form for the Laser Show.

Now, going into today's game with Cincy, Pedroia has boosted his OPS to .722 and has a .340 OBP. For the month of May those numbers are .967 and .417. Pedroia getting his bat in order has helped to keep the Sox afloat as their try to find their feet and move forward.

And this dovetails nicely into a story I read today. Former Yankee closer and certain Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera just wrote a new book. And in it he declares that Dustin Pedroia is the second baseman he'd want over any other. And that includes one-time teammate Robinson Cano.

No word on how Brian Roberts feels about all this.

Now I am not mentioning this to start an argument. But this is illustrative of how important Pedroia is to the Sox. Even opponents recognize what he does and what he brings to the field and the plate. And when he is on fire, that helps the Red Sox get going.

Xander Bogaerts is another reason the Sox have kept afloat. Yes, he has committed a couple of bad errors. But he has shown a surprising level of maturity at the plate. His .768 OPS is fifth on the team. His Offensive WAR so far in 2014 is 0.9, second on the team to only Mike Napoli's 1.1 oWAR. And his fielding isn't atrocious...but it is what you would expect from a rookie. That will only get better with time.

Jackie Bradley, Jr. has the exact opposite problem. He is the best fielding center-fielder in the AL right now. No errors, three assists, two double plays and a range factor of 3.30, best in the AL for center fielders. And his defensive WAR of 0.4 is third-best in the AL behind Mike Trout and Adam Eaton. And I am saying that Bradley is a better fielder than Trout, not all-around player.

All told, it almost feels like 2014 is the bridge year we were all expecting in 2013. But slightly better. Because if veterans like Lester and Pedroia play to their talent level, it will balance out any shortcomings from the rookie players. And with the AL East apparently as wide-open as it has ever been, the Sox don't have to be great to make it to the post-season this year.

They just have to grind it out and be good enough.

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