After stumbling out of the gate to a 4-9 start, the Red Sox (46-31) have turned their season around and are right in the thick of the AL East hunt, two games behind the first-place Yankees (47-28), exactly where we all should have expected them to be.
That the Red Sox have the third-best record in MLB is really quite something, considering how many of their key players have succumbed to injury this season. Starting outfielders Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury both hit the DL in the beginning of the season, and Ellsbury is still apparently a while away from returning. Josh Beckett's been out of the rotation since mid-May and won't be back until after the All-Star break at the earliest. Jeremy Hermida and Mike Lowell are both recovering from injuries. And this past weekend the Sox were dealt a trio of highly unfortunate injuries, as Dustin Pedroia hit the disabled list with a fractured foot on Friday, phenom Clay Buchholz hyperextended his knee running the bases on Saturday and starting catcher Victor Martinez left yesterday's game with a broken thumb.
According to Pete Abe, the Buchholz and Martinez injuries may not be as serious as they initially appeared, although Pedroia's probably going to be out for six weeks.
So how is Boston doing it? After an offseason heralded (and derided) by many as a return to a focus on pitching and defense, the Sox are busting out a familiar calling card: bludgeoning opponents to death on offense. After trailing the Yankees for much of the season in team wOBA, the Sox overtook the top spot a few weeks ago and currently lead the Majors with a robust .359 mark.
In 2009, they posted a .352 mark, good for second in all of baseball. Were they to finish the season at their current wOBA, it would be the club's highest since the ridiculously potent 2003 squad, who posted a .364 mark (for a frame of reference, the 2009 Yankees were actually the best offensive team of the decade, with a .366 team wOBA). The equally dangerous 2004 World Champion Red Sox were a .358 wOBA club.
Boston is enjoying a career year from the ridiculously dangerous and talented Kevin Youkilis (.433 wOBA, 4th-best in the AL), a massive rebound year from Adrian Beltre (.401 wOBA, his highest mark by far since his 2004 breakout year), a season from Pedroia on par with his 2008 MVP campaign, as well as the fearsome return of David Ortiz, whose SLG is at its highest since 2007.
Toss in respectable performances from minor league fill-ins Darnell McDonald (.337 wOBA) and Daniel Nava (.369), who weren't expected to provide much of anything, Marco Scutaro (the second-most valuable shortstop in the American League) and even Bill Hall (.336 wOBA), and the fact that the Sox were supposed to have a softer offense this year becomes even more laughable. Shoot, even Jason Varitek has a .374 wOBA in limited duty.
And while the pitching staff hasn't been quite as dominating as the front office had hoped, the Sox are receiving dual Cy Young-worthy performances from ace Jon Lester (2.86 ERA; 3.01 FIP) and Buchholz (2.45 ERA, 3rd-best in the AL; 3.47 FIP). Beckett and John Lackey have been disappointing, but Daisuke Matsuzaka's emerged as the staff's third-best starter.
Where Boston's really gotten burned is in relief -- Sox relievers have the 2nd-worst FIP (4.73) and 4th-worst ERA (4.50) in the American League. Daniel Bard's been mostly great, even if he does seem to have a penchant for occasionally coughing up a game, but outside of Bard the 'pen has been pretty wretched, with closer Jonathan Papelbon's struggles the most noticeable. Papelbon's career FIP is 2.87, and right now he's sitting at 5.06 -- definitely not something anyone would ever have expected from the previously near-unhittable closer.
So after all the hype about pitching and defense, the Red Sox are doing it the old-fashioned way. It'll be interesting to see if they can continue to hit at such an elite level without Pedroia for the next month and a half -- I imagine the overall offensive output will take a slight hit, but there's no reason to expect Youkilis not to keep raking, and as long as he continues to be backed by star performances from Beltre and Ortiz (I also forgot to mention J.D. Drew, whose numbers may be slightly down but is still contributing a fine .361 wOBA), and elite pitching from Lester and Buchholz, Boston will remain right in the thick of it.
Photo courtesy of the AP.