Four teams won at least 91 games in the AL East last season, but the Boston Red Sox were the only one considered something of a surprise. Most of the projections regarding the Red Sox’s offense were accurate, but the pitching staff greatly overperformed, especially with Chris Sale attempting to return from Tommy John surgery. The Red Sox had the longest playoff appearance of any AL East team and lost in the ALCS to the Astros. People say “it’s better to be lucky than good.” Well, what if you’re both? The Red Sox were lucky that Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez stayed healthy and had career years. They were fortunate that Nick Pivetta outperformed expectations. The bullpen was much better than expected. The question now is whether or not those things continue and if Sale can be more of a factor with another powerful offense in support.
With the signing of Trevor Story in mid-March to further bolster the offense, it looks like another strong season for the Red Sox on that front. Only the White Sox had a higher BABIP in 2021, so the Red Sox could see some offensive regression, but the Red Sox were second in average exit velocity and led the league in wOBA and xwOBA on balls in play and home runs.
As a result, the offense should keep on scoring runs with the core still intact and Story added to the mix. Rafael Devers had a breakout season with a .279/.352/.538 slash line and 38 home runs. He cut down his strikeouts, increased his walks and proved his 2019 season was no fluke. Xander Bogaerts didn’t hit for quite as much power but posted a 130 wRC+ and .368 wOBA for the second straight season, which actually trails his 2018 and 2019 numbers, meaning he could even improve in 2022.
Enrique Hernandez had his best season since 2018 and J.D. Martinez is still a strong slugger in the middle of the order alongside Alex Verdugo, who proved his value on offense and defense once again. Add Story to replace what was lost with Hunter Renfroe and you have an offense that will continue to produce. The bench is also full of major league experience.
The Red Sox will out-hit a lot of mistakes, as the offense projects to be one of the best in baseball. If what we saw from Bobby Dalbec in 2020 and 2021 is sustainable, this offense will rival any in the AL.
The Red Sox’s pitching staff will be the group under the microscope again. The addition of Story makes them a much better defensive team, but the Red Sox seem to be making a mistake by keeping Bogaerts at shortstop and putting Story at second base. Story regularly grades as a top-five defensive shortstop, while Bogaerts has carried negative value there, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Devers is one of the worst defensive third basemen in the majors.
On the mound, Red Sox starters wound up with more strikeouts than expected, so the team’s defensive shortcomings weren’t as noticeable last season. Eovaldi’s two highest seasons by K% have been the last two, including the shortened 2020 season. Rodriguez posted a career-best 27.4% K% in 2021. Youngster Tanner Houck missed a lot more bats than expected in his 69 innings, while posting a 3.52 ERA and a 2.58 FIP. Even Pivetta proved to be around an average starter, a testament to how the Red Sox milked every ounce of production from their pitchers.
Boston has added Rich Hill and Michael Wacha in hopes of getting some increased depth. Rodriguez is gone, a huge blow to the rotation, as he accumulated 14.6 fWAR over six years with the Red Sox despite chronic knee problems. He also missed the 2020 season with myocarditis after a bout with COVID-19. He’s now the ace for the Tigers, so the Red Sox have to replace a lot with his absence. The hope was that Sale could be that guy, but he was already sidelined in spring training with a stress fracture in his rib cage.
The 42-year-old Hill had a 3.86 ERA with a 4.34 FIP in 158.2 innings last season with the Rays and Mets. He’s less of a gamble than Wacha, who worked 124.2 innings with increased velocity but also a 5.05 ERA and a 4.47 FIP. He got a little unlucky but goes from a strong pitcher’s park in Tampa to “Coors Field East” at Fenway Park. James Paxton, who signed a deal in November after undergoing Tommy John surgery, may be back around the All-Star Break.
Eovaldi worked 182.1 innings last season after throwing only 227 innings from 2017-20. He missed all of 2017 and big chunks of 2018 and 2019. Pitcher health will be paramount this season as teams progress from the 60-game season in 2020 to a full season in 2021 to expedited spring training and a 162-game schedule in 2022. Eovaldi feels like a heightened injury risk and he’s not the only one with Wacha, Hill and Sale. Most of the top talent in the Red Sox’s minor league system plays a position other than pitcher, so the margin for error is thin.
Chris Sale got back to throwing during the last week of spring training and his return would go a long way in replacing Rodriguez’s production. He missed the entire 2020 season and only made nine starts in 2021, but they were pretty close to what we should expect from Sale (3.16 ERA, 3.69 FIP). The strikeouts were there and the velocity looked fine. The fact that he will be back on the mound fairly quickly following the rib cage injury he had in March is helpful in the rough-and-tumble AL East.
The most shocking bright spot for me was the bullpen. It was a top-heavy unit entering last season but wound up posting a 3.99 ERA and a 4.06 FIP. The Red Sox had a bottom-five bullpen in ERA and FIP in the shortened 2020 season after an average 2019. The pen became a real strength and vastly exceeded expectations in 2021.
Garrett Whitlock emerged as a multi-inning star, as he worked 73.1 innings over 46 appearances with well over a strikeout per inning and strong peripherals across the board. He posted a 1.96 ERA with a 2.84 FIP. Matt Barnes and Josh Taylor were also reliable, as Barnes had a 3.79 ERA and 3.21 FIP in 60 appearances and Taylor had a 3.40 ERA with a 2.83 FIP in 61 games. All three are back this season, plus the Red Sox added lots of strikeout upside in Jake Diekman and another intriguing arm in Matt Strahm.
The Red Sox never had a negative month in terms of run differential. The AL East remains strong, however, and you have to wonder if Boston can replicate the pitching success to keep pace with the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays. In 57 head-to-head meetings with those three teams, the Red Sox were 28-29, which means that they were 64-41 against everybody else. Overall, they were just 37-34 in the second half, as there were some things that evened out after a hot start.
Player to Watch
SP Tanner Houck: Houck has a workhorse frame at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds but has only topped out at 119 innings in a season. He’s an extreme groundball guy that sits 93-95 with the fastball. He has a dynamic slider that opposing batters only posted a .159 BA and a .214 wOBA against. He threw it almost as much as his fastball and it has good spin with big vertical movement. A third pitch, if he can add one, would be a huge separator.
The Red Sox will hit and likely end up near the top of the league in nearly every offensive category of consequence. The pitching staff will determine the ceiling for the team. A full season of Houck and more from Sale should be more than enough to offset the loss of Rodriguez, but continued injuries for Sale and some regression to the mean for guys such as Eovaldi and Pivetta could leave the Red Sox in a tough spot. The ceiling for the Red Sox is quite high and the offense keeps the floor high as well. The win total line might be a touch low, but it all depends on pitcher health. I’d rather prey on a higher-variance team for those picks. My guess is Boston falls short of the playoffs, and the pitching staff is the reason why.
Win Total Lean: Over 85.5