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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

5 Things About the 2016 Boston Red Sox That Aren’t Being Talked About Enough

After finishing the 2015 season in last place, the Boston Red Sox look much better this year, currently on a pace for 93 wins. While some things have gone very well, there are others that have not. Despite the chatter that seems to perpetually swirl around the team, some things haven’t received the attention they deserve. Here are five of them (keeping in mind the season is only about a sixth of the way over):

The Way Outfielder Chris Young is Being Used: Signed by the Red Sox this past offseason, the veteran right-handed hitter figured to be the fourth outfielder, getting the bulk of his playing time against lefthanders because of his severe career splits (.224/.292/.410 BA/OBP/SLG against righties and .263/.362/.474 against southpaws). His struggles against right-handed pitchers have become particularly pronounced in recent seasons, as evidenced by his combined .211 batting average against them in his last three seasons entering 2016.

Given Young’s strengths and weaknesses are as defined as any player on the roster, it’s been surprising to see him getting so much playing time thus far against his right-handed nemeses. He has fared predictably, collecting just two hits and eight strikeouts in his 17 at-bats against them, compared to 3-for-13 with just two whiffs against lefties. The Red Sox may not have faced a ton of left-handed starting pitcher so far on the young season but that’s no reason to put Young in situations where he has less of a chance to help the team.

Jackie Bradley Jr. Has Arrived: After several years of struggling to transition from a 2011 first-round draft choice to a major league regular, it appears the 26-year-old outfielder has finally made the leap. Although he may not be a star, he has developed into quite a useful player, contributing terrific defense and enough with the bat to make him a solid starter. In 25 games this year he has hit .276 with an American League leading four triples, a home run and 13 RBIs. He has also cut back a bit on his strikeouts, whiffing about once every four at-bats instead of the once every three at-bats during the earlier part of his career.

The Weird Start of Hanley Ramirez: After a disappointing 2015 season, and a nightmare of a time playing outfield, Ramirez impressed with a relatively seamless transition to the team’s starting first baseman. While he has worked hard and not been a distraction, he is a mixed bag so far at the plate. Although he is hitting a respectable .284, he has just two home runs and walked an uncharacteristic four times against 25 strikeouts (which is putting him on pace for the highest rate in his career—approximately once every four at bats).

However, his .351 BABIP is a bit higher than his .328 career rate, but not enough to scream regression is ahead. His 36.7% Hard Percentage (balls put in play hit hard) is also above his career rate. Still just 32, the physical specimen should still be more or less in his prime, so the numbers suggest he may be on the verge of breaking out in the near future.

Heath Hembree May Have Locked Down a Bullpen Spot: The 27-year-old right-hander has been on the Boston-Pawtucket yo-yo the past couple of years but has been lights out since being called up to the Red Sox this year. In four relief appearances, spanning nine innings, he has permitted just five hits and a lone walk while striking out 11. His fastball has jumped a tick (now averaging about 94 MPH) from when he first reached the majors in 2013 with the San Francisco Giants. His success in the long relief role has been particularly valuable because of the inconsistencies of the starting rotation.

Boston’s Offense is Flourishing Because of Small Ball; Not the Long Ball: Entering this season, hopes were high that the team would field a strong lineup. Although they have produced handsomely, how they have done so is a bit different than most might have expected. Currently, the Red Sox lead the American League in runs (135), batting average (.280), doubles (67), triples (9), and are tied with the Kansas City Royals for the lead in stolen bases (22). However, the team is tied for second-to-last in home runs (22).

Boston lineups in recent years have been headlined by sluggers who were more apt to put a game out of reach with a three-run home run than by maintaining a rally by taking an extra base. The rise of talented youngsters like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, who have more well-rounded games than big power, has led to this shift. With designated hitter David Ortiz playing in his final season, it’s possible that the team will continue to find even more ways to score runs in the coming years than putting balls over the fence.

Although the season has just entered its second month, there’s already a lot to chew on for fans of the Red Sox. As things continue to play out, there are a lot of things flying under the radar as the team continues to find its identity and see what they can accomplish as a unit in 2016.

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