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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Boston Red Sox Ending 2016 Regular Season on Many High Notes

The Boston Red Sox have put their fans in a glass case of emotions this year. The time is quickly counting down on the illustrious career of beloved slugger David Ortiz. Additionally, even though they are currently in first place in the American League East, the team is still fighting for their playoff spot with their finger nails, as a veritable pack of hopefuls nip at their heels. That being said, no matter what happens the rest of the way there are a number of positives that will come out of the 2016 campaign and can be applied to the future.

When starting pitcher David Price was signed to a massive $217 million contract this past offseason there was the assumption he would lead the team’s pitching staff for years to come. To the contrary, he stumbled out of the gate, posting a 4.34 ERA in the first half of the season and allowing 16 home runs in his first 19 starts. A collective sigh of relief can be taken given his performance since the All Star break. In those 11 starts he has gone 7-2 with a 3.30 ERA and has permitted just nine home runs. A slight decline in his fastball velocity (92.9 average MPH represents a career-low) and a lower strikeout rate 10.1/7.9 per 9 innings before/after the All Star break suggests the previous blip in results may have simply been an adjustment to pitching with slightly less octane stuff for the former Cy Young winner.

Veteran second baseball Dustin Pedroia is another player who had seen diminished results in recent years. A team stalwart for a decade, injuries and age seemed to be creeping up on the 33-year-old. However, he has proven that there is definitely something left in the tank. Putting up one of his best seasons ever, he has appeared in 142 games, batting .327 with 13 home runs and 66 RBIs. Although he is no longer much of a threat on the base paths, he is still one of the best defensive players in the game.

Instead of slowing down as the season has progressed, Pedroia has only gotten stronger. In 57 games since the All Star break, he has hit a robust .362 and contributed a .900 OPS. He is simply hitting the ball with authority, as 32.6% of the balls he has put in play this year have been with hard contact, a figure he has not matched since his rookie year in 2007. Signed to a team-friendly deal through the 2012 season, there is still plenty of reason to hope he will finish out his tenure in Boston on a high note similar to his teammate Ortiz.

Even without the veterans, Boston looks to be sitting pretty with their triumvirate of young stars on the offensive side of the ball. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielders Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. can all hit for average and power and play defense that ranges from good to outstanding. Additionally, all three made the American League All Star team in 2016 and will all be 26 or younger at the start of next season. Even better, Bogaerts (2020) and Betts/Bradley Jr. (2021) have a ways to go before they are eligible for free agency.

Rick Porcello was brought in via trade prior to last season to help shore up the rotation. The team thought so highly of him that they signed him to a lucrative four-year extension before he ever made an official start with the team. When he went on to lose 15 games and post a 4.92 ERA there was a collective groan emitted from Red Sox Nation. However, not content to sit on his laurels and count his money, Porcello has roared back in 2016 with his best season to date. The 27-year-old right hander has gone 20-4 with a 3.12 ERA in 30 starts. Blending four pitches, he has also seen his walk and hit rates plummet to career lows. It appears he is exactly the pitcher the team thought they were getting and should be an important cog for years to come.

Another young pitcher expected to do great things was 23-year-old left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, who impressed with 10 wins as a rookie last year. Unfortunately, lingering injuries caused him to miss time to start this year, and to be ineffective when he did finally return (8.59 ERA in his first six starts). Although he has gone just 1-4 in his next 11 starts, his 3.25 ERA, climbing strikeout rate and falling home run rate show that without a doubt he is back on track. Much like Porcello, he could very well be a lynchpin of the Boston rotation for years to come.

Another pitcher ending the 2016 seasons on a positive note is right-hander Clay Buchholz. An enigma of extraordinary proportions for the past decade, over the years he has in turns pitched brilliantly and disappointingly along with regularly missing time due to a litany of injuries. A miserable first half this season saw him post a 5.91 ERA and allow 17 home runs in just 80.2 innings. Being in the final of year of his contract, the countdown literally began as salivating fans all but tarred and feathered him and rode him out of town on a rail.

Initially demoted to the bullpen, Buchholz has since shuttled back and forth between starting and relieving and has made great strides in redeeming his season. In 45.2 innings since his disastrous first half, he has put up a very good 3.94 ERA and allowed just four homers. Although his contract is ending, a 2017 team option for $13.5 million (or $500,000 buyout) is in place and the once unthinkable is starting to look extremely possible. With starting pitching at such a premium across the league, the strong finish to this season is putting the 32-year-old in position to return to Boston for at least one more year. His recent results are making the proposition of committing another year’s salary (his 2017 rate is now quite reasonable given the current market) much more palatable.

As the Red Sox wind up their 2016 season, there are still a lot of possibilities and potential glory left for the taking. However, no matter what happens there is already plenty to look forward to for anyone wanting to take a peek at next year.

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