WHAT’S WITH THE SOX?

The Running Red Sox!! How many times have you heard that phrase lately? Usually right after Mookie Betts has stolen a base or led a double steal or scored from first on a single. The NESN announcers on the Sox broadcasts and talk show hosts have raved about this team’s running. After all, they obviously do not hit for power so they have to make it up somewhere.

This team which, at the end of 94 games, was in first place in the American League’s Eastern Division, arguably the best division in baseball, particularly since, if the season had ended after the first 94 games, three of the five American League Playoff teams would have come from that Division. They had won 53 and lost 42, including the previous night’s 15 inning win over Toronto, on, of all things, a walk off home run by Hanley Ramirez.

They had hit less home runs, 97, than any other American League team and had drawn less walks, 340, than all but two of the AL teams. They were averaging one home run for every 34 at bats, worst in the A. L. and 28th in all of baseball.

They had hit for average, however, and at .264, they were second best in the A. L. and fifth best in baseball but their slugging percentage was a meager .410, 22nd in all of baseball. It’s no wonder that the experts are looking for the secret that has this team, which sometimes goes days without scoring any appreciable amount of runs, in first place.

There have been several times when their running ability has been instrumental in big wins. For example, in the come from behind, ninth inning, win over the Yankees in Game one of their recent series, the rally was built around a double steal by Betts and Pedroia. There is no doubt that the Sox are more aggressive on the base paths than they had been earlier in the season but that has been a mixed blessing as the aggressiveness has cost them some runs in addition to helping accumulate more. Tuesday night’s hero, Hanley Ramirez, has made several base running blunders that have cost the Sox.

This year’s version of the Sox stole a total of 57 bases in 78 tries through the first 94 games, a 73.1 percent success rate. That extrapolates to 98 stolen bases in 134 attempts over a 162 game season.

Of those 57 stolen bases, 34 have been stolen by Betts, Bogaerts and Benintendi. Betts was 16 for 18, Bogaerts 9 for 10 and Benintendi 9 for 12, a success rate of 85 % for the three of them as opposed to 23 for 38 or 60.1% for the rest of the team.

In 2013, the last World Championship season for the Sox, the team stole 123 bases in 142 attempts, a success rate of 86.6%. In 2007, they stole 96 in 120 attempts, an 80% success rate. In 2004, their other championship season in this century, they stole just 68 bases in 98 attempts, a 70.4% rate.

While the Red Sox are stealing bases at a rate that would give them 98 for the season, it would not appear that they are running more than usual this year in steal situations. In four of the past eight years, they exceeded 100 steals in a year. They are, however, more alert and willing to try to take an extra base when the opportunity arises.

The increased aggressiveness on the base paths puts pressure on defenses and opposition pitchers and the fact that they will run in critical situations has to be distracting to defenses but is certainly not the key factor so far.

What then is the reason for the Red Sox success? If it is not their slugging lineup and they have not, all of a sudden, become the running Red Sox, what is it?

The key to the success that the Sox had enjoyed during the first 94 games comes down to one major factor that is universally true in baseball year in and year out. Pitching wins ball games and good pitching will, almost always, beat out good hitting over the long haul.

The Sox have gotten a whole lot more out of their pitching staff than most people expected. Chris Sale is having a Cy Young year. Craig Kimbrel is having a phenomenal year as the Closer. Joe Kelly, prior to his ham string injury, had a remarkable streak of scoreless relief innings. Drew Pomeranz has, despite his inability to go deep into ball games, given the Red Sox more than expected and had nine wins and a 3.75 ERA and got his tenth on July 19th. Rick Porcello, after an horrendous start, has begun to look like the real Rick Porcello and, even in his worst games has managed to give the team at least six innings in almost every start.

After missing almost all of the first two months of the season, David Price was 5-2 with a 3.39 ERA and looks ready for a great second half. Eduardo Rodriguez, just off the disabled list gives them a proven fifth starter if he stays healthy. The recently acquired, Doug Fister, a veteran, experienced and effective right hander gives them a sixth starter who can also add length to the bullpen.

The pitching staff, as a whole, had an earned run average of 3.70, the lowest ERA in the A. L. They had struck out 901 batters, the third highest total in the League, thanks in large part to Chris Sale and his 191. The rotation of Sale, Porcello, Price, Pomeranz and Rodriguez, with Doug Fister and Brian Johnson in the wings, had a 4.09 ERA, third in the league through 94 games, led the league in strikeouts with 598 and, perhaps most importantly, had given the team more innings than any other starting rotation in the League, easing the load on the bullpen, which had only logged 294 innings, 12th least in the League.

That bullpen, who everyone keeps saying needs bolstering, had a record of 17-10 with an ERA of 2.97, second only to Cleveland in the A. L. Their opponents were hitting just .226 against them, fourth best in the League.

In the first six games after the All Star break, the Sox won three and lost three and scored just 17 runs in 58 innings. Fortunately, the pitching staff gave up just 19 runs in that period and recorded an ERA of 2.28. The Tampa Bay Rays, who were in third, 3 ½ games behind the Sox, moved into second and trailed Boston by just two games on July 18th. The lead was back to three games on July 19th.

It’s just a matter of time before they start to hit as they have proven they can and they put together a long winning streak. It probably won’t happen on this west coast trip but look for the Sox to run away from the rest of the East soon. After this trip, the schedule favors them as well as they have only 27 games left away from home and 34 in friendly Fenway where they were 29-17 as of July 19th.

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