When Alex Cora came into the 2022 MLB season sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, it was a notable change: The Boston Red Sox manager had always kept a clean-shaven face. But the new look lasted only a month. On May 10, with the Red Sox in last place behind even the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles with a 10-19 record, Cora felt like he needed to make a change, to reset the vibe for the team.
“I’ll tell you what: If we win 10 in a row, it’s on me, because I should have recognized that before,” Cora said.
In the game after the shave, the Red Sox snapped a five-game losing streak with a victory against the Atlanta Braves, and Boston hasn’t looked back since. The team has gone 10-4 with a beardless skipper, passing the Orioles in the American League East standings and closing the gap between it and the New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Red Sox had won six straight games before losing Wednesday night.
We sought out the four key stat lines that have helped Boston begin to turn their season around since Cora took out the razor and predict whether we should expect similar performances moving forward.
Before May 10: .194 batting average, .545 OPS, no home runs
Since: .278 batting average, 1.090 OPS, eight home runs
Is it for real or a mirage? It’s for real.
Nearly two months into the 2022 season, Trevor Story said he finally feels like he can take a deep breath.
“It’s definitely been one of the craziest times in my life,” Story said.
Put aside the pressure that comes along with signing a six-year, $140 million contract with the Red Sox. Story and his wife, Mallie, welcomed their first child — a boy, Stetson — seven weeks ago. Story is adjusting to life as a father while adjusting to a new city, a new ballpark, new teammates and outsize expectations.
Teammates noted, in the early weeks of the season, that Story was quiet. The Red Sox infielder admitted he isn’t quick to crack out of his shell.
“It takes me time to get adjusted to new surroundings, being around new people,” Story said.
Story doesn’t silently slip in and out of the Fenway Park clubhouse anymore, though. On Sunday, Story was greeted by a hug from third baseman Rafael Devers as Devers danced to the Latin music playing over the speakers. Story is opening up to his teammates about his family life, he is smiling a lot more often and his locker is a budding shrine to his sneaker collection.
As Story breaks out of his shell, he has been breaking out of his early-season slump too. His six-home run week — including a three-homer game and a grand slam the next night — won him American League Player of the Week honors, and it has helped spark Boston’s recent run of success.
Lately, Story looks much more like he did with the Colorado Rockies — an All-Star slugger who convinced Boston’s chief baseball officer, Chaim Bloom, to give him his first major free-agent contract. Even as Story slumped early in the campaign, the Red Sox’s front office remained confident he’d turn things around. Though his slash line didn’t show it, Story’s exit velocity, among other indicators, were consistent with his time in Colorado.
In less than two months, Story has experienced both sides of the Fenway Park fan experience, hearing boos from Red Sox fans on May 5 when he struck out four times in an 8-0 loss to the Los Angeles Angels and the adulation from the crowd when he hit three homers on May 19.
“You know about it coming in, the passion and the environment, and you know that coming in; but it doesn’t make it fun while you’re going through a slump,” Story said. “It’s great to feel that upside of it and keep it rolling. It’s all about winning. The experience is different than just hearing about it. The good and the bad. They’re both intense.”
While Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Devers produced consistently in the early part of the season, the Red Sox’s offense needed Story to step up, as well, especially given the struggles of other hitters, including Enrique Hernandez, Bobby Dalbec, Alex Verdugo and Jackie Bradley Jr.
Which brings us to …
The offense, as a whole, has been much better
Before May 10: 95 runs (28th in MLB), 16 home runs (28th), .621 OPS (26th)
Since: 96 runs (second), 23 home runs (third), .872 OPS (first)
Is it for real or a mirage? It’s for real, but with an asterisk.
Among the more than 200 hitters with at least 120 plate appearances, Boston currently has two of 10 worst batters in baseball in weighted runs created plus (wRC+): Dalbec (41 wRC+) and Verdugo (59). Meanwhile, only 25 hitters are below Hernandez (70) and just 29 have fared worse than Bradley (75).
Coming into the season, Boston expected Dalbec, 26, to take a step forward and establish himself as an every-day first baseman based upon his second-half performance last year, when he hit .269/.344/.611 with 15 homers. But Dalbec, who hit .219/.264/.409 with 10 homers in the first half of 2021, has looked even worse than that so far this season, hitting .159/.248/.234 through 40 games.
Hernandez was a revelation in last year’s playoffs after a successful first season in Boston, but he hasn’t looked the same so far in 2022. He is swinging at a higher pace but has been struggling against the fastball; after hitting .282 against them in 2021, he has dropped to .225 so far in 2022. His percentage of popups has gone up from 8.9% to 22.1%, while his solid contact has dropped from 9.1% to 3.9%. He ranks in the 13th percentile in hard-hit percentage among all hitters in baseball.
Verdugo had a hot start to the season, hitting three homers in his first eight games, but he has none since. The outfielder continues to hit the ball hard, with a hard-hit percentage of 41.8 that ranks behind only Devers, Dalbec, Martinez and Bogaerts among Red Sox players with at least 100 plate appearances. Despite that, his launch angle ranks among the 20 lowest in baseball among players qualified for the batting title. Then there is his abysmal batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which has dropped from .327 in 2021 to .221 in 2022.
Still, Boston’s offense has flourished since Story snapped out of his season-starting slump, lessening the pressure on the rest of the lineup, led by Bogaerts, Martinez and Devers, who are all batting well over .300 this season; Martinez’s .372 is first in the majors among qualified hitters.
Even Franchy Cordero, who has taken some at-bats from Dalbec since being called up from Triple-A, has been hitting better this season than he did in 2021, including a 10th-inning walk-off grand slam against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.
Cora said Cordero has made adjustments in his approach after struggling last season, when he frequently rode the bus between Triple-A and the major leagues. Cora said Cordero changed his approach too much, trying to make contact due to public criticism about his strikeouts. That led to Cordero losing power on his swings.
“He has more confidence now,” Cora said. “He was trying to make an adjustment, and it worked against him. The power is in his best swings, and they weren’t a part of his game last year.”
The core can carry the lineup, but Story’s struggles at the beginning of the season are a warning that if Bogaerts, Devers, Martinez and Story aren’t clicking — and the others don’t start to — the Red Sox will be in trouble facing off against the rest of a very powerful division.
Pivetta has been lights out
Before May 10: 0-4, 6.08 ERA, .356 BABIP
Since: 3-0, 2.05 ERA, .140 BABIP
Is it for real or a mirage? It’s somewhere in between.
Since joining the Red Sox in a 2020 trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, Nick Pivetta has vacillated between flashes of brilliance and large stretches of mediocrity. After a poor start, his most recent flash came in a two-hit, complete-game win over the AL West-leading Houston Astros on May 18.
Boston’s front office was hoping the right-hander would help carry the team’s rotation even before ace Chris Sale went down with a rib injury in spring training. While Pivetta has been pitching better of late, much of the peripheral statistics around his performance this season — from the average exit velocity of hits to his hard-hit percentage to his walk and strikeout rates — suggest a league-average pitcher.
His overall numbers so far in 2022 (4.25 ERA, 1.151 WHIP) are a notch or two above his career averages (5.09 ERA, 1.375 WHIP). And his FIP of 3.89 is better than his career mark of 4.46, so perhaps something is left untapped in the 29-year-old.
The pen has been mightier too
Before May 10: 4.19 ERA (23rd in MLB), 1.28 WHIP (22nd) and .230 opponent batting average (22nd)
Since: 2.68 ERA (fourth), 0.93 WHIP (first), .185 opponent batting average (first)
Is it for real or a mirage? It’s a mirage, but it won’t be as bad as it was in April.
When you’re not hitting, you’d better at least be pitching. A weak bullpen made Boston’s slow start that much slower.
The Red Sox moved 2021 relief ace Garrett Whitlock to the rotation, and his departure has been coupled with a dreadful run from former All-Star reliever Matt Barnes. Barnes has a 6.14 ERA in 17 games, with a strikeout percentage that has dropped from 37.8 to 18.2. He has lost nearly 4 mph on his fastball — from 95.8 in 2021 to 92.1 in 2022. Before May 10, Barnes posted a 7.84 ERA in 10⅓ innings across 12 games.
Tanner Houck has become the Boston bullpen’s Swiss army knife, but he hasn’t been able to re-create his 2021 success. Houck is walking batters at a higher rate than in 2021, and batters are hitting the ball harder off the 25-year-old righty, with an average exit velocity of 90.1 mph, up from 87.2 in 2021. Before May 10, Houck posted a 9.00 ERA in three games and seven innings.
Though a small sample size, Houck and Barnes have both pitched better since May 10; Houck has posted a 0.90 ERA in 10 innings over three appearances, while Barnes has a 2.08 ERA in 4⅓ innings across five appearances. Their strong performances have been supplemented by Jake Diekman — who has a 2.35 ERA in 19 appearances in this season — and John Schreiber, who has not allowed a run in 10⅓ innings over 10 appearances.
Members of Boston’s front office believe the bullpen represents the team’s biggest weak point at the moment. Despite their recent run, the Red Sox still have just eight saves against 11 blown saves, and, though it’s gotten better, their win probability added of -0.32 has only risen to 20th in MLB.
While the team’s offensive resurgence over the past few weeks has helped take pressure off the bullpen, the cracks showed Sunday when Hansel Robles blew a save against the Mariners before Cordero’s walk-off grand slam saved the day.
The bullpen could be competent enough to keep the Red Sox winning. But more so than for the offense or the starting rotation, that’s far from a given.