As Boston Red Sox outfielder Rob Refsnyder walked into Fenway Park last week, a heckler waiting by the player parking lot called out a question many fans have been asking in the early days of the 2023 season.
“You’re hitting in the 3-hole again?!”
It’s been a surprise to Refsnyder too. In eight seasons with six teams, he has played nearly every position on the diamond and hit in every spot in the lineup. But he isn’t exactly known for being penciled into the 3-hole, a place in the order traditionally designated for a team’s best hitter.
“I came in on a minor league deal last year — I get it,” Refsnyder said of the naysayers. “All of that is so out of my control.”
Players like Refsnyder have had to step up as injuries have rocked the Red Sox early on this season.
Boston’s lineup has been chaotic, with Adam Duvall, Trevor Story and Adalberto Mondesi all on the injured list, not to mention the offseason departure of Xander Bogaerts. When Masataka Yoshida went down with a minor hamstring injury on April 12, Refsnyder took his spot as Boston’s No. 3 hitter — and the Red Sox found themselves relying on a combination of Refsnyder, Bobby Dalbec, Yu Chang, Raimel Tapia and Christian Arroyo at second base, shortstop and left field.
Negative attention from fans and the media brought down the mood in a Boston clubhouse that was already struggling to remain positive. The team got swept by the white-hot Tampa Bay Rays in a four-game series ending April 13 that left Boston with a 5-8 record, worst in the American League East. The rotation, highlighted by the struggles of Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, ranked 25th in baseball with a 5.42 ERA. It seemed as if the season was already starting to slip away.
In their first game following the sweep, the Red Sox defeated the Los Angeles Angels 5-3. Still, the team remained somber. As veteran infielder Justin Turner looked around the clubhouse, he noticed a room full of guys putting too much on themselves. That’s when he decided to speak up.
“It seemed like there was uncertainty on what to do,” Turner said of his address to his teammates. “It’s like, man, if you win a major league ballgame, it doesn’t matter what type of year it is or what the record is, you enjoy that. You celebrate that. Winning is not easy to do, and this is a game, but you got to enjoy it.”
Boston has gone 7-4 in its past 11 games, starting with that win against the Angels. Since April 15, Boston ranks second in the majors in runs scored behind only the Texas Rangers. At the heart of the Boston offense is Rafael Devers, who continues to be one of the most dynamic hitters in baseball, smacking his ninth homer of the season Monday night against the Baltimore Orioles. But the 26-year-old third baseman will need help if Boston — now 12-12 — is going to find ways to win.
Things have been better lately, but can the Red Sox keep it up? Here are four things that have been working for Boston so far:
1. Masataka Yoshida is hitting the ball in the air
Through the first 2½ weeks of the season, Yoshida’s performance stoked one of the biggest fears within the Red Sox’s fan base: that the Japanese outfielder would struggle to catch up with major league pitching. Through April 18, Yoshida was hitting .167/.310/.264, getting on base at a high clip but struggling to hit the ball in the air.
That has changed in the past week, with Yoshida hitting .476 over his previous five games against the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and Orioles while knocking in nine runs. On Sunday, he hit two homers in one inning, including a grand slam that helped Boston to a 12-5 win over Milwaukee. His average launch angle has ticked up from around -12 degrees to 12 degrees over his past 25 batted balls, according to Baseball Savant, indicating a dramatic shift in his ability to launch the ball into the air.
Boston is relying on Yoshida to be a catalyst in the middle of the order if it hopes to compete for a playoff spot — or at least stay out of the AL East basement for a second straight year.
2. Alex Verdugo is showing signs of a potential breakout season
Verdugo looks primed to have the breakout season that many expected last year. After going through some bad luck in the first half of 2022 with a lower-than-average batting average on balls in play (BABIP), Verdugo found his stroke in the second half, and he has continued to produce accordingly in 2023. He ranks in the 98th percentile among all hitters in baseball for expected batting average and the 93rd percentile for strikeout rate, providing dynamic at-bats from the leadoff spot while leading Boston in bWAR through the early part of the season.
But the biggest strides for Verdugo have come defensively, where he ranks in the 92nd percentile for outs-above-average while playing in Fenway Park’s spacious right field, which many players and evaluators say is as difficult as playing center field. Verdugo posted minus-5 outs above average in 2021 and minus-4 outs above average in 2022, leading him to rank below average defensively. So far this season, he has posted two outs above average.
And a side effect of Verdugo’s success: He might always be associated with the Mookie Betts deal, but Verdugo could carve out a place for himself in Boston too.
3. Justin Turner is successfully replacing J.D. Martinez
Boston signed the 38-year-old Turner this offseason to help bring some veteran leadership into the clubhouse, and through 24 games, Turner looks to be on track with his career averages, hitting .284/.385/.409 while primarily serving as the team’s designated hitter.
The team probably hoped to get some more production out of the DH spot after Martinez — another Boston veteran who left in free agency this past offseason — hit significantly fewer home runs as compared to his career averages in 2022, knocking 16 dingers with a 1.1 bWAR. While Turner has only averaged 19 home runs per 162 games in his 15-year MLB career, he has posted a bWAR higher than 1.1 in every season since 2014.
4. The bullpen is holding things together
Boston’s bullpen currently ranks ninth in baseball with a 3.25 ERA despite throwing the second most innings for a reliever group in the sport. Closer Kenley Jansen leads the way here, not allowing a run through his first seven appearances and posting a 1.04 FIP and 0.857 WHIP through seven innings.
One of the surprise highlights has been Josh Winckowski, who has looked dominant through his first eight appearances, allowing three runs in 16⅓ innings for a 1.65 ERA. Manager Alex Cora has gradually been putting Winckowski in more high-leverage situations. Additionally, sidearmer John Schreiber continues to look reliable out of the pen, posting a 2.45 ERA in 11 appearances so far.
There are some cracks, with Ryan Brasier and Kaleb Ort looking shaky. But with Zack Kelly and Chris Martin both going down with injuries, Cora doesn’t have many other options in the bullpen to rely on. This group’s dependability throughout the season will be critical.