Yet, that’s the reality: the Red Sox, who finished in last place in the AL East in 2020, rode into this week’s MLB All-Star break leading the division by 1 1/2 games with a 55-36 record.
Obviously, the season is a marathon; not a sprint. But to say the Red Sox have recaptured some of their old swagger while shattering outside expectations would be an understatement. Boston has looked like a legitimate World Series contender with Alex Cora back occupying the manager’s seat.
Before we shift gears and focus on the second half, let’s evaluate the Red Sox’s performance to date by handing out some first-half superlatives.
Biggest surprise: Garrett Whitlock
The Red Sox plucked Whitlock from the New York Yankees in the Rule 5 draft, obviously an indication they saw something in the young right-hander, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019 and never pitched above Double-A before joining Boston’s system. Still, it’d be crazy to think they envisioned him becoming such a high-leverage force so soon in his MLB career.
Whitlock, who turned 25 last month, owns a 1.44 ERA and 1.10 WHIP across 26 relief appearances (43 2/3 innings). The Red Sox eventually might groom Whitlock as a starter, but for now, he’s a key piece of Boston’s bullpen, which has been excellent in 2021.
Best moment: Red Sox sweep Yankees at Fenway Park (June 25-27)
The weekend started with the Red Sox honoring Dustin Pedroia before their series opener against the Yankees. It ended with Boston pounding New York ace Gerrit Cole to complete a three-game sweep that seemingly reflected the point at which many Red Sox fans really started to buy into this year’s team.
There was a distinct buzz in the air all weekend as the Yankees visited Fenway Park for the first time since 2019. While we’re cheating a bit by not picking a singular “moment,” it was hard not to feel like that series carried a little extra weight.
Most intriguing storyline: Chris Sale’s rehab from Tommy John surgery
One could point to Cora’s return, as it’s an all-encompassing development that has paid huge dividends for the Red Sox. But Sale’s ongoing rehab continues to be a fascinating side story. Most reports have been positive, and the left-hander projects to return just in time for Boston’s postseason push. If he’s anywhere close to his ace form, the Red Sox are adding a piece — without giving up anything in a trade — that could swing the balance of power in the American League. Excitement is building, both within the organization and among the fan base.
Best newcomer: Hunter Renfroe
Whitlock deserves credit for becoming a shutdown high-leverage reliever, but we’ve already gone over his evolving credentials. Adam Ottavino has been a tremendous setup man, while Kiké Hernández has been a wizard both in center field and out of the leadoff spot in recent weeks. Still, Renfroe’s stretch dating back to the beginning of May has been instrumental in Boston maintaining its early-season pace.
Renfroe, who signed as a free agent after being designated for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays, is batting .263 with 13 home runs, 46 RBIs and a .780 OPS in 79 games (312 plate appearances) this season, all while providing above-average defense in right field. Since May 1, the point at which he really turned things around offensively, he’s hitting .290 with 12 homers, 38 RBIs and an .860 OPS in 60 games (244 plate appearances).
Best pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi
Eovaldi, just selected to his first All-Star Game, has been a stabilizing presence in Boston’s rotation, guiding the unit through the inevitable ebbs and flows of an MLB season by providing consistent innings as the Red Sox’s de facto ace. He posted a 9-5 record with a 3.66 ERA in 18 first-half starts, and his 2.60 FIP suggests he performed even better than those numbers indicate.
Hat tip to Boston’s bullpen, too. The unit, collectively, has been awesome. Especially closer Matt Barnes, who, like Eovaldi, just earned his first All-Star selection, before then signing a contract extension.
MVP: Xander Bogaerts
This was a toss-up between Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, two superstars on the left side of Boston’s infield. And really, you can’t go wrong with either. But Bogaerts, who plays a premium position, receives the nod here as the longest-tenured Red Sox player at age 28. He’s pacing the team in fWAR (3.9), average (.321), OPS (.930) and wRC+ (149) while serving as an undeniable leader in the clubhouse.