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How good are the 2021 Red Sox?

Boston has an excellent record and leads the AL East, but how good is this team and what should we expect for the rest of 2021? 

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox have come out-of-the-gate looking like one of the best teams in baseball. Boston has led the American League East for over a month, vacillating between one game up and three-and-a-half games up on their division foes.

Going into Thursday’s action, the Red Sox’ offense currently ranked third-best in the American League behind the Astros and White Sox. They have the third-best wOBA, batting average, OBP in the AL, and are second-best behind Houston in slugging. They are middle-of-the-pack in terms of home runs, having mashed 44 bombs in 38 games (an area where nearly every team has struggled thanks to a deadened baseball).

This only tells half the story. The total offensive numbers for Boston are strong, but the Sox’ offense has been inconsistent.

Take the last week-and-a-half for example: Boston scored double-digit runs three times in a week, and then put up only four runs total in their last three games. While Tanner Scott and Chris Bassitt are perfectly capable pitchers, the third guy who shut them down was James Kaprielian who was making his first Major League start, the offense simply had ground to-a-halt.

These are single games and the evidence is anecdotal, but a truly strong offense would likely have done a little more damage than four hits per game against those three pitchers.

It’s surprising the Red Sox offense has been as good as it has been to-date, especially considering the massive downgrades they’ve taken over the last 15 months, particularly in the outfield. All three outfield positions have changed over the last year-and-a-half, a major offensive downgrade, and a defensive downgrade to go with it.

The obvious gut-punch was moving from arguably the best player in baseball in Mookie Betts to Alex Verdugo. In addition to that nausea-producing trade, Boston traded Anthony Benintendi for Franchy Cordero, who has been one of the worst hitters in baseball. Going into Thursday’s action Cordero has a 150/.209/.188 slash line. Benintendi had a bad 2020, but it’s nothing like what Cordero has put-up this year. Frankly it’s remarkable Cordero is still in the everyday lineup with those numbers.

Lastly, Boston let Jackie Bradley Jr. go, effectively replacing his spot in the line up with Hunter Renfroe, and while both players have been lousy offensively this year, Bradley is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game.

On the plus side, Rafael Devers has improved his game significantly, and there’s still upside there (something I wrote about last month). Xander Bogaerts and JD Martinez are the best hitters in the lineup, and there’s no reason to think they won’t stay consistently good all season.

On the pitching side, the numbers are equally mixed. Red Sox starters have performed well-enough, but not great. Their team ERA is middle-of-the-pack, though their team FIP is top-three in the AL, behind only the Yankees and White Sox.

Boston’s starters are not allowing many home runs, as they lead the AL having given up only 15 longballs (for comparison, Houston starters have given up 28 and Oakland starters, 29). Six of those have been hit off Eduardo Rodriguez.

Nathan Eovaldi has been good, Nick Pivetta and Rodriguez have been fine, and Garrett Richards has been inconsistent all season. Richards’ first outing was a disastrous two inning affair against the Orioles, who roughed him up for six runs. His best outing was a seven inning one run performance against the Mets where he gave up only four hits.

Boson’s bullpen has been a nice surprise, as Red Sox relievers lead the AL in strikeouts. Matt Barnes has been as effective a closer as one could ask. He’s had only one bad outing in 17 appearances. Rule Five draftee Garrett Whitlock (a gift from the Yankees) has been equally excellent, having only had one bad outing in nine appearances.

So what should we expect out of Boston for the remainder of the 2021 season?

The Red Sox were truly awful last year, and they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball in 2021. Unsurprisingly, the true-talent and expectations for the rest of the season is likely somewhere in the middle.

According to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA standings, Boston is projected to finish the season hovering around .500. If the Red Sox end the year 81-81, that would mean that they’d go 59-65 the rest of the way, a winning percentage of .476. BP is not bullish on their playoff odds, and have them at a meager 16.6 percent. They put their chances to win the division at basically nil (they still view the Yankees as the runaway favorites to take the East).

FanGraphs is more bullish on the Sox, and have them finishing the season with 88 wins, a projected 66-58 record the rest of the way. That winning percentage of .536 puts them behind their .579 pace so far this year, but well-ahead of their .400 winning percentage last year. FG has Boston with a near 50/50 chance to make the playoffs, and although they have the Yankees most likely to win the division, it’s only slightly above 60 percent, with the Red Sox and Rays with about a 15 percent chance each.

This is all to say that the jury is still very much out on the 2021 Red Sox. We’ve seen flashes of offensive brilliance, while they’re still throwing out perhaps the worst non-pitcher hitter in the game on a daily basis.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano