No big foam finger for the Red Sox this morning (at least not the index finger), as the Beantowners dropped back into second place with their third consecutive loss. It's a disappointing end to an exhilarating month, one that saw the Sox climb all the way back into the AL East race.
When April ended, the Sox were 11-15, in last place, five games out. Now they are tied with the Yankees for second-most wins in the American League after a 19-7 start to May. The last three games notwithstanding, nearly every member of the Red Sox experienced a huge turnaround last month:
|Player (OPS diff)||April||May|
|Varitek (+.594)||.111/.200/.139, 41 PA, 1 XBH, 13K||.333/.400/.533, 50 PA, 5 XBH, 12K|
|Crawford (+.419)||.155/.204/.227, 104 PA, 5 XBH, 17K||.304/.328/.482, 116 PA, 11 XBH, 22K|
|Ortiz (+.312)||.267/.373/.395, 102 PA, 6 XBH, 11K||.342/.387/.694, 119 PA, 19 XBH, 12K|
|Salty (+.209)||.216/.273/.275, 55 PA, 3 XBH, 16K||.220/.281/.475, 64 PA, 7 XBH, 12K|
|Gonzalez (+.153)||.314/.379/.457, 116 PA, 12 XBH, 17K||.341/.371/.618, 132 PA, 16 XBH, 21K|
|Ellsbury (+.022)||.266/.337/.468, 104 PA, 11 XBH, 24K||.314/.381/.446, 134 PA, 12 XBH, 18K|
The Red Sox' offense rocketed forward, leading the league in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, batting, on-base percentage, slugging, total bases and OPS+ for the month. They were the only club with an OPS over .800 in May and the only club with an OPS+ above 120.
There are three principal reasons for that explosion: The resurgence of Carl Crawford, David Ortiz's journey in the Wayback Machine (he's now having his best season since 2007 and is on pace for his most home runs since setting the club record in 2006), and the sudden competence of the catchers. Adrian Gonzalez's transition from excellent to superawesome and Jacoby Ellsbury's continuing excellence are also contributing factors.
Those five positions (C, LF, CF, 1B, DH) have more than offset declines from the other four — a slight drop from Kevin Youkilis, a bona fide slump from J.D. Drew, leveling off from Jed Lowrie and continuing mediocrity from Dustin Pedroia.
Crawford produced a May in line with his career numbers in an incredibly streaky manner: He opened the month with an 11-game hitting streak (.356/.370/.467), then had nine terrible games (.171/.194/.171). Then he had five games that included his back-to-back four-hit explosion (.579/.619/.1.368). Finally, a hit yesterday broke an 0-for-13 slump.
The other line of note is Ellsbury's. Though he only increased his OPS by 22 points month-over-month, his on-base percentage jumped by .044, fueled entirely by an increased batting average. By reaching base more, he stole bases far more frequently (five in April, 14 in May) and his wRC+ (which measures and weights appropriately all offensive contributions on a scale with 100 as league average) went up from 120 in April to 140 in May.
Ellsbury, who many, here and elsewhere, feared was getting too power hungry, saw his traditional game rebound in a big way. His strikeout percentage plummeted from 25 percent to below 15 percent. He traded in a bunch of fly balls for ground balls, which play better for his speedy game, and though his walk percentage declined a little, he saw many more pitches (3.7 P/PA to 4.0). This is definitely the player the Sox (and I) expected to see last year.
It's a good thing the Sox saw their offense return because the pitching left something to be desired:
|Pitcher (ERA diff)||April||May|
|Clay Buchholz (-3.25)||27 IP, 5.33/1.85/.950, 16BB, 15K||39 IP, 2.08/0.95/.602, 8BB, 29K|
|Josh Beckett (-1.65)||34 IP, 2.65/0.85/.536, 9BB, 32K||36 IP, 1.00/1.17/.519, 16BB, 31K|
|Jon Lester (+2.98)||39.1 IP, 2.52/1.12/.631, 14BB, 35K||36 IP, 5.50/1.61/.857, 17BB, 39K|
|D. Matsuzaka (+4.93)||26 IP, 3.81/1.23/.613, 13BB, 20 K||11.1 IP, 8.74/2.03/.765, 10BB, 6K|
|John Lackey (+8.69)||28.2 IP, 5.65/1.54/.843, 10BB, 17K||10.2 IP, 14.34/1.54/1.034, 8BB, 2K|
|Alfredo Aceves||No starts||25.1 IP, 3.91/1.34/.685, 11BB, 13K|
|Tim Wakefield||No starts||25.2 IP, 3.51/1.25/.663, 8BB, 12K|
Jon Lester was one of the worst starters in the game in May, yet he still leads the league in wins and winning percentage for the season, and the Red Sox won four of his six starts last month. Lester needs to buy guys like Gonzalez, Ortiz and Crawford some steaks.
Thankfully for Boston, Clay Buchholz turned things around at the exact same time, continuing to give the Sox two front-line starters even as Lester struggled. Buchholz's velocity increased, and so did the strikeouts. He halved his walks despite pitching 12 more innings, and posted the best WHIP of the starting staff.
Josh Beckett allowed more walks in May than in April, but got some good luck on his side and allowed just four runs all month. Lester will be fine, and when he is, it looks like the Sox can certainly challenge the Phillies for the best front three in the game.
The last two, on the other hand, are less certain. Aceves and Wakefield have been season savers, Aceves' meltdown in yesterday's game notwithstanding. Neither is an ace, but they certainly have been among the better fourth and fifth starters in baseball. Lackey will be starting in five days, and the Sox will have a hard decision in which of the two serviceable spot starters to leave in the rotation and which to push to the pen. From here, it makes more sense to have Wakefield starting as long as he's performing well; it seems like Aceves can make the adjustment better, and his arm can handle warming up on short notice better than the 45-year-old Wakefield's can.
And it's a good thing the Sox' starters were mostly solid in May because the bullpen was anything but:
|Pitcher (ERA diff)||April||May|
|Jon. Papelbon (+1.45)||9.1 IP, 1.93/0.96/.554, 2BB, 12K||13.1 IP, 3.38/1.13/.669, 1BB, 19K|
|Daniel Bard (-0.27)||12.1 IP, 3.65/1.14/.630, 3BB, 12K||13.1 IP, 3.38/0.83/.656, 4BB, 13K|
|Matt Albers (+2.90)||6 IP, 1.50/1.17/.423, 4BB, 5K||14.1 IP, 4.40/1.26/.604, 5BB, 16K|
|Dan Wheeler (-1.20)||8.2 IP, 8.31/1.39/.842, 0BB, 7K||6.1 IP, 7.11/1.90/1.068, 3BB, 5K|
|Bobby Jenks (-1.89)||8.1 IP, 8.64/2.16/.824, 6BB, 10K||1.1 IP, 6.75/4.50/1.167, 3BB, 0K|
|Rich Hill||No appearances||8 IP, 0.00/0.63/.322, 2BB, 12K|
|Scott Atchison||No appearances||12.1 IP, 5.11/1.46/.829, 2BB, 9K|
It might surprise you, as it did me, to learn that Daniel Bard has the same ERA and a lower WHIP and OPS allowed in May than Jonathan Papelbon, but that's because Papelbon has allowed his hits and runs (he doesn't walk anyone anymore — one free pass in the entire month of May) in situations where the Sox are ahead by two or more runs. Check it: Bard and Papelbon both have 10 Shutdowns on the year, but Bard has six Meltdowns. Papelbon has zero. Nobody else in baseball has more than seven Shutdowns with no Meltdowns. Anyway, relief pitching is all about the win probability. Papelbon has been unhittable when he's needed to be; Bard has been surprisingly inconsistent.
Just when we thought Matt Albers was stepping up to take some pressure off Bard, he self-destructed against the Cubs, which skews his May line quite a bit. Albers has five Shutdowns against just two Meltdowns this year. He and Hill have been the surprising bullpen saviors. Hill has yet to allow a run in a Red Sox uniform, dating back to his cup of tea last season. He also has three Shutdowns and, obviously, zero Meltdowns.
In fact, let's look at SD/MD splits for the Sox' relievers:
Pitcher: SD/MD April, SD/MD May
- Papelbon: 3/0, 7/0
- Bard: 3/3, 7/3
- Albers: 2/0, 5/2
- Hill: 0/0, 3/0
- Jenks: 2/4, 0/1
- Wheeler: 0/1, 1/2
- Atchison: 0/0, 0/1
Papelbon, Albers and Hill combined have had fewer Meltdowns all season than Bard had in May.
In short, the Sox in May have had some unexpected pitchers (Aceves, Wakefield, Hill, Albers) step up and help cover the shortcomings of more established teammates (Lester, Lackey, Matsuzaka, Bard), while the offense has provided more than enough leeway to allow those replacements to take place without costing the team on the field.
In a way, that's encouraging. The Red Sox just finished an incredibly successful month and are in the thick of the race despite bad months from players like Bard, Lester and Dustin Pedroia and injuries to expected key contributors like Lackey, Jenks and Wheeler. It didn't all go right for the Red Sox — it rarely ever does, for any team — but they won anyway. Call me optimistic, but I think that's a good sign moving forward.