Red Sox hit the .500 mark after a third of the season, but where do they go now?

It took a third of the season, but the Red Sox are finally a .500 baseball team again. Sunday’s 5-2 win in Oakland ended a three-game sweep and gave the Red Sox a 27-win-27-loss record.

They’re at .500 for the first time since April 22, when they were 7-7 and close to losing four straight games (and 12 of their next 15). They basically spent a whole month trying to make up for that dismal 15-game streak.

So what good is a .500 record? Check out the American League rankings because the Red Sox are currently a playoff team. If the season ended today, all three American League wildcards would come from the East.

The Red Sox lead the American League in runs.

They have the third largest barrel differential in the AL.

Your expected win-loss record based on this run difference is 31-23.

Three weeks ago, Baseball-Reference had the Red Sox’s playoff odds under 10 percent, but even before Sunday’s win, those odds were at 55.2 percent. Point is, they haven’t necessarily made a total loss this season.

Admittedly, much of the team’s gaudy run difference comes from a handful of one-sided games, which seems to speak to the club’s hit-or-miss nature. When Rafael Devers is at the plate or Trevor Story is having a hot streak and one of their top four starters is on the mound, the Red Sox can look pretty good. Even dangerous. But when the end of the order is due, or Kiké Hernández has gone cold, or the bullpen is looking everyone To defend a one-run lead in the late innings, the Red Sox can look pretty bad. Terrible even.

So here they sit squarely at .500 a third into the season, in the playoff picture but just barely, with plenty of time for this season to go one way or the other.

Three things that work

1. The middle of the order

This could be Devers’ moment. He arrived in 2017, became a standout in 2019, fielded his first All-Star team in 2021 and this could be the year he emerges as a true Superstar and a legitimate MVP candidate. He leads the majors in hits, leads the American League in doubles and ranks third in the AL in OPS. His defense is also noticeably improved. Xander Bogaerts and JD Martinez weren’t quite as good as Devers, but they were very good all year. That’s not a bad starting point. The three boys who are supposed to lead, lead.

2. Most of the rotation

The middle of the order should be good. It’s the rotation that far exceeds expectations. The Red Sox are ranked eighth in the majors in the ERA rotation and sixth in the WHIP rotation. Nathan Eovaldi got off to a bad start, Garrett Whitlock has successfully gone six innings at a time, Nick Pivetta has been utterly dominant for a month now (1.32 ERA in his last six starts) and Michael Wacha would finish in the top 10 in the American League stands ERA if he’s had enough innings to qualify (although some of his batter stats aren’t quite as strong). Even No. 5 starter Rich Hill has made winnable starts more than once, including Sunday in Oakland. In terms of workload, getting an impactful Chris Sale at some point would certainly help, but for now the rotation has done its job. If anything, it’s gotten better and better as Whitlock and Pivetta have kept giving.

3. Punching exercises I guess?

In April, Devers, Martinez and Bogaerts (plus Rob Refsndyer by five at-bats) were the only Red Sox hitters with an OPS above .760. Hell, they were the only Red Sox hitters with an OPS over .660! The lineup just had nothing but the Big Three. But over the past 15 days, Jarren Duran (in nine at-bats) has been the only Red Sox batsman with an OPS less than .720. Bobby Dalbec (.724) is the only other under .770. Story has become a legitimate All-Star contender, Christian Vázquez is a good hitter again and Franchy Cordero – Franchi Cordero! — hit a game-winning home run on Sunday. Maybe that’s a credit to the team’s new hitting coaches, maybe it’s a credit to the players’ hard work, or maybe it’s an inevitable return to form after unsustainably poor starts. Whatever it is, the Red Sox have gotten noticeably and, importantly, better on the plate. It made a big difference.

Three things that don’t work

1. Gosh, the bullpen

Tanner Houck was tremendous as a multi-inning reliever. Matt Strahm and Hansel Robles had their moments. Austin Davis, John Schreiber and Tyler Danish gave more than almost anyone could have expected. But we’re a third into the season, and the Red Sox still don’t have a closer (or even particularly good) candidate for the job. Matt Barnes is currently on the IL with what is believed to be a broken ability to make big outs. Alex Cora struggles through the late innings while Chaim Bloom tries to build a time machine to better address the bullpen in the offseason.

2. Right-hand moves

Bobby Dalbec has been a little more productive lately, but he’s still only hitting a .179 with a wRC+, which would be in the bottom five in the American League if he still got enough at-bats to qualify. Christian Arroyo’s numbers aren’t much better (only 0.585 OPS, less than 30 points higher than Dalbec’s), but his contact quality numbers suggest quite a bit of bad luck (0.529 expected slugging percentage). Kevin Plawecki has also been terrible this year (lowest OPS+ on the team) after becoming a legitimately helpful slugger against lefties last season. Ryan Fitzgerald, Rob Refsnyder and Connor Wong are viable alternatives in Triple A.

3. Apparently talks about the extension

Sure, this is an offseason issue that has little to do with the state of the Red Sox today. But time and time again, Bogaerts, Devers, Martinez and Eovaldi have spoken of an openness to signing renewals with the Red Sox, and yet no renewals are in place. It’s a looming problem that rightfully hasn’t gone away in the first third of the season (remember, the Red Sox is all about sustainability these days, so overtime is part of that). If the Red Sox had signed Devers or Bogaerts or even Eovaldi in the last two months, there would at least be some sense that pieces were coming together and a bigger plan was in place.

Three considerations for the next third of the season

1. When are these guys coming back and how good will they be?

Initial best-case scenarios for Chris Sale’s return from a rib cage injury saw him rejoin the Red Sox rotation this week. At least the beginning of June seemed possible. Then he suffered a slight setback, and so late June or early July became the new expectation. Can he be back before the All-Star break and be a hit starter for three months? What about Barnes? Will this IL stay unlock something that will make it useful again? And down in Worcester, can Triston Casas come back from his ankle injury to become a second-half call-up contender? He’s been good so far this season, not great.

2. Who will be the surprise donor in the next two months?

Last year it was Whitlock. So far this year it’s been Schreiber and Cordero. But the Red Sox haven’t tried too many out-of-the-box ideas otherwise. They haven’t signed Duran as a full-time option in the big leagues yet. Fitzgerald and Refsnyder remain in Triple A. Needing new weapons last weekend, the Red Sox simply brought back discarded Ryan Brasier, Hirokazu Sawamura and Phillips Valdez. But certainly there’s room to do more than give Duran a play here and there or let Josh Winckowski start in a double-header. Fitzgerald? Casas? Frank Deutsch? Brayan Bello? At some point there has to be an opportunity to try something new.

3. How will the front office react to a gap year?

The second third of the season carries the Red Sox straight through the close of trading. If this is basically the team – say they’re winning more than they’re losing over the next two months but are still hovering around for second or third wildcard spot – how will Bloom and co. react? Would he – could he – continue to try to do a little of both, taking some steps to help in the short-term and others geared toward building for the future? Would he – should he – put anything on the payroll? The Red Sox have a lot of expiring contracts that would make great trade fodder (but at what short-term cost?). They also have a good number of 40-man off-season candidates, which might give them reason to trade in for late-season upgrades. What will the trade deadline even look like if any team hovering around .500 has a real shot at making the playoffs?

(Top Photo by Cordero: Josie Lepe/Getty Images)

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