After a significant lineup overhaul last offseason, Red Sox management thought they'd field a better team in 2006, built around pitching and defense.
On the first day of July, three months into the season and just about at its halfway point, this is an opportune time to compare this year's club to last year's, statistically speaking.
Record 48-29 45-32
Average .288 .285
Runs 430 434
HR 94 92
ERA 4.58 4.72
Fldg. % .992 .983
To start with, through 77 games, the Red Sox are off to their best start in twenty years. That's because the 2006 edition Sox are playing solid baseball in all facets of the game.
As advertised, the pitching and defense have both been superior to last year's team. But the big surprise has been the offense, which was expected to decline -- if only slightly. But by almost any measure, the Sox offense has been marginally improved this year. Impressively, the team batting average is up, as are home runs, while runs scored are nearly identical.
Most playoff teams are successful due to the first three, and maybe four, starting pitchers. At this moment, the first four members of the Red Sox rotation look about as good as any in baseball. It sure didn't seem that way just weeks ago. Jon Lester has been a blessing thus far. The bullpen still has question marks, but seems to be improving with the additions of Craig Hansen and Javier Lopez.
The defense is...well, record setting and unprecedented.
The offense has been the nice surprise. Trot Nixon has experienced a resurgence to the player he was prior to 2004, when injuries began to take their toll. Mike Lowell is a doubles machine, and though his power numbers are below his career averages, he's made a genuine contribution at the plate. Kevin Youkilis has outdone himself and surpassed all expectations. We've yet to see the true potential of newcomer Coco Crisp due to his lengthy trip to the DL, but he's expected to excel with continued plate appearances. Manny continues being Manny, and David Ortiz continues to establish himself as "the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history."
Last year's squad won 95 games and finished in a statistical tie with the Yankees at year's end. This year's team is more than halfway to that total, and the All-Star break is still a week away. And the best news is that the Sox will play more than half their post-break games at home, where their .730 winning percentage is tops in baseball.
So, far from a decline, this year's team is defying expectations, or living up to them -- depending on your perspective. But if this trend continues, the Red Sox could find themselves back in the playoffs yet again, and since they're better than last year, they just might get past the first round -- and who knows how far beyond that.
The more this team has changed, the more its success has remained the same -- and, in fact, gotten even better. So far, at least.
Let's hope the trend continues through October.
Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.