The Red Sox lead the Major Leagues in runs scored. But the primary reason that they are a first-place team now, as opposed to the last-place team they were in 2012, can be found in the transformation of their pitching staff.
And that transformation did not include a wholesale turnover of pitching personnel. This is the tougher kind of transformation, but the Red Sox are making it happen.
Last season, the Red Sox were 12th in the American League in ERA at 4.70. They are now sixth in the league in that category, with an ERA of 3.80. That kind of dramatic improvement is the classic stuff of the worst-to-first phenomenon.
True, there are problems, there are issues, there are questions. Front and center is the recent slump of closer Andrew Bailey, who blew his fourth save Thursday night in a 4-3 loss to Detroit. Bailey is only 8-for-12 in converting save opportunities.
Jon Lester, a source of stability in the rotation earlier in the season, has struggled through a recent stretch of inadequate starts. Clay Buchholz, brilliant this season, with a 9-0 mark and a 1.71 ERA, has been on the disabled list with a neck strain, although he should shortly rejoin the rotation.
But the progress far outweighs the shortcomings with the Boston staff.
John Lackey has rejoined the ranks of the effective starters with a 3.03 ERA. Felix Doubront displayed his significant potential with eight shutout innings against Tampa Bay earlier in the week.
An entire corps of middle relievers has emerged as a source of strength for this club. Most impressive perhaps has been the towering left-hander, Andrew Miller, who has 43 strikeouts in 26 innings and has demonstrated the growing ability to consistently stifle right-handed hitters.
Without question, Red Sox manager John Farrell has been a stabilizing influence on the entire roster. But as a former pitching coach of this club, he has also created a comfort level for this staff.
The addition of Juan Nieves as pitching coach has been a major plus, as well. Nieves is intelligent and directed, and he knows precisely what it will take for each of his pitchers to succeed.
Farrell gives particular credit to the development of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia as another reason for the pitching staff's improvement. Asked if Saltalamacchia had improved since last year, Farrell responded:
"I think even from the beginning of this year, there's been more familiarity with the guys on the mound, what their capabilities are. And [Saltalamacchia's] ability to read swings has shown up in the pitch selection that he's used. He's had obviously a couple of good games where his throwing and his transfer has been quick and efficient. He's always had arm strength, but I think his overall game has taken a step forward."
In an assessment of his team this week, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington had considerable reason to be positive. But he also pointed toward the possibility of further improvement.
"We're always trying to get better," Cherington said. "Over the course of the season, there's going to be parts of a team that perform really well at different points of the season. Guys are going to go through hot streaks and slumps. We're like any other team. But overall, the effort's been great. Our players and staff have worked really hard every day, we've been prepared every night and we've come out on the winning end more often than we haven't.
"The guys have put us in a position here in the middle of June to be right in the thick of things. The division is not really that different than anyone thought it would be. It's a jumble. I don't think anyone knew exactly what the order was going to be, but it's very competitive. We knew it was going to be competitive. And I still think that the teams that end up on top are going to be the ones that stay the healthiest, get the best starting pitching and make the best in-season adjustments. We're going to try to do that."
The Red Sox have the financial flexibility and wherewithal to make moves, including major moves, as the situation demands. This is an obvious edge. But the advantage they have already given themselves is the dramatic improvement of their pitching staff.
This is still, in some cases, a work in progress. But with this team this season, there is ample evidence that progress can be made.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less