While a tumble in Texas brought the first-place Red Sox back toward the AL East pack, in at least one respect, the team continues to enjoy a runaway advantage.
One underappreciated aspect of the strong start is health. Outside of J.D. Martinez’s one day on the COVID-19 injury list, the team has had just three players on the IL since the start of this season: Chris Sale continues his rehab from his March 2020 Tommy John surgery, Ryan Brasier remains in Fort Myers to rehab his injured calf, and Eduardo Rodriguez missed one turn of the rotation due to dead arm at the start of the year.
Entering Monday, the Sox had lost 71 player days to the non-COVID injured list, fifth fewest in the majors.
Sale, of course, was never expected to be ready for the start of the season. Rodriguez missed one start. Only Brasier has required the team to reconfigure its roster for an extended period.
In that regard, the Red Sox are atypical. They and Cleveland are the only teams not to have an injury since Opening Day that required a placement on the injured list. The other AL East contenders, meanwhile, have been hammered by injuries, contributing to their stumbles out of the gate.
The Yankees have had seven players placed on the non-COVID injured list since the start of spring training, including surgeries on Zack Britton (shoulder) and Luke Voit (knee). The Rays have had 10 players land on the injured list since the start of spring training, including starter Chris Archer and relief ace Nick Anderson.
The Blue Jays, incredibly, have had 15. Key offseason addition George Springer (oblique/quad) just made his debut in the past week, ace Hyun Jin Ryu is sidelined with a glute strain, and closer Kirby Yates (Tommy John) was lost for the season before a single regular-season pitch.
While the Sox have had players miss a couple games at a time — Kiké Hernández after getting crumpled by a fence in Texas, Christian Arroyo after being hit on the hand by a pitch — the team has remained intact for most of the year, contributing to its first-place standing.
Darwinzon Hernandez hones in
Darwinzon Hernandez represented a key part of the late-innings equation to start the year, but the lefthander faltered in the role. In eight games spanning seven innings through April 22, he had a 5.14 ERA, with more walks (8) than strikeouts (7). Opponents swung and missed at 11.3 percent of his pitches.
The 24-year-old then went a week without appearing in a big league game. Since his return on April 29, typically in lower-leverage spots, Hernandez has been overpowering. In his last three games, the lefty has faced 11 batters, allowing no runs on two hits while striking out eight and walking none. He’s thrown 78 percent of his pitches for strikes, with batters whiffing at 31.1 percent.
“During [the week between games] I continued to work on my mechanics and also try to control my emotions,” Hernandez said through translator Bryan Almonte. “We pitchers want to improve our control. That’s really what I have been focusing on, really making sure my body is right and not trying to do too much and not speed my delivery up.”
His performance while attacking the strike zone has been eye-opening.
“Filth,” said one evaluator.
Meanwhile, righthander Matt Barnes was named the AL Reliever of the Month for April. He went 1-0 with six saves, striking out 25 and walking three in 14 innings. He held opponents to a .106/.160/.191 line, dominating thanks to a more aggressive attack on the strike zone than at any other point in his career. Barnes threw 73 percent of his pitches for strikes in April, up from a 62 percent career strike rate entering 2021.
Discomforts of home
The Sox hope to improve their 8-8 home record with a three-game series against the MLB-worst Tigers (8-21). But while the Sox have been mired in mediocrity at Fenway, they’re not alone in failing to claim a home-field advantage. The combined home record of the five AL East teams this year is 33-39, with the Yankees (7-7) .500 in the Bronx, and both the Rays (7-10) and Orioles (4-10) selfless hosts. Ironically, it is the migratory Jays who possess the greatest home advantage in the division, going 7-4 in their temporary residence of Dunedin, Fla. . . . The Red Sox claimed righthanded reliever Brandon Brennan off waivers from the Mariners and optioned him to Triple A Worcester. The 29-year-old features a low-90s fastball, changeup, and slider. His changeup has been a wipeout option against righties, who are 3-for-46 with 24 strikeouts against the offering since the start of 2019. He has 54 strikeouts and 29 walks, along with eight homers allowed en route to a 4.45 ERA in 54⅔ big league innings. To open a spot for Brennan on the 40-man roster, the Red Sox moved reliever Ryan Brasier (calf) to the 60-day injured list. Brasier recently started throwing off a mound in Fort Myers. (Sale, already on the 60-day, continues to move closer to that step.)