Every Major League Baseball season is full of surprises, and perhaps it’s not fair to talk about franchises that have each won multiple World Series titles in the last decade as “underdogs,” but the play of both the Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants certainly qualifies as “surprising” so far as both lead their respective divisions. In fact, when looking at both team’s MLB betting odds, one would be hard pressed to find opponents in which either team is the underdog.
The strength of those divisions makes the feat more impressive. The AL West produced last year’s World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who were a juggernaut offensively and added a second Cy Young winner to their rotation in Trevor Bauer in the offseason. The San Diego Padres made the playoffs last season, have arguably the best young talent in baseball, significantly invested in their pitching staff in the offseason, and have perhaps the most exciting young star in baseball in Fernando Tatis Jr., all of which has given their World Series futures odds a series boon.
The AL East produced the World Series runners-up, Tampa, and has the New York Yankees and their powerful lineup and payroll. Plus, the Toronto Blue Jays, like the Padres, have a collection of elite young talent and are a playoff threat this season.
So, how are Boston and San Francisco doing it? Here are three things each is getting right so far.
This is an obvious one, but Xander Bogaerts is on fire. Bogaerts didn’t have a bad season last year, hitting .300 with 11 home runs in 56 games. This year, though, he’s third in the AL in hitting at .346 and has nine home runs, 26 RBIs, and his OBP is over .400. The Red Sox have lost a lot of star power as they’ve been mindful of their budget in recent seasons, but Bogaerts is reminding all of baseball that he’s still around and still among the game’s best shortstops.
JD Martinez seems to be back. Martinez struggled last season. His first two seasons in Boston, he averaged 39 home runs and over 100 RBIs per season while hitting over .300 both seasons. Last season, it was obviously shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Martinez’s statistics still plummeted. He hit just .213 with seven home runs in 53 games. At 33, it was fair to question whether or not Martinez had much left to offer. He’s answered with a resounding “yes” this season, though. He’s hitting .331 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs in 43 games. He and Bogaerts in top form makes their lineup a dangerous one again. They’re 232 runs are the second-most in all of baseball and make up for the fact that they’re pitching has only been so-so.
They’ve feasted on a weak schedule. It’s not Boston’s fault that the schedule-makers did them some favors. The Red Sox have played series against Baltimore, Detroit, and Texas so far, all of whom most predicted to finish last in their respective divisions. But the Red Sox have done what they’re supposed to do – dominated those teams. They’ve also been competitive against good teams, so there’s no indication that their hot start is an anomaly.
The starting pitching has been exceptional. The Giants have given up just 149 runs, the third-best in the National League. Their +57 run-differential is the best in their division and third-best in baseball, even more impressive considering the Dodgers and Padres were both dominant in that area last season. The Giants’ rotation has legitimately been five deep this season. Kevin Gausman is holding opponents to a .160 batting average, Anthony DeSclafani and Aaron Sanchez have both bounced back from injuries, Logan Webb has proven to be a strong back-of-rotation starter, Alex Wood has been dominant when he’s been called on to start, and Johnny Cueto has shown he has a lot of baseball left despite how many years he’s pitched at a high level. The Dodgers and Padres have more star-power on their staffs, but the Giants have been every bit as dominant with their pitching this season.
They are applying a football stat to baseball. For real. And they’re doing it well. Here’s how president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi described their “time of possession” dominance in an interview: “We talked a lot during spring training as a front office, coaching staff and players about winning time of possession every game which is not something you really hear about in baseball. But we started thinking that we want pitchers that attack the strike zone, that have quick innings, that throw strikes and we want hitters that are grinding out at-bats.”
Buster Posey is back and he’s himself. Posey chose to sit out last season rather than risk exposure to COVID-19, but he’s returned and shown he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s hitting .374 with 8 home runs and 15 RBIs and has a .451 on-base percentage. Posey has only played in 29 games so he doesn’t officially qualify to lead MLB in hitting. He might not get the required plate appearances for a batting title this season, but that’s by design as the team’s plan is to keep the 34-year-old fresh and healthy for the entire season.