When the Red Sox aren’t playing well, Xander Bogaerts usually knows why.
“We need to score first and give the pitchers some breathing room,” he said in early May, and says often when the Sox are in an extended slump.
Scoring first in baseball matters more than we often think. Bogaerts’ reasoning is simple: the starting pitchers don’t feel the pressure.
The Red Sox are 29-16 (.644) when they score first and 10-15 (.400) when they don’t.
Finding a leadoff hitter who is getting on base is Step 1, and the Red Sox have struggled in that regard for most of the season. They have a .291 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot, ranking No. 26 in baseball. The only teams behind them are four of the worst teams in the big leagues: The A’s, Tigers, Reds and Royals.
The Mets and Dodgers, two of the best teams in baseball, rank No. 1 and 2 in that regard.
The Red Sox have largely failed at finding anyone who can do the job, but Jarren Duran has started to flip the script.
Monday night, he drew a leadoff walk, stole second base and scored on a J.D. Martinez single to put the Red Sox ahead, 1-0. They held on to win 5-2.
Tuesday, Duran led off the game with an infield single, used his legs to go first to third on a Rafael Devers single to right field and scored on a sacrifice fly by Martinez to tie the game, 1-1, going into the second inning. They surged ahead on a Trevor Story homer and eventually won, 5-4.
With game-changing speed that ranks in the 93rd percentile among big leaguers, all Duran needs to do is reach first base and there’s a good chance he’s going to score.
“The walk and stolen base right away puts pressure on the opposition,” manager Alex Cora said. “He’s in a good place offensively. Compared to last year, much better. I know everybody got caught up in the home runs but that’s not who he is. He’s a line drive hitter that will hit for occasional homers, or power, whatever you want to call it. But controlling the strike zone and going the other way and putting pressure on the opposition, that’s who he is.”
If he can do it well, the Red Sox lineup is about to look a whole lot different.
They haven’t had a speedy regular in the leadoff spot since Mookie Betts, who stole 30 bases out of the leadoff spot in 2018, and before him, Jacoby Ellsbury, who stole 52 bases leading off in 2013.
The Red Sox won the World Series both years.
Last year, Hernandez was a more impactful player while hitting leadoff. But he’s currently on the injured list with a right hip flexor strain and is having his worst offensive season since 2016. His .273 on-base percentage wouldn’t be a problem if he was batting ninth and playing Gold Glove defense. It’s been tough to stomach out of the leadoff spot.
Cora tried Story there for a while, but that didn’t look right either. Story now ranks fifth in the AL with 48 RBI, largely accumulated while batting sixth.
They’d love it if Duran was the answer. He’s hitting .297 with a .366 OBP in 10 games this year. More importantly, he’s scored eight runs and gone 2-for-2 in stolen base attempts. Even when he’s not running, opposing defenders have to rush their throws — Javier Baez made a throwing error doing just that on Wednesday — and pitchers have to pay attention to him.
“They get quicker to the plate,” Cora said. But Duran hasn’t stolen many bases because “it’s not easy to come here (from the minors) and get the green light and just go. … We’ve been very efficient as far as stealing bases but the guy behind him (Devers) has a lot to do with what we try to do sometimes.
“If Devers hits one in the gap, Duran is going to score. He’s in scoring position at first base. There are certain situations we want him to run but others we’d rather stay away from that, knowing those two guys behind him are really good at what they do.”
All Duran has to do is reach first base and he’s going to make things happen, either stealing second, going first to third or putting pressure on the pitcher.
“Just getting on base for the big guys, letting J.D. rack in the RBIs and getting on base for Devers,” Duran said. “It’s all I want to do for those guys, just get on and let them drive me in.”
The pressure to be a good teammate has often stopped him from stealing bases, though.
“I think last year I had this fear that I didn’t want to get thrown out to take RBIs away from J.D. and Raffy,” he said. “I remember J.D. saying, ‘if I had your speed, I’d be running all the time.’ So it gave me, like, ‘alright, I guess I’ll run a little bit.’
“Just trying to do my best, pick the right times, not be dumb running and take off because I think I’m fast. Just picking my right spots.”
Cora said Duran has the green light unless they specifically tell him not to run, which they’re often doing. It all depends on the matchup on the mound.
Hernandez is due back soon, and Duran will miss the series in Toronto starting on Monday because he’s not vaccinated. The Sox will also be without closer Tanner Houck for the same reason.
When Hernandez comes back, the Sox could platoon him with Duran, or let Duran take some playing time from Jackie Bradley Jr. in right field, but it’s most likely that Duran gets sent back to the minors for everyday reps.
“It won’t be hard to go back,” Duran said. “Kiké is a stud. Christian Arroyo is a stud. They’ve done what they’ve done up here and deserve to come back and play.
“I’ll just keep doing my role when they need me. That’s all I can ask for, whenever I get my chance to help them win.”
One way or another, Duran will be back. The Sox offense is much more dynamic with a speedy leadoff man who is getting on base.