Maybe four great hitters actually are enough to carry Red Sox offense in 2021

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Tomase: Maybe four great hitters actually are enough to carry Sox offense originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It wasn't that long ago that a truly punishing lineup needed to rake and grind, one through nine.

The 2003 Red Sox famously batted AL batting champ Bill Mueller ninth while scoring nearly 1,000 runs. The 2004 club posted a .297 average with 20 homers and an .833 OPS out of the No. 8 spot in the order. The Yankees that same year slammed 31 homers out of the 7-hole.

The one-through-nine mantra has stuck despite seismic changes to the game. Pitchers now dominate to comical degrees. Former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein recently noted on Bill Simmons' podcast that today's average pitcher owns the same strikeout rate as Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. Everyone throws 95 mph. The game is fundamentally broken.

It also leads to a question that applies to the 2021 Red Sox: with offense so depressed, can four great hitters carry a lineup?

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The knee-jerk reaction is to say no. But J.D. Martinez disagrees.

"No, I believe it," he said recently. "I mean, if you look at every great team, it's hard to have 1 through 9 that rake. I think the last team that does that is like the Yankees super teams back in the day. I don't know."

With the league batting average at an all-time low of .236 and the strikeout rate at an all-time high of 9.2 per nine innings, the days of the relentless top-to-bottom offense are over. In their place are basically two options: three-true-outcome your way to victory on the strength of walks and home runs, or ride a stretch of complete hitters as far as they'll take you.

While the Red Sox are certainly capable of hitting the ball out of the park -- they rank third in the AL in homers with 53 -- they're living more on option No. 2.

In Alex Verdugo, Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers, they boast one of the best 2-3-4-5 combos in baseball, and that's even considering Verdugo's recent slump, which has dropped his average from .315 on May 6 to .279 today.

The heart of the order can take the ball out of the park, but they're complete hitters. Bogaerts (.344) and Martinez (.342) rank among the AL leaders, Devers is like a left-handed, bad-ball-smashing Vlad Guerrero Sr., and when Verdugo is going well, he sprays the ball all over the park. It should come as no surprise that the quartet ranks first through fourth on the club with 110 of the team's league-leading 217 runs.

While it's tempting to say that's not sustainable and the Red Sox must start receiving production from the much-maligned bottom of the order, it's not clear that's actually true. Of course, if Bobby Dalbec and Hunter Renfroe can build on some recent successes, it will improve the team's attack. But that's not the same as saying it's a necessity.

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"It goes in streaks. Comes and goes, you know?" Martinez said. "I think we're producing. I like our offense. I don't know where the numbers lie or where we lie in the league, but I feel like we're a pretty potent offense and we can break out any second. That's the way hitting goes. If you can hit consistently all year, and continue to put up those numbers, it's never been done before in baseball. That's a very crazy lineup, that would be a very amazing offensive year for a team. It comes and goes in waves."

Consider the opponent for the next three nights. The Blue Jays are basically built around four standouts, too -- Vlad Guerrero Jr., Marcus Semien, Bo Bichette, and Teoscar Hernandez, who is the inverse of Verdugo and coming alive after a slow start. Eventually they will add $150 million free agent George Springer, too, but he has been limited to four games by assorted injuries.

Toronto has ridden that quartet to 192 runs, good for fourth in the American League (with three games in hand on the Red Sox). The rest of their order is every bit as pedestrian as Boston's, with catcher Danny Jansen hitting .123, DH Rowdy Telez at .188, and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel at .221. In other words, even the best offenses must work around a Franchy Cordero or two.

In that context, maybe we should stop focusing on what the Red Sox lack and instead embrace what others would kill to have. The days of top-to-bottom punishment are a fantasy. It's a lot of pressure, but maybe four guys really can carry the load.