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Saturday, July 13, 2013

What on earth do Jose Iglesias, Ted Williams, and Manny Ramirez have in common?

These day, the AL's top rookie is all smiles.

Ted Williams. Manny Ramirez. Jose Iglesias. 

One of these things is not like the others -- right?

At first glance, most definitely. Williams and Ramirez are both members of the elite 500 home run club, with slugging and OPS marks that rank among the highest in MLB history. If it wasn't for steroids Ramirez would be a lock to join Teddy Ballgame in the Hall of Fame -- provided Manny ever stopped making comebacks.

Iglesias, in contrast, has hit exactly two major league home runs in 85 games spread over three major-league seasons -- which isn't too surprising considering he hit six in 294 minor league contests. Last year at Triple A Pawtucket he batted a so-so.266, and after a September promotion to Boston went a pitiful 8-for-68 (.118).

Jose is, or was, the classic good-field, no-hit player -- as much a magician with his glove at shortstop as Williams and Ramirez were with their bats. The big question about his chances of sticking with the Red Sox was whether his defense would compensate enough for his anemic offense.
After a 62-150 start in 1941, Williams finished at .406

Now that's all changed, and Iglesias has inexplicably joined Manny (in 2001) and Ted (in 1941) as the only players in the 112-year  history of Boston's AL franchise to achieve an early-season batting feat of red-hot proportions.

A batting average of.400 or better after his first 150 at-bats of the year.

Think about that. The Red Sox have spent more than a century at hitter friendly Fenway Park, home to such expert batsmen as Tris Speaker (a .383 average in 1912), Jimmie Foxx (.360 in '39), Wade Boggs (.368 in '85), and Nomar Garciaparra (.372 in 2000) -- not to mention Ramirez and Williams -- only twice entering 2013 had anybody gotten off to that fast a start.

Had you asked everyone which player on this year's Opening Day roster had a chance of doing it, Iglesias might have been the consensus last choice. 

Despite his fantastic defense, he only made the team because of an injury to projected starting shortstop Stephen Drew. Iglesias went 7-for-12 in the opening series of the year at New York, but experts said it was a fluke. General Manager Ben Cherington apparently agreed, because once Drew was cleared to play Iglesias was sent down to Pawtucket after seven games, a .450 batting average, and a growing list of Web Gems. 

On paper, Drew -- an eight-year veteran with pop in his bat and a steady glove -- was still considered the better player. The Sox were not paying him $9.5 million for the season to sit on the bench, and naysayers pointed out that the majority of Iglesias' early-season hits had been dinky grounders or bloops that found holes. Back in the minors, he actually regressed, hovering around the Mendoza Line at .202 through 33 games.
At Pawtucket in May, Jose was all-field, no-hit.

Then the inexplicable happened. Drew slumped, third baseman Will Middlebrooks got hurt, and Iglesias was recalled on May24 to fill a roster spot. He went 1-for-3 with a run scored that night, playing third and batting ninth. The next day he spelled Drew at short, went 3-for-4 with a double, and raised his average to .484.

Iglesias has been starting ever since, predominantly at third, and Middlebrooks has been dispatched to the minors to play every day and shake off his sophomore slump. As adept at the hot corner as he was at shortstop, Iglesias has made just two errors all year and snatched up every ball hit anywhere in his zip code. He's even played three flawless games at second base.

The bloops and bleeders of April are now line drives and shots to the gaps, as he has shown more patience and aggressiveness at the plate. His average was still a ridiculous .451 in mid-June, and stayed over .400 all the way until July 6. Named "Rookie of the Month" for June, he is now a front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year. 
Iglesias (scoring) is at the center of the Sox uprising.

A mini-slump (.270 over the last 10 games) has "dropped" Iglesias down to .384, but he's still had at least one hit in 40 of the 50 games he's played -- in which Boston has gone 33-17. He has 10 doubles and a .917 OPS, and nobody is talking about whether Iglesias can hit MLB pitching anymore. He runs hard out of the box and is a fan favorite.

What's next? Will Iglesias' drop-off continue as pitchers get more of a book on him? Will he find himself back on the bench if Middlebrooks returns from Pawtucket and Drew continues his recent resurgence (.364 over nine games). It seems unlikely.

In a way, Iglesias' fortunes mirror those of his team. The Red Sox, 69-93 last year and picked by most experts for another last-place finish in the AL East, currently possess the best record in baseball at 58-37. Nobody expected it, and no one knows how long it will last.
Will it last? Time will tell.

For now, however, it's a ride everyone -- especially Jose Iglesias -- is enjoying.