Back-to-back strikeouts looking with the bases loaded to end a game in which the Red Sox lost by four runs? Brutal. Yet somehow, even those final acts of futility did not seem the most fitting emblem of a 5-1 loss to the Rays on Tuesday night at St. Petersburg, Fla.
Much earlier in the game, Rafael Devers swung at a Charlie Morton curveball that hit him in the back leg, turning what would have been a trip to first base into a strike. The development proved so absurd that the Red Sox third baseman couldn’t stifle a laugh.
Yet rather than a one-off that can be dismissed with a chuckle, such an extreme outcome feels somewhat typical of the 2020 Red Sox — a team whose offensive approach has unraveled. The patience and discipline of recent years, the willingness to build rallies methodically and then cash in with sound approaches in run-scoring situations, has been absent, a pattern that continued as the Red Sox dropped to 3-8.
Perhaps, J.D. Martinez suggested, the hitting culture has been shaken by the new rules governing both in-game access to technology (players do not have access to video during games this year) and the ability for teams to convene at the field hours ahead of time to review video and game plan. The pregame and in-game ability to engage in such conversations, Martinez said, has essentially been eliminated.
Martinez, who in past years would spend significant chunks of the game reviewing video of both his at-bats and those of teammates, no longer can engage in such a practice. When he sees a slumping teammate, he can’t run to a clubhouse video setup in search of a tip that might help either himself or another Red Sox player to recalibrate.
“It’s kind of everyone on their own,” Martinez said. “Survivor.”
Yet the altered dynamics of 2020 only partially explain what’s transpired with the Red Sox offense.
During their recent run of perennial contention — mostly with Mookie Betts atop their order — the Red Sox lineup proved relentless. Even against elite pitchers, the team dominated the strike zone and seemingly turned every pitch into a challenge in a way that created a sense of possibility.
Team-wide plate discipline typically meant that pitchers had to challenge the team’s hitters. The team wouldn’t chase pitches off the plate, and did damage to those in the strike zone. Those characteristics created the potential for sustained uprisings.
To this point in 2020, that hasn’t been the case. On Tuesday night, Rays starter Morton — to be sure, one of the best pitchers in the AL in recent years — navigated through 5⅔ innings while allowing one run. He didn’t issue a single walk — or, perhaps more accurately, the Red Sox didn’t work a single free pass, a now-familiar occurrence.
Personnel changes have something to do with the development. Betts — one of the most selective batters in the game, and someone who chases one of the lowest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone every year — is gone. So, too, is Brock Holt, another player who got on base at a high clip and rarely chased.
The at-bats that went to those players last year are going to Jose Peraza — who entered Tuesday having swung at an astronomical 52 percent of the pitches he’d seen outside of the strike zone, the third-highest chase rate in the majors — at second base, and Alex Verdugo and Kevin Pillar in right field, both of whom swing at an above-average number of pitches outside the zone.
At the same time, Devers has regressed, his swing at the pitch that hit him illuminating a swing-at-everything approach. Entering Tuesday, he’d swung at 45.9 percent of pitches outside of the zone, one of the 10 highest chase rates in the majors.
With such performances, the Red Sox have become one of the least disciplined teams in the league. Before Tuesday, they’d chased 34.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone — the third-highest percentage in the big leagues this year. They’d walked in just 6.9 percent of plate appearances, the third-lowest rate in the game.
Add in devastating slumps by Andrew Benintendi — who is walking, but only because he is struggling to put any pitches in play, resulting in more than half of his plate appearances concluding in a walk or strikeout — and Jackie Bradley Jr. (who broke an 0-for-21 slump with a ninth-inning infield hit), and you get a lineup that opposing pitchers have been able to pick apart.
The Red Sox have let opponents execute their game plans, chasing pitches out of the strike zone without forcing pitchers to challenge them with the pitches they can drive inside of it.
On Tuesday, Roenicke credited Morton and the high-quality arms in the Rays bullpen as the cause of his team expanding the strike zone (10 strikeouts, 1 walk), but the Sox haven’t worked as many as three walks against any starting pitcher since Opening Day against Tommy Milone. Perhaps the cumulative weight of an ugly start has accelerated the disintegration of the team’s approach.
“A lot of times, especially if offensively you don’t start swinging the bat well, you start to press a little bit because you know you’ve got to get it going. You know that the whole team has to get it going,” said Roenicke. “I don’t think the at-bats are that bad. I just think we’re a little bit off in a few people.”
That said, in a short 60-game slate, every flaw is magnified, every small pothole feeling expansive. Within that context, the Red Sox feel as if they’ve fallen into a ravine, with no exit in sight.