With 10 games left in the sputter toward the finish line, much of the embarrassment of the 2020 Red Sox season will soon recede, a nightmare whose details dissipate almost instantly at morning’s light. Dreadful performances by players whose tenures are confined to one singularly awful season will quickly fade into footnote status once the offseason sets in motion a roster-building carousel.
But some of the concerns will prove more enduring, even alarming, as the Red Sox look to restore dignity and regain competitiveness while heading for 2021. And a case can be made that no aspect of the 2020 team’s performance is more ominous or confusing than the drastic falloff by slugger J.D. Martinez.
Martinez was signed to a five-year, $110 million deal prior to the 2018 season on the strength of his longstanding reputation as one of the most formidable sluggers in the game. His excellence against both lefties and elite velocity offered balance to the Red Sox lineup, and confidence that he could help anchor the offense against any caliber of opponent.
The security blanket he offered in 2018 and 2019, however, is threadbare in a baffling 2020 season. Questions whether Martinez will opt out of a deal that will pay him $38.7 million in 2021-22 have shifted to whether he can avoid becoming a liability while commanding that sum.
That being the case, while the Red Sox suffered yet another loss on Wednesday — dropping to 18-32 with a 8-4 loss to the Marlins in Miami — Martinez offered at-bats that provided some measure of hope.
Long one of the best fastball hitters in the majors, particularly against lefties, Martinez’s night began inauspiciously as he struck out on one from Marlins starter Trevor Rogers. But in the third inning, he stayed closed and lined a 93-m.p.h. Rogers two-seam fastball for a sac fly to deep right. After a strikeout on a curveball in the fifth briefly left him in a 1-for-30 hole that dropped his average to .199, Martinez broke through in the seventh.
He drilled a 96 m.p.h. fastball from reliever Ryne Stanek over the right-field fence for a two-run homer, and later punched a single to right on a sinker from Marlins closer Brandon Kintzler.
“[To the opposite field] here, you’ve got to kill it to get a home run. That’s really good to see,” said Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “When he’s going well, his slot to right-center is big for him. . . . That’s what he works on all the time. So, you see it in the game, you hope it can continue, and he gets locked in and we see that good hitter again.”
One game, of course, doesn’t erase the 49 that preceded it. But the signature ability to make solid contact and drive fastballs in the air to right field offers some glimmer of validity to claims by Martinez (batting .208/.289/.375) and members of the organization that it is hitting mechanics, rather than age, behind his decline in productivity in 2020, and that the issue is potentially correctable moving forward. For the Sox, such possibilities are what will determine whether 2020 is an isolated disaster or a mess that will bleed into next season.
Some observations from the game:
⋅ On Tuesday, Tanner Houck offered the Red Sox a beacon of hope, providing five shutout innings in his big league debut. On Wednesday, the team received a cold splash of reality that underscored why the team is 18-32, its worst 50-game record in 60 years.
Lefthander Mike Kickham, making his second start since 2013, got shelled for six runs in just 2⅔ innings. The outing marked the 18th time this year that a Sox starter or opener lasted three innings or fewer while elevating the ERA of the rotation to 6.21 — sixth-worst in big league history.
Such outings represent a virtually impossible formula for winning games, and help to explain why the Red Sox have been stuck in last place in the American League East for virtually the entire season. A lack of rotation depth has been not merely glaring, but unfathomable.
In 18 games started by Nate Eovaldi, Martín Pérez, and Houck, the Sox are 8-10. Their other 32 games have been started by a total of 12 pitchers. That dozen possesses a combined 1-14 record with an 8.04 ERA, allowing 2.7 homers and 5.3 walks per nine innings, and striking out 8.1 batters per nine. The Red Sox are 10-22 when someone other than Eovaldi, Pérez, or Houck starts.
The 2021 season should feature an entirely overhauled group of depth starters. If Eovaldi and Pérez are joined in the rotation by a healthy Eduardo Rodríguez, Nick Pivetta, eventually Chris Sale, and perhaps another offseason acquisition, it’s entirely possible that Houck — with Bryan Mata and Connor Seabold not far behind — will represent part of a promising group of depth starters rather than a single glimmer of hope in an otherwise lost season.
For now, however, 10 games remain in a year where starts such as the one turned in by Kickham’s on Wednesday feel entirely familiar.
⋅ Alex Verdugo continued his strong season, going 3-for-4 with a double and a walk. In 26 games as the leadoff hitter, he’s hit .318/.375/.482. If there were questions about whether he could handle the role and remain productive, they’ve been answered.
⋅ Yairo Muñoz continued to impress, going 2-for-4 to boost his average to .357 with a .905 OPS — numbers forged chiefly on the strength of his ability to attack fastballs, and likely to suffer as opponents start exploiting his undisciplined approach against everything else. Also, he impressed with his defensive contributions. One day after he made a running catch going back on the track in left, Muñoz made a diving play on a sinking liner in right.
While he has yet to play the infield with the Sox, his prior experience at short, second, and third suggests a potentially valuable bench contributor.
“I’m a natural infielder,” Muñoz said through team translator Bryan Almonte. “But growing up in the Dominican Republic, there were times when I played shortstop and other days where I’d play the outfield. If there wasn’t a first baseman, I’d play first base. . . . Wherever they need me to play, I’m willing and able to do it.”