What on earth has happened to the Red Sox?
The team is in a dizzying nosedive. The just-completed 2-8 road trip pulled the Red Sox from a 1½-game lead in the American League East to a four-game deficit. They are closer to the third-place Yankees and fourth-place Blue Jays than they are to the first-place Rays.
They remain in possession of one of the AL’s two wild-card spots — tied with the A’s for the best record by a team not leading a division — but surely they can feel the approaching pack.
What to make of this downward spiral?
In a vacuum, a 2-8 stretch isn’t that unusual, even for contenders. The Rays hit a 3-8 pothole in April and had a 4-12 stumble shortly before the All-Star break. The Yankees had a 3-10 slide this year. The Jays hit a 4-10 skid in June.
But the concerns are amplified both by the Red Sox’ relative inaction at the trade deadline (the addition of Kyle Schwarber could prove significant, but his activation from the injured list comes without a fixed date) and by warning signs that had been present well before the last two weeks.
So what has taken the Red Sox from a position of comfort to one of peril?
|Statistic||Through July 5||July 6 - Aug. 8|
|Record||54-32 (.628)||11-17 (.393)|
|ERA||4.32 (20th)||5.78 (27th)|
|Innings per start||5.3 (9th)||4.6 (28th)|
|Strikeout rate||22.7% (19th)||25.7% (4th)|
|Walk rate||7.8% (12th)||7.2% (12th)|
|Home runs per 9||1.0 (5th)||1.7 (23rd)|
|ERA||3.48 (7th)||4.65 (22nd)|
|Strikeout rate||26.6% (5th)||24.8 (13th)|
|Walk rate||10.9% (22nd)||9.7% (19th)|
|Home runs per 9||1.0 (10th)||0.8 (5th)|
|Blown saves||14 (T-20th)||2 (T-3rd)|
|Blown save %*||13.5% (8th)||13.3% (T-6th)|
|Runs per game||5.12 (3rd)||3.96 (24th)|
|Average||.259 (3rd)||.251 (13th)|
The end of the charmed life
On July 5, the Red Sox beat the Angels, 5-4, improving to 54-32 to open a 4½-game lead over the Rays — while being nine games ahead of the Jays and 10½ in front of the Yankees. But as well and as consistently as they’d played, it seemed fair to wonder whether the Sox were due for a correction.
They had outscored opponents by 64 runs through 86 games — good but not great. The Rays (+67) and Jays (+73) both had better run differentials, typically a solid indicator of a team’s underlying talent.
The Sox’ record was based on an outrageous number of comebacks (they’d trailed at some point in 28 of their 54 wins). Half of their wins (27 of 54) had been by one or two runs. Their residence in first place for most of the season’s first four months relied on a prevalence of white-knuckle victories that were impressive but also suggested potential vulnerability.
The Sox lost the next two games, one by a run and one by two. That started a stretch in which they went 11-17, including 4-9 in one- or two-run games.
That skid coincided with excellence from the other AL East teams. As of Monday, the three best records in the AL since July 5 belonged to the Rays (19-8), Yankees (19-9), and Jays (17-11).
Wrong turn for the rotation
Through July 5, the Sox had benefited from reliable if unspectacular starting pitching. The rotation’s 4.32 ERA ranked 20th, but its average of roughly 5⅓ innings a night (ninth-best) gave structure to the staff and helped avoid bullpen overuse.
Over the 28-game stretch that started with a loss in Anaheim July 6, the rotation has a 5.78 ERA — fourth-worst in MLB. The Red Sox have gotten just three quality starts and just four outings of at least six innings. Their starters are averaging just under 4⅔ innings in that time, 28th in the majors.
As bad as that has been, there are reasons to believe the rotation is better than its showing over the past five weeks. The starters’ 25.7 percent strikeout rate is fourth-best in the majors, suggesting an ability to miss bats.
But that is balanced by a dramatic increase in not missing barrels, as the team has yielded a disturbing 1.7 homers per nine innings since July 6 — a number inflated by the struggles of Martín Pérez (8.53 ERA, 3.8 homers per nine) and Garrett Richards (6.46, 2.7).
The addition of Tanner Houck (at the expense of Pérez) and Chris Sale (perhaps at the expense of Richards) should help. So, too, should better luck for Nate Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez, both of whom have shown underlying traits — high strikeout rates, low walk rates, generally poor contact — that are better than their ERAs suggest during the span.
But the stress on the team resulting from short, ineffectual outings has been considerable. The Sox have received fewer than five innings in 15 of their last 28 games, going 5-10 in those contests.
No relief in sight
The bullpen has sprung several leaks. Whether it’s the increased workload forced by shorter starts, the toll of a season that is now nearly twice as long as 2020 was, or just the typical peaks and valleys of a season, most of the key relievers appear to be running on fumes.
Garrett Whitlock (one run in his last 21⅓ innings, none in his last 14) has been a staff-saving force. But beyond him, the Red Sox’ late-innings procession has been upended.
Darwinzon Hernandez is out with an oblique injury, leaving more responsibility on Josh Taylor, and Hirokazu Sawamura’s departure from Sunday’s 9-8 loss in Toronto due to elbow tightness had a ripple effect on a bullpen that was at least one arm short — just as it did when he was sidelined in July with hip soreness.
Matt Barnes has seen his strikeout rate drop from 44.6 percent through July 5 to 26.7 percent since then. Adam Ottavino has gone from a 27.1 percent strikeout rate to 22.7 percent. Taylor’s walk rate has nearly doubled from 8.7 percent to 16.2 percent. Decreased strikeouts and increased walks tend to indicate fatigue.
“We’ve got to find guys,” manager Alex Cora said Sunday. “There are a few guys that are struggling, there’s a few guys that we need them to get better, and we’ll keep working on it.”
The performance of the key late-innings contributors raises questions about why the Red Sox didn’t aim higher in adding bullpen reinforcements at the deadline. At the same time, the relief struggles haven’t been as significant a concern as the rotation or offense.
Most games have been decided before the bullpen’s entry into games, and while Barnes suffered losses on back-to-back days in Toronto, the Red Sox have blown only two saves since July 5. Perhaps that number would be larger if the offense had supplied more leads.
Remember the early days of the season, when J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers carried the Red Sox — and left open the question of what might happen if they didn’t excel? It appears we have an answer.
The trio hasn’t been bad. Devers (.266 average, .864 OPS) and Martinez (.263, .816) have been respectable since July 6. Bogaerts, fighting a wrist injury and then the poor mechanics that it wrought, has struggled to a .241 average and .719 OPS during the period.
Still, while all three have performed below their season lines, those numbers don’t quite explain the magnitude of the team’s offensive plummet. The Sox are averaging just below four runs per game since July 6. A team that was held to four or fewer runs less than half of the time (48 percent) through 86 games has been thusly contained 19 times (68 percent of the time) during its current 11-17 stumble, going 4-15 in those games.
So what gives? Put simply, they have been awful in the most promising situations.
Devers (.154 average, .688 OPS), Martinez (.233/.639), Alex Verdugo (.143/.412), and Bogaerts (.067/.361) have all struggled with runners in scoring position since July 6. From July 22-Aug. 6, the Sox have been among the worst in baseball in virtually every statistical category with runners in scoring position.
Over a stretch from July 25-Aug. 5, the Sox built their identity around squandered scoring opportunities. In 22 plate appearances with runners on third and fewer than two outs, they scored just four runs (two on sacrifice flies, two on ground outs), going 0 for 17 with two walks, one hit batter, 10 strikeouts, and two double plays.
That sort of inefficiency tends to go in cycles throughout a season. If the Sox continue to amass opportunities with runners in scoring position, they’ll likely see their offense rebound significantly. But the recent struggles have made it almost impossible for the Sox to negate the poor performances by their starters.
That diabolical combination, in tandem with outstanding runs by the other AL East contenders, has seen the Red Sox slip from the summit to a desperate scramble for a toehold.