It seemed like the recourse of a team in the middle of a six-game losing streak rather than a club on a run in the opposite direction. Despite the Red Sox being amidst their longest winning streak of the season, the team nonetheless engaged in a fairly significant overhaul of the top of its batting order for a simple reason: The team is trying to find a way to inspire a renewal of the feats of Mookie Betts.
The Sox extended that winning streak to seven games with a 2-0 win over the Rays on Tuesday, but Betts’ contributions remained modest. He went 1-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, his line for the season falling to slightly better-than-average marks of a .269 average, .343 OBP, and .460 slugging mark.
During the Sox’ winning streak, he’s hitting .269/.321/.423. Again, there have been contributions (he’s driven in six runs and scored four while playing his typically excellent defense), but nothing like what he’s typically produced in his big league career.
Since July 4, he’s hitting .226/.276/.331 with three homers and just seven extra-base hits in 28 games. In the first 89 games of the season, he had just three games in which he struck out multiple times. In the Sox’ last 24 such games, he has seven games in which he’s struck out twice.
Something has been amiss. Betts was demolishing four-seam fastballs early in the season, hitting .330 with a .705 slugging mark against them through the All-Star break. Since then, he’s hitting just .143 with no extra-base hits. A player who was aggressive to pitches on the inner third and even off the plate before the break has become passive on such pitches in the second half while looking away, away, away.
Offensively, he’s gotten away from his strengths while trying to anticipate pitchers’ plans of attack. The development has been particularly pronounced with the bases empty (a situation in which Betts is hitting .226/.298/.406). In contrast, with runners in scoring position, Betts has been spectacular, hitting .391/.478/.587.
With that disparity, the Sox elected to give Betts more opportunities to hit with men on base. Rather than guaranteeing that he’ll hit at least once a night with the bases empty, they moved him to the cleanup spot, with newcomer Eduardo Nunez moving into the leadoff spot for the first time, Dustin Pedroia (who’d been scorching in the three-hold before his DL stint) batting second, and Andrew Benintendi batting third.
“I gave him a heads up so when he walked in it wasn’t a shock to him that he found himself in the four-hole. We’ve had conversations on and off over the past month,” manager John Farrell explained to reporters. “Maybe give him a different look or a different view of things. … He’s been in the spot before and he’s been successful there, so that’s where the lineup is.”
Farrell recalled another lineup shakeup almost exactly a year ago, when he moved Betts from the leadoff spot to the third in the order on August 10. Then, Farrell wanted to take advantage of the fact that Betts was driving the ball like a middle-of-the-order hitter. Betts responded with MVP-caliber performance down the stretch.
“It worked,” said Farrell. “We were able to be a little bit more a step ahead with some runs scored. If that takes place in this scenario, all the better.”
If Betts sustains his performance to date this year, then the Red Sox have the potential to feature a solid offense that nonetheless will have to rely heavily on the excellence of their pitching staff. If Betts can tap back into his form of a year ago, then the Red Sox will look like a team with the sort of balance to fuel a far greater sense of possibility. Even amid their longest run of wins this year, the Red Sox are demonstrating an urgency to unlock the latter trait.