Which version of the 2017 Red Sox is genuine and which is the impostor?
The Red Sox juxtaposed their best stretch of the year – a 16-4 march from the trade deadline through much of August – with perhaps their worst display of the season, a four-game losing streak (tied for their longest of the year) that featured failures of the lineup, pitching staff, and defense. The contrasting stretches proved sufficiently abrupt to induce whiplash.
So which is the real version of the Red Sox? The answer is likely both, with the team subject to considerable inconsistency in the absence of steadying sources of power.
The Red Sox have 137 homers this year – a number that, by itself, doesn’t seem jarring. After all, a 2013 team that led the AL in runs scored en route to a championship went deep 131 times through its first 130 games.
But baseball’s landscape is changing. As Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs writes, in an era of record-setting strikeout totals, baseball has become more dependent than ever on the long ball. Home runs account for 42.6 percent of all runs scored in the big leagues this year, easily a record – surpassing the standard that had been set in 2016, which in turn surpassed the standard that had been set in 2015.
That hasn’t been the case with the Sox, who have 10 fewer homers than any other team in the American League and who have scored just 34.6 percent of their runs via home runs. Among baseball’s 30 teams, only the power-starved Giants have scored a lower percentage of their runs via roundtripper.
“We’re not a big-swing-of-the-bat type of lineup,” manager John Farrell told reporters prior to Sunday’s game.
As the first three-plus weeks of August demonstrated, the Sox’ formula can be effective. Over their 16-4 run, the team averaged 6.4 runs per game, a glimpse of the fullest potential of a team whose contact skills have otherwise produced runs at a solid if unspectacular clip this year. The team’s .261 average and .334 OBP both rank ninth in the majors and fourth in the AL, sufficient to produce a middle-of-the-pack offense that averages 4.8 runs per game (12th in the majors, 7th in the AL) even in the absence of power.
Yet Sunday highlighted the vulnerability of an offense defined by a pop-gun attack. The Sox collected eight hits and added eight more runners via walk, yet went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position in a 2-1 loss to the Orioles. It was the first nine-inning game in which the Sox had turned at least 16 baserunners into no more than one run since a 2-1 loss to the Devil Rays on Aug. 22, 2007.
Sunday’s defeat concluded a three-game sweep during which Baltimore pitchers allowed just four runs. The fact that the Sox could be shut down for three straight games – and that such an event seemed something other than shocking – offered a reminder that the team is subject to the sort of droughts that can prove devastating in short series.
A year ago, the Red Sox had just three streaks in which they scored three or fewer runs in three consecutive games. This year, the Red Sox have already had five such ruts.
That’s not to suggest that the Sox should check their October ambitions. The team has demonstrated the ability to beat virtually any team in a short series, and the early-August stretch offered evidence that the team can go on a sustained run.
But the screeching conclusion of that hot stretch serves as a reminder of how everything can pivot from one series to the next, how closely the team’s best performances can be followed by some of their worst, a fact that will render the season’s final five weeks and, presumably, the postseason a fascinatingly unpredictable exercise.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter @alexspeier.