The Red Sox are bringing the band back together, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to perform the same symphony.
The Red Sox plan to return a lineup in 2019 that will look very similar to the one they featured in 2018, and on the surface, it’s hard to blame them. They had the best offense in the majors this past season, dominating not just en route to 108 wins in the regular season but also through the playoffs.
Steve Pearce didn’t want to wait before coming back on a one-year, $6.25 million deal. Dustin Pedroia won’t require surgery this offseason, and so the team, according to president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, is optimistic that he’ll be back in the mix at second base.
Dombrowski wouldn’t rule out the possibility of adding position players, but he did characterize such moves as unlikely, suggesting that he likely had little more than minor league deals with nonroster invitations to spring training to offer to free agents.
“The reality is, if you look at our club, there’s not a lot of holes there from a positional player perspective,” said Dombrowski.
Yet returning a standout group intact is far from a guarantee of continued success. Indeed, the recent history of elite run-scoring teams underscores how difficult it is to maintain a prolific offense from one season to the next.
The 2018 Red Sox scored 876 runs — very much in line with the 865 averaged by the 10 teams that led the majors in runs from 2008-17. The year after leading the majors in runs, those teams saw their run-scoring drop by an average of 104.
|Year||Team||Runs||Next Year Runs||Difference||% Change|
The Red Sox have considerable familiarity with the steep offensive dropoffs that can follow a year of sustained fireworks. They led the majors in runs in 2011, then scored 141 fewer runs the following year; they led again in the championship season of 2013, only to score a staggering 219 fewer runs the following year; and after leading the majors in 2016, the post-David Ortiz Sox experienced a 93-run decline in 2017.
Disclaimer: Some of those teams endured significant personnel changes. The Red Sox let Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Stephen Drew (temporarily), and Jacoby Ellsbury go after their championship campaign. Ortiz retired after the 2016 season. Obviously, the 2019 Red Sox will have no such dramatic personnel changes.
Yet the challenges to run-scoring supremacy went beyond planned turnover. At an individual level, injuries and unexpected performance dropoffs contributed to the declines. At the collective level, some of the magic that characterized the previous seasons’ huge outputs — in particular, standout team performances with runners in scoring position — drifted back to the pack.
Put another way, a lot has to go right for teams to lead the league in runs. The accomplishment reflects the talent of a group, but it often also reflects excellent health to key players, players performing to and sometimes beyond the top end of their projections, as well as good fortune (on top of great skill) in stringing together a lot of hits in sequences that maximizes their run-scoring impact.
It’s proven difficult for teams to replicate those circumstances from one year to the next.
Might the 2019 Red Sox buck the trend? It’s worth exploring some of the factors that contribute to dropoffs in search of an answer:
■ Is there turnover? No. There’s no equivalent to Ortiz retiring.
■ Were the 2018 Red Sox unusually healthy? Yes and no. The five most impactful position players — Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. — all played more than 135 games and suffered no major injuries.
But while Martinez played in 150 games, Betts and Bogaerts played just 136 each, a relatively modest total for them. Pedroia missed virtually all of the season; if healthy in 2019, he gives the team a chance of upgrading its second-base production.
■ Were there career years? Yes. Betts and Bogaerts both had spectacular seasons, and it remains to be seen whether they established new baselines or whether those campaigns represented outliers.
■ Are there players who could outperform their 2018 seasons? Yes, so the Red Sox have at least some basis for believing they can buck the trend of dropoffs. As Nick Cafardo wrote in his Sunday notes, the Red Sox have players with as-yet-untapped upside, including Rafael Devers, Benintendi, and Bradley.
It remains to be seen where those factors leave the 2019 Red Sox. But history suggests that a significant dropoff, while not a guarantee, would be anything but shocking.