Assessing the damage: Just how bad is it for the Red Sox?
NEW YORK — What a mess.
Any notions that the Red Sox merely needed the sight of their archrivals to restore their footing took a punch to the gut in the Bronx on Tuesday night, when the ravaged-by-injuries Yankees ravaged the Red Sox by an 8-0 count. The Red Sox continued to look deficient in every aspect of the game, on a night when Chris Sale lost his fourth straight start to open the year and when the offense was overwhelmed by New York starter James Paxton.
The ugly performance came a day after Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski met with manager Alex Cora and the coaching staff for about an hour and a half to discuss the state of the team. It was there that the team made the decision to designate Blake Swihart for assignment in order to bring up Sandy Leon, but the conversation was more broad-ranging than that, for the obvious reason that a lot more is wrong with the Red Sox than the identity of whoever is calling pitches.
“This was one of a number of things we talked about,” said Dombrowski.
There was, no doubt, a lot more to discuss for a team that has been outscored by 40 runs through 18 games — an average of 2.3 per game, a margin that accurately reflects the frequency of blowouts. (The team has lost by at least four runs seven times so far.) It takes a lot of misfiring elements of a club to endure such a stretch.
“When you start looking at our club, you say, well, what facet of your club is playing really well? We’re not really playing very well anywhere,” said Dombrowski. “Our starting pitching hasn’t been very good, our defense hasn’t been very good, our defense hasn’t been overly good, our hitting hasn’t been like it’s been capable of being . . . You’ve got to shake out of it. You just can’t keep playing like this, and I don’t think we will. Am I concerned? Yeah. I’ll be concerned until we start playing better.”
It’s hard to imagine that the Red Sox can continue to play this poorly. Cora keeps suggesting that the team will “be fine” (his eighth such suggestion of the season came prior to Tuesday’s game). Nonetheless, it’s worth examining some of the issues facing the team to determine the magnitude of the problem and/or the likelihood of a solution.
The disastrous start
You might have heard: The Red Sox are 6-13. That’s really bad, the worst start for the club since the 1996 team opened the year with a 4-15 face plant.
Do good teams suffer such awful starts? Not many. The 2002 Angels offer the Red Sox something of a glimmer of hope, as they opened the year with a 6-13 record and dipped to 6-14 before they turned Anaheim into the happiest place on earth, going 99-63 on the way to claiming the first and only World Series in franchise history. The 2001 A’s were 6-13, then 8-18, before they stormed to a 102-60 regular-season record.
But of the 30 teams in the wild-card era to get off to as poor a start as the Red Sox (a 6-13 record), those are the only two to reach the postseason.
Yet that focus on the beginning of the season is misleading. Bad stretches happen for good teams at different times. The patterns of a season form in somewhat random fashion; the sequencing of those stretches isn’t that revealing.
So, it’s worth asking: Do recent championship teams suffer through a 6-13 stretch at any point in the season? Of the last 10 champions, six had at least one 18-game stretch in which they went 6-12 or worse. The 2010 Giants, 2011 Cardinals, 2015 Royals, and 2017 Astros all stumbled through 6-13 runs; the 2016 Cubs endured a 5-14 skid; and the 2014 Giants hit a 4-15 pothole.
The Red Sox of 2013 and 2018 never endured an 18-game stretch that was worse than 9-9, but those clubs appear to be the exceptions. Even excellent clubs go through funks.
The fact that the Red Sox are dealing with theirs at the start of the year leaves them with diminished margin for error moving forward. The Red Sox are increasingly open about the fact that their poor play has gone on for about as long as the team can afford if it hopes not to produce an embarrassing next chapter to the championship.
The disastrous rotation
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Red Sox’ 7.18 ERA is the worst in team history through 18 games, surpassing the low-water mark established by the 1931 team, a 62-90 outfit most notable for Earl Webb’s record-setting 67 doubles. That rotation was anchored by: Jack Russell, Danny MacFayden, Milt Gaston, Hod Lisenbee, Wildy Moore, and Ed Durham.
As Cora pointed out, the Red Sox are built around their rotation. Aside from doing exactly what the Red Sox did — trying to change something that affects every member of the rotation, as with the decision to change the composition of the catching corps — there’s not a lot to do while riding out the ongoing buildup of a rotation that is expected to be elite. They simply have to wait for Chris Sale, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Rick Porcello to be more effective. In theory, with Porcello in his contract year, if his rough start deepens the team could contemplate a drastic move involving him. But there’s considerable trust in the righthander to invest the time to figure out solutions, and there aren’t any viable alternatives inside the organization who would appear to offer an upgrade.
Under other team circumstances, the Red Sox might have felt good about Sale’s start on Tuesday in New York. His fastball velocity was considerably higher than it had been in any of his prior starts, and he was finally commanding his slider for both swings and misses and, at times, locking up Yankees hitters for called strikes. It was a step forward.
But the Red Sox don’t have time for incremental steps forward anymore. They need leaps.
The disastrous second base situation
Red Sox second basemen — the combination of Eduardo Nunez, Brock Holt, and Dustin Pedroia — are hitting .153 with a .206 OBP and .169 slugging mark, with a shockingly poor .376 OPS resulting. That’s nearly 150 points worse than that of any other team.
The Red Sox say that Pedroia’s buildup remains on schedule, and that the fact that he just had three straight days not playing second base (he was a designated hitter on Sunday and Monday, then had Tuesday off) didn’t come as a surprise. (He’s expected to start on Wednesday.) Moreover, they see his initial struggle to regain his timing at the plate (2 for 19, .105/.150/.105) as an unsurprising development, and believe that with more exposure, he’ll make the necessary adjustments to become a contributor. There’s precedent for that belief, given a somewhat remarkable ability to figure out ways of being productive through past injuries, including a .293/.369/.392 line on one leg in 2017.
But right now, the team is living through his reacclimation to the big leagues at a time when the rest of the lineup isn’t able to mask deficiencies. Nunez is running well, suggesting his knee is no longer an issue, but he’s hitting just .184/.205/.211, and made a baffling misplay in the field on Tuesday, dropping his glove on a stolen base attempt as if trying to apply a phantom tag while Leon’s throw sailed past him. The play seemed like a metaphor for the Red Sox in the early season — inexplicable and out of joint.
Holt started a rehab assignment on Tuesday in Pawtucket. Perhaps he’ll soon be able to offer the team more production while splitting time with Pedroia. But if the position as a whole continues to struggle, the Sox may be forced to consider other alternatives, including Michael Chavis, who is hitting .243/.326/.540 with three homers in 11 games with Triple A Pawtucket.
End the storm
While the bottom of the Red Sox batting order has been awful to date, the players at the top of the lineup have offered signs of being a group that can propel long runs. Andrew Benintendi is hitting .293/.364/.448; the Sox just need him back in the lineup after he crushed a foul ball off his foot on Sunday.
Mookie Betts, sagging under a .222/.324/.413 line, is “searching,” in the words of Cora, but his slow April start isn’t unfamiliar; 2018, when he jumped out to the best start in the game, was the exception in his career. He tends to figure out ways of being very good.
J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Mitch Moreland are each posting an OPS better than .900. And while Rafael Devers’s numbers (.254/.343/.305) are unimpressive to date, he’s showing considerably improved plate discipline that should start translating to numbers once he starts hitting the ball in the air.
The makings of a very good top of the order are present. So, too, are the underpinnings of a rotation capable of sustained excellence. But although track records and even in some cases present ability levels give the Red Sox hope of a change of fortunes, they have little time to waste before such a reversal would be too late. There is such a thing as an April hole that is too deep to escape.