Breaking down a bizarre first half for the Red Sox
What a bizarre first half.
The Red Sox arrived at the midseason respite with a head-scratching 49-41 record – far from elite, and far from terrible. The team is on a pace that would yield 88 wins, but that projected total is dragged down by the sleepwalking start to the season, when the team opened with a 6-13 record. Since then, the Sox are 43-28 (.606) and have outscored their opponents by 100 runs, tied for the second-best run differential in the majors since April 18.
Still, the improvement doesn’t mean that there haven’t been deficiencies in the first half — and with them, opportunities to improve after the All-Star break. That being the case, at the 90-game checkpoint, here’s a look at some of the defining elements of the Red Sox season to date:
Offense great – if inefficient
After a slow start, the Red Sox are again steamrolling opposing pitching staffs. The club entered the break with 5.66 runs per game, just behind the Twins and Yankees (5.72) as the best offense in the majors.
Even with down years to date from Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi, the Sox enter the break with seven players who have at least 13 homers (tied for second most in the majors) and six with OPSs of at least .850 (most in MLB).
Rafael Devers has emerged as a star in the making, Xander Bogaerts is better than he was in his 2018 career-best season, Michael Chavis has made an impact through some of the ups-and-downs of his transition to the big leagues, and Christian Vazquez has achieved a stunning remake as a hitter to become a legitimate threat at the bottom of the order. And while Jackie Bradley Jr.’s full-season numbers are roughly league average, he’s been on a tear since mid-May.
Top to bottom, the Red Sox possess a deep, loaded, championship-caliber lineup. However, it is also one that has left runs on the board with far greater frequency than a year ago. Whereas the 2018 Red Sox did a remarkable job of turning runners in scoring position into runners crossing the plate, this year’s team has been worse (relative to the league) with runners in scoring position than overall – and particularly bad with runners on third and less than two outs. The club is hitting just .283/.344/.392 in such situations, with a spiking strikeout rate that has prevented the team from taking advantage of situations where even an out can score a run.
Between that inefficiency and the potential for more from Betts and Benintendi (as well as the return of Mitch Moreland), the Red Sox lineup has a chance to be even more explosive in the second half. Of course, there’s also a chance that the team could continue to struggle with its situational execution, or that Betts and Benintendi fail to gain traction, or that Devers or Vazquez prove unable to sustain their huge performances to this point.
Still, while the team can’t take its upward run-scoring trend for granted, the lineup remains an obvious, powerful strength of the 2019 Red Sox.
The Red Sox staff features pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff that ranks with the best staffs in the game. The team has struck out 25.9 percent of the hitters it faces, fourth best in the big leagues — the sort of performance that typically correlates with excellent results.
Instead, the Sox have gotten a pitching performance that across the board — in both the rotation and bullpen — has been thoroughly middling. The crux of the problem, as Red Sox pitching analyst Brian Bannister recently noted, has been the team’s poor performance with runners in scoring position. In those most damaging situations, Sox pitchers have yielded a .272 average (21st in the majors), .362 OBP (27th), and .464 slugging mark (22nd).
The Red Sox seem likely to make a move to bolster their pitching staff, with the team in both the starting and bullpen markets. But unless the team cleans up its own execution with runners in scoring position — better location, better pitch selection — then a single upgrade will prove inadequate to correct a group whose collective performance has been a drag on the season.
A rotating problem
In 16 starts from Hector Velazquez (8), Ryan Weber (3), Josh Smith (2), Brian Johnson (2), and Darwinzon Hernandez (1), the Red Sox have gotten a combined average of just under 3⅓ innings per start and a 6.79 ERA. Given that the team is bringing back Nate Eovaldi from the injured list as a reliever — a product, in part, of the fact that he wouldn’t be stretched out enough to start until August — the idea that the team is searching for starting pitching help is unsurprising.
But the team needs more from Chris Sale, who has shown flashes of dominance and other days of complete vulnerability while going 3-8 with a 4.04 ERA, as well as Rick Porcello, whose 5.33 ERA is the fifth worst in the majors among the 78 pitchers who have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, and Eduardo Rodriguez, whose 9-4 record belies a 4.65 ERA and unreliable innings contributions.
Of note: opponents have a .978 OPS against Porcello with runners in scoring position, and a 1.015 OPS against Rodriguez in such situations. They’re giving up the most damage at the most damaging times, contributing to early exits and an immense strain on the pitching staff as a whole. (Sale has allowed a .672 OPS in such situations — in the upper third of big leagues, though not his typical complete dominance.)
Can’t pin it all on ’pen
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has repeatedly noted his belief that the bullpen receives an unfair degree of blame, and that their inconsistency as a group is a by-product of the lack of excellence from the rotation. Still, with 18 blown saves (tied for the most by an AL team), the Red Sox recognize that they can’t simply take improvement for granted by hoping for a better performance from the rotation in the second half. As such, the Sox are surveying the market for relievers as well as starters in hopes of creating a deeper overall staff — a mission that might be helped by the presence of Eovaldi, Heath Hembree, and Steven Wright in the bullpen after the All-Star break, with minor leaguers Darwinzon Hernandez and perhaps Tanner Houck waiting in the wings.
The Red Sox bullpen possesses power stuff. The team’s relievers have struck out a higher percentage of opposing hitters than the Yankees’ celebrated bullpen. The bullpen isn’t as bad as perception suggests — but with a slightly less efficient offense, and an underperforming rotation, the group has spent most of the year pitching in high-leverage situations (as opposed to blowouts) where a single mistake can cost the Red Sox the lead.
The Red Sox are simply asking for too much from too many of their late-innings contributors. It seems safe to guess that the team is less than thrilled to see Brandon Workman tied for third in the AL in appearances (43), and Ryan Brasier tied for ninth (41), while the struggles of Matt Barnes in June (2.08 ERA through May 31, 9.69 ERA in 15 June appearances) seemed directly related to workload.
There is a puzzle that isn’t far from being well-assembled with this group, but there has been a missing piece or two or three for the Sox to date. It remains to be seen if Eovaldi, Wright, Hembree, or a prospect can stabilize the situation, but the Red Sox clearly could use additional arms to ease workloads and keep their pitchers from cratering down the stretch.
Home not where heart is
On the road, the Red Sox have been one of the best teams in the majors, forging a 29-19 record (.604), including a 14-2 road run through Kansas City, Baltimore, Minnesota, Toronto, and Detroit dating to early June. They’ve rolled the bottom feeders and won a series against a first-place team.
Yet at home (a designation that technically includes London), they’ve been consistently mediocre or worse. On the year, they’re 20-22 at home (20-20 excluding London), including 9-15 (9-13) dating to the series against the Astros in mid-May. Some of that relates to the caliber of opponent, but much of the performance letdown has been on the shoulders of the pitching staff. The Sox have a 5.04 ERA at home (23rd in the majors).
Such a home struggle almost never characterizes a postseason team. Outside of the bifurcated schedule that arose from the 1981 player strike, there has been just one team — the 2001 Braves (40-41) — who made the playoffs with a sub-.500 home record.
If the Red Sox can find their Fenway footing, however, considerable second-half improvement isn’t hard to imagine.