Sunday, August 31, 2014

Flyover: Boston Red Sox

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month.

After finishing last in their division in 2012, 26 games behind the first place Yankees, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2013. It that makes them a Cinderella team, the clock struck midnight this year, as they're in last place again. Their 59-67 record ties them with the Twins for third-worst in the American League. 

How Are They Doing Lately? On July 31, the Red Sox traded their ace starting pitcher, Jon Lester, and outfielder Jonny Gomes to the A's for left fielder Yoenis Cespedes. They also traded away No. 2 starter John Lackey. With Lester a free agent after the season, this move erased any question whether the Red Sox were throwing in the towel on 2014. Thus far in August, their 11-16 record is fifth-worst in the league (just ahead of the A's at 12-16, coincidentally). They've gotten there by way of a 4.29 ERA, fourth worst in the league, due largely to a terrible 5.38 ERA by their starters, second-worst. On offense, the team's batting .230 over the past 30 days, second worst in the league, with a second-worst .299 on base percentage and league-worst .336 slugging percentage. 

What's Going RIght? The bullpen's been pretty good. Red Sox relievers have made 94 appearances over the past 30 days, partly due to the struggles of the starters, but they've compiled a solid 2.57 ERA, fourth best in the league. They've probably been a little lucky, as both their .264 batting average on balls in play and 7.6% of fly balls leaving the park are far enough below league averages that they're unlikely to be sustained. Further, they've induced swings on only 29% of pitches outside the strike zone, third fewest in the league, violating the On The Field of Play mantra that it's good to throw strikes, but it's better to get strikes. So we could see some backsliding, particularly if the starters keep going just 5.70 innings per start, fourth-fewest in the league over the past month.

On offense, it's pretty hard to find bright spots over the past 30 days, but the Red Sox have had solid defense this year, with both traditional fielding metrics and advanced ones placing the team near the top of the pack in the American League. They've stolen 16 bases and been caught just once so far in August. Granted, that's not a lot of steals, but it's the highest success rate in the league. I'm reaching here.

What's Going Wrong? Oh, everything else. As noted above, the relievers have been good but probably lucky. The starters have been just bad: Lowest strikeout rate and highest walk rate in the league over the past month, inability to throw strikes (48% of pitches in the strike zone, third-fewest in the league) or get strikes (swings on 25% of pitches outside the strike zone, second-fewest). Only two starters with over 20 innings pitched (Joe Kelly and Rubby de la Rosa) have an ERA below 5.50, and both of them have walked way too many batters (5.8 per nine innings for Kelly, 4.8 for de la Rosa).

As noted above, the team's compiled the worst- or second-worst batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage in the American League over the past 30 days. Has that been partly due to bad luck? Not really: the .282 team batting average on balls in play trails the league average of .292, and that's not enough of a gap to say that the balls just haven't been falling in on a regular basis. They've struck out too much (22% of plate appearances, third-most in the league) and while they're walking a lot (8.4% of plate appearances, second most) they lack the power (19 homers, tied for third-fewest) to drive those walked runners home. 

Who's Hot? DH David Ortiz has a .342/.440/.603 slash line in August so far, ranking third in the league in batting and on base percentage and second in slugging. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia is having a subpar year for him but has been pretty good of late (.297/.333/.414).

The Red Sox's primary setup men are middle relievers Burke Badenhop, Tom Layne, Edward Mujica and Junichi Tazawa. Over the past 30 days, they've pitched in 48 innings, compiling a 1.50 ERA and 1.13 WHIP (1.04 excluding intentional walks). They've given up only two homers, both by Tazawa. Another middle reliever, Alex Wilson has a 1.17 ERA and has allowed only ten baserunners in 15.1 innings.

Who's Not? Ortiz has been hot, and three other hitters--Pedroia, Cespedes, and outfielder Daniel Nava--have been OK. Everybody else has been bad. Catcher Christian Vazquez is batting .197 over the past 30 days, with just a .212 slugging percentage, as his production has consisted of 12 singles and a double. First baseman Mike Napoli's hitting .184. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks is batting .200 and has supplemented that batting average with little plate discipline (just four walks) and little power (five doubles, no other extra base hits). Outfielder Brock Holt has supplied no power, either (.289 slugging percentage). And rookie shortstop Xander Bogaerts has seemed lost at the plate, batting .101 with a .130 slugging percentage, a far cry from the remarkably poised 21-year-old who batted .296 with a .412 on base percentage and .481 slugging percentage in last year's postseason.

The most notably bad Red Sox starters of late are Allen Webster (7.28 ERA, more walks than strikeouts), Brandon Workman (7.47 ERA over three starts) and Clay Bucholz (5.50 ERA). Workman's batting average allowed on balls in play is .408, a ridiculously high number that suggests an element of bad luck. 

The notable exception from the list of successful Red Sox relievers above is closer Koji Uehara, who's compiled a 5.56 ERA over the past 30 days, with 16 hits allowed in 11.1 innings en route to two blown saves. He still has a 2.25 ERA on the year, but that compares to last year's otherworldly 1.09 and raises concerns that at age 39, he's nearing the end of the road. 

What's the Outlook? The Red Sox are playing for 2015. Probably the most important thing the team could accomplish in the remainder of the year would be to get youngsters Bogardts (age 21), Middlebrooks (age 25), and Vazquez (24) squared away for next year. This year's a last-place waste.

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