PITTSBURGH - JUNE 25: Kevin Youkilis #20 and teammate Tim Wakefield #49 of the Boston Red Sox sit in the dugout during the game against of the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 25, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
If there are two questions on every Red Sox fan's mind these days, they are "will the Red Sox make the playoffs," and "why do I even have to ask that?"
It's impossible to answer the first from where we stand now. As much as people like to throw around probabilities and percentages, the fact is that those don't exactly take into account the fact that the Red Sox are in such a terrible rut right now. I'd love to say "Well of course they will, have you seen the schedule?" But seven games against the Orioles don't seem like terribly sure things at the moment.
So then let's try and tackle the why of things. Why are the Red Sox in such a bad slump? And are they likely to work their way out anytime soon?
We don't have to dig terribly deep to find the reasons. At least, the reasons for some of it.
First and foremost, there is the pitching. In the month of September, the Sox' staff has pitched to a 5.98 ERA, good for second worst in the league (thank you, other Sox). While the defense hasn't exactly been spectacular behind them, it's also not been as bad as it seems. Yes, teams are going to run wild on Tim Wakefield. Yes, the Sox have overthrown some cutoff men. No, it's not really been the problem--especially since it's damn near impossible to blame any defense for looking miserable with Wakefield on the mound.
Instead, we turn to the pitchers themselves, who have produced a FIP and xFIP of 4.84 and 4.44 respectively.
The obvious issue here is the rotation. Yes, the bullpen has had it's issues, particularly with Daniel Bard's short slump (which now, hopefully, is over and done with), but you have to consider the other reasons behind that. In 17 games this month, the Sox have received all of 81 innings from their starters--good for third worst in the MLB, and an average of under five per start. The Red Sox' bullpen isn't designed, at the moment, to pitch in fifth and sixth innings. It's all about getting the ball into the hands of Bard and Papelbon, with Alfredo Aceves and Franklin Morales ostensibly being the two men who can put it there--but only if the Sox' starter can get through six innings.
The good news is that some of those issues seem set to disappear. In September, the Sox have seen Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, and Tim Wakefield make seven starts, contributing just 29.1 innings of work. After today's doubleheader, the Sox will only need one more start out of this group assuming Bedard and Beckett can both stick to a regular schedule. Of course, they will still have to weather the "John Lackey" storm one or two more times, but at least he had a good start last time out.
So if it was just about the starting pitching, then things wouldn't look so terribly bad. Unfortunately, the offense hasn't been entirely free of blame either.
At a .320 wOBA, it's hard to really say that the hitters have been bad in September. While it's a far cry from the .350 figure they've put up over the whole of the season, .320 is still pretty average. Mike Aviles has been incredible filling in for Kevin Youkilis, and other than Dustin Pedroia and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, everyone has been contributing. In fact, the Sox have averaged more than five runs a game. Pretty good, right?
Well, not necessarily. Average is, after all, a tricky thing, because the mean has been dragged up so much by the double-digit games. When we consider the actual data set, we see that the Sox have been terribly, terribly inconsistent. Those double-digit games? They stand in sharp contrast to the 13 other games where the Sox scored five or less each time. Obviously being outscored 90-108 isn't going to result in as many wins as losses, but the sheer top-heavy nature of the distribution explains why they're losing quite so many.
Of course, there's no reason for that to continue, necessarily. In a way, that can be explained, simply, by good and bad pitchers. The Red Sox have played the Rays seven times this month, and there's no better run prevention team in the game.The Orioles are another story entirely, with both the second worst defense and pitching in the game.
The Red Sox have been difficult to watch of late. Of that, there's no question. But the fact is we've got a lot of reasons to expect that streak to end, if not today, then at least tomorrow. If Daniel Bard is back in form, then the bullpen can do its job of handling the final three innings. If Beckett, Bedard, and Lester make five of the last ten starts, then they should be able to get the ball to the bullpen in good shape. And if they can't, then the Sox' lineup can take heart knowing they'll be facing the Orioles' pitching and defense instead of the Rays'.
This team just isn't this bad.