Tuesday night sucked, but the Red Sox will probably be fine. They probably won't win the World Series, but you could say that about any team at this time any year. The odds are against it, even for the best team in the league. But right now the Red Sox don't resemble the best team in the league, and most nights they don't resemble the best team on the field. There are some problems. As I see it now through anger-soaked eyes after watching them lose to the Yankees (again), these are those problems.
The Red Sox defense has been, to put it bluntly, bad. Going into the season we knew they would probably take a step back from last season simply due to a change in personnel. Losing Ellsbury might not have been a big blow defensively, but losing Drew was likely to be. Since, they've lost a player at the one position they were ill-equipped to lose one, third base. Will Middlebrooks is no gold glove winner, but he's a solid third baseman. Losing him has meant playing Jonathan Herrera and Ryan Roberts and neither has been much with the bat or the glove. Losing Shane Victorino, who has yet to play this season (at least Jose Reyes had the common decency to play an inning before getting hurt), has made things worse, as well. That has meant more innings for Daniel Nava in right field, it's meant more innings for Jonny Gomes in left, and it's meant relying on Grady Sizemore more than they probably should have in center. And on some evenings, all three have seen the field at once.
Then there has been Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts has been an on-base machine, something which the lineup sorely needs with the injuries and A.J. Pierzynski's hack-tastic ways, but his defense has been unsteady to say the least. Maybe we've been spoiled by images of Manny Machado stepping in and playing all-world defense as a 20 year old, or Mike Trout doing the same in Anaheim. Bogaerts can be that good as a player (well, he's not Mike Trout, but you get my point), but his value will come from his stick and his ability to stay at short rather than his ability to excel at it. For now though, well, this is the growing pains part, I guess. There should be gold at the end of this rainbow, but this is the learning phase and learning at the major league level is sometimes not pretty.
So, subtract Victorino, Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and add more Gomes, Nava, and whomever they're propping up at third tonight, and it's not hard to see why the team has taken a step back defensively. When you actually look at the numbers though, they're pretty severe. Last season 29.4 percent of balls in play against the Red Sox went for hits. This season it's jumped to 31.9 percent, the fourth most hits on balls in play in baseball, and that's not including Tuesday night's disaster when about two million percent of the balls the Yankees put into play went for hits. Baseball Prospectus's PADE (Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency) has the Red Sox as the fourth worst defense in baseball, as well.
Then there's A.J. Pierzynski. Defensive stats for catchers are notoriously unreliable, and defensive stats for catchers less than 20 games in the season can be set on fire for all the value they provide. (Witness FanGraphs valuing Pierzynski and McCann equally as above average catchers this season.) By my eyes, Pierzynski has looked bad. Now, the problem with eyes is they tend to look for things to back up what the brain thinks. So it's quite possible that I'm seeing what I want to see and my conclusion is all wrong. But so far what I've seen has been pretty rough. Frequent bad throws, balls getting away (though FanGraphs says he's only had one Passed Ball all season), and missed framing opportunities to choke a large zoo animal. Like a giraffe, or a rhino or something.
Will that defense improve? On the whole, it should. Pierzynski isn't likely to get better, but the more Bogaerts plays, the better he should get. Victorino may return as soon as tonight, which would mean less Nava and less Gomes. Assumedly Jackie Bradley will start to hit at some point (he's not been awful at the plate, but a sub-.300 slugging percentage could use some work), and when he hits more he should get more playing time in center. Considering how Grady Sizemore has hit recently he may get more time anyway. Will Middlebrooks may be back in the next few weeks as well, and that can't hurt (though Brock Holt is hitting pretty well).
Thing is, they haven't really been crushed by injuries. The one's they've had have been particularly ill-placed it seems. Losing Middlebrooks exposed about the only weak point of the starting nine (maybe shortstop too). Losing Victorino in right field has killed the defense in every outfield position with the possible exception of center, though had Victorino been healthy it's possible Sizemore would have seen more time in left field and less in center. Think how much better a (left-to-right) Sizemore-Bradley-Victorino outfield is than a Gomes-Sizemore-Nava one.
Koji Uehara has also missed some time, but that hasn't seemed to cost them much. Fortunately all of the injuries have been short-term. Mike Napoli has had some brutal looking things happen to him, but has managed to escape major injury. Victorino may be batting injuries all season long, but he did that last year to resounding success. Middlebrooks should be fully healthy upon his return.
I haven't mentioned Clay Buchholz yet because he's supposedly not injured, but his velocity has been MIA (Missing In Action, not Miami). That's one to monitor.
This is one of those things that just seems like it's been the case. Balls hit by the opponents just out of reach of fielders. Balls landing just barely foul off Red Sox bats. Missed calls by umpires going one way and not the other. All that seems to be happening every night, but it probably isn't. It's probably just frustration. One thing that is happening is the Red Sox are among the worst in the league in one-run games (only Cincinnati and the Cubs are worse). That's something that should go the Red Sox way at some point, especially with the quality arms they have in the bullpen.
Mostly the team has just played badly. Some of it has been because good players have been replaced by lesser ones, be it permanently or temporarily, but some of it has just been tough starts. Basically Mike Napoli is the only player hitting like he did last season. That is equal parts crappy and good. It's crappy because they've lost games because of it. It's good because it's another place improvement is likely. David Ortiz isn't going to end the season with a .782 OPS. Dustin Pedroia has a .322 on-base percentage and a .381 slugging percentage. I'll take the over on both.
I didn't mention pitching much, and that's mostly because the pitching hasn't been the problem. It hasn't been great either (great pitching could've saved them in more than one game this season) but it's unfair to expect perfection. And the bullpen has been pretty great.
I'll just end with this: this team isn't this bad. It's not. I've been wrong before, and I could be wrong here, but I don't think I am. This team isn't this bad. They'll get better. They'll hit better, they'll field better, if not a whole lot better, at least somewhat better. They may not make the playoffs, but assuming reasonable health, they're not a sub-.500 team. The best part of the season lies ahead. How good it will be, I can't say, because I don't know, but it'll be better than this.