The Red Sox are playing like a bad baseball team right now. I don't feel like that's too controversial of a statement. They've lost three in a row, 6-of-8, and 18-of-30. They just ended the Rays' 11-game losing streak, and did so before the third inning was over.
The question is: how badly does this reflect on the 2016 Red Sox? Are they a lost cause? Are they a good team on a bad run? Is everything actually terrible, or just a few obvious things?
First thing's first: let's establish a baseline. This whole stretch starts with Clay Buchholz' loss to the Rockies on May 26th, but to make a clean cut, let's go to the next day when they start a fresh series against the Blue Jays. In this 29-game nightmare, the Red Sox have played the following teams:
Blue Jays -- 6 games
Orioles -- 7 games
Giants -- 2 games
Twins -- 3 games
Mariners -- 3 games
White Sox -- 4 games
Rangers -- 3 games
And, of course, one against the Rays.
The first thing that jumps out is that four of those teams are pretty damn good. Even if we consider the Red Sox to be a good team, against the Blue Jays, Orioles, Giants, and Rangers, expecting to come away with more than an even split is not entirely reasonable. Yes, you have to beat the good teams, but the difference between a .510 record against good teams and a .490 record against them is as likely to be the result of luck as skill. If you're winning about as often as you're losing, it's hard to complain too much. So that's 18 games. Let's say the Red Sox should have taken nine wins
That leads us to six games against .500 teams in the White Sox and Mariners. I'd say playing .550 ball against .500 teams is pretty reasonable. That's about a 90-win pace, and if you think about it, the average record of all a good team's opponents should be only slightly below .500 (their own wins accounting for the difference). Things don't quite play out that way, but it's close enough for our purposes. We only have six games to work with here, though, so we can't get any closer than 3-in-6 or 4-in-6. Let's be "demanding" and round up to 4 more wins.
Against bad teams in Minnesota and Tampa...honestly, the exact figure isn't going to change much since we're again working with very few games. Expecting all four wins seems a bit much. Two is obviously not right. So let's go with three.
Under the circumstances, then, we'd expect the Red Sox to go 16-13 over this 29-game stretch. That leaves them four games off pace. Five, realistically, if you want to throw in that Buchholz start. But it won't really change the story.
So that's our baseline. How do we explain the failure to reach said figure?
I'll get this out of the way: it's not really on the offense. It's true they're not producing at the historic levels they started the season at. They've dropped down to simply being above-average this month by wRC+, with much of the fault lying at the feet of Travis Shaw, Hanley Ramirez, and Christian Vazquez.
Ramirez has shown excellent signs in the last two weeks, however, hitting .281/.349/.544 since his OPS hit its lowest point since April (.710) on the 11th. There's even more good news is that he's doing it without any BABIP help to boot. This might actually be the best Hanley has looked since he crashed into that wall last year, and while he's got a long way to go to prove it's for real, it's plenty of hope where hope was much needed.
Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj
Shaw is harder to find positives for after going 1-for-13 thus far on the road trip. He's got bizarre home/road splits, having just hit .360/.469/.440 over the 10-game homestand, but it's hard to buy into those as being truly representative of how good/bad he is depending on the park. The real trouble right now seems to be that he's completely lost his power stroke, though. He's actually been walking more and striking out less in June than he did in April or May. He might be hurt or gassed, or even have made an ill-advised change to his approach at the plate. Whatever the case, though, there's at least positive signs that he's not as bad as he looks, and that the Shaw who was so good in late 2015 and early 2016 was not a total illusion.
Vazquez, though, is hardest of all. Yes, he's a very good defensive catcher, but 361 plate appearances into his MLB career, the answer to "can he hit enough to stick as a starter" seems very much to be "no." .229/.289/.306 just isn't good enough, and while the Red Sox could hide that some when he was the number nine hitter in an eight-deep lineup, when he's the final empty space in a group of players that just aren't hitting at the end, it's much harder to stomach. The Red Sox need Blake Swihart back, and they need him back behind the plate.
For all that those three have struggled, however, the Red Sox have still averaged five runs per game in this stretch.That's a pace which would have left them the second most productive offense in baseball last season. They could use a left fielder--the Sox have enjoyed good production there from first Chris Young and now Bryce Brentz this month, but they should not wait for the easily-anticipated problem to emerge before preparing for it--but at the end of the day, the offense is not in any great need of help, or really at fault for the team's problems.
It might not be the offense, but the position players do have something to apologize for. The Sox have coughed up 17 unearned runs in June. That's the worst figure in baseball, and most of the teams that are close are ones you'd rather not be mentioned with. Some of this does have to do with Steven Wright's knuckleball, but it doesn't change the fact that the Sox have just looked snakebit in the field.
On the whole, though, errors are only a small part of defense, and defensive metrics seem to think they've actually been pretty good in June on the whole. No, said metrics aren't great at evaluating defensive skill over such short periods, but they do tend to at least speak towards how well a defense recorded outs over said period, and the Red Sox seem to have done a decent job on that. This is reinforced by a .293 BABIP against Red Sox pitchers in June.
And hell, even the errors aren't exactly reason for too much panic. When it comes right down to it, they look a bit fluky. This is a team that allowed a total of 15 unearned runs in their first two months of play. Even with everything that's gone wrong this month, they're still actually above average when it comes to gaffes in the field, and that's actually not to be expected when you consider that, as a team, they're one of the rangiest in the business. They get to a lot of balls in play, and convert at a fairly high rate. If there've been some problems in June, they don't seem likely to persist.
That leaves our obvious winner. The place where the Sox have been hemorrhaging wins is in the back end of their rotation.
Clay Buchholz has gone 0-2 as a starter, and also taken the loss once out of the bullpen. Joe Kelly is likewise 0-2 during this stretch, and Eduardo Rodriguez 2-4. That's a combined 2-8 from those last two spots as a starter, and we've been nice enough not to add in Buchholz' start against Colorado.
Photo Credit: David Butler
You don't expect your back-two to win at the same pace as the team overall, mind. You'd expect your #4/#5 to win at the team's pace against opposing #4/#5s, and to fall short against opposing top starters, with the difference made up for when your top starters take on the back-end guys in other rotations. But if a good team can't expect a .550 winning percentage from #4 or #5, .500 is not unreasonable, much less .400.
It’s time the Red Sox give Aaron Wilkerson a chance in the rotation
He might be 27 and a rookie, but the Red Sox are out of options.
Rodriguez, Buchholz, and Kelly have not even come within a mile of that. They've combined to surrender 47 runs in 47 innings. That they've even come away with two wins is, frankly, astounding. In doing so, they've clouded any picture we might hope to form of the bullpen, who have had to pull overtime with the Pawtucket shuttle bussing guys back and forth as the pen has to absorb five innings every fourth and fifth game.
And there, really, is the difference between a mediocre stretch for a good team and a five-alarm dumpster fire that incites panic in the streets. If the back-end had picked up a couple more wins and simply been bad instead of a horror show, we'd be looking at 14-15 where 16-13 was the expectation. Yes, that still leaves them coming up short. There's no doubt that this has not been a great stretch for the Red Sox. But a small difference like that is easily explained away by a fluky David Price outing after better than five great weeks, some atypical errors, some injuries, and a slump or two.
The scenario, really, has not changed for the Red Sox since before this rough stretch began. The only new information is that Eduardo Rodriguez is clearly not right or ready to contribute. So the Red Sox still need to find the rotation help they needed to find in May. With that, the lightening of the schedule, and the simple ebb-and-flow of baseball turning back in their favor (or simply not quite so hard against them), there's every reason to expect they can start winning baseball games again, and doing so in volume. This is not a team so far gone that it's not worth investing in.
Until they do that, though, the Red Sox are going to have a hard time really breaking free from the doldrums, even if they do seem likely to break free of this .400 stretch they've been on. It's just impossible to win consistently when you need a miracle to survive every fourth and fifth game.