The Red Sox are back in contention for the stretch run for the first time since 2013, and it’s a wonderful feeling. There are plenty of reasons for this — contending teams typically have more than one good thing about them, ya know — but the obvious and overwhelming reason the team finds themselves in this spot is their dynamic offense. Sure, the starting pitching has been much better lately, and it looks like it could be a real asset in October should Boston make it that far. However, if this season ends how we all want it to end, it will be because they have an offense that is stacked with talent.
Of course, that hasn’t exactly been the case lately. They did explode to start the Oakland series, but they’ve been slumping for the last two games. (Note: This is being written prior to Tuesday’s game because the west coast time zone is not conducive to my east coast lifestyle.) Even before that, they’ve had more frustrating offensive performances than a lineup of this ilk should. Still, with all of that being said, there is too much talent here for that to be the expectation moving forward.
Even if the talent is still there, though, it looks more like a really good offense than the potentially generational one it appeared it could be in the first half. Sure, the top half of the order still looks tremendous. Dustin Pedroia travelled back to his prime, Mookie Betts is an MVP candidate, David Ortiz isn’t human and Hanley Ramirez is on pace for 156 second-half home runs. Even Xander Bogaerts and Sandy Leon (it’s absurd that Leon is still being mentioned with this group, by the way) have been at least fine even if they aren’t meeting their first-half standards. The issue has been the bottom half of the order, whose struggles are making this offense look a lot less intimidating.
I think it’s easy to get lost in the numbers of each individual hitter and miss out on just how good the bottom of this lineup has been for most of the year. Most teams have bad hitters batting at the end of their lineup, but the Red Sox haven’t! It’s wild! Consider, for a moment, the production they’ve gotten out of the last three spots in the lineup. According to the impossibly useful Baseball-Reference Play Index, Boston hitters occupying one of the final three spots in the lineup have a .748 OPS. That is the second highest collective OPS from that spot in all of baseball, trailing St. Louis. Note that this does not include pitchers, so for National League teams this is basically only counting their eight and nine hitters.
Going a little bit deeper, the Red Sox have been straight-up bananas out of the nine hole. From that spot in the lineup, they boast a .793 OPS. In other words, they’ve essentially been Albert Pujols out of what is usually the worst position in a given lineup. The White Sox have the next highest OPS in this category, and they sit all the way down at .706.
Part of this is a shift in strategy from John Farrell this year. Despite being one of the best hitters in baseball for stretches of this season, Jackie Bradley has been the ninth hitter in the lineup more often than anyone else. Putting a hitter of his ilk that low goes against common practice, but the Red Sox are employing the idea that a ninth hitter can serve as a second leadoff man. The idea is that if they get on base, the top of the order has an opportunity to do damage. Typically, it’s an idea that I’d criticize, but the Red Sox have been deep enough to make it work this year. When the team is clicking, Bradley should probably logically slot into the sixth or seventh slot. At that point, one could argue his role as a “second leadoff man” evens out with the handful of plate appearances he’d miss out on by batting lower in the lineup. Clearly, it was a useful strategy for most of the year.
Now, though, Bradley is struggling. On top of that, they are getting little production from third base and Andrew Benintendi’s absence is being felt. All of a sudden, this group isn’t as intimidating. Bradley is coming off an awful August, and the start of September hasn’t been any better. To make matters worse, he reverted back to his old strikeout ways in August. On the other hand, the power was still there.
In left field, the Red Sox are stuck with Brock Holt playing a position his bat isn’t suited for and Chris Young. The latter is an outstanding asset to have as long as he’s being used in a platoon. That was an easy task with Andrew Benintendi healthy, as the rookie outfielder quickly showed he was up to the task of hitting against right-handed pitching. That hasn’t been the case with Brock Holt, who is proving once again that he is best utilized as a super-utility man who plays a few times a week. So, they are now stuck with a miscast utility player with a 75 wRC+ in the second half or a player with a season-long 87 wRC+ against righties similar career splits.
Then, there is third base, which is the strangest position to diagnose moving forward. Travis Shaw has obviously shown flashes of brilliance at the plate, but he’s been below average for longer than he’s been above this year. Yoan Moncada is one of the most talented prospects we’ve seen in the last decade, but he’s reminding everyone of his age.
In the end, the Red Sox lineup is going to be good provided everyone stays healthy. The top portion of the group is just too good to not be one of the most productive units in baseball. However, if they want to go back to the elite group they once were — which would clearly be a huge development in this incredibly tight playoff race — they need the bottom of the order to get back to something close to its previous standards.
To me, that mostly falls on Bradley regaining the improved contact skills that carried him to the All Star Game. If he can revert back to thriving in that “second leadoff man,” Boston will be better off for it. On top of that, Benintendi returning healthy and bringing back the ideal left field platoon adds another layer. Getting better production out of third base would be great, too, but that’s more of a wildcard. Whoever is manning the position has huge upside that will be realized in some individual games, but also carried downside that we’ll see plenty of. If the Red Sox can combine the early-season offense with the late-season starting pitching, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.