Note: The numbers below do not include the results from Tuesday’s game in Chicago.
Note 2: You’re welcome for last night. I’m taking full credit for the bizarrely great performance by some of the names mentioned below.
On Tuesday, the Red Sox placed Dustin Pedroia on the 10-day disabled list after the second baseman hurt his wrist in Monday’s game. The good news is that this doesn’t appear to be a long-term injury. The bad news is he will still miss some time and that means the Red Sox have to dip even deeper into their second base depth chart. On the one hand, it’s obviously not a good thing that they will now be relying on Deven Marrero and/or Josh Rutledge at the position. That doesn’t speak well to the depth. On the other hand, not many teams would be looking good when their top three options all hit the disabled list.
Either way, neither of their bats are good enough to be happy about their addition to the lineup. It leaves the Red Sox in a rough spot at the bottom of their lineup, specifically the bottom third. While Pedroia is out, the assumption is that most days with righties on the mound Boston will trot out some combination of Marrero, Rutledge, Pablo Sandoval, Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon for their final three spots. That’s not great!
The Baseball-Reference Play Index can let us know just how bad it is. So far this season, the Red Sox have gotten a .696 OPS out of their bottom three hitters, a mark that ranks 19th in all of baseball. That, of course, includes hitters other than the five listed above, though. If you take only the production from that group, the OPS drops down to .681. That would rank 22nd in the league.
Now, obviously every team is going to get worse production from the bottom of their lineup than they do from the top. That’s why those hitters are at the bottom. Still, it is important to get some production from that third, particularly for a team like the Red Sox that has not been able to hit for power this season (Tuesday night notwithstanding). It’s great from the top six in the lineup to get on base — and many of the players in the top two-thirds of Boston’s lineup have been able to get on base this year — but that doesn’t do any good if they end up stranded on the bases. We all know how the Red Sox have done with leaving runners on base or eliminating them with double plays.
So, the question becomes whether or not we can expect any of the five hitters above to produce more than what they’ve produced so far. We’ll start with the bad news, and that’s Vazquez. To this point he’s been the best bat among these five, and it’s not particularly close. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem sustainable as the production has come mainly on the back of a .426 batting average on balls in play. He has hit a ton of line drives this year and has been legitimately impressive just going by the eye test, but even with that said you can expect that BABIP to come way down. If none of the other four step up to make up for the loss in production whenever the regression monster comes for Vazquez, the bottom-third of Boston’s lineup will move even further down the OPS leaderboard.
Speaking of the regression monster, it’s attacked Leon this year after his BABIP-fueled breakout last season. I think he’s a little better true-talent wise than his current .253 BABIP would suggest, though. He’s still hitting a ton of line drives and hard-hit balls, with both rates actually reading higher than they did last year according to Fangraphs. If he can get his BABIP back closer to .300 while keeping his gains with respect to his strikeout rate, admittedly a big ask, he should be able to make up for a portion of the expected loss from Vazquez.
The other big potential gainer here is Sandoval, although we all know that is far from a sure thing. The third baseman remains a giant wildcard, particularly after missing so much time already this season. He doesn’t need to be the hitter he was in San Francisco to make an impact here, but rather just better than he’s been in Boston. If he can stay within ten percent of the league-average hitter, he’ll make up more than enough of the Vazquez regression, particularly if Leon sees a small amount of positive regression as well. That may not be enough to justify his contract, but the Red Sox would certainly take that from Sandoval at this point.
That just leaves Marrero and Rutledge. For the former, I can’t really expect anything better. He’s simply not a major-league hitter, and while he’s fine as a defensive replacement on the bench it is just not feasible to put his bat in the lineup everyday when there are already a few weak spots. It’s not reasonable to expect improvement here. (Note: Tuesday was great for Marrero and it was awesome to see him succeed to such an extent, but it doesn’t really change much about my outlook for his performance moving forward.)
I’d also expect more of the same from Rutledge, although in a different way. He’s been solid enough at the plate this year, but he’s doing it with singles as he’s yet to hit an extra-base hit in 2017. His BABIP is sure to come down from its current .359 mark, but that regression will be cancelled out by some extra-base hits that one has to imagine are coming.
So, in the end, the Red Sox have a problem in an area where everyone has a problem. Unfortunately, the bottom-third of their lineup is even worse than most teams, and it stands out more with their own lack of power at the top of the lineup. Pedroia should be back soon so this exact bottom-third won’t be around for too long, but the general point remains the same. If the Red Sox are going keep getting on base like this at the top without hitting the doubles and homers to drive themselves in, the bottom of the lineup is going to need to step up in a big way.