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The Red Sox are winning with two-thirds of a lineup

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And things should get better.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that the biggest reason the Red Sox are off to a 13-2 start — the best start in their franchise’s history — right now is their pitching, and specifically their starting pitching. The rotation has been there and performing since day one, and besides the David Price outing against the Yankees in which he lost some feeling in his throwing hand, Red Sox starters are yet to really dig this team in a hole in any given game. That being said, the offense ain’t too shabby right now either. The bats got off to a slow start down in Florida, but once they got back home the bats started to heat up in a big way. On that nine-game homestand (in which they won eight games), the team scored at least six runs in seven of those contests, with the bookends being the only ones in which they failed to reach that threshold. They are starting to click, which is great for us and bad for fans of other teams, and what stands out the most is that they have been able to do this with only two-thirds of their lineup really performing.

Overall, Boston’s offense has been one of the best units in all of baseball. In fact, whether you like to judge a lineup by simple runs scored totals or by overall performance at the plate, the Red Sox are second, trailing only the Angels in both wRC+ and runs scored. On Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, you can look up how lineups are performing by different sections — the first two spots, the 3-6 spots, and the 7-9 spots — and the contrast for the Red Sox is stark. By straight OPS, Boston’s top two spots has the fifth-best mark in baseball and their 3-6 section of the lineup ranks fourth. In other words, they’ve been a force early on in games and pretty much every time the lineup turns over. The bottom of the lineup, meanwhile, falls down to 11th by straight OPS and when you look at tOPS+ — which compares the performance of that third of the lineup to the rest — they rank 23rd. In other words, only seven teams see steeper drop-offs when they get to the bottom-third of their lineups.

The main culprits of this (relatively) poor performance at the bottom of the lineup have remained mostly the same since the start of the season. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Christian Vazquez have been two of the three guys on most days, though the former actually hit leadoff on Sunday. The other spot has moved a bit, and recently it’s been occupied by guys like Brock Holt and/or Tzu-Wei Lin. The general takeaway from this group is that the Red Sox don’t necessarily need them to hit well, as they generally play important defense positions, and most of them do it exceedingly well. Still, I don’t think anyone would complain if any of them improved at the plate.

Bradley has been probably the most disappointing Red Sox player at the plate to start the year. The center fielder is hitting just .191/.296/.255 for a wRC+ of 60, 40 percent worse than the league-average hitter. On the plus side, Bradley’s plate discipline has been just fine as he has a nine percent walk rate (right around his career norms) and a 13 percent strikeout rate that is way below his career norms. The bad news is that he has had no success when the ball is in play, posting just a .225 batting average on balls in play and having just three doubles as the only extra-base hits he’s collected in 2018. Right now, he’s hitting everything on the ground and when he is getting the ball in the air it has been an infield pop up a quarter of the time. We all know Bradley is streaky, but it’s now been since the first half last year and I don’t think it’s ridiculous to be worried about this bat, even if it’s hard to see him staying quite this bad.

Vazquez, meanwhile, didn’t really have the same expectations of Bradley despite a breakout at the plate in 2017. Granted, the catcher didn’t really turn into Buster Posey or anything, but he showed he has the potential to hit like an everyday player. That hasn’t translated to 2018, as the catcher is hitting just .214/.250/.262 for a 40 wRC+, sixty percent worse than the league-average player. The Red Sox backstop is never going to be a big power hitter, so he needs to make up for that by succeeding on balls in play. After posting a .348 BABIP in 2017, we knew that number would come down but there was some reason to believe he could stay above .300. So far in 2018, that hasn’t worked out as Vazquez has posted a .257 BABIP. The good news is that the early-season batted ball data looks a lot like last year, with plenty of line drives. He has hit the ball hard less often, but he’s also almost never hitting it soft, which can be just as important. I’m pretty confident in Vazquez turning things around and getting to an 80-85ish wRC+. Not a huge number, but a massive improvement.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Then, there’s the infielders in Holt and Lin. They are only included here because of Xander Bogaerts’ injury, but the shortstop has been on the shelf for a decent amount of time by now and there’s still no update on his return. He should be coming back soon, but in the meantime the Red Sox are turning to two players who can put the ball in play and hope for the best, but neither of whom hit for much power. Lin has been impressive in a small sample size since getting the call up, and he certainly deserves more chances, but the ceiling is small with both of these players.

The point of this post is not to worry about the bottom of the lineup nor is it to say things are about to get worse for the Red Sox lineup. It’s true that some of the players higher up are probably going to come back down to Earth a bit, but players like Bradley and Vazquez should counteract that trend. Furthermore, when this lineup is fully healthy things start to change, with Holt and Lin out as everyday-type players, and Eduardo Nuñez into a utility role. Bradley and Vazquez would still be back there most days, but there are more options for late-game replacements if things don’t get better. Regardless, the Red Sox offense is rolling now and the team as a whole is red-hot, and that’s happening despite a full third of their lineup looking weak on a daily basis.