Despite the recent skid that was broken on Wednesday and some generally poor performances over the last week or so, there really isn’t a whole lot to complain about with this Red Sox team. They are 18-5 to start the year, their pitching is outstanding and overall the lineup has done the job more often than not. The infield defense is definitely something to watch, there are still some baserunning issues here and there (though it’s getting better) and the bullpen is still worrisome, fair or not. Still, things are good and the mood of the fan base should obviously be overwhelmingly positive. That being said, there is one issue with the lineup that should at least be watched for the moment: They are struggling mightily against left-handed pitching.
This is a strange contrast after last year’s team, one that was notoriously frustrating overall at the plate, performed relatively well against southpaws. This team, meanwhile, is hitting just .209/.275/.289 against left-handed pitching. That is good (bad?) for a 56 wRC+, which means as a group they’ve been 46 percent worse than the league-average hitter in these situations. That is easily the worst mark in baseball at this point in the year, and the 15-point gap between them and the second-worst team (Cleveland) is the same as the gap between the Indians and eleventh-worst team (San Diego). That’s....well, it’s not great.
From here, obviously we have to try and figure out the main culprits. Unsurprisingly, guys like Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez have been just fine against lefties, as have streaking lefties Brock Holt and Mitch Moreland. Everyone else has been disappointing. J.D. Martinez is striking out 44 percent of the time (!) against southpaws. Rafael Devers has a .231 batting average on balls in play and a walk rate under five percent. Andrew Benintendi has an .091 BABIP and a 27 percent strikeout rate. Eduardo Nuñez has a wRC+ of 1, which is better than Jackie Bradley Jr.’s wRC+ of -3. That’s a whole lot of bad.
Some of those numbers aren’t super concerning, especially because we are dealing with tiny samples. Nobody on this roster has more than 22 plate appearances against lefties, so by and large this has been more frustrating than worrisome. Martinez’ strikeout rate is gross, but it’s also almost certainly not going to stick. He’s killed lefties his whole career and 20 plate appearances isn’t enough to convince us a change has come.
The rest of it is at least worth keeping an eye on, though. Devers is, of course, a left-handed bat and though he had that high-profile home run off Aroldis Chapman last year he’s had some contact issues against lefties in his short career. Granted, he’s been able to work around that so far but given his lack of experience and major-league pitchers’ ability to make adjustments this could be a theme all year. Nuñez, meanwhile, is a righty who has shown reverse splits over his career, and while they’ve never been to this extreme it’s not as if he’s a big-time upgrade over Devers. When Pedroia comes back and Nuñez transitions to the bench, either he or Devers will need to step up against lefties to solidify the hot corner when southpaws start.
More concerning are the struggles between Benintendi and Bradley. Coming into the year, the expectation was that most of Martinez’ time in the outfield would come when the opponent started a left-handed pitcher. Even with Martinez starting in the field, though, at least one of Bradley or Benintendi have to play. Both have struggled over their career against lefties, though the former has at least had periods in which he’s shown reverse splits. Still, in an ideal world you want Benintendi in there every day. He’s a big part of this club’s future and you don’t want to turn him into a platoon player at 23 years old. To get better against lefties he needs to play against lefties. However, at the same time, the goal is to win right now, and given past performance there’s at least some chance Bradley is the better hitter against lefties. For now, the best course of action is likely to split playing time relatively equally between the two in these situations and hope that someone turns it around and demands to avoid a platoon role. Right now, however, both look like they should be platoon bats.
It’s really hard to know what to do with these samples, because while the Red Sox haven’t faced many left-handed pitchers they have looked really bad whenever they’ve had the chance. Even worse, some of the most high-profile strugglers have at least some reason to believe the issues could continue. It’s not an issue about which the team has to panic at the moment, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Specifically, the third base and outfield situations need to sort themselves out. Alex Cora has a lot of jobs he has to juggle right now, but figuring out his best combinations against left-handed pitching is an important one that could take all year to figure out.