All numbers are prior to Wednesday’s action.
The rotation for the Red Sox has been an absolute train wreck through the first twelve games of the season, and more than anything else it is the reason Boston’s 2019 season has gotten off to such a poor start. No one would argue that unless they were trying desperately to be contrarian, and no one likes that person. It’s been one through five in the rotation, too, with David Price definitely looking the best but even he is leaving something to be desired. The bullpen, meanwhile, has exceed all expectations, but it’s easy to imagine the extra work they’ve had due to the rotation’s struggles will catch up to them at some point if things don’t change. The Red Sox have been bad enough that you can’t pin this start on any one thing, but if you really wanted to the rotation would be the obvious choice.
Because of all the aforementioned issues with the rotation, the lineup has been a bit overshadowed. Now, generally speaking the Red Sox lineup has scored some runs. They haven’t been a juggernaut by any means, but they’ve had some strong games and have a few guys looking good at the plate. Overall, though, a lot of these games have seen the Red Sox with a chance to open up a big, early lead with the lineup leaving guys on base. If they had converted some of these chances, those games could have been totally changed and the record may not be the same. You can’t really play that game, of course, but the point is things haven’t been perfect.
As a unit, Boston’s offense is in the top half of the league in runs scored with 51, but just barely as they place in the 13th spot. Looking at a more complete picture of the offense, they find themselves in the bottom third of the league in terms of wRC+, placing 22nd with a mark of 85. In other words, the lineup as a whole has been about 15 percent worse than the league-average hitter in the early going, or slightly worse than Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rafael Devers were in 2018. That’s not great for a team that was one of the best in the league last year and expected to be deeper, if not better, in 2019.
It is, of course, a tiny sample we’re dealing with, but the issues have clearly come down to the quality of contact. The Red Sox are striking out a bit more than we’re used to, but at a rate of 20 percent it’s not alarmingly so. They are roughly average there as well as with their walk rate, but the power and batting average numbers have been brutal, and the early-season batted ball numbers back it up. They are pounding the ball into the ground with the third highest ground ball rate in baseball (per Fangraphs) and have struggled to turn on balls to their pull side with the ninth lowest pull rate in the league.
We know that the hitters in this lineup are capable of crushing the ball on a regular basis, so it’s not merely a question of talent. Something with their process is off. Watching them, it has seemed anecdotally that they are being far too passive early in counts, which has led them to fall behind and play defense for the rest of the at bat. We know logically that fighting from behind is going to allow pitchers to throw more junk which in turn leads to uglier swings and weaker contact.
Sure enough, the numbers indicate that is certainly happening. According to pitch info data on Fangraphs, only three teams are seeing pitches in the zone more often than the Red Sox so far this year, and yet as a team they rank 16th in terms of swing rate. On pitches in the zone things are even worse, with their swing rate on those pitches ranking all the way down at 25th in the league. Last year’s mantra was “do damage” and the coaching staff preached aggressiveness up and down the lineup. This year, they have too often let good pitches go by instead of inflicting that damage.
A great example was in the last at bat we saw when Mookie Betts had two on in a two-run game. He let a first pitch fastball right down the middle go by, then later let a one-strike hanging slider pass him by. In both of those situations he appeared to be waiting for one specific pitch in one specific zone instead of being ready to attack any pitch that came his way. It’s easier said than done to be ready for any sort of pitch, but at the same time we saw Betts ride that strategy to an MVP trophy last year.
To look further into how this is shaping up among the whole team, I turned to Baseball-Reference’s Play-Index to see how often they were finding themselves in a few key situations. Through their first 12 games, the Red Sox have seen the fourth most 0-1 counts in all of baseball, and one of the teams ahead of them is the Athletics, who have played three more games. They have also seen the eighth most two-strike counts, and again Oakland ranks ahead of them there. Finally, they have swung and put a ball in play on the first pitch fewer than just ten teams in the league, four of which have played at least two fewer games. Now, contrast that to last year, when they ranked 18th, 17th and 15th in those three categories, respectively.
It should also be mentioned that they have been great this year when putting the ball in play on the first pitch, putting up 1.209 OPS. That’s fifth in baseball. It’s a bit of a biased stat since they’ve been overly selective here and one would assume that if they are more aggressive those numbers would come down, but there’s a long way to fall before the numbers become an issue.
This has been a team-wide issue and at times has seemed to be tied to big situations (though that’s entirely anecdotal), but there are a couple of guys who have embodied this. I mentioned Betts above, and he’s been the worst about this. In 2019, his swing rate on pitches in the zone is all the way down to 48.2 percent. Last year he got that number up above 53 percent. Xander Bogaerts, meanwhile, was probably the biggest beneficiary of the more aggressive approach in 2018 when his Z-Swing rate climbed up above 61 percent. In 2019, it’s fallen back down to below 51 percent. Both of these guys have been solid to good this year, to be fair, but Bogaerts isn’t hitting for the same power for last year while Betts’ strikeout to walk numbers are off to a rough start. This isn’t the best version of either of them.
As we’ve been saying constantly through these struggles and as we’re going to hear a lot more over the next few weeks: It’s still early. That is true for everything, but it feels particularly true for the offense. They haven’t played as well as they are capable of early in the year, even if some of the issues have been overshadowed by the rotation woes. The good news is we all know they are capable of better, and a simple adjustment in approach should go a long way. Pitchers are pounding the zone right now and daring the Red Sox to swing. It’s about time they take them up on that offer.