The constant around the Red Sox this year has obviously been the search for differences between this year’s team and the historic 2018 roster. The names are essentially the same, but the results have clearly been much, much difference. We knew there would be some regression coming just by the law of averages, but it’s been much more extreme than we could have imagined. The drop-off between the two years is large enough that there are clearly a multitude of reasons for the decline. That said, to the naked eye one of the biggest differences has been the lack of offense early. It seemed that in 2018 the lineup made a habit of jumping on a pitcher early and burying an opponent in the first half of the game. This was an underrated skill, as the ability to play relatively stress-free baseball in the second half of many games is something that can help save some fatigue later in the year.
In 2019, however, they’ve failed to come up with the same ability to smell blood and go for the kill. On the whole, the offense has been mostly fine. They certainly haven’t been on the same level as last year, but generally speaking we again knew some regression was coming. As a team the Red Sox are sixth in runs scored this year and ninth in wRC+. Even with the solid rankings, though, it still feels like something is lacking.
Part of the issue, particularly recently, is that they haven’t been able to string together hits in the same way they were last year. They’ve been able to get some runners on base and perhaps get one across the plate, but it’s been harder to come by sustained rallies in 2019. With runners in scoring position, the Red Sox have a .784 OPS that puts them right in the middle of the pack. Furthermore, they have a tOPS+ of 102, which means they’ve been two percent better with runners in scoring position than they’ve been in all other situations. That seems fine on the surface, but consider that having runners in scoring position generally means the pitcher isn’t very good and/or is struggling at that given moment. Pretty much every time is better with runners in scoring position than not. So, that 102 tOPS+ isn’t as strong as it seems on the surface and is actually in the bottom-third of the league for the season.
It’s not just the performance with runners on base. That has been frustrating, but also seems like something that should mostly sort itself out over time. What’s been even more frustrating and seems like a further deviation from the 2018 team has been the starts they’ve been featuring in games. Last year, the Red Sox were among the best teams in baseball in OPS over the first three innings of a game. This year, they’ve slid down to the middle of the pack. The first inning in particular has been an issue, as they have the second lowest OPS in all of baseball in the opening frame. Only the Marlins have been worse.
The numbers get worse when you look at when they are facing a starting pitcher. By OPS this season, the Red Sox are 24th in all of baseball the first time they see a starting pitcher in a game. After that, things get much better and they are a top ten offense in baseball when they see a starter for a second time. Going back to tOPS+, they are a whopping 34 percent worse when they first see a starting pitcher than they are in any other situation. Again, the only team who has been worse, relatively speaking, in their first look at a starting pitcher is the Marlins. It goes without saying that comparisons to the Marlins offense in any respect is something a team with playoff dreams would like to avoid.
This is not an issue that can be boiled down to just one guy, but there is one player in Andrew Benintendi who most embodies the problem. In his first time seeing a starting pitcher this year, Benintendi is hitting .070/.218/.070. That is not ideal for a guy who has spent much of the year in the leadoff spot. Mookie Betts has been an issue here as well, though, hitting just .157/.246/.275 in these situations. In fact, of the twelve hitters with at least ten plate appearances against starting pitchers, eight have been at least 30 percent worse in their first viewing of the pitcher than any other situation. That, in turn, has led to more close games as things have gone on, which in turn leads to more high-stress games and more pressure being put on the bullpen.
As is generally the case with these situations, identifying the problem is a hell of a lot easier than finding the solution. The only obvious solution I can think of, beyond just doing nothing and hoping this problem sorts itself out, is to shake up the lineup a bit. Alex Cora has already done that, in fact, deciding to put Betts back in the leadoff spot every day. That could be a start, and while it’s not the sabermetrically sound way to build a lineup those things can be overrated at time. Betts obviously succeeded in that role last year, as did the lineup as a hole. Still, it could be argued that they should try something else. Benintendi is struggling right now, and the best way to inject new, early life into the lineup may be to take him out of the top-third against pitchers of all handedness, moving either Xander Bogaerts or Rafael Devers into the top-third. If Betts is settling in as the leadoff hitter, which appears to be the plan, the best way to roll for the near-future in my eyes would be to follow him with Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Devers.
Obviously there’s no guarantees, and it should be mentioned that Betts and Bogaerts are two guys who have struggled mightily early in games, but that slight adjustment could add new life to this team early in games. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter when runs are scored as long as the game ends with Boston having more than their opponents. Still, over the course of a long season it helps tremendously to have as many easy victories as possible. That’s something this 2019 Red Sox team has been missing, and they need to find a way to get that early offense back if they want to get more stress-free baseball into their lives.