Note: All numbers are through Sunday’s game in New York.
It is no secret to, well, anyone that there are many, many weaknesses with this Red Sox team. As I write this, a couple hours before the series opener against the Royals on Monday, things are as bad as they have been all year. In fact, they are as bad as they have been in about five years. It’s been a startling fall compared to last season and a shocking deviation from our preseason expectations. We expected a step back from 2018’s record pace. We didn’t expect this.
Teams don’t fail this spectacularly compared to expectations without a whole lot going wrong. The starting pitching has obviously been the most glaring issue with this team. It was supposed to be the focal point of the roster but instead has been its downfall for long stretches, including this one. The bullpen has had its moments, but for the most part it’s been the extremely flawed unit we all expected it to be before the season started. Alex Cora hasn’t been able to push all of the right buttons like he did last year, either.
If you look at the base numbers, the offense has been the one part of the roster that hasn’t been the issue. The Red Sox have scored the most runs in baseball. They are fifth in wRC+. They are fourth in position player fWAR. They have three of the top 15 position players in all of baseball in fWAR this season. They have been, by definition, one of the elite groups in all of baseball.
Except, well, if you’ve been watching them night in and night out this year, you’ve probably gotten to the end of many games feelings just as much frustration with the lineup as any other part of the roster. It seems silly given those numbers and how poorly the pitching ranks by comparison, but it’s hard to avoid. Something has been missing. It always feels like, where last year they would get the big hit whenever they needed it, this year it has just never come. If that’s the way you feel, you are sort of right. At least, it depends on how you define “big hit.”
If you mean coming through in any way, you are somewhat surprisingly incorrect. The Red Sox have actually been relatively productive, if a little worse than their overall numbers, with runners on base and with runners in scoring position. With runners on base, the team ranks ninth in all of baseball in wRC+. With runners in scoring position, meanwhile, they rank sixth in the all-encompassing, park-adjusted offensive stat. For what it’s worth they are third with the bases empty. So, their standing in the league is worse with runners on base, but they are still among the best teams in the league no matter the situation.
It doesn’t really jive with the feeling you get watching the games though, right? It sure doesn’t for me. There’s a reason for that. You are not crazy. Almost all of that value, much more than for any other team around them on the leaderboards, come from singles and walks. With runners on base, the Red Sox have a .182 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG), 18th in all of baseball. With runners in scoring position they have a .176 ISO, also 18th in baseball. With the bases empty, their ISO is .211, the third best mark in baseball. So, they are an elite power-hitting team with the bases empty and below-average when they are not. Remember, too, that ISO is not park-adjusted so the Red Sox get the benefit from playing in a very hitter-friendly division.
It’s not hard to figure out why this would hurt the team, even while their overall offense (wRC+) suggests they’ve been just fine with traffic on the bases. An extra-base hit, the frequency of which is what ISO measures, is a guaranteed run with runners in scoring position and a possible run with a runner on first. A single or a walk is a possible run with runners in scoring position and no chance at a run with a runner at first. So, essentially, they are putting more runners on base and maybe getting a run out of these situations, but they are lacking the swings to get those big three-, four- or five-run innings we saw them bury teams with in 2018.
So, the natural question from here is who the main culprits are here. As far as I can tell, there are three that stand out above the rest. Many hitters in the Red Sox lineup have slight ISO dropoffs with runners on base, but none more than Mookie Betts. The 2018 MVP has an outstanding .240 ISO with the bases empty, but that number falls to .155 with runners on base and .091 with runners in scoring position. As best I can tell, the biggest reason for this is that he’s simply getting fewer pitches to hit. His walk rate is up above 25 percent with runners in scoring position. Pitchers are not letting Betts beat them this year.
Betts is the biggest standout here, but Christian Vázquez and Michael Chavis have seen dropoffs in these situations as well while J.D. Martinez has seen a dropoff with runners in scoring position. With Martinez, I’d venture to guess it’s a similar issue as it is with Betts with opponents refusing to let the slugger beat them. With Chavis and Vázquez, the dropoff isn’t as extreme and the reasons aren’t as clear.
Ultimately, a lot of this certainly comes down to opponents’ approaches but it is also a matter of sequencing. Over a large enough sample, one would think this sort of thing would mostly even out. Unfortunately, the one thing this Red Sox team does not have right now is time. They need to get going now in every facet of the game. The offense is, frankly, the least of this team’s worries, but it sure wouldn’t hurt if some of these singles and walks with runners on base would turn into doubles and homers.