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The Red Sox need Alex Verdugo at his best down the stretch

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He’s been struggling, but there’s plenty of time to right the ship.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Verdugo is one of the most important players on this Red Sox team, and his performance out of the two-spot in the order played a significant part in the team’s hot start to the season. In mid-May, I talked about some of the improvements Verdugo had made from 2020, and the positive effects these improvements were having on his numbers. However, as we fast forward to present day in August, he’s been dropped in the order while mired in an extended slump.

Verdugo definitely isn’t alone – even J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts, two of the best hitters in this lineup and in all of baseball, have been struggling of late – but Verdugo’s slump is perhaps the most worrisome. After he finished a stellar April with an .863 OPS, Verdugo’s month-by-month OPS has been on a steady decline, ending with a poor .660 OPS in July. This lackluster performance seems to me to be the result of falling back into bad habits.

One of the biggest factors in Verdugo’s April surge was his ability to get the ball in the air. For just the second time in his career, he was hitting more fly balls and line drives than ground balls, and his ground ball rate sat at a career-best 43.4 percent. But as the season has progressed, the outfielder’s launch angle has slipped back below his career average. Likewise, his ground ball rate has been up over 51 percent in each month — for context, the league-average ground ball rate this season is just a shade over 43 percent — and his performance has declined accordingly.

Another factor in Verdugo’s struggles has been his ineffectiveness against left-handed pitching. Obviously, lefty hitters frequently struggle against lefty pitchers, but the 25-year-old has never struggled like this before. His career wRC+ against lefties is 77, which isn’t great, but is at least palatable if surrounded by the proper teammates. Verdugo’s wRC+ against lefties this year is way down to an astonishing 30. In other words, he’s been 70 percent worse than the league-average hitter when he’s been matched up against left-handed pitchers. Or, to put it another way, he’s been performing like a platoon player without actually being platooned.

Now that’s not to say all is bad. He’s still hitting the ball hard, boasting career-best exit velocities and hard-hit rates, walking at a solid clip, and rarely striking out. These are the elements of a solid contributor at the plate. That said, he needs to make improvements to get back to his early-season levels of production.

He can put a quick end to this slump if he’s able to get the ball in the air more often and revert back to his usual performance against lefties, which in a way also plays hand in hand. Boston’s offense feels like it hasn’t been the same since Verdugo was dropped in the order, and this Sox team is definitely going to need Verdugo at his best, setting the table for everyone else, down the stretch if they want to stay in contention for this all-important division race.