The Red Sox are going through it right now. Even as they were winning three series in a row, beating up on bad teams (which is exactly what’s supposed to happen), they were doing so in a fashion that didn’t really add much optimism. A win is a win, but it doesn’t always feel like a win. And make no mistake, there are a lot of big things going wrong right now. Great hitters are not hitting. Pitchers who helped carry the team to this point are suddenly just unable to perform. Oh, and there is a COVID outbreak passing through the clubhouse that currently has 10 players or coaches out of action. These are big picture problems that are the chief reasons the team went from a division favorite to nearly out of the postseason in a month.
But what has made these last four to six weeks all the more frustrating is that they’re adding little mistakes to these big issues, and they’re doing so on nearly a daily basis. Baseball is a game, at its heart, played on the margins. Over the large sample of a season, it’s not expected for marginal actions to make a huge difference. Things are, theoretically, supposed to even out. But on a game-to-game basis, they can make all the difference in the world. And when you’re staring down the light at the end of the tunnel that is the marathon regular season, and doing so while battling in a tight playoff race, single games can shift an entire season. So these little things do add up.
The mental mistakes that this team have been making over the last month or so really run the gamut of scenarios in this sport. But to me, it’s most exemplified on the bases. It seems like the Red Sox have long been one of the worst baserunning teams in the league, but this is also one of those things that fans can overemphasize in their minds in the same way that every fan base thinks their third base coach is the worst in baseball. But they have at least been one of the worst baserunning teams since the All-Star break.
From being over-aggressive and trying to take the extra base when it’s not warranted, to forgetting the number of outs, to being caught too far off a bag when there was no reason to even consider moving up a base, the mistakes have piled up. The numbers reflect it, too, with FanGraphs’ baserunning metric, BRR, considering the Red Sox one of the seven worst baserunning teams in the league in the second half.
Moving over to the defense, things have been more frustrating. We came into this season expecting some rough patches defensively, but then the team settled in nicely for most of the summer as at least adequate in the field, and often more than that. But lately it’s been bad all over.
Rafael Devers continues to be a rollercoaster defensively, and he’s making untimely mistakes yet again. Christian Vázquez has long been one of the game’s best defensive catchers, but he’s no longer controlling the run game like he once has and frankly has made some lazy plays behind the plate stabbing at pitches in the dirt rather than getting the body in front. And then there’s the mental mistakes in the field, like Bobby Dalbec on Tuesday failing to get in front of a cutoff through, costing the team a run, or in that same game when Alex Verdugo lackadaisically threw a ball back into the infield to allow a runner from first to tag up and get to second on a fly ball to center field. These things can’t happen ever, but especially not when the team is in the kind of rut in which they currently find themselves.
It’s hard to avoid how bad this team has been situationally of late as well. This is the kind of thing that statistically will even out in a short time, but feels symptomatic of greater issues in this moment. Boston’s relievers have been utterly unable to find the zone, walking 11.5 percent of their opponents in the second half. Only the Reds relief corps has a higher walk rate. With no outs and the bases empty, i.e. the start of innings for the most part, they have the third highest walk rate and the fourth lowest K% - BB%. They are shooting themselves in the foot right off the bat and then having to climb out of trouble.
As with most things, the bulk of the blame here has to go on the players. They are losing their heads too often and making dumb mistakes that professional athletes just should not be making, especially not this consistently. But Alex Cora has to get some blame here as well. He certainly cannot control everything that is happening on the field, but just as he gets credit (from me as well as from others) when the team is playing well, he needs to get some blame for mindless mistakes.
There’s still a month to turn this thing around and maintain their playoff spot, which they hold by just one game as we sit here on Wednesday. We’ve seen all year they have the talent to do it, though some of that has been depleted by the COVID outbreak. It clearly needs to start with simply just playing better baseball, but the little things need to improve as well. It won’t solve everything, but at the very least a stop to these mental mistakes and situational errors will make even losses somewhat more manageable, and should curb the number of losses as well.