Let’s start with this:
There you go, that’s the 2022 Red Sox. I don’t think I will ever quite wrap my head around that June and July. Draw a trend line on this graph and you get a literal roller coaster.
What a peak: 20 wins in 29 days. At the time, we thought a lot of it was a result of a soft schedule. That’s true to a degree, but now that the dust has settled, it turns out that 8 of those 20 wins came against postseason teams. It was a glorious hard charge up the standings.
And wow, what a valley: 19 losses in 30 days. Again, you can look to the schedule: 15 of the 19 losses came against eventual postseason entrants. But this isn’t college football. In baseball, a sport where the worst teams still win 40% of their games, strength of schedule isn’t all that revealing of anything.
So, how can a team go from playing .769 baseball one month, and then, with the flip of the calendar, drop to .296?
Before we get into injuries, the batted ball luck, the clownish defense, the rumored curse that a Voodoo elder put on Rafael Devers, let’s just look at some basic numbers. Here’s how the offense performed in these two months, looking at the 10 players who had the most at-bats each month:
As expected, the hitters performed much better in June. (I know, quite the brilliant insight I provided there. Can’t wait to discuss this finding at the Sloan Conference.) But a couple of other things stand out to me.
First, I was surprised to see just how bad Trevor Story was in June. In my memory, I had conjoined his epic hot streak with the team’s epic month. But in actuality, Story had already stopped doing his Babe Ruth impression the week before.
And speaking of Babe Ruth impressions, isn’t it also interesting that, aside from Devers, no one else was really doing one in June, either? Sure, Bogaerts and Verdugo were excellent, But it isn’t the least bit surprising to see Xander put up an .878 OPS month, and we’ve seen flashes of production like that from Verdugo before, too. In fact, what surprises me most about these June OPS numbers, is that, with the exception of Duran’s production (which came in a relatively small sample, anyway) none of them are really that surprising on an individual level at all.
You also can’t really blame injuries for the month-to-month drop. With the exception of Story, the personnel is entirely the same from one month to the next. And, as we saw, Story wasn’t a major factor in the Sox hot streak anyway; Refsnyder’s July was actually an improvement over Story’s June.
So, let’s look at that July. Again, as you would expect, the offense fared significantly worse. But, interestingly, it wasn’t a total collapse. Xander and Devers remained excellent, and Devers’ injury didn’t come until July 22. League average OPS this year was .706, and the Sox got that in 38% of their July at-bats. They even out-homered their June production! It’s a slump, for sure, but not a particularly brutal one, and certainly not one that’s bad enough to explain a .296 winning percentage.
So, let’s go ahead and look at the pitching. Here are all the pitchers who threw at least 10 innings in each month, organized by ERA:
Well, damn, there you go. Those June numbers are unfathomable. Nick Pivetta pitched 40 innings of Cy Young-caliber baseball. Josh Winckowski allowed just four earned runs in three starts. The first four options out of the bullpen were all solid. Rich Hill and Nate Eovaldi had their best months of the season (albeit, Eovaldi’s was cut short by injury). League average ERA this year was 3.90, and every single one of the Sox 9 most-used pitchers in June was better than that.
But, unlike with June’s offensive production, those June pitching numbers are surprising — significantly so. Take a look at those names again: Pivetta, Winckowski, Hill, Wacha, Brasier. In June, the Red Sox pitching staff was carried by pitchers who, as we all should have known, had no business being that good in the first place.
The July swoon, then, isn’t really all that shocking. Rich Hill and Nate Eovaldi got injured, because that’s what 42-year-old pitchers and people named Nate Eovaldi do. Nick Pivetta and Josh Winckowski stopped pitching at an all-star level, because they are Nick Pivetta and Josh Wincowski. Brayan Bello was a rookie just getting his first taste of the bigs. There’s even still a lot to like in those July numbers! Kutter Crawford threw more innings than anyone else and was outstanding. The bullpen took a step back, but was still lead by three reliable late-inning relievers.
What these two months show us is the danger of trying to win by building on the margins of your roster. Players like Nick Pivetta and Michael Wacha will always have their flashes of brilliance. And when everything on the margins goes right, it can lead to something magical. This, we can now see, is what happened in 2021, when the Sox best everyday player was a 30-year-old utility guy who’d had an OPS+ under 90 in the previous two seasons, and their best pitcher was an oft-injured 31-year-old who’d only made 30 starts once in his career up to that point.
The Red Sox were outstanding in June because everything went so wonderfully right. They were awful in July, though, not because everything went so terribly wrong, but because everything went . . . well, much more like we all should have expected it to go in the first place.
When you build a roster that relies on its marginal players to this degree, what you are building is a roller coaster. Well, the ride’s over. Time to decide whether to get back in line.