It’s mid-October, and for most of MLB’s member clubs, golf season is well underway. Most ballparks are empty and quiet, and won’t see much action until park employees and groundskeepers begin preparing for 2020. Fenway Park is one of those empty stadiums. Just seven months ago, Red Sox Nation had eagerly awaited the beginning of the 2019 season. The 2018 team blew the doors off of just about everyone they came across and charged into an incredible 11-3 postseason run. Aside from the departures of Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel, the entire team returned. Another World Series run, or at least another enjoyable year of Red Sox baseball, loomed on the horizon.
How wrong we were.
The Red Sox started the season poorly, going 3-8 in an irritating West Coast trip. The club didn’t play a game at Fenway until April 9, the last team in the league to play at home. The funky schedule didn’t really get better. The team played two historic games in London against the Yankees. For some reason, both counted as Red Sox home games. The Red Sox lost both of them.
On July 4th, the club played the Blue Jays in Toronto, making them the only team in the league to play outside America on Independence Day. It’s not uncommon for the Blue Jays to play home games on July 4th, but if there’s any day of the season that Toronto should play on the road, it’s July 4th.
Still, blaming the schedule for the Red Sox missing the playoffs is simply reaching for excuses. No, the failure of the Red Sox to defend their title is on the Red Sox. The team never managed to find a turning point. They never managed to build consistency. Their longest win streak came in mid-June, where they won six in a row. Three of those games were against the lowly Orioles. Where did it go right? Where did it go wrong? What kind of impact will this season have on next year? In this Red Sox Retrospective, we’ll break it all down, and assign a grade for the season.
The Pitching: Rotation
The biggest reason why the Red Sox failed the way they did was the pitching. The troubles began with ace Chris Sale, who signed a five year extension prior to Opening Day. He had the worst year of his career. The lefty went 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA. In 147.1 innings, he gave up 123 hits and 72 earned runs. His 1.086 WHIP was the highest it’s been since 2015, and his 1.5 HR/9 was the highest mark of his career thus far. He also gave up 2.3 BB/9, his highest walk percentage since 2012. Sale was worth 2.3 WAR, the lowest mark since his debut year in 2010. He did have the highest strikeout percentage of his career, 13.3 K/9. But his efforts were overshadowed by Gerrit Cole, who had a 13.8 K/9 to lead the league.
Sale went on the Injured List in August with elbow inflammation, and there was serious concern he would need Tommy John surgery. Initial testing determined that TJ wouldn’t be necessary, but that could change when Sale visits Dr. James Andrews in a couple weeks.
David Price didn’t have a good year either. Going 7-5, he pitched only 107.1 innings, the fifth fewest of his career, and posted a 4.28 ERA. His FIP was lower than that, 3.62, suggesting that Price dealt with some bad luck. He played through injury for most of the second half, only getting one start in August and one in September. His season overall was little more than a blip on the radar, worth just 1.8 WAR.
The former Cy Young winner, in his final year with Boston, had a career-worst season. He owned the highest ERA among 62 qualified starting pitchers, as well as the eighth highest FIP. Before the season started, Porcello stated that he wanted to remain in Boston, and would even take a discount to stay. After the awful season he had, it seems unlikely the Red Sox will want to retain him, but if his value is low enough they can re-sign him for cheap, it’s possible.
Nathan Eovaldi, who signed a 4 year, $68 million deal with the team in the offseason, spent most of the year on the Injured List. When he did pitch, he wasn’t nearly as effective as last year, with a 5.99 ERA and a FIP to match.
Spot starters Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez both took huge steps back. The rotation overall posted a 4.95 ERA, 10th worst in the majors. The starters pitched the 8th fewest innings in baseball. Opposing batters had a .262 average and .781 OPS against Boston’s rotation, ranked 21st and 18th in the league, respectively.
There was one bright spot in the middle of the mess. That was Eduardo Rodriguez, who finally unlocked his potential this season. Much of his breakout should be to Alex Cora‘s credit. Cora’s plan was to continuously push him beyond his supposed limits.
In a July 22nd game against the Rays in Tampa, Rodriguez had thrown six innings of scoreless ball on 92 pitches. Most managers likely would’ve given their pitcher a short leash for the 7th. Cora simply chose to kick him back out there without firing up the bullpen. It paid off. E-Rod ended his night with seven complete innings and 113 pitches, and he finished by striking out the last two batters he faced. In all, he threw 203.1 innings in 2019, 11th most in baseball.
From May until the end of September, Rodriguez posted a 3.39 ERA. He went 17-4, and the Red Sox were 22-6 in games he started. Ending the season 19-6, he was by far Boston’s most consistent starter. His only blemish was his walk rate. He walked 75 batters, the most in baseball, and his 3.3 BB/9 was well in-line with his average. His focus this offseason should be reducing the walks. If he can do that, he could become one of The Show’s best starters.
E-Rod had a chance to win his 20th game on the last day of the season, facing the Orioles. He threw seven innings, and Boston had a one run lead. Unfortunately, Matt Barnes came in for the 8th, and blew it. The Sox walked it off in the 9th, but the damage had been done, and the season ended on a sour note.
The Pitching: Relief Needed
Matt Barnes blowing the save on the last day of the season is the perfect segue to the next topic: the bullpen. Although the bullpen was seen as the Achilles’ Heel of the club, it was more of a mixed bag compared to the overall negative performance of the rotation.
The breakout star from the relievers was Brandon Workman. Coming off of a decent season in 2018, there wasn’t much expected of him in 2019. Nobody expected him to turn into one of the best relievers in baseball, which is exactly what happened. He allowed only 15 earned runs all year long. His stats improved across the board, from his sub-2.00 ERA, to his FIP, WHIP, Hits per 9, HR/9, and K/9. Only his BB/9 rose to blemish his record, but otherwise, he was spotless. He eventually found his niche as the closer, a position that had been a question mark all year long. He’ll likely take up that role again in 2020 unless someone better comes along.
Besides Workman, there were other relievers who had good years, even breakout years. Marcus Walden was a journeyman who’d spent his entire career in different farm systems. The Red Sox promoted him, and he pitched to a respectable 3.81 ERA with a 3.69 FIP. Rookie Josh Taylor also had an impressive year, posting a 3.04 ERA and a 3.11 FIP.
Rookie fireballer Darwinzon Hernandez went through a 23 game stretch between mid-July and early September where he posted an excellent 2.31 ERA with a staggering .181 batting average against. He ended the season poorly, with a 4.45 ERA. Hernandez does have control issues and an atrocious walk rate (7.7 BB/9) that needs to be addressed, but the organization has high hopes for him nonetheless.
Other relievers had down years. Matt Barnes blowing the save in game 162 and dashing E-Rod’s 20 win bid was a microcosm of his season. He tended to give up runs in high leverage spots where a shutdown effort was required. Ryan Brasier, the 31-year-old journeyman who played in Japan, made waves in his relief efforts for Boston last year. This year, he took a step back in just about every stat.
Tyler Thornburg, who never really recovered from thoracic outlet surgery, was released by the team in July. Also in July, the Red Sox traded for Andrew Cashner in the hopes of reinforcing the rotation. Despite serving a better role in the bullpen, he was a disappointment overall. Other relievers who shuttled to and from Pawtucket, like Ryan Weber, Josh Smith, and Bobby Poyner were either ineffective or outright detrimental to Boston’s efforts.
The Red Sox relievers pitched to a 4.40 ERA, 18th in baseball. Opposing hitters had a .238 average, 10th in the league, and a .736 OPS, 12th. The bullpen recorded the 2nd most strikeouts in baseball. So they clearly weren’t getting hit hard. How did they post such a high ERA without high contact? The issue was about control. Boston relievers hit the fourth most batters in baseball and issued more walks than any team in the league.
So while the bullpen was slightly better than the rotation, neither was much of a help. Opposing hitters made Boston pitchers work for their outs, regardless of whether it was a starter or a reliever. The pitching staff threw 4.09 pitches per plate appearance, the highest rate in baseball. The pitchers also had a save percentage of only 51.56%, second to last. The Orioles were the only team with a lower save percentage, 50.00%. The Red Sox pitching staff had the 11th highest WHIP in the majors (1.379).
To top it all off, Red Sox pitchers tended to give up hits in critical situations. With runners in scoring position, opponents’ OPS jumped to .847 against Boston, the fourth highest rate in the league. The only teams to have a worse opponent OPS with RISP were the Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Baltimore Orioles.
Although the pitching was bad and the season was frustrating, that’s not to say the year was a complete waste. The offense carried the Red Sox to a championship last year, and every member of the lineup returned for 2019.
The offense was even better this time around than it was a year ago. In 2018, the Red Sox scored an average of 5.45 runs per game. This year, that number jumped to 5.56, fourth most in the league. The overall team OPS was .787 in 2018. This year, the OPS jumped to .806, fifth best in baseball.
It wasn’t just the stats that suggested that the offense had improved. It was noticeable at the plate as well. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts, coming off of an impressive 2018, improved even further. Hitting .309 with a .939 OPS, plus the fourth most hits in the AL, he made a case for best shortstop in the American League.
With 52 doubles and 33 homeruns, he joined Alex Rodriguez as the only major league shortstops to have a 50+ double, 30+ homer season. His 6.8 WAR ranked 4th among AL position players, and while the AL MVP will undoubtedly be Mike Trout, Bogaerts has a solid case for consideration. Expressing a desire to stay in Boston, he signed a team-friendly extension early in the season. With the heart and talent of a true major leaguer, it’s likely that Bogaerts will continue to trend upwards.
The real breakout star was the 22-year-old third-baseman. He showed signs of a potential breakout last October, smashing a 3-run home run off of Justin Verlander to clinch the ALCS. This year he fully came into his own. Hitting over .325 for most of the season, Devers ended the year with a .311 average and a .916 OPS. He led the American League in doubles (54) and total bases (359). He was second in the AL in hits (201) behind Whit Merrifield. Devers is just the fourth player in franchise history to record 100+ RBI before turning 23. The last to do it was Hall of Famer Jim Rice. His incredible season, coupled with his age, was comparable to the early seasons of some of the all-time greats like A-Rod, Ted Williams, and Albert Pujols.
His defense improved dramatically as well. From Opening Day (March 28) until the end of April, Devers made eight errors and had a fielding percentage of .917. From May 1 until the end of the year, he made only 14 errors and had a fielding percentage of .958, just below the league average of .960. Overall, he made 22 errors at the third-base position, the most at third-base and the second most in baseball, but that’s skewed negatively because of a bad April. Devers will likely work on his defense in the offseason. If that happens, 2020 could be the first year his fielding stats are all in the positive.
Bogaerts and Devers made all-time history as the only teammates in MLB to hit 30+ home runs and 50+ doubles in the same season. With so much raw talent at the third base and shortstop positions, it’s clear that the Red Sox have one of the top left infields in baseball, if not the best. It’s easy to overlook the other significant contributions made by the rest of the offense because of that.
The reigning MVP had a solid year, but he didn’t set the world on fire like he did last season. He and JD Martinez both would’ve had difficulty replicating what they did in 2018.
Betts will likely enter free agency in the 2020 offseason. At the beginning of the year, he and Andrew Benintendi switched positions in the line-up. This was done to give Betts more RBI opportunities, but the experiment failed. Once he moved back to leadoff, he and Benintendi both improved. The reigning MVP ended the year with a .295 average and a .915 OPS. He led the majors in runs scored (135), but overall he cooled off compared to last year. He did have an excellent September, hitting .354 with a 1.063 OPS.
Martinez started the year slow but managed another excellent season. He trended downward from last year, when he ranked third in the AL in OPS (1.031) and second in AL batting average (.330, behind Mookie Betts). This year, the slugger hit .304 with a .939 OPS. This offseason, he’ll make a decision on whether to exercise a player option or elect free agency. Exercising his option would net him $23.75 million guaranteed. Martinez struggled to find a home in the 2018 offseason because of a slow free agent market, and might be hesitant to try it again.
Left-fielder Andrew Benintendi took a step back this season. Last year, he hit .290 with an .830 OPS, which dropped .266 with a .774 OPS. He was worth 3.9 WAR last year, which dropped to 1.7. Benintendi struggled heavily in the leadoff spot, and it’s very unlikely Alex Cora will try that experiment again.
With Dustin Pedroia and Steve Pearce both out for the season early, a fresh face was needed to help fill out the infield. Enter the Ice Horse. Top-ranked Red Sox prospect Michael Chavis found his way to The Show, and gave fans a lot to be excited about. He burst onto the scene, hitting .313 with a 1.061 OPS and 3 home runs through his first ten days.
Ice Horse did cool off significantly from mid-May onward, struggling with strikeouts. He was finally sent to the IL in early August, his season cut short. With some beautifully executed defensive plays and a ton of power at the plate, Chavis has a lot of potential. He just needs to mitigate his strikeouts. His strikeout swinging percentage was 11.6% higher than the league average, and his contact percentage was 12.7 lower than average. If he can increase his plate discipline, the sky is the limit.
Although the elite offense became even stronger, it did have its issues nonetheless. Coming up with clutch hits was a struggle all year long. The Red Sox had the most hits in baseball (1,554), but they also left the second most men on base (1,170), behind only the Milwaukee Brewers. They also grounded into the sixth most double plays in baseball.
Overall, the season was nothing short of a disappointment. The Red Sox failed to defend their title. They failed to win the division. They failed to even make the playoffs. Outside of some personal milestones and team records, the season didn’t have many exciting, memorable moments.
To top it all off, the team’s failures had huge repercussions for the organization itself. Dave Dombrowski, President of Baseball Operations, was fired by the ownership in mid-September. He had led the Baseball Ops department since 2015. Pitching coach Dana LeVangie was demoted to the role of pro scout, along with advanced scouting manager Steve Langone.
The Red Sox have yet to fill any of the holes in their staffing teams. A lot of players on the current roster will enter free agency, either this year or next. To top it all off, the financial penalties of the luxury tax loom large over every decision that will be made in the offseason. Cutting payroll and mitigating the tax is the number one priority of the ownership. Add this all together, and it’s clear the organization will face tough challenges in the immediate future, and probably for the next couple years.
That’s for the future. This article is about the past. A past that many Red Sox fans will be eager to leave behind. It’ll be remembered as the year of Rafael Devers, of a championship dynasty that could’ve been. On the other hand, maybe a mediocre 2019 was the price to pay for a tremendous, unbelievable run the year before. If that’s the case, then Sox fans everywhere should take solace in that. The bad years fade into obscurity. The good ones are remembered forever.
The 2019 Red Sox had sky-high hopes for the season. They failed to meet the lofty expectations, and finished 84-78, six games above .500, third in the AL East. Fans of less fortunate teams would call that a success. They’d claim that Boston fans are spoiled. They’re probably right. Given the expectations, the mountain of talent, and the incredibly high payroll, it’s difficult to qualify the season as anything less than a failure.
For that, I’m giving the 2019 Red Sox a D+. They never really came close to performing to expectations. It seemed like they had been playing from behind since Opening Day. The offense shined when it didn’t need to, and dimmed when it needed to shine. The pitching was a disaster, E-Rod and Brandon Workman excluded. There was some good. The team finished above .500. Devers and Bogaerts were absolute pleasures to watch. Even so, it’s time to move on, and put 2019 in the history books as the year that could’ve been. There will be another Red Sox Retrospective next year. All we can do is hope for better results.
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