After the signing of Trevor Story, Fox Sports MLB on Twitter posed a question: “Do the Red Sox have the best lineup in the AL East?”
At the time, there was lots of room for excitement. Coming off an ALCS finish, the Red Sox were adding a decorated slugger to a lineup that already featured Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez. But, 16 games in, the offense has not lived up to expectations. Entering Sunday, the Red Sox were 18th in runs per game at 3.73, and they have only managed to score five or more runs through 9 innings in 3 out of their 16 games. Why is this once-heralded lineup struggling so much, and what can they do to fix it?
Setting the Story Straight
The Red Sox’s early-season offense has not been pretty. As it currently stands, the team ranks 23rd in the league in weighted runs created plus at 84, which is an overall offense metric where 100 is league average. They are 18th in batting average, 19th in strikeout rate, 22nd in isolated power, and 24th in home runs per game. On Saturday, the team was no-hit through nine innings-despite facing six different pitchers.
The scariest part of the early-season struggles for Red Sox fans is that many of the players that are expected to hit well are doing so. J.D. Martinez, Alex Verdugo, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers, four of the Red Sox’s best hitters last year, have all been well above average, and three of the four are performing above their projected stats. Jackie Bradley Jr., who was the worst hitter in baseball last season, is performing serviceable at the plate.
Still, the offense should improve. Trevor Story, Kiké Hernandez, and Bobby Dalbec are all above-average hitters that are struggling tremendously at the moment. When Story and Dalbec start hitting the 30-homer potential they have, creating runs will be a lot easier.
But, the Red Sox are not built like a team that can afford injury or their stars to struggle. Christian Vázquez has been a bad major league hitter for most of his career, and he looks like he is going to repeat his dreadful 2021. Christian Arroyo and Travis Shaw, the Red Sox bats off the bench, are both playing like what you would expect from career journeymen. Arroyo has been extremely unlucky and is finally getting regular plate appearances for the first time in his career, but he still has yet to have sustained success at the major league level. Shaw has not had success since 2018, and it appears that his best years are behind him. Even if Story, Hernandez, and Dalbec improve, the Red Sox do not have the depth to fill in if the four hitters playing well right now enter a slump.
To avoid an April overreaction, it’s important to understand that good or great offenses can struggle in small sample sizes. In 2021, Tampa Bay was 15th and San Francisco was 17th in runs per game after April. Both teams would finish in the top 10 in runs per game and ended up winning their respective divisions. So, it is a possibility that the Red Sox’s struggles are just an early-season slump, and by summer they will be hitting like the top-five offense they were expected to be.
However, on a team-wide level, there is one super concerning trend. The Red Sox are 28th in walk percentage, 25th in on-base percentage, and dead last in pitches per plate appearance. While this could be a small-sample anomaly, in 2021, the Red Sox were 20th in walk percentage. The Red Sox have been refusing to take the free pass for a while now, and it is finally coming back to bite them.
It’s hard to understate how important the walk is in modern MLB. With more three-true outcome players, stringing multiple hits together in an inning is becoming rarer, and getting runners on base via the walk allows for solo homers to turn into two and three-run ones. If the Red Sox want to start scoring runs, they need to start taking walks.
Blast From the Past
Fortunately, the Red Sox have already dealt with this problem during last season. Entering the trade deadline, they were 27th in walk rate and coming off a mediocre August which had them finish 16th in runs. After the trade deadline, they finished the season 2nd in baseball in walk rate and soared into the ALCS. So, what changed?
Well, the Red Sox did trade for Kyle Schwarber, who had the 13th highest walk rate in baseball last year. But he alone was not enough to make this dramatic shift. The whole team made it a priority to take more pitches, and it paid off. Bobby Dalbec was able to raise his base-on-balls percentage from 4.4% pre-trade deadline to 9.6% post-trade deadline. While we do not know whether it was Schwarber, Tim Hyers, or someone else who cause this shift in approach, the Red Sox need to start taking that approach now, before they fall too far behind in the AL East race.
Upgrading the Bench
The other major flaw with the offense, its depth, will hopefully get fixed as the season goes on. In the minor leagues, the Red Sox have a plethora of options to upgrade the bench when they are ready. Triston Casas should replace Travis Shaw and serve as a valuable left-handed bat. Jarren Duran can hopefully see his hitting translate to the major leagues this year, and serve as a better bench outfield option than Arroyo. Even Jeter Downs, who has struggled in the minor leagues since being acquired in the Alex Verdugo–Mookie Betts trade, should be an upgrade over Jonathan Arauz.
It is time to panic about the Red Sox offense? Probably. Some flaws show this could be more than an early-season slump. But the tools to fix those problems are at the teams’ disposal. It’s up to Alex Cora and the organization to use them.
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