Grading the Red Sox at the All-Star Break
We are halfway through the 2019 season. How have the Red Sox performed, and what can they improve?
The baseball world has descended on Cleveland for the All-Star break. We’re at the mid-way point of the 2019 season. The standings are starting to solidify. MVP discussions will start gaining momentum. Teams will soon decide if they have a chance at making a playoff push, or if they should cut their losses, start selling off trade pieces, and initiate rebuilds.
One team that will have to make that decision is the Boston Red Sox. The team has had an up-and-down first half. With a 49-41 record, they are 3rd in the AL East, 9.0 games out of 1st place, 2.5 behind the Rays, and 2.0 out of a Wild Card spot. It’s not an ideal position for the defending World Series champions. What have they done right, and what have they done wrong? What can be improved as the club moves into the second half?
The Red Sox boast one of the most potent line-ups in the league. This is the offense that drove the team to 108 wins last season, and it remained largely intact, minus the departure of second baseman Ian Kinsler. In fact, this year’s offense is even stronger than last year’s.
The team has the best batting average in the league at .272 (tied with the Minnesota Twins). Last year, that average was .266. In addition to the excellent average, the team ranks 3rd in runs per game (5.65), which is 0.20 higher than last year’s club. Boston’s OPS is .807, fourth-best in the majors, and higher than last year’s .787. They’re second in total bases per game. They lead the league in hits per game, on-base percentage, and runs scored. The Red Sox are hitting more, and scoring more runs this season.
The monstrous offense that drove the team through 2018 has only gotten more powerful. A big reason for this stems from 22-year-old third baseman Rafael Devers, who is having a breakout, MVP-caliber year. In addition, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and catcher Christian Vazquez are both having career years. The level of power and production in this line-up should be a source of concern for pitchers around the league.
The Pitching – Part One
In addition to the top-notch offense, the pitching staff has some good things to report, despite several issues. Red Sox pitchers have recorded 914 strikeouts, the most in the league. The Houston Astros have posted the 2nd most, 900.
Starter David Price has been excellent. With Chris Sale’s ongoing struggles, which will be covered down below, Price has stepped up beautifully. He’s 7-2 with a 3.24 ERA. That ERA is skewed high due to one bad start against the Texas Rangers. Up to that point, his ERA was 2.70, and in his four starts since, he’s got a 2.45. He has been, without a doubt, the club’s most consistent starter.
In addition to Price, some of the relievers have been solid overall, despite some major issues with the bullpen overall. Josh Taylor started the season rough, his ERA reaching 10.80 on June 8, a terrible outing against the Rays in a game the Red Sox were losing anyway. Since then, he’s been electric: a 1.74 ERA in 10.1 innings with 15 strikeouts. Opponents have hit .200 with a .482 OPS against him during that period.
Heath Hembree, one of the team’s worst relievers early in the season, has slowly but steadily improved his numbers. His ERA peaked at 5.56 in late April. Since then, he’s allowed only two runs in 18.1 innings, a 0.98 ERA. In those 18.1 innings, he’s struck out 27 hitters.
Finally, Brandon Workman has a record of 8-1, giving him the best win-loss percentage of any pitcher in the American League. His 1.80 ERA and 12.4 SO/9 looks nothing like a man with a career 4.38 ERA and 8.2 SO/9. Time will tell if this keeps up, but for now, Workman is the best reliever the Red Sox have, and probably one of the best in the league.
The Pitching – Part Two
So how are the Red Sox in third place in the AL East? How are they struggling to earn a Wild Card spot? What’s been going wrong? To answer that, look to the pitching staff. While the pitching staff is on pace to strike out more hitters than any other team, the pitching overall has taken a severe downturn compared to last year. In 2018, the Red Sox pitching staff posted a 3.75 ERA, seventh best in the league. They also posted a 1.246 WHIP, ninth best in the league.
This year, the team has a 4.59 ERA(17th in the league), and a 1.341 WHIP(16th in the league). The WHIP has risen almost a full batter, and the ERA has risen nearly an entire run. The HR/9 has risen from 1.08 to 1.28. The Hits/9 has risen from 7.93(sixth best in 2018) to 8.70(15th best in 2019). Last year, opponents hit Red Sox pitching at a rate of .237, which ranked eighth lowest in the league. This year, they’re hitting .250 against the team, which is 15th lowest.
The Starting Rotation
Why is this happening? A large part is due to weakness in the starting rotation. Playoff hero Nathan Eovaldi has been on the Injured List for most of the season. That created a sizable hole that needs to be filled. The team has tried relying on various spot starters, but the results have been disappointing: Of all the pitchers the team used in Eovaldi’s spot, not a single one has an ERA under 5.
Besides the hole created by Eovaldi’s absence, some of the starters in the rotation just haven’t been performing as they should. Former Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, for example, is 6-7 with a 5.33 ERA. While he had an excellent May (posting a 3.34 ERA), his June was very bad(posting a 6.46 ERA). That included a disastrous start in the London Series, where he only lasted a third of an inning while giving up six runs to the Yankees.
Ace Chris Sale is also having an unusually forgettable year. His win-loss record is an abysmal 3-8, and his ERA sits at 4.04, which, if the season ended today, would be his worst year yet. The win-loss isn’t entirely his fault. Although the Red Sox offense is one of the best in the league, it seems to sputter and die with Sale on the mound. On average, he gets 3.74 runs in support, which isn’t difficult to overcome. Adding to that, he has nine quality starts, more than anyone else on the club. His strikeout numbers are still incredible, with an SO/9 second only to the Astros’ Gerrit Cole. Whatever the issue is, Sale just hasn’t been himself.
While some relievers have shined brightly this year, the bullpen overall has been very bad. With the departure of closer Craig Kimbrel and innings-eater Joe Kelly, the Red Sox turned to a trio of Workman, Matt Barnes, and Ryan Brasier to form the bullpen’s core. As mentioned, Workman has worked out just fine. Barnes and Brasier have been issues.
Barnes started the season strong, posting a 1.99 ERA as late as June 1. The last month, however, has been a struggle for the right-hander. His ERA from June 2 to July 6 is an abysmal 8.79, and his season ERA has risen to 4.62. He’s also thrown 10 wild pitches, second most in the majors. Hopefully it’s just exhaustion from having to pick up the slack from sub-par starts. The All-Star break will likely be good for him, letting him rest up for the second half.
Brasier has just been more or less a disappointment this year. He spent one year with the Los Angeles Angels before leaving the country to pitch in Japan. He returned stateside last year, and invited teams to an open tryout. The Red Sox signed him, and in his first season back in the US he posted a 1.60 ERA in 33.2 innings. Red Sox Nation was delighted. Here was a pitcher who landed out of nowhere, and went on to have an excellent, albeit limited, 2018.
His 2019 has been quite different. In 37.2 innings, he’s posted a 3.58 ERA. His FIP has risen from 2.83 in 2018, to 4.87 in 2019. His SO/9 is up, 7.8 in 2018 to 8.4 in 2019. But the BB/9 has risen even higher, 1.9 to 2.9. His strikeout to walk rate has dropped from 4.14 to 2.92. Besides the strikeout rate, Brasier has basically regressed in the first half of 2019. That has to change in the coming weeks.
Room for Improvement
The Red Sox are hardly finished yet. They still have 73 games left to play. A strong second-half push could cement a Wild Card spot, but some things have to change if the team is going to have any chance at defending its title.
1. The Starting Pitching
This is one of the most critical issues, and much of it involves Chris Sale and Rick Porcello. The starting rotation needs to go deeper into games. Last year, Boston’s rotation was one of the top five in baseball. In the first half of 2019, it couldn’t have been higher than top 10 or top 15. That has to change. Eovaldi needs to come back as soon as possible. Sale and Porcello have to figure it out. The spot starter approach needs to be replaced with something more permanent. Dave Dombrowski, President of Baseball Operations, has reportedly been shopping around for a fifth starter.
2. A Specified Closer
This is another critical issue. With the bullpen already stretched thin due to the rotation problems, a specified ninth inning pitcher would go a long way in giving relief to the relievers. The Red Sox let closer Craig Kimbrel walk away after the World Series victory, hoping they could find a closer in one of the guys they already had. The approach, called closer by committee, has failed. The club has blown more saves than almost any team in baseball.
Dombrowski and manager Alex Cora have declared that they plan on putting Eovaldi into the pen to close games when he returns from the IL. Time will tell if this new approach will work, but there’s a lot of risk that comes with it. Completely removing Eovaldi from the rotation almost guarantees the need to trade for a fifth starter. Given his injury history, having him pitch once a day, four or five days a week, might be a bad idea.
If anything, this should be used as a temporary fix, a way to ease Eovaldi back into a pitching routine. Using Eovaldi as a temporary stopgap would allow Dombrowski to look for a real closer, which should be the prioirty. Will Smith from the Giants is likely to be traded, as is Ken Giles on the Blue Jays, and Kirby Yates on the Padres. Any one of these guys could seal the ninth inning far better than Eovaldi likely can. Dombrowski should be on the lookout for them or any other decent specialist to bring in for the last outs.
3. Mookie Betts
This definitely isn’t a critical issue compared to the bullpen and rotation needs, but it should be addressed regardless. The reigning MVP has had a decent year by anyone else’s standards, but it’s Mookie Betts. He’s one of the top five best players in the league, and he hasn’t lived up to his boundless potential. 2018 was a year of possibilities for him. He doesn’t need to win MVP every single year, but being more productive at the plate would go a long way in helping the club. An extra run here and there could help cushion any rotation issues or bullpen implosions. It might mean the difference between this team clinching a postseason berth, and losing it.
With that said, there’s really not much to worry about with him. His batting average and OPS are down from his usual numbers. They’re more comparable to his mediocre (by his standards) 2017 season, but they aren’t bad. In fact, he’s actually still decent at the plate. He leads the majors in runs scored. He ranks fifth in the American League in on-base percentage, and 10th in WAR. He’s had the second most walks in the league, behind only Mike Trout. Five of those walks were intentional, which ranks fourth in the AL. Could that be because he’s the reigning MVP, and pitchers are nervous to face him? Yeah, that seems likely. Betts isn’t having a bad year by any means. It’s just a strange year. With his pending free agency rapidly approaching, surely he would like to have a dominant second half just as much as anybody else.
The first half is over. When the All-Star break comes to an end, the Red Sox will hope to improve. The club hasn’t lived up to its potential, and everyone knows it. Overall, the Red Sox have earned a solid C. The offense is there, even without the booming bats of Mookie Betts and JD Martinez providing the spark. Opposing pitchers should be scared to face this line-up.
And yet, the record is what it is. The Red Sox are still third in the AL East. Despite the top-notch offense and the excellent strikeout numbers, this club is being dragged down by sub-par pitching. The biggest improvement this team could make is on the mound. The line-up is just waiting for the pitchers to show up.
If and when that happens, the second half of 2019 could turn out to be very interesting indeed.
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