The Red Sox Are Once Again Disappointing

© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox may not be as catastrophically awful as the Reds, but at 10-19 they’re running last in the AL East and own the league’s second-worst record ahead of only the Tigers (8-20). Cripes, they’re looking up at the 12-17 Orioles, losers of at least 108 games in each of the last three full seasons. But while Baltimore is in the midst of a seemingly interminable rebuilding effort, Boston is coming off a season in which it won 92 games and fell just two wins short of a World Series berth, and its payroll — $236.6 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes — is over the tax threshold. At the moment, the Red Sox look like the worst team that money can buy.

You’re forgiven if this feels somewhat familiar, because the Red Sox have made precipitous falls something of a specialty. In 2011, they won 90 games, then crashed to 69 wins the following year while carrying a $175 million payroll, second only to the Yankees. They followed that with a 97-win rebound and their third championship in a decade in 2013… only to plummet to 71 wins a year later. They fell even further from 2018 (108 wins) to ’19 (84) than from ’11 to ’12, but they at least finished above .500 in the latter campaign before plummeting to 24-36 — and last place in the division — during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Here’s a quick look at where this start fits in among expansion-era Red Sox teams:

Red Sox Teams With Worst Records Through 29 Games
Year W L Win% W L Win%
1966 8 21 .276 72 90 .444
2020 9 20 .310 24 36 .400
1996 10 19 .345 85 77 .525
2022 10 19 .345 NA
1972 11 18 .379 85 70 .548
1961 12 17 .414 76 86 .469
1964 12 17 .414 72 90 .444
1984 12 17 .414 86 76 .531
2012 12 17 .414 69 93 .426
2019 12 17 .414 84 78 .519
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Since 1961.

This current team is tied with the 1996 edition for the third-worst record to this point. While some of the above squads were able to scramble back above .500, none of them made the playoffs; the slow start cost the 1972 team a spot in the strike-shortened season. No team that has started 10-19 since the playoffs last expanded in 2012 has even claimed a Wild Card spot, though an 11-18 Pirates team did in ’14, and five other 11-18 teams did so from 1995-2011, when each league only awarded one Wild Card spot.

In other words, this is generally not a good place to be, though with the newly-expanded playoff structure and the talent on hand, our Playoff Odds system still gives the Red Sox a 19.8% chance of rallying, though only a 1.1% chance of taking the AL East, where they’re already 10.5 games behind the hot-starting Yankees (20-8).

The chief culprit for the Red Sox’s slow start is their offense, which is scoring just 3.28 runs per game, the third-lowest total in the AL and a rate that most of us wouldn’t have thought physically possible for a team that calls Fenway Park home. The full-season low for an expansion-era Red Sox team is 3.70 runs per game by the 1992 Red Sox, who were 0.62 runs per game below the league average; this one is similarly 0.59 below.

As a team, the Red Sox’s 80 wRC+ ranks 12th in the AL, their 16 homers 13th, their .279 on-base percentage 14th, and their 6.1% walk rate dead last; they’re a slightly more respectable 10th in slugging percentage (.342) and eighth in batting average (.228). Normally, this is the part where I tell you something like, “The team has just three regulars with a wRC+ of 100 or better.” While that’s true in this case, it’s more descriptive to note that those three — namely Xander Bogaerts (156), J.D. Martinez (148), and Rafael Devers (135) — are the only ones with a wRC+ over 65. No big deal, just a lineup with six regulars not just below average, but at or below replacement level.

The most conspicuous player in his underperformance is Trevor Story, whom the Red Sox signed to a six-year, $140 million deal on March 20. The 29-year-old ex-Rockies star was tasked not only with joining a new team late in an abbreviated spring training but with learning a new position, second base. It’s too early to judge his defense, but on the offensive side, nothing has gone right for him, as he’s hit .194/.276/.269 (62 wRC+) without a homer in 105 plate appearances, that while striking out one-third of the time. The big concern is that he’s hitting just .171 and slugging .220 against fastballs, compared to .269/.495 last year, and his average exit velocity when making contact with those pitches has dropped from 92.9 mph to 90.3, that while his whiff rate has increased from 23.3% to 31.3%. What’s more, he’s 1-for-19 against fastballs 95 mph or higher. Maybe he’s still rusty after reporting late, maybe he left his bat speed in Colorado, or maybe the concerns about his past right elbow injuries are valid.

The story beyond Story gets worse, as holdovers Enrique Hernández, Alex Verdugo, and Bobby Dalbec, all of whom turned in a wRC+ in the 107-110 range last year, haven’t even lived up to the newcomer’s offensive standard. Hernández, who enjoyed a breakout as an everyday player last year and ranked behind only Bogaerts and Devers with his 4.1 WAR, is hitting .176/.252/.284 (57 wRC+) with one homer in 115 PA; worse, he’s hitting .143/.200/.208 in 85 PA against righties, undercutting his claim on everyday play. He leads the majors in popups with 12, four more than any other player, and his 27.3% hard-hit rate places him in the ninth percentile, though his 7.4% barrel rate is in the 48th, a more typical placement for him. Like Story, he’s crashed against fastballs, from .282/.492 last year to .161/.226 this year (and .125/.167 against righties), with a drop from 92.4 mph to 89.4 mph in terms of average exit velocity. He’s struggled against breaking pitches as well (.143/.214).

Driven by a .207 BABIP, Verdugo is hitting just .212/.246/.327 (56 wRC+), but he’s making much better contact than that line suggests. His 8.4% barrel rate, while middling, is actually a career high, and while neither his average exit velocity nor his hard-hit rate are impressive, his .285 xBA and .534 xSLG are quite similar to Martinez’s .290 and .558. Dalbec’s BABIP is even lower (.196), and he’s “hitting” .139/.225/.215 (31 wRC+) with one homer in 89 PA. His 31.5% strikeout rate actually represents a three-point drop from last year, but his barrel rate has fallen from 20.2% to 7.4%. He’s just 1-for-29 when putting breaking or offspeed pitches into play, and his .104 xBA and .145 xSLG on those balls isn’t much better.

Jackie Bradley Jr., while neither a newcomer nor a holdover — he’s back via trade after a very rough season in Milwaukee — has added to the offensive woes by hitting .202/.264/.298. If the small-sample metrics are to be believed (and I would generally caution against that), he’s offset that misery with excellent defense (6 DRS, 3 OAA, 1.7 UZR) so far.

Speaking of which, without getting too wrapped up in any single player’s defense — particularly that of Story, given his quick conversion to the keystone — it’s noteworthy that as a team, the Red Sox have improved markedly in turning batted balls into outs relative to last year. The team’s .659 defensive efficiency was the AL’s worst in 2021, 21 points below that of any other team and 35 points below league average. They’re at .714 this year, ninth in the league but four points above average. As their problems go, this is not one of them. The better defense has helped the Red Sox’s pitching, but it’s worth noting that in the current environment, its 4.07 runs allowed per game — which is tied for seventh in the league — is still 0.15 runs above average. Given the park adjustments, their overall 99 ERA- and 105 FIP- put them more or less in the middle of the AL pack.

Despite the losses of Eduardo Rodriguez to free agency and Chris Sale to a stress fracture in his ribcage, the rotation has collectively performed respectably, pitching to a 3.28 ERA (fourth in the AL) and 3.88 FIP (eighth). Both their 8.2% walk rate and 1.12 homers per nine are on the high side, but their 23.6% strikeout rate and 15.4% strikeout-to-walk differential are among the AL’s top half-dozen. If you needed a reminder that we’re in small-sample theater, here’s one: of the six starters they’ve used, four have BABIPs of .256 or lower while the other two are at .319 or higher, and all but swingman Garrett Whitlock have an ERA-FIP differential of at least 0.94 runs in one direction or the other.

Of those six starters, only Nick Pivetta has been significantly worse than league average in both FIP (4.42) and ERA (6.08); he’s been hit hard, as his 93.2 mph average exit velocity and 11.7% barrel rate attest. Nathan Eovaldi’s barrel rate matches that of Pivetta, but his average exit velocity is over two clicks lower. He’s outpitched his 2.14 homers per nine to put up a 2.65 ERA. Tanner Houck, who has made four starts and three relief appearances, has been lit for a 5.70 ERA despite just a 3.46 FIP. He’s been victimized by a .333 BABIP (a 91.0 mph average exit velocity hasn’t helped) but he’s also walking 10.9% of all hitters while striking out just 22.8%.

Houck’s move between the rotation and bullpen owed something to his unvaccinated status. In mid-January, the Canadian government ended its special exemption for professional and amateur athletes traveling to the country, meaning that they now have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to play. Houck, who otherwise would have started during the team’s April 25-28 trip, was moved to the bullpen just before that series and spent those four days on the restricted list. Whitlock joined the rotation as Houck left; the team lost his start in Toronto, 1-0. With Rich Hill now on the COVID-19 IL and Michael Wacha landing on the IL due to a strained intercostal, there’s not only room for both Houck and Whitlock for the moment, but they’ll need further reinforcement until Hill returns, and as the season progresses, they’ll have to mind Whitlock’s innings total as they ramp him up from last year’s 73.1. The cavalry is not coming anytime soon, as Sale, whose rehab was recently stalled by “a non-baseball medical setback” that was not COVID-related, isn’t likely to return before late June. Free agent addition James Paxton, who’s rehabbing from April 2021 Tommy John surgery, was targeting a return around the All-Star break, but a recent bout of posterior elbow soreness will push that timeline back.

While the rotation has been good, Boston’s bullpen has not; its 4.19 ERA is second-to-last in the AL, and its 3.95 FIP just 12th. The team’s nine blown saves are three more than any other AL club, and its 22 inherited runners scored tops as well. And while the format may be to blame more than the individual pitchers, the Sox are 0-6 in extra-inning games, including four lost on walk-off hits. On a related note, they’re 3-7 in one-run games, tied with the A’s for the second-most losses by that margin.

Matt Barnes, who landed a two-year, $18.75 million extension in the middle of last season, saved a team-high 24 games but struggled so mightily in the second half of last year (6.48 ERA, 5.75 FIP) that he lost the closer’s job. Manager Alex Cora declined to anoint a new one this spring, a choice that chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom recently defended, but it’s tempting to wonder about the road not taken. As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal noted, Bloom could have chosen to spend on available closers Kenley Jansen or Kendall Graveman; for that matter, old friend Craig Kimbrel was available. The current configuration hasn’t worked out; five relievers each have one save (including Whitlock), but five of the blown save chances have come in the ninth inning or later. Barnes has been hit for a 7.84 ERA and 4.82 FIP as batters have used his fastball — which is averaging just 94.1 mph, 1.7 mph below last season — as a piñata (.385 AVG/.692 SLG). With his whiff rate on his curve dropping significantly, his strikeout rate has crashed through the floor, from last season’s stellar 37.8% to a paltry 16.3%, while his walk rate has risen from 9.0% to 12.2%.

Of their other high-leverage relievers, lefty Matt Strahm (2.70 ERA, 1.88 FIP) and righty Ryan Brasier (2.70 ERA, 2.78 FIP) have pitched well, but lefty Jake Diekman (3.72 ERA, 5.77 FIP) and righty Hansel Robles (2.19 ERA, 4.78 FIP) less so; Diekman has walked an astronomical 17.8% of all hitters. For all of the matchup-based implications that a closer-by-committee situation carries, it’s noteworthy that when facing right-handed hitters, the team’s lefty relief options — Strahm, Diekman, and Austin Davis — have yielded a .354 OBP (third in the majors) and .336 wOBA (fourth). That’s not going to get the job done.

In a division that figured to have four teams contending for the league’s six playoff spots, the Red Sox were estimated to have a 61.3% chance of joining the October fun according to our Playoff Odds. They’re suddenly in an all-too-familiar hole, and with Martinez and Eovaldi among their 10 pending free agents (including Bradley, whose $12 million mutual option is an obvious no from a club standpoint given his 2021-22 performance), and Bogaerts holding an opt-out after the season, it’s likely that Bloom will have to open the storefront if the Sox continue to lag behind, so as to avoid paying the CBT. The good news is that aside from Story and Sale, the team’s high-salaried players are the ones performing well and will have trade value; it’s the mid-priced supporting cast that’s flopped. But for a team that’s just two years removed from trading Mookie Betts to alleviate their tax problems, this routine is wearing pretty thin.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

As a Yankee fan, I do wonder if “win title, be terrible” is more or less annoying than “never actually be bad but don’t quite win title for a long time.”

That said, I will never complain, really, considering all the rings from age 10-23 for me.

I just wonder if this cycle of whiplash is more or less annoying.

1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

I much prefer the latter, personally. For example, to use basketball as an example, I prefer the current Celtics (where they are good or very good for the past 7 years but not really true contenders) to the Big 3 years (where they were really good for 5 years and won 1 title, but then were bad or mediocre for another 4 years).

I’m also a White Sox fan (I know, it’s weird), and I would rather them be really solid for a bunch of years even with no title, over the 2005 team that made the playoffs once in 7 years but happened to luck into a championship.

But it may be because I just really prefer watching playoff games, so the more chances to watch my team in the playoffs the better. Even if they never get all the way.

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

As a Twins fan, I no longer enjoy watching playoff games. At least not ones the Twins are involved in.

Last edited 1 year ago by cowdisciple
1 year ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

As a Mariners fan I enjoy watching playoff games. Hopefully we can get into our next one before 2044.

1 year ago
Reply to  dl80

I think that’s the logic for why they expanded the playoffs (in MLB and in other sports.) On average, for good or ill, the belief is that more fans on average are happier about making the playoffs than people who are annoyed because their team that was better didn’t win it all. (And that fans are a lot happier about sneaking into the playoffs than finishing one or two games back in a tight divisional race.)

Somewhere in the limit, though, you make the 162 game season seem pointless; the NBA may have started to reach that point with their regular season.

Last edited 1 year ago by JohnThacker
1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

Freaking 9 year playoffs!

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

That the NBA “may have” expanded too far is being very charitable. It. Never. Ends.

Mitchell Mooremember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Money grabbers gonna grab.

1 year ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

The NHL is no better.

Tim Mainella
1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

Are you really asking if four rings in the past 20 years is better or worse than one

1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

It’s personal preference, obviously, but I always said I’d prefer the Atlanta’s decade of 1996-2005 to that same span in Miami, even though the Braves lost 2 World Series in those years and the Marlins won 2 (Atlanta had their victory back in ’95). And that’s because the Braves played in the postseason every year, while Miami played in none except the two where they snuck in as a Wild Card and then went all the way. Postseason baseball is fun baseball, but it’s also a crapshoot: the best teams don’t always win. But watching a postseason run is its own reward, even if it doesn’t end in the ultimate victory.

But I’m a Mariners fan, so of course I would say that.

1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

As a Yankees fan, I’m thrilled that the Yankees have been good every year for a long time and managed to stay in the race, at least marginally, in even their down years last decade. My enjoyment from baseball is driven much more by the day in, day out routine of following the team during the regular season than the crap shoot of October. Sure, I’m a bit jealous of Boston’s recent championships but I wouldn’t trade that consistency for boom and bust.

1 year ago
Reply to  keithk

I feel the same as a Cardinals fan.

David Wiersmember
1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

A’s fan chiming in uninvited:

The three years contending, three years rebuilding gets old. I’d infinitely prefer to have seen a title — even if it means no playoffs for the seven years before and after the title.

But I’m also a Tottenham fan, so not winning is the norm.

1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

My take as a Sox fan: I think it’s more enjoyable to root for a team that is consistently excellent year to year. Your team is enjoyable for the entire six month season and then occasionally a bit into the playoffs. The championships are tons of fun, but they are short periods of rooting excitement, somewhat flukey, and let’s face, really only good for bragging rights.