This Doesn’t Look Like the Red Sox’s Year

On Sunday night, in their 114th contest of the season, the Red Sox lost their 55th game. Normally, this might escape notice — 16 teams beat them to that particular punch — but last year, the Sox didn’t lose their 55th game until October 6 (Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Yankees), that after storming to 108-54 record during the regular season. They would lose just three postseason games, one in each round, en route to their fourth championship of the millennium. This year’s Red Sox do not appear destined to increase that total.

Sunday’s loss was the Red Sox’s eighth in a row, all within the AL East; after taking the first three games of a four-game set from the Yankees at Fenway Park from July 25-27, they lost the series finale, then three straight at home to the Rays before being swept in a four-game series in the Bronx, which knocked them to 14.5 games behind their New York rivals. The skid — which ended with Monday’s 7-5 win over the Royals — was the team’s longest since July 2015; no Sox team of the past three seasons lost more than four straight, and last year’s powerhouse never lost more than three straight.

As a result of the slide, Boston’s playoff odds have dropped precipitously:

Through July 27, the Red Sox were 59-47, eight games back in the AL East (the closest they’d been since June 25) and tied with the A’s for the second AL Wild Card spot. Their playoff odds stood at 64.6%, with a 6.5% chance to win the division and a 58.0% chance of retaining a Wild Card spot; their odds of winning the World Series stood at 6.2%, higher than every team except the Astros (23.6%), Dodgers (18.8%), Yankees (15.7%), and Twins (7.3%). After Sunday, their odds were down to 15.9%, with just a 0.2% shot at the division, and just a 1.4% chance at winning the World Series, lower than 10 other teams. With Monday’s win, which isn’t reflected in the above graph, they’re back to 20.7%, but no closer to the division lead; it’s Wild Card or bust.

Boston’s odds hadn’t been far below 50% this year until the streak. On July 21, when they reached their previous low point at 47.2%, they rallied by winning five out of six against the same Rays and Yankees. They were at 50.4% through July 30, their last game before the trade deadline, but despite clear needs in the bullpen and the rotation, and enough lineup shortcomings to make my Replacement Level Killers lists at first base, second base, and designated hitter, they stood pat. Their only trade in the entire month of July was the acquisition of Andrew Cashner from the Orioles for Elio Prado and Noelberth Romero, a pair of Venezuela-born 17-year-olds currently playing in the Dominican Summer League.

Cashner was lit up during the eight-game streak, just like the rest of the Red Sox starters, including two former Cy Young winners (David Price and Rick Porcello) and a pitcher who spent the better part of the past two seasons contending for the award before injuries and late-season fades (Chris Sale). In fact, the Red Sox didn’t get a single quality start in those eight games. Five times, the starter’s runs allowed exceeded his innings pitched, a disaster start:

Red Sox Rotation Failure, July 28-August 4, 2019
Date Pitcher Opp IP H R ER HR BB K
7/28/19 Chris Sale Yankees 5.1 5 6 6 2 3 7
7/30/19 David Price Rays 4 .1 9 4 4 2 2 9
7/31/19 Rick Porcello Rays 5.2 9 6 6 3 1 7
8/1/19 Andrew Cashner Rays 5.2 7 7 6 0 5 1
8/2/19 Eduardo Rodriguez Yankees 6.2 5 4 4 1 6 8
08/03/19 (1) Chris Sale Yankees 3.2 9 8 8 2 0 4
08/03/19 (2) Brian Johnson Yankees 3.0 8 3 3 1 0 2
8/4/19 David Price Yankees 2.2 9 7 7 2 2 3
Total 37 61 45 44 13 19 41
Average 4.63 10.70 3.16 4.62 9.97

For that streak, the rotation’s ERA was a ghastly 10.70, their FIP a not-so-convenient 7.11. From July 1 through Sunday, the unit posted a 6.23 ERA and 5.43 FIP, both third-worst in the AL; by comparison, the Yankees’ rotation, which was raked over the coals in the month of July, has a 5.83 ERA and 5.73 FIP.

Though its relative ranking is camouflaged by the mediocrity of the rest of the AL, this year’s rotation has taken a significant step back:

Red Sox Rotation, 2018 vs 2019
2018 Rotation 3.77 4 84 3 3.88 4 91 4 14.2 4
2019 Rotation 5.07 5 105 8 4.35 5 96 6 11.8* 8
* = prorated to 162 games. All statistics through August 4.

The rotation’s adjusted ERA is 21 percent higher relative to the league, though their FIP is only five percent higher. The difference has much to do with the defense, but a home run rate that’s jumped from 1.16 per nine to 1.47 hasn’t helped, nor has the slight decline in innings per start (from 5.37 to 5.22), which has exposed a bullpen that’s somewhat shakier.

I’ll get to both the defense and the bullpen momentarily, but it’s worth pointing out the precipitous individual drops that make up that rotation. Sale, who pitched to a sterling 2.11 ERA and 1.98 FIP last year, owns a 4.68 ERA and 3.33 FIP; while his strikeout and walk numbers are still great (34.6% and 6.3%), his home run rate has more than doubled, from 0.63 to 1.49 per nine, and his BABIP has jumped from .283 to .319. Porcello, continuing the up-and-down pattern that has defined his stay with the Red Sox, has slipped from a 4.28 ERA and 4.01 FIP to a 5.54 ERA and 4.83 FIP, including Monday night’s streak-stopping effort. His strikeout rate has plummeted (from 23.5% to 18.2%) while his BABIP has jumped by 25 points (from .285 to .310), and his home run rate is up as well. Price, hit hard in Sunday’s abbreviated start after returning from paternity leave, has seen his ERA rise from last year’s 3.58 to 4.36, though his FIP has dropped, from 4.02 to 3.64, the result of a slightly improved strikeout rate while his walk and homer rates have remained static; even so, his BABIP has jumped from .274 to .338.

Rodriguez’s numbers have fallen off as well (from 3.82 ERA and 3.65 FIP to 4.19 and 4.28, respectively), but the bigger drop has been from the team’s fifth starters and injury fill-ins. Where last year Brian Johnson (13 starts), Nathan Eovaldi and Drew Pomeranz (11 starts apiece), and four other pitchers combined for a 4.65 ERA and 4.69 FIP in 222.2 innings, this year’s bunch — Hector Velazquez (eight starts), Eovaldi, and Cashner (four starts apiece) and four other starters — has been torched for a 6.73 ERA and 5.38 FIP. Where last year’s team went 27-22 in games not started by the front four, this year’s squad is just 12-13, and the only reason they’re not worse is that a good number of those starts have been bullpen- or opener-type games; those starters have averaged around four innings and three runs allowed per turn.

The bullpen, about which I’ve written volumes and have little to add that wasn’t said before — blah blah Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly, blah blah Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier — has taken a downturn as well:

Red Sox Bullpen, 2018 vs 2019
2018 Bullpen 3.72 4 83 4 3.85 3 92 3 3.9 8
2019 Bullpen 4.46 9 93 7 4.18 7 92 7 4.5* 7
* = prorated to 162 games. All statistics through August 4.

Eovaldi, whom president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and manager Alex Cora anointed the closer just before the All-Star break, while he was still rehabbing his way back from arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his right elbow, has been wobbly since returning, allowing six runs while striking out nine in 5.2 innings spread out over six appearances; he has yet to pitch in a save situation. Brasier, who leads the team with seven saves, is currently trying to find himself at Triple-A Pawtucket.

The staff’s decline has been abetted by the Red Sox defense, as you may have ascertained given the many rising BABIPs and ERA/FIP discrepancies above. Where last year’s unit was fifth in the league with a .693 defensive efficiency, three points above league average, this year’s squad is dead last at .668, 21 points below average. By Baseball Prospectus’ Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency they’ve fallen from ninth (-0.3%) to last (-4.04%). They’ve actually improved in terms of DRS (from 12th at -26 to ninth at -11) but fallen in terms of UZR (from sixth at 25.3 to ninth at 5.1), though I’ll note both that the latter doesn’t account for shifts, and that the team’s .313 BABIP and .311 wOBA in such situations were both league worsts through Sunday. DRS is particularly down on the left side of the infield, with Xander Bogaerts a major league-worst 17 runs below average at shortstop and Rafael Devers three below average at third base; the recently released Eduardo Núñez was a combined seven below average at third base, second base, and shortstop.

After the trade deadline passed without the Red Sox adding any help, Dombrowski more or less waved a white flag on the AL East race, saying, “If we were closer to first place, I would have been more open-minded… Realistically, we’re probably playing first for a wild-card spot. I look at that a little differently as far as what you’re trying to do and the risks you’re willing to take.”

The reality is that he was hamstrung both by the team’s payroll and the farm system’s lack of depth. The team’s $236.2 million Opening Day payroll was already the majors’ highest, and for competitive balance tax purposes, it’s at $241.3 million, $35.3 million over the threshold. As second-time offenders who are more than $20 million over the threshold, their bill for this year already comes to $12.4 million. That’s only slightly more than the $11 million they’re paying outfielder Rusney Castillo to languish in the minors, but had they added enough payroll to clear the threshold by $40 million, they would have paid an even steeper surtax and had their top pick in next year’s draft bumped down by 10 spots. As it is, by paying the tax this year, they’ll face a 50% marginal rate for the overage if they exceed next year’s $208 million threshold, with additional surtaxes for going $20 million or $40 million over.

Meanwhile, their farm system ranks last in the majors by our rankings as well as those of MLB Pipeline (Baseball America has them 22nd). They have just one prospect who grades out above a 45 Future Value, 2018 first-round pick Triston Casas, a 19-year-old first baseman now in A-ball who ranks 106th on our list. The system’s overall valuation of $97 million is $20 million less than the 29th-ranked team, the Nationals. While not insurmountable, those two situations limited Dombrowski, who was apparently unwilling to give up Casas, Triple-A third baseman Bobby Dalbec (45 FV, fifth on the team’s list), or rookie infielder Michael Chavis in a deal for Mets closer Edwin Díaz, which would have opened up one hole while helping to close another.

The Red Sox weren’t alone in failing to make an impact move; neither the Yankees nor the Cardinals landed any much-needed rotation help, and the Dodgers, whose own bullpen has been shaky, merely added a sinkerballing lefty reliever few had heard of (the Rays’ Adam Kolarek). Cora put a brave face on the non-activity, saying in part, “I’m not disappointed. This is a team, a group that we trust. I’ve been saying all along that the group has to get better.”

They’ll have to, even to claim a Wild Card spot. The good news is that they have a comparatively soft schedule the rest of the way, with a combined winning percentage of just .487, and they face the Yankees and Rays just four more times apiece; they’ve gone 4-11 and 6-9 against the pair en route to a 28-31 intradivisional record. The bad news is that there’s no cavalry coming to save them. This is who the 2019 Red Sox are, for better or worse.

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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4 years ago

“The good news is that they have a comparatively soft schedule the rest of the way, with a combined winning percentage of just .487, and they face the Yankees and Rays just four more times apiece;”

The problem is that it works both ways. They’re 5.5 games behind the Rays for the second Wild Card spot. And the Rays also have an easy schedule the rest of the way, with only 4 games against the Red Sox and two against the Yankees (all in Tampa). In fact, they’d probably be better off if they had more games left against the Rays since it would give them more opportunities to make up that ground.

Of course, there’s also Cleveland (7.5 games ahead of Boston), Oakland (5 games ahead) and Texas (0.5 game behind) to contend with. Baseball Reference only gives them a 6.8% chance of making the playoffs. If we average that with the 20.7% from Fangraphs, that puts their chances at 13,8%. Which seems about right.

4 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

BTW, here is the remaining strength of schedule for the other 4 teams in the Wild Card hunt:

Rays: .481
Indians .499
A’s .494
Rangers: .507

So they have an easier schedule than the Rangers. But they’re 5+ games behind 3 teams that have schedules just as easy as theirs. Really hard to see how they make up that ground against 2 of those 3 teams. And making matters worse, all of their remaining head-to.head games (4 against Tampa, 3 against Cleveland) are on the road.

4 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

Just remembered that Baseball Prospectus also calculates playoff odds. They have the Red Sox at 7.7%. Fangraphs sure seems like an outlier here…

4 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

I agree with you here. Fangraphs playoff odds seem very slow to move, even when a team is obviously very much worse than the projections show. The ROS win percentage is 3rd best in the MLB behind the Astros and Dodgers. I get strength of schedule, but, they are nowhere near the 3rd best team in the MLB.

Edit: Ha, I didn’t see someone below basically wrote the exact same thing as me before me.

4 years ago
Reply to  carter

I think a big part of things is that they still think Chris Sale is going to be good going forward. When there are absolutely no indications of that at all(and normally in his career he gets much worse in August and especially September)

4 years ago
Reply to  carter

Slow to move but also subject to wild fluctuations. e,g, a 5% change in a single day 110+ games into the season.

4 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

I’ve been wondering if they changed the formulae this year. I’ve felt like there have been a lot of these big moves this year where in the past I always felt FG’s projections had the slowest reaction.
Could just be my memory though.

4 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

“better off if they had more games left against the Rays since it would give them more opportunities to make up that ground.”

Given that they’ve shown almost no ability to beat good teams, that seems doubtful. If they play enough bad teams, maybe they can steal a wild card game and then cross their fingers for about one month of pitching resurrection in October. And I say this as a Red Sox fan. They’re not done, but they so far have shown no evidence of strong competition. The team makeup reminds me of some of the 2000’s aging Yankees teams, with lots of FA dollars and great enough hitting to make playoffs, but shaky pitching and a weak farm that prevented going deep.