Monday, July 14, 2014

Red Sox (Lack of) Offense First Half Review

I'm paraphrasing here, but Occam's razor says the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Well, Occam's razor says the Boston Red Sox are nine games under .500 at the All-Star break, tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for last place in the AL East, because they haven't hit for beans all year.

Ding ding ding! We have a winner.

After leading baseball in runs scored last year, the defending champions rank dead-last in the American League in runs, slugging percentage, and total bases. They rank second-to-last in steals and are third from the bottom in homers, batting average, and OPS.

That's crazy. It's the worst case scenario of a veteran team getting old all at once and the young kids not being ready or able to pick up the slack. What's crazier is that most of the same guys from a year ago for back, with the key exceptions of catcher and center field. Boston basically has the same freaking team, and somehow the best offense in baseball became one of the worst almost overnight.

This is the part where I mention that injuries have played a part, because injuries always play a part on teams that fail to meet expectations. The 2012 Red Sox were crippled by them, last year's team avoided them for the most part, and this year's edition falls somewhere in between. Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks have barely played. Mike Napoli did a quick stint on the DL, but Mike Carp missed more than five weeks. The Red Sox have rarely been at full strength this year.

But even if they had been at full strength all along, I still think they'd only be a .500 team at best. Two-thirds of the outfield still can't hit and neither can the catcher. The left side of the infield has been a mess all season; when Bogaerts was at short he was hitting but playing poor defense, and now that he's at third he can't hit his way out of a paper bag and Drew's even worse. Both halves of the Daniel Nava/Jonny Gomes platoon have fallen off a cliff, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Grady Sizemore can't hold Jacoby Ellsbury's jockstrap, and Boston's big bats--Ortiz, Napoli, and Pedroia--haven't been what they were last year.

All I can say is that the Red Sox better thank their lucky stars for Brock Holt. Because if he doesn't play like an All-Star for 61 games, this team's at least 12 games out and probably has the worst record in the American League as I'm writing this (sorry Rangers fans).

Here's a position by position breakdown of Boston's so-called hitters, none of whom are All-Stars and only one of whom (Ortiz) deserved even a passing glance. Next to each name I'll give a letter grade.

C A.J. Pierzynski (F)
So it turns out signing 37 year-old free agent catchers with a ton of miles on them isn't the best idea after all. DFA'ed by Boston last Wednesday, Pierzynski was a far cry from what he and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were last year, hitting a career low .254/.286/.348 at the time. He'd been durable but replacement level at best, and nobody liked him, so he had to go. 23 year-old Christian Vazquez has replaced him behind the plate and played wonderfully in his first taste of the Show. Whereas Pierzynski was an established veteran on the way down, Vazquez Boston's backstop of the future, a rising star on the way up. Can't wait to see how he does in the second half.

Pierzynski's backup, David Ross, is still one of the better defensive catchers out there but his bat (.600 OPS) has become horrendous. He's a black hole whenever John Farrell inserts him into the lineup despite his ability to still pop the occasional homer.

1B Mike Napoli (B)
Napoli's the only member of the starting nine who's hitting as well as he did last year. His adjusted OPS, wRC+ and wOBA are within one point of what they were last year, even if his offensive profile has changed somewhat. His power's down--hardly surprising for a 32 year-old slugger--but he's made up for that by cutting down on his strikeouts and posting the best walk rate of his career. He's also the only Red Sox besides Ortiz capable of clearing the fences with any regularity, as his 10 home runs are 67 percent more than anyone else on the team not named Papi. He hasn't homered since his game-winning slam off Masahiro Tanaka on June 28th, so look for him to go on a power binge early in the second half.

2B Dustin Pedroia (C+)
Pedroia's power has declined for the fourth straight season, with his slugging percentage falling below .400 and another year of single digit home runs all but certain. What's even more puzzling is his struggles on the bases, where he's been thrown out in six of his eight steal attempts after swiping 119 bases at a 79.33 percent success rate prior to this year. But while Pedroia's regressed in those two key areas, he's still been worth roughly three wins for the Red Sox due to his outstanding defense at second base and solid offensive production: .280/.348/.381 (103 OPS+) with a team-high 26 doubles. Pedrioa's bat his picked up over the last few weeks, which could be a sign of a second half breakout.

SS/3B Xander Bogaerts (C-)
Like most rookies, Bogaerts has experienced his share of ups and downs in his first full season. The 21 year-old was on fire in late May and early June, only to go off the rails shortly after Drew's arrival bumped him over to third base. These last five weeks have been hell for Bogaerts, who endured an 0-for-27 skid at one point and has 11 hits (10 singles) and 32 strikeouts in his last 107 at-bats. His OPS has nosedived almost 200 points and his confidence appears rattled. Farrell wisely moved the kid down in the lineup to help take some of the pressure off him, and now that he's committed to playing the kids Bogaerts should get every opportunity to work his way out of this funk. Hopefully he's able to clear his head over the Break and put the slump behind him in the second half.

SS Stephen Drew (F---)
What a waste of $10 million dollars. Signed by the Sox on May 21st, J.D. Drew's kid brother has been a total bust in his second season in Boston. He's done nothing in his 101 plate appearances this year, batting .151//218/.269 with six extra base hits, five RBI and 30 strikeouts. The two month layoff appears to have affected his timing, as he looks awfully rusty and just can't seem to get into a groove in the batter's box. His poor performance and not-inexpensive price tag make him practically untradeable, so unfortunately it looks like Boston's stuck with him.

Everywhere: Brock Holt (A+)
Can't say enough about Brock Star. Not only has he played every non-pitching position except catcher (which he would definitely play if Farrell asked him to), but he's been on fire at the dish since Boston called him up. Fresh off yesterday's five-hit performance, he's now hitting a ridiculous .327/.371/.463. There's no way he can keep this up of course--his .395 BABiP has to come down eventually--but it's going to be fun watching him try. He's one of the few guys capable of lighting a spark under this veteran-laden, complacent team.

LF Jonny Gomes (D+)
Roughly 10 percent above average with the stick last year, Gomes has been 10 percent below average this year. Not only has his power evaporated but all three rate stats are down considerably, leading to an OPS that's plunged from .771 last year to .680 this year. Throw in his zero baserunning and shoddy defense and Gomes has been replacement level at best. He'll be lucky to reach 10 home runs this year after exceeding that number in eight of his last nine seasons.

CF Jackie Bradley, Jr. (D)
Bradley's defense has been tremendous, but his bat's been a massive disappointment. His glovework is good enough to keep him comfortably above replacement level, but he gives back a lot of that value at the plate and really needs to start hitting better in order to become an everyday center fielder. Bradley's been better lately, batting .371/.436/.429 over his most recent 10 games spanning the past two weeks, but where's the power? The 24 year-old strikes out way too much--in over one fourth of his plate appearances--for a guy with only one home run and an .084 Iso. His walk rate's solid at just under nine percent, helping him sustain a not-unplayable .305 OBP, but if he's not going to hit for power or run much (six steal attempts thus far) than he needs to compensate by reaching base more often. I don't care if he plays better defense than Willie Mays; he can't be a regular with the worst OPS of AL outfielders

RF Daniel Nava (C-)
Everyone knew Nava wouldn't be able to duplicate last year's stellar and completely unexpected .303/.385/.445 performance, but few could have seen him hitting regressing so much that he's having the worst season of his career. His .330 OBP is actually quite good, but his .310 slugging percentage is unacceptable for an outfielder who can't run and plays average defense at best. Nava's never going to be a big power hitter, but he needs to slug closer to his .397 career mark than .300. To be fair, he's more like the 2013 version of Nava lately with a .330/.419/.374 batting line since the calendar flipped to June. He seems to have turned things around at the plate, but he's always been prone to streaks so who knows how long that will last?

Can't say much about the Flyin' Hawaiian other than that he's battled injuries and the Sox desperately need him to return. But when he has played, he's played more like the mediocre Victorino of 2012 than the All-Star caliber one from a year ago.

DH David Ortiz (B+)
As expected, Ortiz has remained Boston's best hitter, leading the club in home runs and RBI  by wide margins as well as walks, total bases, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. At 38 he's continued to hit, albeit not quite at the otherworldly level hes been at the last three years. A near-70 point freefall in BABiP has caused his average to tumble more than 50 points to .255, which would be the lowest of his Boston career outside of his abysmal .238 showing in 2009. Such a drastic drop off seems best explained by his batted ball data, which reveals a steep decline in line drive rate and a significant uptick in fly ball rate. That, combined with a lack of protection behind him (he leads the major leagues in intentional walks with 16, more than the rest of the Red Sox put together) and the presence of defensive shifts, explains why his BABiP and batting average are in the toilet.

That said, Ortiz continues to age gracefully and has showed no other signs of significant decline. His walk and strikeout rates have held steady and while his power has waned a bit, it remains elite as seen by his .231 Iso. Papi's on pace for his eighth season with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI, benchmarks ZiPS and Steamer say he'll reach (but not by much). He's already cleared 20 homers for the 13th straight season, the longest active streak in baseball, and has twice as many big flies as anybody else on the Red Sox roster. Assuming Cooperstown doesn't fall off a cliff or suffer a serious injury in the second half, he appears poised to deliver on the contract extension he signed for next year over the winter.

Parting shot: Jonathan Herrera was a disaster and Grady Sizemore just couldn't hack it. I'm glad Cherington came around and started promoting his minor league talent like Vazquez and Mookie Betts, if only because the youngsters can't possibly be any worse than Boston's established major league players.

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