What happened to the Boston Red Sox?
Disappointingly mired in the 2019 wild-card race, the defending World Series champion is hosting the New York Yankees in a four-game series at Fenway Park beginning Thursday night.
The Red Sox just passed the 100-game mark earlier this week in Tampa Bay. That meaningful sample size makes this the perfect time for bettors to take a deep analytical dive.
The first thing to note is that baseball — and “the baseball” — has changed in 2019. Scoring is up because of an aerodynamically friendlier sphere. In 2018, American League offenses averaged 4.5 runs per game, while pitchers allowed 4.6 runs per game (losing interleague play). This season, those numbers are up to 4.9 both ways (data from baseball-reference.com).
Let’s start with the offense. A few Red Sox hitters are receiving criticism for dropping from last year’s performance levels. Using the standard “slash” line of batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage, Mookie Betts has fallen noticeably from a stunning .346/.438/.640 to a still productive .282/.396/.479. J.D. Martinez is down from .330/.402/.629 to an effective but not spectacular .287/.360/.515. Andrew Benintendi is down a bit.
But the offense as a whole has largely stood pat relative to the league. Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez are way up. It all comes out in the wash. Betts and Martinez were likely to regress from career performances. Others picked up the slack.
In 2018, Boston scored 5.4 runs per game in a league that averaged 4.5 (plus 0.9). In 2019, Boston has scored 5.7 runs per game in a league that’s averaging 4.9 (plus 0.8). Teams don’t fall from superpower to borderline wild-card contender because offense drops a fraction relative to the league. And, the Red Sox have a great offense!
The big problem has been pitching. Last year’s team allowed a paltry 4.0 runs per game (a half a run better than the competition). This year’s team is allowing 5.1 (0.2 runs worse). Boston is burning money for bettors because pitchers aren’t performing to very high market expectations.
Both the starting rotation and bullpen are to blame.
Starters have a combined ERA of 4.73 in 2019, up almost a full run from 3.77 in Boston’s championship season. Relievers are at 4.60, well above last season’s 3.72. You can see the groups moved in lockstep. Both went from championship performance to generic.
The 2019 version will still bully losing teams, 36-19 this season for a .655 winning percentage. But, more vulnerable pitching exposes the Sox against quality. Boston was 18-27 vs. teams at .500 or better entering its current 14-game gauntlet vs. Tampa Bay and New York (down from 41-33 last season).
As you handicap this weekend’s huge series and the rest of 2019, pay close attention to whether or not Boston is addressing its main issues. Will recently-acquired Andrew Cashner help the rotation? Is Nathan Eovaldi and his high career WHIP a good gamble at closer?