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Um, The Red Sox May Actually Be In Trouble

It’s a bad idea to read too much into any April baseball games, but this week’s two-game sweep at the hands of the archrival New York Yankees appears to have officially sent the Boston Red Sox into a full-blown crisis. The team’s record dipped to 6-13 — tied for the second-worst for a defending champ since 1947 (trailing only the fire-sale 1998 Marlins) — and they landed once again in last place in the American League East.

[Our 2019 MLB predictions are updated after every game.]

“This is flat-out embarrassing for my family, for my team, for our fans,” Boston ace Chris Sale told reporters after giving up four runs over five innings in Tuesday’s 8-0 loss. “This is about as bad as it gets. I have to pitch better.”

“We’re not really playing very well anywhere,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski added. “Our starting pitching hasn’t been very good, our defense hasn’t been overly good, our hitting hasn’t been like it’s been capable of being.”

As Dombrowski suggests, Boston has come by its horrible record honestly: Only the dreadful, rebuilding Miami Marlins (-49) have a worse run differential than the Red Sox’s -42 mark this season. Bad stretches happen to good teams sometimes, but ones this terrible haven’t happened often to teams that were supposed to be as good as Boston — especially coming off last year’s 108-win season. Since World War II, only six other teams that started a season with an Elo rating of at least 1562 (like the 2019 Red Sox) had any 19-game stretch in which they won six or fewer games — much less had those be the only 19 games we saw of them.

When bad stretches happen to good (we think?) teams

Among teams that started a season with an Elo rating of at least 1562, the worst 19-game stretches at any point in the season, 1946-2019

Worst 19 Games
Season Team Preseason Elo Rating Wins Losses
2000 Yankees 1565 3 16
1977 Reds 1566 4 15
2002 Athletics 1565 4 15
2018 Dodgers 1568 5 14
1955 Yankees 1568 6 13
2010 Yankees 1563 6 13
2019 Red Sox* 1562 6 13

* First 19 games of season.

(The good news for the Red Sox? Those other teams posted an average of 94.3 wins per 162 games even with the bad 19-game stretch, and none won fewer than 87. But again, those 19 games weren’t the only bits of evidence we had about the teams to begin the season.)

It was always likely that the Red Sox would regress some — and perhaps even a lot — after last year’s storybook season. But nobody could have predicted that the wheels would fall off so quickly and thoroughly as they have. According to wins above replacement (WAR),1 the Red Sox went from the third-best team in MLB last season (behind the Astros and Yankees) to the fourth-worst this year (ahead of the Orioles, Marlins and Rockies). For two categories in which the team ranked among the top six last season — hitting and starting pitching — Boston has dropped into the bottom nine (including the very worst starting performance in baseball), and the bullpen has also dropped from the top five to the league’s bottom half:

The Red Sox’s strengths have become weaknesses

MLB-wide wins above replacement (WAR) rankings for the Boston Red Sox, 2018 vs. 2019 seasons

WAR Rankings
Season Batting Base running Fielding Starters Bullpen Total
2018 2 18 18 6 5 3
2019 22 18 22 30 17 27

WAR numbers are through games of April 17, 2019.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

In the bullpen, the team probably has missed closer Craig Kimbrel, who recorded 1.8 WAR last season but was not re-signed (and remains a free agent today). But mostly the story of the 2019 Red Sox is of the holdovers from last year’s championship team — and most of those have fallen short of the performance standards they set for themselves a season ago.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts has actually played extremely well in the early part of this season, starter David Price and first baseman Mitch Moreland have been solid, and third baseman Rafael Devers has improved on last year’s disappointing sophomore campaign. But those gains don’t make up for declines by Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez and subreplacement starts from Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Nunez, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and — most concerning — Sale.

Most of the Red Sox holdovers are ice-cold

Percentage of team playing time* and wins above replacement (WAR) per 162 games for players who were on both the 2018 and 2019 Boston Red Sox

2018 Season 2019 Season
Player Playing time WAR/162 Playing time WAR/162 WAR/162 Diff.
Xander Bogaerts 5.4% +4.3 6.2% +6.5 +2.2
Christian Vazquez 2.5 -0.3 3.9 +1.7 +2.0
Rafael Devers 4.5 +0.5 6.2 +2.5 +2.0
Matt Barnes 2.1 +1.2 2.3 +3.0 +1.9
Mitch Moreland 4.2 +0.8 5.3 +2.2 +1.4
Brandon Workman 1.2 +0.4 2.1 +1.4 +1.0
Blake Swihart 1.9 -0.3 2.4 +0.6 +0.9
Hector Velazquez 2.2 +1.0 2.7 +1.8 +0.8
David Price 4.9 +3.4 5.2 +3.9 +0.5
Ryan Brasier 1.1 +1.1 2.8 +1.3 +0.2
Sam Travis 0.4 -0.2 0.6 -0.1 +0.1
Marcus Walden 0.3 +0.2 2.0 +0.2 +0.0
Tyler Thornburg 0.6 -0.2 1.4 -0.2 +0.0
Tzu-Wei Lin 0.7 +0.0 0.1 -0.1 -0.1
Heath Hembree 2.0 +0.3 2.4 +0.0 -0.3
Sandy Leon 2.7 +0.0 0.2 -0.7 -0.7
J.D. Martinez 6.0 +6.1 6.6 +5.0 -1.2
Andrew Benintendi 6.1 +4.1 5.6 +2.8 -1.3
Brock Holt 3.4 +1.3 1.6 -0.3 -1.7
Brian Johnson 2.6 +0.9 1.0 -1.9 -2.8
Nathan Eovaldi 1.5 +1.1 5.7 -2.0 -3.1
Dustin Pedroia 0.1 -0.1 1.7 -3.2 -3.1
Eduardo Rodriguez 3.6 +2.5 4.0 -1.6 -4.2
Steve Pearce 1.5 +1.2 2.1 -3.4 -4.5
Eduardo Nunez 4.6 -0.7 3.8 -5.8 -5.1
Jackie Bradley Jr. 4.9 +2.4 4.8 -4.0 -6.4
Rick Porcello 5.3 +2.9 3.0 -4.8 -7.7
Chris Sale 4.4 +6.5 4.9 -2.5 -9.0
Mookie Betts 5.7 +10.6 6.8 +1.5 -9.1

* Based on plate appearances and (leverage-weighted) innings pitched.

WAR numbers are through games of April 17, 2019.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Betts has placed a lot of the responsibility for the team’s slow start on himself. “Basically, what I’m doing is unacceptable,” Betts said Monday. “I have to figure out a way to get something done and help the team.”

The reigning AL MVP should start to turn things around sooner or later, though. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is an unsustainably low .208 this season, indicating a lot of potential for improvement, and most of his Statcast metrics are in line with his career numbers before last year’s career season — when he still was a .292/.351/.488 hitter with outstanding defensive skills.

If Betts will be fine, Sale is a bigger worry. The lanky left-hander’s fastball velocity has been low in three of four starts — though he did reach an average of 96.1 mph against the Yankees on Tuesday (which is near where he was most of last season before a sharp drop-off in September). But radar-gun readings aside, Sale is also walking a career-high2 2.5 batters per nine innings and has already given up nearly half as many home runs (five) as he yielded all of last year. The Red Sox have enough other talented players to remain a good team in a down year from Sale, but they might not be able to be a truly great team without him pitching at his best.

And are they actually a good team, despite this horrid start? Or will this season eventually spiral into disaster the way Boston’s last championship defense did? As bad as the Red Sox have looked, it still seems foolish to count them out. In a sport where it takes 67 games before a team’s record is even roughly half-luck and half-skill, 19 games shouldn’t matter much to our expectation for a team going forward. Even after this rough start, our Elo model gives the Sox a rating of 1538, which equates to the talent needed to win about 89 times per 162 games. That’s only about five and a half fewer wins of talent than Elo thought they had before opening day.

But the problem is that the Red Sox have to live with that 6-13 record they’ve banked for themselves so far. If they play like an 89-win team over the rest of the season, they’d still only end up with 85 wins by season’s end. In a division where the Tampa Bay Rays and even the up-and-down Yankees are on track for 92 or more wins, 85 to 90 wins might leave Boston right on the edge of the playoffs. (And to get to, say, 95 wins, they’d have to play at a 102-win pace over the rest of the season.) Although it is often said that the MLB season is a marathon and not a sprint, don’t be surprised if Boston’s early struggles force it to run ragged down the stretch just to make a bid for the AL’s second wild-card spot.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Averaging together the WAR figures found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  2. Among seasons with at least 100 innings pitched.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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