What’s wrong with the Red Sox? Three reasons for Boston’s dreadful start to the 2022 season

What's wrong with the Red Sox?  Three reasons for Boston's dreadful start to the 2022 season

Last year the Boston Red Sox were two wins away from a trip to the World Series. You wouldn’t know it based on their play this season. After getting swept by the Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park this past weekend, the Red Sox have lost six consecutive series and are 1-7-1 in their nine series this year. It’s been almost a month since they won back-to-back games.

Normally this is where I would put the division standings, but the AL East is very tough, and the Red Sox have played their way out of that conversation. This is where Boston sits in the overall standings right now:

30. Cincinnati Reds: 5-23
29. Detroit Tigers: 8-19 (3 ​​1/2 GU)
27. washington nationals: 10-20 (4 GU)
26. Chicago Cubs: 9-18 (4 1/2GU)
25. Boston Red Sox: 10-19 (4 1/2 GU)

Yes, the Red Sox are rolling around in the mud with the Cubs and Nationals. Boston is 0-6 in extra-innings games, and had it managed to split those six games, its record would be a more palatable 13-16. Not great, but not a disaster in early May either. Instead, the Red Sox own one of the worst records in the sport, and their issues are numerous.

“We’ve dug ourselves a hole. There’s no question. We haven’t played well,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom told reporters, including the Boston Herald‘s Steve Hewitt, over the weekend. “Panic isn’t going to help. We have to play better. We put ourselves in this situation, but if we’re going to get out of it, we’re going to get out of it by doing those things that we know we can do well. There’s a difference between urgency and panic, and I think we certainly need to show more urgency than we hoped we would be feeling at this point in the season. But this game isn’t going to reward panic.”

Two weeks ago the Red Sox had the fourth-largest decrease in postseason odds in the early days of the season. Their odds have only gone down since then. SportsLine puts their postseason odds at 7.1 percent right now — remember, there’s an expanded 12-team format this year — and FanGraphs has a more charitable number at 19.6 percent. Either way, it’s grim. Here are the three biggest reasons the Red Sox are off to such a dreadful start in 2022.

1. The ninth inning is a mess

This is the most glaring problem with the Red Sox. The bullpen has been very unreliable, particularly in the late innings. Boston has five saves and nine blown saves, including five in the ninth inning. Hansel Robles and Jake Diekman combined to blow a ninth-inning lead last Wednesday, then Robles did it on his own Saturday. The Red Sox lost both games.

All you need to know about the state of the Red Sox bullpen is that Robles re-signed with the club on March 18, reported to camp on March 31 (he was delayed by a visa issue), made his Grapefruit League debut on April 5 , and then was pitching the ninth inning of a tie game on Opening Day on April 8. Robles was their best high-leverage option despite the lack of a proper build up. Yikes.

Here are some win probability numbers on Boston’s bullpen:

  • Win probability added: -1.10 (28th in MLB)
  • Shutdowns: 28 (13th most in MLB)
  • Meltdowns: 30 (most in MLB)

Shutdowns are relief appearances that increase the team’s win probability at least six percent. Meltdowns are the opposite. They are relief appearances that decrease the team’s win probability at least six percent. The Red Sox are the only team in baseball with more meltdowns than shutdowns. Not even the terrible Reds have managed that.

The bullpen woes have been exacerbated by Garrett Whitlock’s move into the rotation. Whitlock was the Red Sox’s best reliever last season and he started this year in the bullpen, but Boston is transitioning him into a starting role because they believe he has top-of-the-rotation upside. If the Red Sox believe that, they owe it to themselves to find out.

Whitlock has allowed two earned runs in 12 innings in three starts while building up his pitch count. He’s struck out 17 and looked excellent. The experiment is a success to date. The downside is manager Alex Cora no longer has that multi-inning high leverage dominator to unleash in close games, and it shows. Robles, Diekman and Matt Barnes keep lighting fires in the late innings.

Barnes in particular has been a disappointment. He was an All-Star last season and the Red Sox signed him to a two-year, $18.75 million extension on July 11 to keep him from becoming a free agent. Since signing the extension, Barnes has a 7.00 ERA with a 1.93 K/BB and a 1.67 HR/9. He went from being truly elite early last year to borderline unrosterable.

Is the ninth inning enough of a problem that the Red Sox should pull the plug on Whitlock as a starter and make him their closer? I’m willing to hear arguments he’s more valuable in that role than as a starter, though he looks like a pretty good starter, and Chris Sale recently suffered a setback. The back of the rotation isn’t exactly lock-down at the moment.

For now, Cora will continue to mix and match in the ninth inning, because what other option does he have? Lefty Matt Strahm and righty Ryan Brasier have done good work to date, so maybe it’s time to give them more looks in the late innings. Bad bullpens can ruin a season but they can also be fixed. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

2. The offense is too top-heavy

The Red Sox have three All-Star-caliber hitters performing like All-Stars: Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and JD Martinez. They’ve been great. The rest of the offense has been dreadful. Look at this:

Bogaerts, Devers, and Martinez

334

.316/.356/.486

26

9

35

2.3

All other Red Sox hitters

737

.186/.243/.273

33

7

59

-2.4

Bogaerts, Devers and Martinez have been incredible. They are a three-man Atlas, charged with carrying a Red Sox offense that is otherwise filled with too many easy outs and not enough extra-base hits. Just to further drive home the point, here are the team’s leaders in OPS+ (min. 50 plate appearances):

  1. Xander Bogaerts: 150
  2. JD Martinez: 144
  3. Rafael Devers: 133
  4. Alex Verdugo: 65
  5. Christian Vazquez: 65

This is not the NBA. You can’t build a big three and put the ball in their hands as often as you’d like. The other guys must take at-bats. The middle third of the Red Sox lineup is amazing. One of the best in baseball. The other two-thirds is sub-replacement level. Boston’s non-Bogaerts/Devers/Martinez hitters have been that bad a month into the season. So bad it’s almost hard to believe.

Trevor Story signed a six-year, $140 million deal two weeks before Opening Day and not only is he hitting .194/.276/.269 (59 OPS+) without a homer, he is 1 for 16 with 10 strikeouts in his last four games. He heard boos at Fenway Park over the weekend. Story’s elbow was an issue last year and there are indications it’s still an issue this year …

… plus he had a short spring training and changed positions. There are some potential reasons explaining Story’s struggles early this season. Does it make them any easier to sit through as a fan? No. Do the losses still count the same? Yup. Bottom line, Story was the Red Sox’s marquee addition over the winter and he has been a net negative.

Perhaps even more disheartening than Story’s poor start is the play of Verdugo and Bobby Dalbec, two young players the Red Sox are counting on to be part of the future. Verdugo was the headliner in the Mookie Betts trade return and his play has gone backward in his three years with the Red Sox. He has been an average player rather than a difference-maker more often than not.

Dalbec’s contact issues make him a high-variance hitter with extreme peaks and valleys. The peaks can look like the second half of last season, when he hit .269/.344/.611 with 16 home runs in 61 games. The valleys look like this season: .139/.225/.215 with one home run and 28 strikeouts in 89 plate appearances. At minimum, a conversation about a demotion to Triple-A is warranted.

The Red Sox have stars performing like stars in the middle of the lineup and that’s important. It’s really hard to win in this league without stars. The Red Sox also have the least-productive bottom of the lineup in baseball (by a lot). The rest of the lineup is not coming close to pulling its weight. How do you fix underperforming hitters? It’s not as easy as swapping out some relievers.

3. They lack depth

Considering his reputation as a builder of deep and flexible rosters with the Tampa Bay Rays, Bloom’s Red Sox are awfully unimpressive on the margins. They’ve already cycled through retreads like Rob Refsnyder and Travis Shaware giving Francy Cordero yet another look, and have turned to journeymen Tyler Danish and John Schreiber as their first bullpen callups. It’s not great.

We can use ZiPS projections as a rough measure of depth. Projections are not predictions, they are an estimate of a player’s current talent level, and we can look at players projected for 4 WAR (All-Star caliber), 2 WAR (league average), and 1 WAR (serviceable big leaguer). Here are the number of ZiPS players projected at each level for the four AL East contenders (sorry, Orioles):

What the Rays lack in star power at the top of the roster they make up with depth at the bottom. They have more viable big leaguers than roster spots, meaning their internal replacement level is high. Their Triple-A callups are better than everyone else’s. The Yankees are not quite as deep as Tampa, but they’re close, and they have many quality regulars.

According to ZiPS, the Blue Jays have a similar depth issue to the Red Sox, and it’s entirely possible the difference between the two teams right now is Jordan Romano. Romano leads baseball with 12 saves and has been nails in the ninth inning, and is a big reason Toronto has 10 one-run wins. The Red Sox, as noted, are having major bullpen issues and are 3-7 in one-run games.

This is the build-a-pitcher era and it’s fair to ask whether the Red Sox have the same pitching infrastructure as their AL East rivals. They don’t have a seemingly endless supply of guys who throw 95 with wicked breaking balls like the Rays and Yankees. Could they turn Robbie Ray into a Cy Young winner, or get Kevin Gausman to level up, the way the Blue Jays did? I’m not sure.

Boston’s farm system is improved and it has had several young pitchers in the system make big gains in a short time (Brandon Walter, Josh Winckowski, etc.), which suggests it is catching up to its division rivals, if not caught up already. Those pitchers are not yet impacting the MLB roster, however, and the position player depth is lacking. It’s getting exposed now.

Is there hope?

Of course there’s hope. It’s May 9! Remember how the Nationals started in 2019? Or the Atlanta Braves last year? It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, though we must acknowledge going through the Blue Jays, Rays and Yankees in the AL East will be difficult. At least the Red Sox have an extra postseason spot to fall back on now.

I think an offensive shakeup is in order. Outfielder Jarren Duran (.371/.451/.597) and first baseman Triston Casas (.260/.373/.500) are playing well in Triple-A — Duran tripled in one game with the Red Sox as a COVID replacement last week — and I think it’s time to give them away Jackie Bradley Jr.’s and Dalbec’s at-bats. can utility man Ryan Fitzgerald (.295/.365/.653 in Triple-A) help the bench?

Righty Connor Seabold is pitching well in Triple-A (five runs in 23 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings) and, given the state of Boston’s bullpen, I’m sure he can help in some capacity. It’s worth a try, at least. Point is, the Red Sox have some very real problems in the bullpen and in the lineup. Enough to ruin their season? Yeah, maybe, but it’s not too late to right the ship. This roster needs a lot of help.

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