Some falls from grace are more spectacular and stunning than others. Take, for example, the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox won their fourth World Series title in 15 years during the 2018 season. They finished 19 games out of first place the next year and finished in last place for the first time since 2015 in the shortened 2020 season.
Manger Alex Cora was fired for his role in multiple sign-stealing scandals, first with the Houston Astros as AJ Hinch’s bench coach and then for his own with the Red Sox. Ron Roenicke became a late replacement for a team that traded Mookie Betts and David Price and watched as Chris Sale had Tommy John surgery following the worst season of his career.
To make matters worse, de facto post-Sale ace Eduardo Rodriguez missed the 2020 season with myocarditis from COVID-19. As a result Martin Perez was the only pitcher to make at least 10 starts in the short season. The Red Sox used SIXTEEN different starting pitchers in a 60-game season, finishing dead last in fWAR as a unit in the process.
While the Red Sox don’t have the salary reductions of other teams, they look to be going from a $236.2 million payroll in 2019 to somewhere around $185 million in 2021. The departure of Dave Dombrowski, who goes to a major market, spends a ton of money, wins for a while, and then leaves the team high and dry with a bunch of bad contracts and no minor league system, has left former Tampa Bay Rays wunderkind Chaim Bloom and first-year GM Brian O’Halloran with a huge mess to clean up.
The Red Sox signed Sale and Xander Bogaerts to long extensions prior to the 2019 season. Rafael Devers is coming up on one. Beyond that, some salary relief and additional flexibility look to be coming in 2022 and 2023, though who knows what the financial provisions of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement are going to be.
It will be interesting to see how the Red Sox bounce back. The mostly consistent payrolls of the Theo Epstein years were replaced by the drunken sailor spending of Dombrowski. Flags fly forever, though, and the Red Sox got another one of those in 2018. The question is, “At what cost?”
This team, as currently constructed, sits firmly behind the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, not to mention the much improved Toronto Blue Jays. Punting on the season is not an option and trades are going to be hard to come by with big-ticket items in an economically-depressed (allegedly) spending environment from the pandemic and no attendance for the 2020 season.
Cora is back, having served his one-year punishment, and Sale might return around June or July if all goes well with his rehab. The offense is still good. Patchwork upgrades have come for the rotation in the form of free agents. The bullpen looks below average, but maybe not bottom-five bad.
Is this a team that could fly under the radar and be better than expected?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Yankees||-200|
|Tampa Bay Rays||+350|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+350|
|Boston Red Sox||+2000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-65 (5.15/6.24)||+82 (5.51/5.01)|
|3rd Order Win%||25.9-34.1||88.2-73.8|
|Record in One-Run Games||4-9||23-22|
Additions: Hirokazu Sawamura, Chris Herrmann, Marwin Gonzalez, Matt Carasiti, Garrett Richards, Daniel Gossett, Matt Andriese, Hunter Renfroe, Kevin McCarthy, Ronaldo Hernandez, Nick Sogard, Franchy Cordero, Josh Winckowski, Adam Ottavino, Frank German, Christian Koss, Garrett Whitlock, Enrique Hernandez
Losses: Jose Peraza, Dylan Covey, Tzu-Wei Lin, Robinson Leyer, Mike Kickham, Andrew Triggs, Zack Godley, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rusney Castillo, Collin McHugh, Jeffrey Springs, Chris Mazza, Andrew Benintendi CJ Chatham, Yoan Aybar, Dustin Pedroia, Deivy Grullon, Robert Stock, Domingo Tapia
What a boring offense for the Red Sox. The most notable news nugget is that the Red Sox and Yankees completed a trade. It was the first trade between the rivals since 2014. The deal should help both teams. The Red Sox are desperate for bullpen arms with upside and the Yankees needed the roster spot and also some salary relief.
LOL. “Salary relief” for teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. It seems like such an oxymoron, given that neither team really needs any, but the Yanks are trying to stay below the luxury tax and John Henry of the Red Sox doesn’t want to spend money. We saw that when Mookie Betts and David Price were shipped off to Los Angeles, where they won World Series rings.
After running back-to-back payrolls over $230 million, the Red Sox look to be around $180 for this season. With Chris Sale shelved until around midseason, you would think the Red Sox would have done something to bolster the rotation. Maybe oft-injured righty Garrett Richards is that guy, but I’m not so sure he is.
The biggest news for the Red Sox came in February. Andrew Benintendi was shipped to Kansas City for Franchy Cordero and the Red Sox attempted to buy low on Marwin Gonzalez.
|Batting Average (BA)||.265 (3rd)||.269 (3rd)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.330 (10th)||.340 (3rd)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.445 (8th)||.466 (5th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.333 (9th)||.338 (5th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||106 (11th)||106 (6th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.321 (2nd)||.313 (3rd)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.7% (14th)||21.3% (7th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.1% (22nd)||9.1% (11th)|
At least Red Sox fans and bettors don’t have to worry about the offense. This remains a high-quality unit and will be one again this season. Fenway Park plays favorably for offense and the Red Sox never take that for granted. That being said, the offense wasn’t nearly as good as it was in 2019. The Red Sox fell across the board in every statistical category from 2019 to the short 2020 season and also saw a concerning increase in strikeouts.
J.D. Martinez was uncharacteristically bad at the plate and that was a huge reason why things fell off as far as they did for the Red Sox. Martinez slashed .213/.291/.389 in 237 plate appearances. While the small sample sizes deserve to be treated as such, as that was a little over a third of a normal season for Martinez, this is a guy that had a .304/.383/.557 slash with a .386 wOBA and a 139 wRC+ in 2019. That was off a two-season stretch in 2017-18 when he was the second-best hitter in baseball by wRC+. Only Mike Trout was better.
A bounce back season from the 33-year-old is essential. Some players were more comfortable than others playing under the COVID conditions, so perhaps that played a role. Maybe something was wrong mechanically. It is hard to speculate on what was wrong, as there didn’t seem to be any sort of injury situation. Whatever it was, it simply has to get better, otherwise the Red Sox have no chance of going anywhere.
It may seem like hyperbole to point to one player as the root of Boston’s potential success, but the fact of the matter is that this pitching staff is very bad. The Red Sox have to outhit a ton of pitching mistakes. Xander Bogaerts had a big offensive year with a .368 wOBA and a 130 wRC+. Alex Verdugo benefitted from the later start to put his back issues in the rearview mirror and slash .308/.367/.478 with a .362 wOBA and a 126 wRC+.
The Red Sox lose Jackie Bradley Jr., who had a career offensive year out of nowhere in the 60-game sprint. Rafael Devers will make up some of that production after a bit of a down year for him with a .337 wOBA and a 109 wRC+. Devers saw a huge K% spike from 17% to 27% and also saw his walk rate drop. Maybe pitchers adjusted to him after his first full season and he couldn’t adjust back, but when he did make contact, he posted a 96th percentile exit velocity.
Assuming Devers and Martinez bounce back, we’re looking at a top-10 offense with the potential to be in the top five. The park factor certainly helps, but the Red Sox were also decimal points ahead of the Yankees for the highest average exit velocity in baseball. Making hard contact, especially with the ability to maximize it in a park like Fenway, is a telltale sign for being one of the better offenses in baseball.
Hunter Renfroe is a nice, low-risk add to get some power production coming off of a down season with Tampa Bay. Renfroe does excel more on the short side of the platoon against lefties, but the Red Sox are loaded with right-handed batters, so he may not end up splitting too much playing time. His numbers against righties do leave something to be desired, so his impact could be neutered because of that.
Enrique Hernandez is a player that looks better in practice than on paper. He hasn’t been a great hitter, making a lot of low-quality contact, but he’s a versatile guy that can play all over the diamond. He peaked with 3.2 fWAR in 2018 and I think that led to unrealistic expectations about what he actually is. He’s a useful super utility guy that won’t totally kill you with the bat like most defense-first players.
The makings are there of a really good Red Sox offense, but they’ll need bounce backs from Devers, Martinez, and newcomer Marwin Gonzalez, plus status quo or better from Bogaerts, Verdugo, and could use a leap from guys like Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||5.58 (28th)||4.70 (19th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||5.19 (30th)||4.28 (12th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.67 (21st)||4.39 (13th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||22.5% (20th)||25.5% (5th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.5% (28th)||9.5% (27th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||70.8% (16th)||70.8% (22nd)|
A lot of hopes and dreams are present when you have a pitching staff that performed the way Boston’s did last season. Chris Sale missed the entire year and he’ll miss at least half of this one on his way back from Tommy John surgery. It would be a waste of words to highlight Sale’s career numbers and the impact that they would have on this team. Everybody knows he’s an elite hurler when healthy and hopefully he’ll return to that form coming off of a major surgery.
That is no guarantee. While it feels like Tommy John surgery is almost an occupational hazard that every pitcher comes back from, it isn’t that easy. The procedure is about as streamlined as possible and trainers know virtually everything about the recovery process and how to handle it because of the frequency with which pitchers need UCL repairs, but there are always risk factors in play. Usually command is the last thing to come back for pitchers. Sale with a command hiccup posted a 4.40 ERA pitching injured in 2019. Of course, he also had a 3.39 FIP and a 2.93 xFIP.
Given the context of the rest of the roster guys in the rotation and on the staff for the Red Sox, maybe Sale coming off of a serious surgery and more than a year of rehab is low on the list of concerns. That would seem to say a lot about the relative strength of the rest of this group.
The player whose return I’m most interested in is Eduardo Rodriguez. We didn’t hear much about myocarditis at the pro sports level as a COVID symptom and side effect. We heard about it a lot more at the collegiate level, especially as conferences were debating whether or not to play college football. Rodriguez, though, missed the whole season because of an inflamed myocardium.
Rodriguez has been a steady and consistent performer for the Red Sox and something of an underappreciated pitcher in his time with Boston. Over 699 innings, he’s posted a 4.03 ERA with a 3.94 FIP and a 4.18 xFIP. He actually made 34 starts in 2019 and it looked like the nagging knee injury and some of his other maladies were in the past. Then COVID and myocarditis hit. I hope the lost year doesn’t hurt him too badly, particularly with the strides he made in 2019 to be a durable pitcher. He also increased his GB% nearly 10%, which is a great idea pitching approximately half of his innings at Fenway Park.
The losses of Sale and Rodriguez were felt in such an impactful way. The Red Sox used 16 different starting pitchers in just 60 games. They experimented with openers. They tried to fix Zack Godley, failing miserably in the process. Godley posted an 8.16 ERA with a 7.10 FIP in his 28.2 innings. You know things are bad when Martin Perez has to lead your team in starts. He posted a 4.50 ERA with a 4.88 FIP.
The Nathan Eovaldi experiment worked out well, as he posted a 3.72 ERA with a 3.87 FIP while pitching around a lot of hard contact. Eovaldi’s contributions weren’t enough to keep the Red Sox from posting the second-highest FIP among starting pitchers at 5.50. Only the Tigers were worse.
The ceiling for the rotation is undoubtedly higher with Rodriguez back in the fold, but Nick Pivetta is a major question mark and a guy that showcased significant command problems with the Phillies. Hitters from both sides of the plate have had success, so this isn’t even a platoon situation. Lefties in 824 plate appearances have a .336 wOBA, but righties have a .354 wOBA in 946 plate appearances. Given how hellacious pitching to righties is at Fenway Park, I’d sell my Pivetta stock to anybody willing to buy.
Perez is back, joining Eovaldi, Rodriguez, and newcomer Garrett Richards. Richards is an extreme ground ball guy and this appears to be the direction that the Red Sox are looking to go. Eovaldi was at 48.9% last season. Rodriguez was at 48.5% in 2019. Pivetta’s career mark is 44.1%. Richards is at 51.6% for his career.
Richards, though, worked 51.1 innings last season. That was his second-highest output since 2015. Over the last five seasons, fully realizing that one season only had 60 games, Richards has worked 198.2 innings. That’s about a full season’s worth of innings for some guys, but spread out over five seasons. This is a big health gamble for a rotation that already has some of them and is reliant on its ace to return to form following Tommy John surgery.
The rotation is far from the only area of concern with this team. The bullpen is also under the microscope. The Red Sox pen ranked 26th in FIP last season and the upside is limited for this season. Adam Ottavino could help, but he’s dealt with plenty of injuries as he heads into his age-35 season. Ryan Brasier could get better after posting a 4.13 ERA with a 3.11 FIP in his 24 appearances. Reliever sample sizes are very finicky from last year’s small number of games, so I don’t want to read too much into them, but the Red Sox walked too many hitters and ranked 17th in K%.
After all, this was a Red Sox bullpen that ranked eighth in FIP two years ago. It was a surprise strength of the team. That also featured a career year from Brandon Workman, who is no longer on the roster. Nothing about this group excites me that much.
Positives & Negatives
In the current landscape of Major League Baseball, having a ground ball-heavy staff makes a ton of sense. Teams that embrace analytics almost always start elevating the baseball as much as possible. Launch angle disciples have bred other launch angle disciples and everybody is looking for the big fly or the hard aerial contact, especially those that bat from the left side and want to hit it over the shift.
It makes a lot of sense. Even though the death of the sinker has been a thing around baseball the last few seasons, finding alternative ways of inducing ground balls with an increase in offspeed pitches to get batters out in front has been a plan of attack from a lot of different pitching coaches.
Here’s the problem. You also have to field those. The Red Sox were 20th in Defensive Runs Saved and an average defensive team in UZR/150. That was because of the outfield defense from Jackie Bradley Jr. and Alex Verdugo. Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts are below average fielders. Two years ago, Bogaerts was the worst shortstop in baseball in defensive runs saved. Devers was the second-worst third baseman.
Using the newer, more analytical Outs Above Average metric, Bogaerts doesn’t grade quite as badly, but is still well below average. Devers actually graded much better using OAA. Either way, I tend to believe that the left side of the Red Sox infield is a weakness. Enrique Hernandez will help tremendously at second base, but he’ll also cost the team offensively.
I can’t help but wonder what the dynamic is like here. Ownership is curtailing payroll. Alex Cora is back, and maybe the players are happy about that and it will help after Ron Roenicke drew the short straw to help the team out last season. Cora’s one-year slap on the wrist may have negatively impacted the team, as he pushed a lot of the right buttons in 2018 and did okay in 2019.
Boston Red Sox Pick & Prediction: Under 80.5
Betting on an under with the Red Sox is scary because they are tailored so well to Fenway Park. Boston wins by outscoring the opposition, not by winning 3-2 or 4-3. You can do that at Fenway Park. Other teams can do that, too, though and a lot of American League teams now either have improved offenses or have changed their pitch usages enough to try and curtail offensive output like what the Red Sox can produce.
The Red Sox are clearly behind the Yankees, Rays, and Jays in this division. The AL Central now has three legit teams and I’d argue that the AL West does as well. There is a significant drop-off to the Boston lineup past the first four hitters. Any injury at the top of the injury would be hard to overcome and that is assuming that Verdugo is legit, Martinez will bounce back, and Devers can do the same.
Look, the Red Sox aren’t going to tank, however…Chaim Bloom has taken over. He’s used to threading a needle on thin margins with the Rays. John Henry has been one of many owners to cry poor. I can’t help but wonder if there are some rebuilding sentiments within the new regime. You can build around a few guys here, but the minor league system is light on impact behind Jeter Downs and Triston Casas.
This just doesn’t appear to be a very good team top to bottom and I do think that there are some conflicting opinions on how to press forward that could leak out to the field. This is not a bet for me. I give a pick on every team. But, I have a lot more pessimism than optimism in my mind for the Red Sox.