Um, the Red Sox can really be in trouble



It's a bad idea to read too much at any of April's baseball games, but this week's two-game sweep at the hands of big-time New York Yankees seems to have officially sent the Boston Red Sox to a total crisis. The team's record went down to 6-13, tied for the second-worst place for a defending champion since 1947 (who was behind the Marlins in the 1998 fire sale), and landed once again in the last place in the American League of the East.

"This is totally embarrbading for my family, for my team, for our fans," Chris Sale, the Boston ace told reporters, after allowing four runs in five innings in Tuesday's 8-0 loss. "This is as bad as it gets, I have to throw better."

"We're not really playing very well anywhere," Red Sox baseball operations president Dave Dombrowski added. "Our initial release has not been very good, our defense has not been too good, our batting has not been as it was able to be."

As Dombrowski suggests, Boston has hit its horrific record honestly: only the terrible Miami Marlins (-49) have a worse road streak than the -42 Red Sox this season. Sometimes, good teams have bad stretches, but this terrible has not often happened to teams that were supposed to be as good as Boston, especially after last year's season with 108 victories. Since World War II, only six other teams that started a season with an Elo rating of at least 1562 (like the Redox of 2019) had any Section of 19 games in which they won six or fewer games, and much less if those were the only 19 games that we saw of them.

When bad stretches happen to good teams (do we believe?)

Among the teams that started a season with an Elo rating of at least 1562, the worst 19 games extend at any time of the season, 1946-2019

The worst 19 games
Season Team Elo clbadification of preseason Win Losses
2000 Yankees 1565 3 sixteen
1977 Reds 1566 4 fifteen
2002 Athletics 1565 4 fifteen
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 for 162 games, including with the slump of 19 games, and none won less than 87. But, again, those 19 games were not the only tests we had on the teams to start the season.)

It was always likely that the Red Sox would back down somewhat, and perhaps even a lot, after last year's storybook season. But no one could have predicted that the wheels would fall off as quickly and completely as they did. According to the victories over the replacement (WAR), the Red Sox went from the third best team in MLB last season (behind the Astros and the Yankees) to the fourth worst this year (ahead of the Orioles, Marlins and Rockies). In the two categories in which the team ranked in the top six last season: hitting and pitching, Boston has fallen in the last nine (including the worst performance in baseball), and the bullpen has also fallen top 5 to the lower half of the league:

The strengths of the Red Sox have become weaknesses.

Major MLB rankings on replacement replacement (WAR) for the Boston Red Sox, 2018 vs. 2019 seasons

WAR clbadifications
Season Wadding Base running Fielding Starters Bullpen Total
2018 two 18 18 6 5 3
2019 22 18 22 30 17 27

The WAR numbers are through games on April 17, 2019.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

In the bullpen, it is likely that the team lost to closer Craig Kimbrel, who registered 1.8 WAR last season, but did not sign up again (and remains a free agent today). But most of all, the history of the Red Sox of 2019 is about the remnants of the championship team last year, and most of them have not reached the performance standards that were imposed a season ago.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts has played extremely well in the first part of this season, starter David Price and first baseman Mitch Moreland have been solid, and third baseman Rafael Devers has improved in the disappointing second-year campaign of the second year. But those gains do not compensate for the declines of Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez and the sub-chapter begins with Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Nunez, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and, most worryingly, the sale.

Most remnants of the Red Sox are frozen.

Percentage of team play time * and wins over replacement (WAR) for 162 games for players who were in both 2018 and 2019 Boston Red Sox

Season 2018 Season 2019
Player Time to play WAR / 162 Time to play WAR / 162 War / 162 Dif.
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 Velázquez 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
Lion Arena 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 appearances on the plate and innings (weighted by the leverage) thrown.

The WAR numbers are through games on April 17, 2019.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Betts has taken on a large part of the responsibility for the slow start of the team on himself. "Basically, what I'm doing is unacceptable," Betts said Monday. "I have to find a way to do something and help the team."

However, the reigning AL MVP should start to change things sooner or later. His average batting average in balls (BABIP) is an unsustainably low average of .208 this season, which indicates a great potential for improvement, and most of his Statcast metrics are in line with his career numbers before last season, when he was still a .292 / .351 / .488 hitter with outstanding defensive skills.

If Betts will be fine, the sale is a major concern. The speed of the left-hander's fast ball has been low in three of the four starts, although he averaged 96.1 mph against the Yankees on Tuesday (which is close to where he was most of last season before a strong decline in September). But leaving radar readings aside, Sale is also accumulating 2.5 batters for nine innings and has already left almost half of all home runs (five) he had last year. The Red Sox have enough other talented players to remain a good team in a year of low sales, but may not be able to be a great team without him doing his best.

And are they really a good team, despite this horrible start? Or will this season finally turn into a disaster like the last defense of the Boston championship did? As bad as the Red Sox looked, it still seems silly to discard them. In a sport that requires 67 games before a team's record is almost half of luck and half skill, 19 games should not matter much to our expectations of a team moving forward. Even after this difficult start, our Elo model gives the Sox a rating of 1538, equivalent to the talent needed to win approximately 89 times in 162 games. That's only about five and a half fewer talent wins than Elo thought they had before the opening day.

But the problem is that the Red Sox have to live with that record of 6-13 they have wagered so far. If they play as a team with 89 wins for the rest of the season, they will still end up with 85 victories at the end of the season. In a division in which the Tampa Bay Rays and even the rising Yankees go for 92 or more wins, 85 to 90 wins could leave Boston right on the edge of the playoffs. (And to get, say, 95 wins, they would have to play at a rate of 102 wins for the rest of the season.) Although it is often said that the Major League season is a marathon and not a sprint, do not do it. Do not be surprised if Boston's early struggles force him to run irregularly to bid for second place in the AL.

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