Clay Buchholz must pitch like an ace again when he returns.
Despite strong playoff odds, some cannot shake the feeling that the Boston Red Sox are teetering on the brink of disaster. Indeed, the stunning collapses of recent seasons seem to have developed a sixth sense in Sox fans for when things are going downhill.
The Red Sox's performance has undoubtedly dipped in August. Losing three-straight series against the Royals, Blue Jays and Yankees hurts, especially considering that none of those teams figure to factor as serious playoff contenders.
Part of Boston's slump is luck-based, as the team is just 1-5 in one-run games thus far in August. But putting aside the numbers for a moment, anyone who has watched the Red Sox this past month can sense that the joy and fervor with which the team played the whole season is just a little bit off.
That implies that certain players need to lift the team with better play down the stretch. The Sox cannot simply rely upon their stars to carry them into the postseason, as their success this season can be attributed largely to their depth and overall team contributions.
With that in mind, here are five players who must step up in September if the Red Sox are to continue playing past the month and into the postseason.
* All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.
After a strong first two months, Mike Napoli's slump has confounded many Red Sox fans.
But it appears as though we now have an answer, as Napoli has apparently been playing through a plantar faciitis injury, one of the more underrated ailments in terms of pain.
In a recent blog post, Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston provided an illuminating insight into the injury:
Here's how Morgan Valley, a former guard on the University of Connecticut women's basketball team that won the national championship in 2002, described the condition to Jeff Pearlman of SI.com.
"Sort of the same as someone picking up my foot, grabbing a thick piece of wood and slamming it repeatedly into my sole," she said. "It's a uniquely terrible injury."
Part of what makes the condition so insidious is there is no prescribed course of treatment guaranteed to work. Typically, it is a slow-healing injury, one for which extended rest is often recommended. For Napoli, that's not an option.
Consider that the Los Angeles Angels, a team out of the playoff chase, shut down Albert Pujols for the season with the same injury last week.
However, the Red Sox need Napoli's right-handed presence in the middle of the order down the stretch. It's no secret the Sox are heavy on left-handed hitting, and the first baseman's dip in production has only exagerrated that split.
"Dip" might actually be an understatement here, as Napoli has been one of the Sox's worst hitters over the past 30 days. His strikeout rate is remaining in the mid- to high-30s, an untenable rate that has made him a below-average hitter on a park-adjusted basis (wRC+), despite a solid .185 isolated power.
It's probably unrealistic to expect Napoli to rediscover his early-season effectiveness while being burdened with such a debilitating injury. But at the very least, the Red Sox need him to rise from his current sub-replacement levels if he is going to continue batting in the middle of the order.
Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes have not felt like a particularly disappointing left-field platoon this year.
Nava's performance in the major leagues so far has already far exceeded his career prospects, and as I already noted last week, Gomes has been one of the best clutch hitters in all of baseball this season.
And yet, the two have combined for 1.4 WAR on the season, which would put them on par with what San Francisco's Gregor Blanco has produced the whole season.
Nava has held up with timely hits, as his .358 wOBA with men in scoring position is the fourth-highest on the team. And with 138 opportunities in those situations, that has been more than enough to justify his value to the team.
Gomes is a little more tricky. As the short half of a platoon, his role as a clubhouse leader takes on some more importance, because his on-field contributions are limited to situational appearances. At the same time, the aforementioned clutch-hitting is probably unsustainable, unless he truly does morph into Robinson Cano or Chris Davis in high-leverage situations.
And yet, carrying just a .238 batting average, there's reason to believe that Gomes has been a bit unlucky.
His .277 BABIP is below average, and his plate approach has also been quite disciplined. Gomes is making more contact and swinging at fewer pitches than he has throughout his career. His HR/FB ratio is also well below his career average, an important factor for someone who hits as many flyballs as he does.
So if and when his clutch hitting slows down, regression to the mean might serve him well to combat that drop-off.
In a nutshell, that is the reality for both Gomes and Nava, who likely cannot keep up how well they have performed in high-leverage circumstances. But with a little better performance in other situations, both might provide more consistency and overall value to the Sox lineup.
Asking more from Junichi Tazawa is a bit cruel, considering how much he has already given this year.
He's already pitched 15 more innings and made 22 more appearances than he did all of last year. Still, it's clear that Boston's thinned-out bullpen depth has probably affected Tazawa more than any other reliever.
The problem for Tazawa has been the long ball. His 1.22 HR/9 rate is in the top 25 of all qualified relievers, and most of the names ahead of him are fringe major-league players. As an eighth-inning setup man, Tazawa's home runs hurt more than most, as they often wipe away an entire game's worth of work.
Perhaps more problematic is the difficulty in finding any correlation with Tazawa's struggles. His highest monthly home run rate was 1.69 in May, which was also the month when his ground-ball rate was highest, at 46.4 percent. His 44.1 percent fly-ball rate in August is among his highest rates of the year, and yet his home run rate is the lowest it's been all year.
Regardless, it's clear Tazawa has been giving up too much solid contact on the year, as his 27.3 percent line-drive rate is fourth-highest among all relievers. That is perhaps the best explanation for his somewhat erratic results, and it is why he often cannot get through an outing without allowing one or more runners to reach base.
The Sox could try to move lefty Craig Breslow to a setup role at some point, but that would still leave Tazawa holding a late-innings job. The Red Sox simply do not have the depth to remove Tazawa from high-leverage situations, so the eighth inning might be a nervous ride for Sox fans the rest of the season.
It's borderline heresy in Red Sox Nation to even hint anything negative about Dustin Pedroia. And in reality, the second baseman hasn't been bad, as his glove has made him Boston's second-most valuable player in August. But considering that he and David Ortiz are the team's only reliable middle-of-the-order bats, Boston needs much more from Pedroia at the plate.
Pedroia's second-half 94 weighted runs created (wRC+) suggests that he has been below average on a park-adjusted basis. That stems largely from two disturbing trends in Pedroia's game since the All-Star Break—a decreasing walk rate and even less power than he has already demonstrated.
In the first half, Pedroia walked more often than he struck out, with a 11.8 percent walk rate that was third-best among all second basemen. Since then, he has walked in just 8.2 percent of his at-bats, which has resulted in a drastic drop to 11th.
But more concerning is the total dearth of power in Pedroia's game. The diminutive second basemen isn't a No. 3 hitter by trade, and Sox fans never really expected much power. But after posting a respectable .832 OPS in the first half, Pedroia's second-half OPS is just .717. Even with a recent hot streak, that mark leaves him in the middle of the pack among second baseman since the break.
Again, it's not as if Pedroia is a liability, and his defense and leadership alone will make him a net positive down the stretch. But the Red Sox need much more than above-average play from their franchise leader, and it starts with more patience and more doubles at the plate.
Despite their consistency throughout the season, there is a general sentiment that the Red Sox's pitching rotation isn't quite championship caliber, especially at the top.
Clay Buchholz is the one pitcher on the roster who can change that.
Buchholz's rehab start last Sunday was rough, as he needed 38 pitches to retire two batters. Nonetheless, According to WEEI's Alex Speier, Buchholz made it through the outing without discomfort and with confidence going forward, which was by far the most important outcome. If he demonstrates better command in his next rehab start, there is a chance he could return by September 4 for a start against the Tigers.
It will be virtually impossible for Buchholz to replicate his early-season form, but even a decent step back toward that form would make him a legitimate ace. Astoundingly, even with only 84.1 innings on the season, Buchholz has still compiled enough WAR to rank as one of the 30 best pitchers this season.
Moreover, Buchholz's return could potentially allow the Red Sox to roll with a formidable four-man rotation in September, as the team actually has five days off during the month. A quartet of Buchholz, Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and John Lackey, with Felix Doubront as a fifth starter or long reliever, could be the type of rotation that carries the Red Sox into the playoffs.
Injuries and ineffectiveness in the starting rotation were the primary catalysts for the Red Sox's September collapse in 2011. Though the 2013 team has held up well thus far, it seems unlikely that Boston could seriously contend for the World Series title with its current starters. However, if Buchholz returns as a top-of-the-rotation bedrock, that could be the one missing ingredient that propels the Red Sox over the top.