Red Sox's Blown Saves, Faltering Offense Have Fans Panicking in Loaded AL EastMay 6, 2022
You know a team's season is going south when it feels like a bad omen, even when it has a lead.
Such has been the case with the Boston Red Sox for pretty much all of the 2022 season, but never more so than on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Angels. Boston held leads of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 but lost all three en route to a 10-5 defeat in 10 innings.
On Twitter, you'd swear that Red Sox fans were watching the Titanic hit the iceberg in real time. At no point was there a sense that any of the team's leads were safe. When each vanished, the prevailing mood was something like, "Well, of course they did."
Such extreme fatalism doesn't come to be overnight. As NESN's Tom Caron succinctly summarized, it's come together gradually as the Red Sox have suffered crushing defeat after crushing defeat:
Tom Caron @TomCaron
The Sox are about to be 0-5 in extra innings.<br><br>In every one of the 5 games they had the lead in the eighth inning or later. Five different relievers with blown saves.<br><br>They’ve been outscored 13-3 in extra innings this year.<br><br>They haven’t won back-to-back games since April 16-17.
There was no bounce-back for the Red Sox on Thursday. Shohei Ohtani (7 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 11 K) was more than equal to the task of silencing Boston's bats with his arm, and his bat also produced an RBI single as the Angels scored eight runs in the final three innings to grab an 8-0 win and a series victory.
Barely six months removed from taking a 2-1 lead over the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox are now tied with the Baltimore Orioles at 10-16 in the cellar in the American League East. And going forward, the New York Yankees (18-7), Tampa Bay Rays (15-10) and Toronto Blue Jays (16-11) don't figure to make Boston's return to contention any easier.
Therefore, if the Red Sox want to get back to the playoffs, they need to stop what they've been doing and figure out a new way forward.
This Bullpen Is Kind of a Disaster
The Red Sox's starting pitching? It's fine. Better than fine. Following Rich Hill's five shutout innings Thursday, Boston starters now have a rock-solid 3.21 ERA for the season.
The Red Sox's bullpen, on the other hand, is even more unreliable than its 4.50 ERA would suggest. Here's a graph that pretty much says it all:
That's right. The Red Sox are the only team in baseball that has blown more saves (eight) than it's converted (five).
If any of Boston's blown saves are forgivable, there's a good case for Garrett Whitlock's against the Yankees back on Opening Day. As noted by one of the most indispensable follows on Twitter, the game-tying home run that Whitlock served up to DJ LeMahieu in the eighth inning was a classic Yankee Stadium cheapie:
Would it dong? @would_it_dong
DJ LeMahieu vs Garrett Whitlock<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SquadUp?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SquadUp</a><br><br>🦄 IT'S A UNICORN 🦄<br><br>Home Run 💣<br><br>Exit velo: 103.1 mph<br>Launch angle: 35 deg<br>Proj. distance: 369 ft<br><br>This would have been a home run at Yankee Stadium and nowhere else.<br><br>BOS (4) @ NYY (4)<br>🔻 8th <a href="https://t.co/O31m3NYTlh">pic.twitter.com/O31m3NYTlh</a>
It's harder to excuse the other blown saves recorded by Ryan Brasier, Jake Diekman, Matt Barnes, Hansel Robles and Austin Davis. If not for the specific events that led to them, then for the overarching fact that none of the five is the kind of reliever that any team should be trusting in high-leverage situations.
Even a quick glimpse at various percentiles will reveal that each of them has at least one noteworthy vulnerability. Brasier and Robles and prone to hard contact. Davis, to barrels. Diekman, to walks.
As for Barnes, his 11th-percentile strikeout rate, 19th-percentile walk rate and two-MPH drop in fastball velocity pretty well shatter any notions of him reclaiming the All-Star form that earned him a contract extension last July. Ever since he served up a walk-off home run to Marcus Semien on Aug. 7, 2021, he's pitched to a 9.47 ERA over 26 appearances.
It's also fair to question how manager Alex Cora has deployed these guys. But at least until he can move Whitlock—who's made three starts since April 23—back into a relief role, he's not wrong in noting that he doesn't have much of a choice but to try to play the matchups game.
"We cannot rely on one guy," Cora said after Wednesday's crushing loss. "We saw what [Whitlock] did last year [and] what he did early on [out of the bullpen this year]. He's done an amazing job starting for us, too. ... Really doesn't matter [because] he's not going to pitch every day. The other guys have to step up, and so far, it's been inconsistent."
This reads like a cry for help to the guy who's ultimately responsible for what Cora has in his bullpen: Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom.
Apart from signing Diekman and Matt Strahm—who, to his credit, is unscored upon in nine of his 11 outings—Bloom did nothing to boost the bullpen over the winter. Even before it was revealed as such, this seemed like a miscalculation after what happened the previous October.
Red Sox relievers blew saves in Game 3 and Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Rays, and then two more in Game 1 and Game 4 of the ALCS.
Meanwhile, left-hander Josh Taylor's return is up in the air following a setback in his recovery from a lower back strain. And save for maybe Double-A Portland Sea Dogs right-hander Frank German, the club's farm system is short on standout relievers.
Early though it may be, it's thus perhaps not too early for the Red Sox to be considering trade optons. Speculatively, Bloom might call the Washington Nationals about Tanner Rainey, the Cincinnati Reds about Jeff Hoffman or the Oakland Athletics about Lou Trivino.
The way things are going, these calls needed to go out yesterday.
The Offense Isn't Getting Off That Easy
Then again, one can only expect so much from any team's bullpen when the same team's offense is basically incapable of padding leads.
After averaging 5.1 runs per game in 2021, it ranks 25th in MLB with 3.5 runs per game in 2022. It places even lower in key categories such as on-base percentage, home runs and OPS+. For the latter, only the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds are doing worse.
There have been times when it feels like the Red Sox have been unfairly stung by the dead ball that's in play for the 2022 season. But they're far from alone in that regard, and the 301-point gap between their actual and expected slugging percentages on fly balls actually gives them less cause to gripe about the ball than the Yankees.
As Cora noted following a series loss to the Baltimore Orioles last weekend, the real problem is not bad luck but rather bad at-bats.
"That's been the story of the offense," he said. "Even when we are ahead in the count or we have men in scoring position, and the at-bats are in our favor, we are chasing pitches. So, we got to get better at that."
Once again, he's right. Red Sox hitters are indeed swinging at pitches outside the strike zone more frequently than any other team, including when they're ahead in the count:
- Count Even: 26.4 O-Swing%
- Ahead in Count: 35.5 O-Swing%
And when they have runners in scoring position:
- Bases Empty: 32.3 O-Swing%
- Runners in Scoring Position: 34.9 O-Swing%
If the question is who needs to play better, the answer is most of Boston's regulars. Relative to 2021, only Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Jackie Bradley Jr. have improved their OPS+ in 2022:
Rafael Devers, at least, is too good to be this mediocre. The same can be said of Alex Verdugo and Enrique Hernandez, the latter of whom didn't really turn his bat on last season until June. Once he did, he posted an .849 OPS in 89 games down the stretch.
Trevor Story also deserves some patience and not just because the two-time All-Star also backloaded his productivity for the Colorado Rockies in 2021.
He didn't sign his six-year, $140 million contract with Boston until the third week of March. He then had to depart spring training for the birth of his first child, and his efforts to get into a rhythm were further disrupted by a bout of food poisoning after the season opened.
Even if these four guys eventually do get going, however, there will still be questions looming Bradley and Bobby Dalbec.
The former is technically doing better in 2022, but his 50 OPS+ only looks good now because his 34 OPS+ last year qualified him as the worst everyday hitter in baseball.
And while Dalbec did finish last season strong, his efforts so far this year are reminiscent of the .647 OPS and 38.0 strikeout percentage through July 28.
Bloom may have to turn to the trade market for upgrades but not before first rolling the dice on two standouts down in Worcester. One is power-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman Triston Casas, who we have ranked as MLB's No. 17 prospect. The other is speedy outfielder Jarren Duran, who currently bears a .397/.478/.638 slash line.
Regardless, hitting simply must be the primary calling card of Boston's everyday lineup. It isn't going to be defense, as even the steady hands of Bradley and Hernandez haven't kept the team from racking up minus-five outs above average thus far in 2022.
The 1 Bright Side Comes with an Asterisk
As disappointing as the Red Sox's season has been so far, it's worth remembering that the road to October is not as arduous as in prior seasons.
Because of the newly expanded postseason field, there are now six playoff spots for American League squads to chase instead of five. The Red Sox can already see the light in this regard. Though they're 8.5 games behind the Yankees in the AL East, they're only 5.0 games behind the Astros for the sixth-best record in the American League.
Even still, the Red Sox have already badly damaged their playoff odds. According to FanGraphs, they opened the season with a 61.3 percent chance of making it to October. But now? Just 31.0 percent.
Improving those odds isn't simply a matter of the Red Sox fixing what's broken on their roster. They're also going to need to start beating their competition within the AL East. They've played five series against intradivision opponents and lost all five of them.
In any case, the Red Sox had better get going. Otherwise, what they did in 2021 will start to look more and more like what some might already argue it was: a fluke.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.