Where has it gone wrong for Red Sox?

Rob Bradford
April 16, 2014 - 7:37 am

The popular line coming out of spring training was that the only really hiccup throughout the 1 1/2 months of getting ready for the regular season could be traced to a fishing knife. Ironically, the owners of the little bit of drama in Fort Myers -- Jake Peavy and his cut finger -- have been the least of the Red Sox' worries during their 5-9 start. Peavy has been the team's best pitcher to date, compiling a 1.93 ERA over his first three starts. But almost immediately this year, concerns started cropping up. While injuries -- starting with Shane Victorino's hamstring pull the last day of spring training -- will be the main focus when trying to identify the issues, there have been plenty of images through the first two weeks of games this year that were never seen during the march to a title in 2013. So, besides injuries, what else exactly is wrong with the world champs? LEADOFF SPOT Problem: It is true that a leadoff hitter will only be guaranteed one occasion per game in which he kicks off an inning. But there is something to be said for setting the tone. No tone has been set for these Red Sox. Without Jacoby Ellsbury, they wanted to prioritize their leadoff hitter getting on base. That hasn't happened. The hitters atop the lineup have a combined .292 on-base percentage, fourth worst in the majors. They have scored just five runs, the majors' second-fewest. And get this: The Red Sox are the only team in baseball that hasn't scored a run in the first inning this season. Also of note: Not only does the Red Sox leadoff spot have the second-worst OPS in baseball, but it's also where their No. 2 hitters rank (.496). Solution: Stick Dustin Pedroia in the top spot and see what happens. He's not averse to the dynamic, especially when Victorino returns. It might also pave the way for a slightly different approach by pitchers, which could give jump-start the second baseman's walk total. (He doesn't have a free pass this season.) It should also be noted that Pedroia has swung at the first pitch just five percent of the time this season, fourth lowest in the bigs. There would also be the increased opportunity for Pedroia to run, which he has always been hesitant to do with Ortiz hitting behind him. If/when the entire lineup is healthy, the Sox would feature a batting order of Pedroia, Victorino, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Grady Sizemore, Xander Bogaerts. FINDING SOME WALKS Problem: Remember when the Red Sox found themselves not taking the proper patient approach last season? Usually there would be a quick correction. That alteration hasn't happened yet. The Red Sox currently find themselves in the lower half of American League with 41 free passes. Strangely, the Sox are still taking a fair amount of pitches (4.01 per plate appearance, fourth-most in the AL). They also swing at the first pitch only 22 percent of the time (fourth-fewest), despite A.J. Pierzynski's rate of swinging at the initial offering 45 percent of the time (his highest rate since '02). Solution: The players seeing regular playing time who could most likely up their walk total are Pedroia (0 walks), Sizemore (3), Daniel Nava (3) and Ortiz, who has four. The increased patience might also cut into a double play total that is the most prolific in the major leagues (17). EFFECTIVE BASERUNNING Problem: Much was made of how efficient the Red Sox' base-stealers were a year ago, clocking in at 86 percent. This year they have the second-worst stolen base percentage in the majors, going 4-for-8. After 14 games last season, the Sox success rate stood at 70 percent (12-for-17). The good news is that Red Sox baserunners have only been gunned down twice trying to take an extra base Solution: Other than re-acquiring Jacoby Ellsbury, this is one that is just going to have to run its course. While the Sox still have good baserunners, replacing Ellsbury with Jackie Bradley Jr. and Sizemore really is a downgrade in the speed department. Perhaps the biggest step forward they can make in this department is just getting Bradley and Sizemore more confident about trying to take the extra base (they are a combined 3-for-3). SOME PRODUCTION AT THIRD BASE Problem: While many will correctly identify the absence of Victorino as a huge hole for the Red Sox, not having a productive Will Middlebrooks has also been a challenge. Middlebrooks appeared to be evolving into a run-producer early in the season before tearing his calf muscle four games into the season. The combination of Jonathan Herrera and Ryan Roberts has resulted in a subpar .605 OPS at the position. (Then again, five of the Red Sox' nine positions have combined for OPSes of under .700.) Solution: This one is going to require patience. Middlebrooks is still a ways off, having not even run yet. While the Sox will call this a Grade 1 strain, it is basically a tear. And the third baseman learned his lesson from last season when he tried to return from back problems too early. If his injury does linger, however -- or if such a problem surfaces later in the season -- the conversation about Garin Cecchini (hitting .310 with a .727 OPS with PawSox) should gain steam. SITUATIONAL HITTING Problem: The Red Sox' inability to get runners in is no secret. They are hitting just .194 with runners in scoring position, and .188 in such situations with two outs. But one under-the-radar issue that has popped up has been a lack of production from the Sox' pinch-hitters. They are 1-for-10 with no walks and five strikeouts. Last season, this was team that saw its pinch-hitters total a major league-best .359 on-base percentage, along with seven homers. Solution: Continuity. With the injuries, finding the right guy at the right time has been challenging. The Red Sox rotated a lot of guys in and out last season, but usually those guys had an idea of when and where they were going to be needed. Due to ailments, the lineup structure has been somewhat unpredictable, putting a dent in some players' comfort zones.