The AL division series hasn’t gotten off to the start any of us expected. The favored Red Sox dropped the first two games in Cleveland in frustrating fashion, leaving it up to a major comeback to keep the season alive and advance to the AL Championship Series. The easy scapegoat for the early struggles is the starting pitching. It’s been among the team’s biggest issues all season.
Rick Porcello and David Price were supposed to be the exceptions to those struggles. Instead, in the ALDS, they were the worst versions of themselves. Porcello gave up three home runs in one inning, including to the No. 9-hitting catcher with three regular-season homers in 2016. Price gave his critics every reason to continue doubting his ability to perform in big games. So yeah, the starting pitching was a nightmare, and could ultimately cost the Sox their season.
But starting pitching hasn’t been the team’s only problem. The Sox’s biggest strength – its lineup that boasted four All-Star starters and scored the most runs in the majors – has been virtually non-existent. They needed solo home runs from the likes of Brock Holt, Sandy Leon and Andrew Benintendi just to score four runs in Game 1. Then they were shut out and shut down offensively in Game 2. Everything they did well at the plate in the regular season – make solid contact, get timely hits and rely on production from their stars – has yet to be a strength two games into the playoffs. It’s an issue even good pitching couldn’t overcome.
As I wrote about in July, the Red Sox have been one of the hardest teams to strike out in the David Ortiz Era, and this season was no exception. The Sox owned the third-lowest offensive strikeout rate in the regular season (18.4 percent) and the highest contact rate (81.6 percent). The Sox have been a shell of that team thus far. They’ve struck out 22 times over their first ALDS 69 plate appearances. That’s a hearty 32 percent rate. Dustin Pedroia, who had one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors at 10.5 percent, and Xander Bogaerts, who had the fourth-lowest rate on the team at 17.1 percent, have accounted for a majority of the Sox’s strikeouts with four apiece over the first two games. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s five combined strikeouts are less of a surprise, but alarming nonetheless.
Four runs over two games for an offense that averaged more than five runs per game is concerning, but the lack of scoring isn’t due to a lack of opportunities. The Red Sox put five runners in scoring position in Game 1 – a situation they hit an AL best .283 in during the regular season – but went 2-for-9 in such spots, turning those opportunities into one run. Game 2 didn’t present as many scoring opportunities thanks to Corey Kluber’s dominance, but the Sox still went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. That gives them a .143 average for the series with runners in scoring position – good for third worst among division series teams.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Sox’s offensive struggles is that their best players have been among their worst over the first two games. Mookie Betts, an MVP candidate with a .296 TAv in the regular season, has just one hit for the series. Bogaerts and Pedroia also have just one hit apiece. Ortiz, who defied Father Time throughout his final regular season with 38 homers and a .317 TAv and is arguably the best playoff hitter in team history, also has just one hit in eight at bats. The Red Sox’s best hitters, aside from Hanley Ramirez, aren’t creating any offense.
Fielding has also been an issue for the Red Sox. The same defense that was eighth in the majors in UZR (21) and fourth in defensive runs saved (48) has been less than stellar in the field. The Sox have only committed one error over the first two games – a grounder that went under the glove of Pedroia in Game 2 – but have failed to make a number of plays they normally make. A strong example came in the fifth inning of Game 1. The Red Sox trailed Cleveland 4-3 with no outs when Carlos Santana flied out to Benintendi in left. Benintendi was too late to notice Indians catcher Roberto Perez tagging from first to second for an advance that was easier than it should’ve been. Jason Kipnis drove in Perez with an RBI single for the eventual winning run. Game 2 wasn’t any better. Pedroia had his error, but Bogaerts and Holt each misplayed ground balls that allowed extra base runners and extra outs for an Indians offense that scored six runs.
The point is, nothing has gone well for the Red Sox through two games. Sure, Porcello and Price are a concern, especially if the Sox can extend the series after Monday’s Game 3. However, they can’t win if they’re not scoring. And good starting pitching is tough to come by when the fielders aren’t backing the pitchers up. If this series is going to turn around, it’ll take more than just three straight good starts for it to happen.
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