The Boston Red Sox are in familiar territory from a year ago. They’re in tight-ish contention for first place in the AL East (though at this point in 2016 they’d not overtaken the Blue Jays yet) and making plans for October baseball. The youth movement has come to full fruition, with the addition of Rafael Devers injecting added excitement into an already fun group of players. But there may be a not so minor issue with the team, that could make for trouble in October. The Red Sox have a bit of an offense problem.
Last year, en-route to a surprising sweep at the hands of the shorthanded Cleveland Indians that ended David Ortiz’s swan song earlier than hoped, the Red Sox ranked first in all of baseball in wRC+ at 113. Better than the vaunted, eventual world-champion Cubs, the thump-happy Jays, everyone. They had a 23-year-old Mookie Betts looking like the best outfielder in baseball (non-Trout division), Hanley Ramirez looking rejuvinated, 21-year old Andrew Benintendi just up from the farm and mashing, Xander Bogaerts spraying the ball over the field, and of course Ortiz. That man was in the midst of one of the great offensive seasons of the new millennium. Wit all that youth (most of those guys were 23 or under) just oozing talent, even Ortiz’s retirement shouldn’t have slowed them down this season. As usual, the baseball gods laugh at the plans of man.
This isn't like the Sox are just a bit worse — there's been a stark fall. In real numbers, it looks like this:
Red Sox Offense 2016 and 2017
By wRC+ they are producing a net 23 percent fewer runs. That's massive. That's the space between dominating Murderers Row types of teams and small ball, pitching-and-defense squads. Which the Sox certainly are: Between Betts, Jackie Bradley and Andrew Benintendi, they have one of the best defensive outfields we've seen in a long time, up there with the Royals of a few years back.
At first blush, maybe you could wave away the issue by saying that they lost Ortiz. He was the straw that stirred the drink, a weapon of mass baseball destruction all season. But despite subtracting his 164 wRC+, his 38 homers and 48 doubles (and one triple?), this is a precipitous fall. All the young guys (and Ramirez) they needed to perform just... aren’t:
Red Sox player wRC+ change
The two most glaring issues are probably Ramirez and Betts. Ramirez because at this point he only really brings a bat to the table, and Betts because a year ago he seemed to cement himself as a superstar. When your defensive wizard also flashes 30-home run power, you can be excused if you get a little excited for the future. But this year, the power has faded (his ISO has fallen 40 points, to .176) and his plate discipline numbers have taken a shift:
Mookie Betts plate discipline
Most notable may be that swing rate - Betts is substantially less aggressive this year. He's getting fewer pitches in the zone, but even when it is there he's not swinging as much. He's also seeing a larger dose of sliders (21.8 percent this year, 17.1 last year) and sinkers (18 percent this year, 15.8 in 2016), and is being pitched lower in the zone more often:
It stands to reason that if he's seeing tougher pitches, he's going to have a tougher time. Perhaps he's still adjusting to more sliders, and this is simply a delayed sophomore slump. For everyone’s sake, fans and the Sox, hopefully it’s a blip more than a trend.
As for the other youngsters, Bradley is tough to read because he's one of the streakiest players in the majors right now. In 2016 he had months where he logged a 165 wRC+, immediately followed by 50. He could light on fire in September and suddenly that 102 wRC+ could bounce up above 110 and it wouldn't be a problem.
I'm more concerned about Xander Bogaerts. In his second and third seasons he combined for 9 fWAR, put up a 111 wRC+, and improved in his walk rate and consistency in 2016 by bouncing the walks from 4.9 percent to 8.1 while dropping his BABIP from an unstable .372 to closer to normal .335. This year he stuck close to that second BABIP, looking at .331 right now. But the power is gone, only smacking eight homers so far against 21 a year ago, resulting in a disappointing 94 wRC+. That basically mirrors the fall the Sox offense as a whole has seen. The question with Bogaerts in particular is: why?
Tony Blengino at Fangraphs looked at this a couple weeks ago. Among many other issues, Bogaerts isn't hitting fly balls as hard (90 mph last year, 83 mph this year), he pops up a lot despite a low fly ball rate, and has developed a creepingly high grounder rate (48.5 percent this year, a career high) despite playing in heaven for right-handed fly-ball hitters. Blengino also notes that this is all talk about a 24-year-old who is still very good defensively and thus has a very high ceiling. But after two years of incremental growth into a very good offensive player at a defense-first position, it's disappointing and odd to see him take a step back. Like with Betts, one hopes the pop-ups at least flatten out some. That Monster is right there for him.
The Red Sox don't need Bogaerts to hit, especially if Devers is in any way real and Benintendi gets over what might be a sophomore slump and hits like he’s supposed to. But if Betts isn’t going to be what he showed last year, they’re going to need some kind of contribution. Ramirez is 33 and shouldn’t be expected to carry the offense, especially since he hasn’t done that since he was a Marlin. And we haven’t even touched on the offense from the catching position, which has been ugly.
If Betts and Ramirez stay so middling, if Bradley goes cold and Benintendi doesn’t flourish quickly enough, then who can provide? Boston is certainly built to win now and in the future, but wouldn’t it be frustrating to waste the kind of season the pitching staff (well, Chris Sale at least) is having? You need to seize your chances in baseball; just ask the Mets. They have the AL’s second best record. Having that all fall by the wayside because of lack of hitting from the young stars is a bad look. There’s no easy fix, it’s just strange to see this team-wide power outage.
Merritt Rohlfing writes at Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, constant in his raving love of baseball. He also podcasts on Mostly Baseball(available on iTunes!) and lives in a swamp. He can be followed on Twitter at @merrittrohlfing.