On Saturday, July 26, the Red Sox put together eight hits and three walks against Jeremy Hellickson and the Rays. That kind of production doesn’t guarantee a win, but it typically puts a team in contention.
On this night, the Red Sox were shut out in a 3-0 loss.
Stranding runners has been an all-too-common and all-too-frustrating scene at Fenway and everywhere else the 2014 Red Sox have played. With runners in scoring position, they’re batting just .240 as a team (third-worst in the American League), with just 18 home runs (second-worst).
This failure to produce in the clutch can be traced to several sources. They’ve often loaded the tail end of the lineup with guys struggling to hit .200, allowing pitchers to walk David Ortiz or Mike Napoli and trust they’ll survive the inning. They’re not a powerful team, sitting fourth from the bottom of the league with 81 home runs, only 56 of which have come from players not named Ortiz.
Another underreported aspect that has contributed to Boston’s struggles to score runs is baserunning. The 2014 squad saw Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia in the first third of the lineup. Those three stole 90 bases in 102 tries, part of a team-wide effort that broke a Major League record with 123 steals in 142 tries, an amazing 87 percent success rate.
Stolen bases aren’t the only important facet of baserunning. Good baserunners go first-to-third on a single, score on a double and tag up on medium-depth fly balls to score runs. Fangraphs keeps a statistic called baserunning runs, which accumulates all baserunning outcomes to measure how many more runs a player’s baserunning contributes to his team compared to the average player. In 2013, Ellsbury, Victorino and Pedroia accumulated 14.8 baserunning runs, making the most of Ortiz’s and Napoli’s hits and keeping opposing pitchers on their toes.
In 2014, Ellsbury is in pinstripes, Victorino has spent all but 28 games in the trainer’s room and Pedroia has only rarely approximated last year’s success. The three players most often appearing at the top of the lineup: Brock Holt, Pedroia, and Ortiz, have combined for just eight steals in 16 attempts. They’ve been worth 5.6 baserunning runs below average, a year-to-year swing that has likely cost the team more than two wins.
It may not be fair to substitute Ortiz’s numbers for Ellsbury’s, since the team expects very different results from the two on the basepaths. Several other players, including Daniel Nava, Xander Bogaerts, Grady Sizemore and Victorino himself, have spent time in the top third of the lineup. Those four have totaled 1.8 baserunning runs, barely exceeding average and falling well short of Ellsbury’s production.
As a team, the Red Sox are 10.4 runs below average in 2014, last in the majors by a wide margin. The 2013 champs were 11.3 runs better than average, trailing only the Royals and Orioles among American League teams. As if this year’s 30 stolen bases (second-worst in the league) weren’t bad enough, they’ve been thrown out 20 times and their 61 percent success rate by far the worst in the league.
Not surprisingly, Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli have been on base more times than any other Red Sox players this year. Due in part to age, injuries and physical build, all three are struggling to take the extra base this year, clogging the basepaths and leaving multiple men on at the end of so many innings.
If the Red Sox are looking to make some changes to next year’s team, a focus on speed and baserunning acumen might be wise. That could be as simple as keeping Victorino healthy and convincing Pedroia to take a day off now and then when he’s ailing. Then again, it could be as difficult as finding a fountain of youth for Big Papi or teaching Jackie Bradley Jr. to get on base enough to show off his speed. Either way, the elusive extra base has likely cost the 2014 Red Sox a spot or two in the standings.
Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids and writes about baseball all over the web. Follow him on Twitter @replevel.