After 88 games, the 2013 Red Sox were 54-34, five-and-a-half games clear of the second-place Orioles and well on their way to a 97-win season that would end with a championship parade.
After as many games, the 2014 Red Sox are 39-49, in last place and probably considering what assets they might trade to a contender this month.
The 2013 Red Sox scored 5.3 runs per game, tops in the American League.
This year’s team is at 3.8, the worst offense in the American League. How does a championship team get this bad, this fast?
A baseball team can improve or devolve in two ways: changes in performance and changes in personnel. Both of these changes have been brutal to the Red Sox.
A majority of the players who poured champagne on one another last October are back in Red Sox uniforms this year, but the few changes they did make have yielded ugly results.
Jacoby Ellsbury was one of the driving forces behind the success of Boston’s offense in 2013, batting .298/.355./426, stealing 52 bases and playing excellent centerfield defense. Jackie Bradley Jr. has actually been better defensively in 2014, but that’s where the good news ends. Bradley has hit .218/.298/.310 and the speed that’s helped him track down balls in center hasn’t done much for him on the basepaths, as he’s stolen just five bases in the few opportunities he’s gotten.
The other key personnel change this offseason was behind the plate, where free agent A.J. Pierzynski stepped in for new Marlin Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The two are similar defensively, but Pierzynski doesn’t look like he’ll match Salty’s 14 home runs or his .338 on-base percentage (A.J.’s mired at .285).
The aforementioned personnel changes were part of the front office’s plan. Two other changes have come as a result of injury. Shane Victorino was second in WAR (5.4) among Red Sox regulars in 2013, batting .294/.351/.451, stealing 21 bases and playing superb rightfield defense. Six different players have manned rightfield in 2014, and while Brock Holt has been solid offensively and defensively, the rest, led by Daniel Nava and Grady Sizemore, represented a major step back from Victorino.
The left side of the infield in 2013 was well settled once Jose Iglesias left town, with Stephen Drew hitting adequately and fielding brilliantly, while Will Middlebrooks battled third base to a draw. Middlebrooks was overmatched before hurting himself this year, but Xander Bogaerts was producing well enough for both of them. But when Middlebrooks got hurt in late May, the Red Sox re-signed Drew and moved Bogaerts to third base, with disastrous results. After batting .296 as a shortstop, Bogaerts has hit just .139 as a third baseman and Drew has been a shadow of his 2013 self, batting .141 and striking out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances.
Among those offensive players who were part of both teams, none has repeated his 2013 numbers this year. Dustin Pedroia has heated up lately, raising his average to .284, but his power is gone and he’s stolen just two bases after swiping 17 and hitting .301 last year. David Ortiz is on pace to top the 30 homers he hit last year, but his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are all down more than 40 points. Mike Napoli’s offense, defense and attendance are all down a tick and the leftfield platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava has been a disappointment no matter who’s in the game.
There is no position at which the Red Sox have matched last year’s production.
On the pitching side, this is basically the same staff that won last year’s World Series, at least in terms of names. All-Star Jon Lester has been better in 2014 and John Lackey has approximated the results from last year’s comeback campaign. The bullpen, led by Koji Uehara and Andrew Miller, has been similarly excellent, but that’s where the similarities end.
Clay Buchholz went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 2013. This year, he’s striking out fewer, walking more, and giving up more homers, with a 6.22 ERA as a byproduct. Only the time spent on the disabled list has been familiar to Buchholz. Jake Peavy was a little lucky to be 4-1 after his acquisition last fall, but this year’s 1-7 record is more befitting of a guy who gives up a home run-and-a-half per nine innings and walks half as many as he strikes out. After a 4.32 ERA and a 3.78 FIP in 162 innings last year, Felix Doubront is up to 5.37 and 5.27 in 2014 and probably exiled from the rotation for good.
There have been bright spots on the 2014 Red Sox. Holt has been a revelation in a utility role. Brandon Workman and Rubby de la Rosa filled in brilliantly for Buchholz and Doubront during DL stints. Lester and the bullpen have kept opposing hitters off balance, making blowout losses rare.
The 2013 Red Sox were loaded with talent, but they were also exceptionally healthy and got surprising production from all over the diamond. In 2014, injuries have struck more often and the healthy players are either suffering from overuse during last year’s postseason run or proving that last year’s numbers represented a best-case scenario.
Let’s hope the first half of this season has been a worst-case scenario. It’s hard to imagine a more meager defense of a World Series championship.