The Boston Red Sox aren’t supposed to be this bad. Not after steamrolling every team in their path last season en route to a 108 win regular season, an 11-3 postseason, and a World Series Championship, and then returning essentially the entire roster that comprised the greatest team in franchise history. And yet, eleven games into the season, the conversation around the Sox has shifted dramatically from “Can they repeat?” to “Will they get booed during Tuesday’s Home Opener and Ring Ceremony? I sure hope not, but it’s definitely a possibility!” Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
No, the Boston Red Sox aren’t supposed to be this bad. Sox fans can take comfort in the fact that they (probably) aren’t; they might not be a 108-win quality team (their pythagorean record last season said they should have won “only” 103 games), but, even accounting for a World Series hangover, normal regression, and the loss of Craig Kimbrel, it still wasn’t unreasonable to expect another 100 in the win column by the end of the season.
But then the first ten games happened, and the simple joy of merely having baseball back quickly morphed into confusion, disappointment, and sheer panic. Now, winning 100 games is going to be really hard to do. Heck, even 90 might be a pipe dream, because the Red Sox have started the season in a disturbingly calamitous fashion. If you allowed even the most twisted, demented Yankees fan in the world to draw up their darkest fantasy for how they wanted 2019 to start for Red Sox, they’d probably only have dared peg them at 4-6, because what the Red Sox are doing right now is unimaginable.
Even with a 1-0 win to close out the season opening road trip, the Red Sox are 3-8. This included three straight series losses, and a four game losing streak, both feats (or, rather, debacles) which never befell the 2018 squad. It would be one thing if they were losing nail-biting, coin flip kind of games, but they’ve been completely outplayed in every fashion. At times, it’s seemed like they’ve forgotten how to play baseball, and it’s been God-awful to watch.
That’s defending Gold Glove winner Jackie Bradley Jr. and two-time defending Gold Glove winner Mookie Betts letting a fly ball just…drop. Poor defense has become a common thread through the season’s early stages for Boston, and can help account for the dreadful pitching (in part, at least).
The base running has been even worse. The first time Ramón Laureano threw Xander Bogaerts out on the bases, I said, “Wow, that was a good throw. I am sad that it hurt my team, but I appreciate that man’s baseball talent.” The second time it happened, literally the very next game, I said, “Huh. Why did we try that thing again when it failed so miserably the first time? That seems counterproductive.” Then, when THE SAME PLAYER threw out his THIRD Red Sox player in a four game series, I said nothing, because I had already combusted with anger, and if you had asked me in that moment, I would have supported cutting off every Red Sox player’s left foot just so they wouldn’t even consider running on Ramón Laureano ever again.
Everything went right for the Red Sox in 2018, and so far, that has not been the case in 2019. The first ten games of the season could not possible have gone worse. In fact, the 2019 Boston Red Sox ten game start is the worst in history for a team that won 100 games the previous year. Since 1903, the year of the first World Series, 101 teams have won at least 100 games. Of those 101 teams, only 16 (15.84%) started the next season with a sub-.500 record over their first ten games. Here are those teams:
The 2-8 start is tied for the worst record, but it gets worse from there, which is a troublingly thing to say about a team with a record that atrocious. Their run differential through ten games (-27) is also the worst in history during the first ten games of a season for a team coming off of 100+ wins. The takeaway here is that the 2018 Boston Red Sox were elite, and the 2019 Boston Red Sox are still elite, just in a much, much worse way.
But, hark! Don’t lose hope! There are a few positives to be found on that miserable table! Only one other team in history won at least 100 games, and then started the next year 2-8. That was the 1935 Detroit Tigers, who’s run differential in that time was only a run better than Boston’s. They managed to win 93 games and a World Series title. 93 wins might only be good enough for the second wild card spot in the top-heavy American League, but October baseball is October baseball, and you can bet the Red Sox don’t want to be the first member of the “We won 100+ games, then the next year we started 2-8, and then we didn’t turn it around and win the World Series that year” Club. That would be embarrassing.
Further, of the fifteen other teams on that list, only two of them ended up with a losing records, and since the Wild Card Era began in 1994, the four teams who qualified for this list – the 2003 Atlanta Braves, the 2005 New York Yankees, the 2009 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers – all went on to win their divisions. There is a precedent for 2-8 teams to win it all, and there is a recent precedent for really good teams with really bad starts to right the ship.
The problem is, the Red Sox level of play hasn’t been on par with those recent success stories. The only run differentials on that list that are close to the dismal Red Sox mark are the aforementioned 1935 Tigers, and the 1932 Philadelphia Athletics, and while both of their seasons turned out well, those aren’t very good comparisons due to the difference in era. If we look at the four teams in the Wild Card Era, the Red Sox have scored at a similar level, but allowed 15 more runs than the next closest team. Pitching, particularly starting pitching, has been a huge area of concern for the Red Sox so far in 2019.
Paul Goldschmidt is an MVP-level player who’s wRC+ was 145 in 2018. Red Sox pitchers won’t continue to allow opponents to be roughly 45% better than league average for the entire year (I hope), but that level of run production is much higher than other elite teams that have overcome tumultuous beginnings and returned to form. It’s actually much more in line with awful teams that continued to be, you know, awful the entire season.
I looked at every team over the last ten years that won two or fewer games out of their first ten games, and had a run differential worse than -20, both numbers that are in line with these Red Sox. There have been 15 such teams, and not a lot of success:
This table is populated with almost exclusively teams that started the season badly because they were bad the year before, and did nothing to get better. Only three teams on this list (the 2011 Boston Red Sox, the 2013 Los Angeles Angels, and the 2019 Red Sox) won at least 89 games the previous season before their rough starts, but only the 2019 Red Sox are coming off of a playoff appearance. And while the Red Sox have scored more runs than any team on the list, they also have surrendered more runs than any of them. That is, as the kids say, not what you want to see.
Even worse, the precedent for success among this group of teams is nonexistent. None of them went on to make the postseason, and only two (the 2011 Boston Red Sox and the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays) even won 90 games. The Red Sox might look like the four dominant teams who started badly but won their divisions on paper, but based off of results and run differentials through the first ten games of the year, they’re actually more like the 15 bad teams that didn’t recover, and failed to make it to the postseason. That should worry Boston.
It’s probably fine. The Red Sox still have Mookie Betts and Chris Sale and J.D. Martinez. Their 3-8 record, while discouraging, doesn’t look quite as bad when you realize it was a part of a brutal opening stretch of 11 games in 11 days, all on a West Coast road trip, which happens to be the longest road trip for the team this season. Chances are, they won’t go the way of the 2013 San Diego Padres and finish with only 76 wins, but they’ve dug quite a hole for themselves to get out of. They have 151 games left to play, and starting at 3-8 means they’ll need to go 93-58 the rest of the way to make it to 96-66 (what FanGraphs projects the Yankees to win). That’s a .616 win percentage, which, while not technically impossible, is basically impossible.
Think of it this way: they still have 19 games to go against the Yankees, and another six against the Astros; assuming they go 13-12 in those games (which is probably generous), that means they’ll need to go 80-46 in their remaining games to reach the 96-win mark, which would be a blistering .635 win percentage.
This is basically the same Red Sox team that won at a .667 clip last season, so they have the capability to silence the doubters (who, in all honesty, are already mostly silent from shock) with an insane 18-2 run and make this horrid start a distant memory. But they’ve made it a lot more difficult for themselves than I think they would have liked; surely, going from historically good to the literal worst start for any team coming off of a 100 win season in history isn’t at all what they had in mind. Andy Barkett, the Red Sox assistant hitting coach, recently said that “Last year was Disney World. This year is real baseball.” The Red Sox better be ready to play, or else their awful start might mean a baseball-less October in Boston.
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