The Boston Red Sox clinched their postseason berth Sunday afternoon in dramatic come-from-behind fashion against the Washington Nationals, 7-5. That win capped off a season where expectations were exceeded, doubters were silenced and young role players showed star potential. It was a season filled with surprises from a team that had not been performing to expectations for a couple of seasons.
And yet Boston disappointed some. In early July, the Red Sox held a 54-32 record, near the tops in the majors at that point, but could not get any higher than 22 games above .500, ending the season 92-70. They successfully turned around the pitching staff, going from a historically bad 2020 season to a better-than-league-average 2021, but had moments where the bullpen would disappoint greatly and cost Boston some crucial games. The team offense showed up too, being top five in all of Major League Baseball, but had a stretch between July 28 and Aug. 12 where the Sox went 4-11, averaging only 4.13 runs per game (which was only that high because of a 20 run outburst towards the end of this stretch). Through a full season, the Red Sox were complete enough to be playoff-worthy, but had stretches of impotence in different facets of the game that were almost enough to push them out of the postseason. So what exactly went wrong?
Boston’s position players have over-achieved in many regards. Enrique Hernandez, Bobby Dalbec and Hunter Renfroe reached heights previously not thought possible for them. Unfortunately, they often had to shoulder the offensive burdens of games when the stars of the team underperformed.
Xander Bogaerts is one such star: from July 1 onward, Xander hit .255 with a .349 OBP and a paltry (by his standards) .780 OPS. It’s almost as if the All-Star break derailed the offensive momentum he had built in the first half. The eye-test showed a change in Bogaerts’ approach at the plate too; he was not nearly as confident in picking his spots, and often let himself get behind in the count early. Very often, he would fall to 0-2, foul off a couple pitches, then swing at a bad pitch because he had to, resulting in a weak ground ball or pop out.
What’s worse about Bogaerts is that he disappeared down the stretch, in the three most important series of the season against the Yankees, the Orioles and the Nationals. In those nine games, he hit an abysmal .143 with a .472 OPS. The worst part of it all is that he had zero extra-base hits in those final nine games. He was the antithesis of clutch when the Red Sox needed it the most.
Another star who had a down year was J.D. Martinez, who was merely average instead of being the star he usually is. From July 1 onward, Martinez hit only .270, had a wRC+ of 112 and had a walk to strikeout ratio of 0.3 (with an alarmingly high 24.8 K%), a number that would far and away be a career worst. J.D., typically a smart, patient hitter who would pick his pitches, became a free swinger. As a result, he had the second most strikeouts in a single season in his career (150 Ks).
These are not numbers you would hope to see from one of the best overall sluggers on your team. If Martinez can’t even put the ball in play 25% of the time, especially when he is hitting clean-up, there is no telling how many runs are lost by expecting him to at least put the ball in play in that position.
Individual play aside, the Red Sox also made quite a lot of trouble for themselves coming into September. In a month where consistent high-level play is crucial, the Red Sox caught the COVID-19 bug, which sidelined 18 players for some period of time starting on Aug. 3 and onwards.
This resulted in Boston playing minor leaguers like OF Yairo Munoz and IF Jack Lopez, who were barely replacement-level players in their limited time in the majors. While the Red Sox ended up surviving the months after the first positive COVID test, going 29-27, Boston could have done without a momentum killer like that.
The second half of the season was a large part of what put the Red Sox in a position to only capture a Wild Card spot instead of competing for the division crown. Still, given the position that the Sox were in before the season began, any spot in the playoffs should be seen as a massive win. Going beyond the playoffs to the offseason, what should Boston do to try to alleviate some of the problems encountered in the sub-par second half?
Looking into replacements for Martinez and Bogaerts would be the place to start. Kyle Schwarber has proven to be very valuable to the Red Sox and plays the same position as J.D., making him a candidate for a contract extension when the offseason comes. As far as Bogaerts goes, Carlos Correa’s name comes to mind, as well as the burgeoning prospects that currently exist in the organization. Perhaps you wait on Xander, keep him in Boston for another three years, and by then you’ll have serviceable middle infielders to replace him.
In any case, these Boston Red Sox did something no one expected them to do, and did it despite a few mid-season issues. Moving forward, expect great things from this team, as they will come, given the time.
All statistics used in this article are from Fangraphs.