All-Star Breakdown: What went wrong for Sox

All-Star Breakdown: What went wrong for Sox
July 14, 2014, 2:00 pm

The Red Sox spent all of spring training telling us that they were turning the page on their 2013 championship season. They wore the T-shirts, issued the disclaimers, and generally distanced themselves from last year.
     
They brushed aside talk of defending their title, because, they emphasized, that was last year, and this was this year and the two weren't connected.
     
Then the regular season started and, man, they weren't kidding.
     
Suddenly, 2013 seems light years away. It's hard to believe that this is largely the same bunch that essentially led the American League East from start to finish, won 97 games and beat three quality opponents in the post-season to capture the third World Series title in the span of a decade.
     
How did this happen? What went wrong?
     
Those questions are difficult to answer in a vaccuum, as some issues are interrelated. The free agent defection of Jacoby Ellsbury, for instance, resulted in the failure of Grady Sizemore and the offensive struggles of Jackie Bradley Jr.
     
Nonetheless, it's all gone horribly wrong for the first half of 2014. Let us count the ways:
 
     
1) Not replacing Jacoby Ellsbury's on-base capability.
     
Very few Red Sox fans would have argued for the Red Sox to match -- or exceed -- Ellsbury's seven-year, $153 million deal. On the face of it, that was a toxic contract that will cause the Yankees' buyer's remorse in the not-too-distant-future.
     
But while passing on Ellsbury, the Red Sox failed to identify a leadoff hitter to replace him. In spring training, manager John Farrell identified Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino as his two candidates, while also suggesting that Daniel Nava or Jonny Gomes could fill in at the top of the batting order, too.
     
Pedroia has never enjoyed leading off and is far more suitable for the second or third spots in the lineup. Victorino, meanwhile, has compiled a paltry .317 OBP in that spot, compared to his lifetime overall OBP of .341.
     
As for Nava and Gomes, both are platoon players who wouldn't be in the lineup on an everyday basis, making their occasional availability disruptive to the goal of a set batting order.
     
Eventually, after six weeks of trial and error, the Sox turned to Brock Holt, who has compiled a .366 OBP as the team's leadoff hitter. But it's difficult to give the Sox credit, since he arrived there by accident.

     
2) Not lining up suitable depth options in center field and at third base.
     
The Red Sox went into spring training believing that Jackie Bradley Jr. would be their center fielder and Will Middlebrooks would be their regular third baseman.
     
The surprising performance of Grady Sizemore led them to install Sizemore as the starting center fielder, with Bradley only making the team at the 11th hour because of an injury to Victorino.
     
But in retrospect, it was asking too much of Sizemore to be counted on as a regular. What the Sox needed was an established, healthy righthanded hitting center fielder who could, at the very least, platoon with Bradley and provide, at mininum, adequate defense and some offense.
     
Instead, the Sox allowed themselves to be seduced by Sizemore's ability to stay on the field, something he hadn't done at all in the previous two seasons and something he had failed to do regularly since 2009.
     
Sizemore never broke down physically, but he did soon reveal himself incapable of being a good everyday option in center. And he eventually showed that he wasn't capable of providing even adequate offensive production.
     
That left Bradley to fend for himself in center, even as he struggled to hit better than .200 for much of the first two months. And while he's since shown improvement at the plate -- he's hitting nearly .400 since the end of June -- the Sox can't get too much credit for his improvement.
     
The failure to line up an alternative to Middlebrooks was equally perplexing. While Middlebrooks continues to have the promise of power, he's yet to deliver it consisently at the big league level. And remember, this was a player who lost his starting job not once, but twice last season.
     
What convinced the Red Sox that this year would be so different that they wouldn't need an insurance policy behind him?
     
Again, Holt eventually provided the answer. But that was only because the Sox had nowhere else to turn once Middlebrooks went to the DL in mid-April. And when they signed Stephen Drew, they then forced Holt out of the position by shifting Xander Boagerts there.

     
3) Failing to take into account Shane Victorino's lack of durability.
     
While Victorino performed well in his first season in Boston -- and was even heroic in the post-season -- he played just three-quarters of the season a year ago.
     
As players age -- Victorino was 33 when the season began -- they seldom get more durable, especially when dealing with nagging, chronic hamstring and back issues that limited him a season ago.
     
And yet, Red Sox officials insisted that Victorino would not only be the team's primary right fielder, but also, their first backup option behind Bradley and Sizemore in center.
     
To date, of course, Victorino has played just 21 of the team's first 95 games and his return for the start of the second half is anything but assured.

     
4) Sub-par seasons from stalwarts Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz
     
Entering the season, the Red Sox had question marks from the top of their lineup (who hits leadoff?) to the bottom (how much offense would they get out of Bradley and Middlebrooks?).
     
What they didn't think they'd have to account for is a dropoff from their two most important veterans.
     
Ortiz's dropoff hasn't been hugely dramatic. He does, after all, have 20 homers -- after hitting 30 a year ago -- and has driven in 64 runs. But his OPS is off by more than a 100 points and he's on pace to strike out more than he did a year ago. After hitting .308, Ortiz enters the break with a .255 average, likely the result of the dramatic number of shifts he now sees, taking away singles.
     
Perhaps Ortiz's slight decline should have been forecast, too, since he's 38 and some regression was natural.
     
That's not the case with Pedroia, who came into the year at 30, still ostensibly in his prime. But Pedroia isn't the same hitter. A hot streak in the last few weeks has brought his average up to a more respectable .280, still significantly below his .300 career average.
     
Pedroia was never a natural home run hitter, but his power slippage in the last few years is alarming. Even if you want to take into consideration his wrist injury from a year as the reason he hit just nine homer in 2013, what's the explanation now that he has just four homers in more than half a season?
     
From 2008-2011, Pedroia had an average slugging percent of .476; since then, his slugging has gone from .449 to .415 to its current .380.     

That's alarming for a player who's signed for seven more seasons after this one.

     
5) The failed A.J. Pierzynski Experiment.
     
Judging from the (anonymous, of course) comments from teammates, Pierzynski was massively unpopular in the Red Sox clubhouse, perceived as selfish and only in for one more big payday before moving on to a post-career TV gig.
     
But as harmful as he may have been to the clubhouse chemistry, Pierzysnki's real failing was in the batter's box.
     
When they signed him to a one-year $8.25 million deal, the Red Sox fully understood that they weren't getting a Gold Glover behind the plate, though they may have underestimated just how poor he was defensively. Pierzynski not only couldn't frame pitches, he often couldn't catch them.
     
They expected, if nothing else, that Pierzynski would provide some offense from the left side. Only last year, Pierzynski had 17 homers and 70 RBI for the Texas Rangers. Surely, hitting in a good lineup, Pierzynski could deliver similar numbers in Boston.
     
Guess again. He hit just four homers -- none in his final six weeks with the club -- and slugged a paltry .348.
     
Without much offense from Pierzynski, the lineup experienced a massive dropoff in production over the final four spots. Once an opposing pitcher made it past Mike Napoli in the fourth or fifth spot in the order, he was essentially home-free.

    
6) The disastrous first two months from Clay Buchholz.
     
The Red Sox thought they did all the right things with Buchholz this spring. After Buchholz missed three months last season with shoulder/neck woes, the Sox carefully managed his workload in February and March in an apparent attempt to save bullets for the regular season.
     
That strategy backfired when Buchholz compiled a 7.02 ERA in his first 10 starts, forcing the Red Sox to send him to the DL with a trumped-up knee injury.
      
His WHIP for the first two months was exactly 2.0, meaning he was averaging two baserunners for every inning, an obviously unsustainable rate. Amazingly, the Sox managed to go 4-6 in his 10 starts, so it's impossible to suggest that Buchholz himself is responsible for the team's poor start.
      
Still, his inability to get deep into games -- he pitched past the sixth inning just twice in his first ten outings -- took its toll on the bullpen and sapped the rotation of any momentum.