Jacoby Ellsbury would have made the play.
That is not so much a commentary on Marlon Byrd, the perpetrator of a critical defensive misplay in the Red Sox’ latest loss -- this one, a 4-3 defeat on Wednesday night to the Royals -- but instead on the state of the team.
In the first inning of Wednesday’s contest, Jon Lester got a two-out line drive to medium depth in center field off the bat of Johnny Giavotella. Byrd misread the ball off the bat, took a first step in the wrong direction (something that he has done frequently since the Red Sox acquired him) and, when he adapted to its trajectory, saw the ball clang off his glove.
If Byrd had caught the ball, the inning would have ended without a run being allowed. Instead, the Royals went on to plate three runs, and delivered another episode in what has become a serial study in frustration.
“It sucks,” Lester told reporters in Kansas City. “Nobody in this clubhouse came to this team, whether they're a free agent or got called up to this team or whatever, expecting to lose. Everybody in this clubhouse wants to win, everybody tries, everybody grinds their ass off every night, puts together good at-bats, puts together a plan before the game as far as what we’re trying to and execute pitches.
“We’re just not doing it -- plain and simple. Like I said, it’s clichéd and it sucks to hear: We’ve got to keep showing up and keep grinding, putting together those good at-bats and those good plans. It’ll turn around for us.”
But will it?
The Byrd misplay offered a reminder of the way in which the talent base of the 2012 Red Sox has been diminished. Last September, when the Red Sox were amidst their 7-20 swoon, it was unfathomable in no small part because the core of players was outrageously talented. This year, the Sox’ 12-18 start -- which has seen the club spend every day of the first five weeks of the season in last place -- is more comprehensible.
Even after the Red Sox veered off a cliff at the end of last year, the organization felt that it had the nucleus of a championship-caliber club. The lineup was projected to be as good as any in baseball, featuring five players (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz) who delivered performances in 2011 that ranged from All-Star to MVP worthy.
The rotation had three pitchers who likewise had earned trips to the All-Star game in the previous two seasons. Jon Lester had won 19 games and merited Cy Young consideration in 2010, the same season in which Clay Buchholz finished second in the American League in ERA. Josh Beckett was an All-Star in 2011 and, until the final weeks of the season, deserved recognition as a short-list Cy Young candidate.
But with 30 games of the season now in the books, and the “short sample size” disclaimer -- though still valid -- becoming slightly more tenuous with each night, it is worth noting how different the Red Sox are at this moment as compared to the team that rampaged through the American League for four-plus months of 2012, prior to the collapse of last September.
Last year’s struggles were shocking based on the talent the Red Sox possessed. That is not the case with this year’s team, on which the players who are gone do almost as much to define the club as those who remain with it.
Ellsbury was the most dynamic player in the American League last year. His absence was bound to be felt not just in the lineup but also defensively and on the bases. Byrd’s misplay underscored that point, as does the fact that, one year after Sox center fielders led the AL in virtually every offensive category, they are below average in batting average (.252, 8th), OBP (.302, 10th), slugging (.339, 12th) and OPS (.641, 11th).
Though the Red Sox speak optimistically about Ellsbury's return, no one can say with any certainty how he will be able to perform when he does come back after being unable to swing a bat or build strength for so long. Even if he gives the Sox an upgrade over Byrd, it is difficult to imagine him dominating games in 2012 in the same singular fashion that he did in 2011.
At third base, the Red Sox enjoyed the best production in the American League for roughly the first four months of the year before Kevin Youkilis’ injuries dragged down the team’s numbers at the hot corner in 2011. This year, Youkilis struggled out of the gate before being sidelined with injury, and so it is fair to wonder about both his availability and offensive potential going forward this year.
While Will Middlebrooks delivered an instant impact in replacing Youkilis, he now faces a significant transitional challenge as teams start to alter the way in which they attack him. His first hitless game on Wednesday offered a reminder that he won’t deliver an extra-base hit in every game of his career.
Between Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross (when he’s played there), the team has enjoyed a significant boost in its right field production to date, but the declines in production at first base (where the team is waiting for Adrian Gonzalez to get hot, something that is likely a matter of when, not if), center (where the team will almost surely take a significant hit all year) and third base as compared to the middle of last year suggest that the offense is not as well-positioned to carry the club as it was a year ago.
Meanwhile, the top three in the rotation -- particularly Lester and Buchholz -- has seen mystifying struggles. Lester (now 1-3 with a 4.29 ERA after allowing four runs, three of them unearned, in five innings) insists that his stuff is fine, but his strikeout rate of 6.0 per nine innings represents a career low and the continuation of a trend that hoists some red flags.
In 2009, he struck out 26.7 percent of the batters he faced. Since then, that number has gone down every year (26.1 percent in 2010, 22.8 percent last year, 15.8 this year). His walks, meanwhile, are on an upward trajectory, from a rate of 7.6 percent of batters in 2008 and 2009 to 9.6 percent in 2010, a slight dip to 9.4 percent last season and now a bump to 10.2 percent of the batters he’s faced this year.
Byrd’s misplay cost Lester three runs, but in the past, Giavotella likely would have walked back to the dugout with his bat on his shoulder rather than lining out to center. Lester, 28, was as consistent as any pitcher in baseball between 2008-11, one of just three pitchers with at least 15 wins and a 3.50 ERA or lower in each of those seasons. This year, he has yet to perform to that well-established level.
And so, the Red Sox ace has not lived up to that billing thus far this year, and no one else in the rotation has filled the void by delivering dominance. Beckett has come the closest -- though 2-3 with a 4.45 ERA, he’s actually been quite effective in his last four outings, forging a 2.93 ERA and almost seven innings a start -- before he was skipped last weekend due to his stiff lat. Buchholz, meanwhile, has been battered in every outing he’s had this year, with his 9.09 ERA suggesting that, instead of stabilizing the rotation, he has done the opposite in his return from injury.
Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard have shown intriguing flickers of excellence, though given that both are at the earliest stages of their careers as big league starters, it comes as little surprise that those flickers have been unsteady. Even so, those two have been upgrades over virtually anyone whom the Red Sox used in the fourth and fifth starters roles last year.
The issue is the front three of the rotation, which is now a combined 6-7 with a 5.80 ERA with 6.1 strikeouts and 3.9 walks per nine innings. Those numbers would be difficult to stomach for the back of a rotation, let alone the front of one.
“We’ll win plenty of games that they start,” manager Bobby Valentine suggested of Lester, Beckett and Buchholz to reporters in Kansas City. “Get the bad ones out of the way.”
The Red Sox had best hope that the “bad ones” are indeed behind them, for the team has already whittled its margin for error. A year ago, despite the face-plant out of the gates, the Red Sox owned a better record through 30 games (14-16) than they own this season (12-18).
Now, the Sox find themselves in a position where they have to perform to a level that they have yet to approximate this year, save for one seven-game roadtrip in which they reeled off six wins.
To get to last year’s 90-72 record, which would have qualified for the playoffs under the new format, the Sox would have to go 78-54 from this point forward, a .591 pace that would be the equivalent of a 96-win team over a full season.
Obviously, the Sox demonstrated last year that a slow start does not rule out the possibility of a dominant stretch to follow. All the same, that was a different, deeper and more talented Sox team. So far in 2012, the most notable aspect of the team’s roster has been its erosion, whether through injuries (Ellsbury, Youkilis, Carl Crawford) or underperformance (Buchholz, Lester).
Last year’s struggles were shocking. This year’s, to date, are not, given the state of the roster. And that may be the most startling aspect of the 2012 Red Sox to this stage of the season.