Where'd the offense go?
Back on May 1, the Red Sox bludgeoned the Blue Jays, 10-1, to improve to 19-8, easily the best record in the majors. And there was nothing fluky about the performance.
The team ranked second in the big leagues in runs per game (5.4) while ranking second in the AL in fewest runs allowed (3.6) per night. The blowout victory over the Blue Jays on May Day seemed to underscore the potential for a ferocious lineup built around Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli.
In their last eight games, however, the Sox have scored just 3.1 runs per contest, a mark that places them 12th among 15 American League teams during that stretch. They have scored three or fewer runs in six of eight contests. The result? A 2-6 record that has dropped the Sox into a tie with the Orioles for second place in the AL East.
Granted, it's a period during which the Sox haven't done anything particularly well. Thursday's 5-3 loss to the Twins marked the sixth time in seven games that the team permitted at least five runs to its opponent, a striking contrast to the fact that the team gave up five or more runs just seven times in its first 28 games of the year.
Still, given the two extremes of performance by the offense, it's worth contemplating whether the Red Sox have a lineup that might be prone toward offensive consistency, or if the team should anticipate an offensive roller coaster this season, in which the extremes of performance through May 1 (when the Sox were as good as virtually any offense in the game) and since (when they've been one of the worst) should be expected going forward.
The team's offseason roster construction was intended to minimize lineup extremes by building overall depth through quality plate approaches. By adding players who see a ton of pitches and typically record high on-base percentages like Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, David Ross, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, the team expected a lineup that would be able to smooth out some of the edges that became so piercingly sharp in 2012.
In recent games, however, things haven't quite gone according to plan for the Sox.
"When we've squared some balls up and had the ability to bunch our hits together, that's when we've been able to tally a few more runs," said Sox manager John Farrell. "They've been a little hard to come by."
"We didn't get the big hit. That's basically what it is. We played hard. ... We were one swing away from winning that ballgame," added second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "We're going to have to try to find a way to get that big hit or come up in a big situation and find a way to get it done. We'll do that."
But, it is worth asking, is that confidence reasonable or misplaced? Do the Sox have a lineup that should sustain offensive numbers that place them among the best teams in the game?
Ortiz represents an obvious building block. Since the start of the 2011 season, among big leaguers with at least 1,000 plate appearances, he ranks fifth in OBP (.405) and third in slugging (.586). While he went 0-for-5 for the second straight game on Thursday, he hit three rockets straight at players on the Twins.
Pedroia, likewise, offers the Sox relative certainty of production. Despite the fact that he'd dealt with discomfort in his left thumb for much of April after an ill-advised dive into first base on Opening Day, he's still sustained an OBP above .390 for nearly every day of the season. Now, though, he appears to be heating up, having reached base in 12 of 23 plate appearances during the four-game series against the Twins.
But beyond those two, the rest of the Sox lineup right now seems like it has the potential to run hot and cold. Though Jacoby Ellsbury has been healthy enough to play every game this year, he has yet to make a steady offensive impact. Since the season's first week, his OBP has been at or below .340 every day this year, and he's offered very little extra-base pop. For the year, he's hitting .263/.321/.368.
In the No. 2 spot in the lineup, Victorino has been as steady as the Sox could have hoped when they signed him to a three-year, $39 million deal. He's hitting .299 with a .355 OBP and has managed to keep his OBP at or above .347 for all but one day this year, serving as a solid table-setter for Pedroia and Ortiz.
Napoli, on the other hand, has looked like a streaky player to this point, in part because, while he's exhibited the power the Sox hoped he would add to the lineup when they signed him, he has yet to demonstrate the on-base abilities that made him a primary Red Sox target. Napoli has walked just nine times (representing what would be a career-low 6.0 percent of plate appearances, roughly half of his career 11.6 percent rate) thus far this year, while striking out in a whopping 47 of 150 trips to the dish (31.3 percent, which would be a career high).
If he continues to demonstrate both a career-high whiff rate and career-low walk rate, then it's likely that he'll represent an up-and-down presence behind Ortiz in the lineup. The early days of May offer evidence of such a reality, as he's hitting .200/.273/.267 during the Sox' current eight-game offensive dip.
Daniel Nava has a consistently disciplined approach that permits him to minimize the difference between his peaks and valleys. While he's seen his numbers take a hit over the last couple of weeks (.250/.338/.393 in his last 16 games), he continues to demonstrate an approach that looks like it will yield consistently solid to high on-base percentages with occasional pop.
The bottom of the Sox' order, of course, seems to represent a boom-and-bust cycle. The catching tandem of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ross has been one of the more productive ones in the AL to date, with a .331 OBP (fifth in the AL) and .521 slugging mark (second) along with eight homers (tied for second), but the pair has struck out in one out of every three plate appearances, so they've alternately delivered surprising production or a lineup vulnerability.
Will Middlebrooks is showing hints of pulling himself out of a slump that now extends more than a month, but his 39-to-5 strikeout-to-walk rate suggests that there's a good chance that his productive stretches will come in bunches rather than serving as something of a lineup metronome. Right now, there aren't many bunches for a player who is hitting .194/.229/.379.
Drew has shown a consistent swing and consistent pitch selection that should lend itself to steady, above-average shortstop production, and after his season-opening struggle to find his rhythm at the plate, he's now hitting .244 with an above-average OBP (.323, compared to a .306 league average shortstop) and slugging mark (.390, compared to the league average of .369) that represent a strength for the position.
So what does all of that mean? The presence of a few lineup spots that produce swings and misses in volume (Napoli, Middlebrooks, the catchers) and, to date, some OBP struggles has engendered the potential for a team that rides its fair share of waves offensively. Of course, virtually every team in baseball features the same sort of vulnerabilities.
Bigger picture: The Sox are fourth in the majors in runs with 4.9 a game, and they've achieved that position without any sustained production from Middlebrooks since the first week of the season, with almost no meaningful impact from Ellsbury at the plate to date and with Pedroia searching for his swing (even as he gets on base at a terrific rate).
The Sox will be prone to stretches of running hot and cold, but in terms of the performances that the team has seen thus far this year, there haven't been many players (aside from Ortiz, whose Ted Williams impersonation was bound to endure some correction) who have outperformed their track records by a considerable degree. In other words, while the Sox are enduring an offensively fallow stretch -- and will face other such spots during the season -- the overall picture of their lineup, at least for now, is one that suggests that more often than not, periods such as the team's last eight games should be the aberration rather than the norm.