The Red Sox understood that when they committed to youth, to a lineup featuring three players who are 25 years old or younger, that they would be vulnerable to more pronounced peaks and valleys than might have typified their lineup a year ago. That, the team felt, was worth the upside.
Still, growing pains are, by definition, painful, and ultimately that means that the Red Sox will have to confront questions of their pain tolerance. And right now, at a time when the team remains stuck in the midst of a 20-21 record with just over a quarter of the season now concluded, the issue is starting to become acute.
On a night when the Red Sox lost, 1-0, to the Tigers, the trio of Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks and Jackie Bradley Jr. went 0-for-7 with four strikeouts. It would be a mistake to single those three players out for their struggles given that Max Scherzer and the Tigers pitching staff dominated the entire Sox lineup, permitting only three hits.
Nonetheless, the struggles of the three players have become severe this month, in a fashion that is starting to force the Sox to have to question the degree of their reliance on youth. And the first signs of stirring the waters arrived on Friday night.
A look at the three struggling players:
Season: .254 average, .360 OBP, .348 slugging, 1 homer, 5 RBIs
Lately: .208/.309/.292 with 3 extra-base hits, 0 RBIs, 27.2 percent strikeout rate in May
Runners in scoring position: .118/.211/.176
Make no mistake: Bogaerts has hit a rough patch that has been far rockier than anticipated. Based on his minor league track record, it was natural to expect a progression as the season continued; instead, the Sox have seen him go from a solid April in which he showed strong on-base skills and hit for average to a May in which he's offering little production.
His strikeouts are up and he's rarely driving the ball. Bogaerts is seeing pitches to hammer and he's not impacting them in the fashion to which he became accustomed in the minors.
"I'm just missing too many pitches," Bogaerts lamented. "Out and away, middle to away -- just in my happy zone, I would say -- I'm just missing too many pitches. This is the big leagues. You can't be missing so much."
Yet Bogaerts has been putting himself in position to get good pitches to drive. His overall offensive approach has pointed to solid pitch recognition and good anticipation of what opponents are doing, how they're attacking him. Hitting coach Greg Colbrunn noted that Bogaerts has been on time at the plate, but he's simply been fouling off his pitches to hit.
Case in point: In his 14-pitch at-bat against Twins starter Phil Hughes on Thursday, Bogaerts fouled off one fastball after another up and away. Those are pitches he crushed last year in the majors and minors, but that he's not capitalizing on right now.
But the fact that he's positioning himself to see pitches that he should drive -- and that he hasn't been expanding the strike zone to chase pitches he can't impact -- gives the Sox a measure of reassurance that it's simply a matter of time before Bogaerts makes more of an offensive impact. And while his struggles with runners in scoring position have been pronounced, with the young shortstop more inclined to chase pitches when trying to drive in a run, the team again believes that he's advanced enough that he'll start delivering.
"Xander's always had a calmness about him even in moments of postseason or a heightened stage, and I think he's still shown that this year with his overall approach," said Sox manager John Farrell. "I don't think he's expanded the strike zone all that much. There's been a higher number of strikeouts this year than maybe expected, but he hasn't changed all that much. The biggest difference from a year ago is that he came to the big leagues on a confident run being established at the minor league level. For a young player to get back to that state of confidence for his first time at the major league level, in the month of April, that's more challenging. And those are some of the maturity things, the experience things, that we're seeing through the first six, seven weeks of the season."
JACKIE BRADLEY JR.
Season: .200 average, .301 OBP, .296 slugging
Lately: Hitting .128/.226/.170 in May
Last 9 plate appearances with runners in scoring position: 0-for-8, 3 K's, 5 ground balls, 0 runners advanced, IBB
Bradley typically exudes confidence and self-assurance, a perspective that struggles are a temporary condition. And so it was eyebrow-raising to hear the outfielder's characterization of his most recent stretch, which has featured his most severe challenge of the 2014 campaign.
"It is very frustrating. I'm lost. I'm not getting the results that I want, and I'm sure it's not the results they want," Bradley said on Friday night after going 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts, including a pivotal one against reliever Evan Reed with no outs and runners on first and second in the seventh, which helped turn the Sox' most promising rally into a zero. "The past few games I felt like I've had some very well hit baseballs and nothing to show for it. You have to go back to the drawing board."
Bradley had been one of the Sox’ most effective hitters with runners in scoring position to start the year, though that has taken a recent turn. Since May 3, he’s 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and has yet to get a ball out of the infield, having struck out three times and grounded out five times, failing to advance the runners in any of those plate appearances. (He did receive one intentional walk with runners on second and third.)
For Bradley, the silver linings are somewhat less evident than they are with Bogaerts' struggles. He's striking out in 29.4 percent of his plate appearances this year, and opposing pitchers are attacking him with impunity as of late. But the Sox insist that Bradley has put up more competitive at-bats than he did a year ago, that he's showing aptitude even while struggling to perform against elite pitchers.
"It's getting your feet wet. He's facing the best pitching he's ever faced before. You've got Max Scherzer out there, Cy Young winner, then seeing Evan Reed throwing 98 with a pretty good breaking ball and he's never seen him," said hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. "He's swung the bat pretty good. He's just not getting results. That's part of the process: Trusting it and not necessarily looking at results. Trust in the approach, trust in hitting the ball hard. Every hitter goes through that, whether it's the first year or 10th year. That's one of the toughest things."
Yet Bradley's pronouncement that he's "lost" may offer a bit of a red flag, the idea that his big league struggles are eroding his confidence about performing at the highest level. But in his case, the alternatives inside the organization are few.
At this point, Bradley is the one true center fielder on the roster. The team was uncomfortable with Grady Sizemore in center on an everyday basis given what it saw from him in terms of range. Shane Victorino, the other potential center fielder on the roster, is viewed (once he's ready to return from his knee soreness) as a more impactful right fielder than center fielder.
In the minors, the Sox don't have another center fielder on the 40-man roster, unless one counts Daniel Nava (who has had limited exposure at the position). The everyday center fielder in Pawtucket is Corey Brown -- who has had a bit of a power surge of late after a horrendous start, but still, who profiles as a depth option rather than a potential starter (as evidenced by the fact that the 28-year-old has started four career big league games).
Bradley's defense may be too valuable to keep out of the lineup -- particularly considering the in-house alternatives -- but offensively, the Sox have little choice but to hold their breath and hope that he starts to show signs of adapting and learning the level. Right now, statistically, his struggles this year (.200/.301/.296) have been hard to distinguish from the ones he had in 2013 (.189/.280/.337).
In his case, the Sox have little choice but to be patient. There isn't an in-house alternative. However, if Bradley's struggles persist, it might force the team to contemplate forays into the trade market to find an upgrade.
Season: .197 average, .305 OBP, .324 slugging, 2 homers, 9 RBIs
Lately: .159/.260/.159 with no extra-base hits, 32 percent strikeout rate in May
Against right-handed pitchers (season): .143/.276/.286
With two strikes: .125/.239/.225, 23 strikeouts in 46 plate appearances
When pitcher gets ahead: .152/.152/.182
Here's where things got interesting on Friday. After Bradley punched out, with one out and runners on first and second in the seventh inning, Farrell elected to pinch-hit for Middlebrooks rather than sending the third baseman to the plate to face Reed, the rocket-armed right-hander. The move blew up on the Sox, as the Tigers countered Farrell's summons of A.J. Pierzynski by bringing in lefty Ian Krol, who promptly induced a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play that wiped out the most significant Sox threat of the night.
After the game, Farrell cited two factors in his decision to pinch-hit for Middlebrooks. The first was health.
"Will took that line drive off his right index finger the second hitter of the game," Farrell said, alluding to a wicked smash by Ian Kinsler on the second at-bat of the game. "That began to swell a little bit more."
Yet beyond that, Farrell acknowledged, the nature of the third baseman's struggles against righties also played a role in the decision to replace him with a pinch-hitter for the first time this year. Middlebrooks, who had shown solid discipline earlier in the year against righties and had been laying off breaking balls off the plate, has not been doing so recently.
"He’s expanded the zone up on some fastballs and of late, the coverage of the plate away on some sliders, particularly tonight against a guy who’s got an outstanding one in Scherzer," said Farrell. "There’s been some swing and miss on some above-average fastballs in terms of velocity up and expanding the plate off the plate away."
That means that right-handed pitchers have multiple ways of beating him, and that means that there's a meaningful lineup vulnerability. The fact that the Sox needed to replace him with a pinch-hitter serves as an acknowledgment of the fact that his role is slightly less secure than had been anticipated.
It's still early, of course, and because of a stint on the disabled list, Middlebrooks has had only 82 plate appearances in 2014. Still, to date, he's striking out at the highest rate of his career (28.1 percent), and though he's also walking at a career-best rate (8.1 percent) that suggests that he has made some strides in pitch recognition and plate discipline, he's also fallen short of delivering on his most significant asset: power. Middlebrooks has collected extra-base hits in just 6.1 percent of his plate appearances this year, the worst rate of his career.
And unlike Bradley, for whom the Sox lack a center field alternative, the Sox do have in-house options at third base. Brock Holt, who played well in the big leagues when Middlebrooks was on the DL (.348/.429/.435), is hitting .315/.380/.454 in Pawtucket. Garin Cecchini is hitting .306 with a .400 OBP and .379 slugging mark.
And, of course, there's a history. Last year, the Sox elected to send Middlebrooks down from June to August as a result of his struggles. Statistically, his current plight harbors many similarities to what he did a year ago -- though with more walks and less power.
Still, the Sox insist that the quality of Middlebrooks' at-bats in 2014 is superior to what they saw prior to his demotion last season.
"He's come a long way since I've been here," said Colbrunn. "It's such a small sample size right now, looking at at-bats. You just look at the overall approach. He's getting better pitches. He looks like he's controlling the strike zone better. Timing issues, he's in a better place. It's more consistent getting better pitches to swing. He's not chasing as much as he did. He went through spurts where he expanded the zone a little. All hitters do that. But overall, I think he's getting better pitches, better overall approach."
Yet the fact that the Sox made the decision to pinch-hit for Middlebrooks suggests that they're also not in a position to ignore his struggles. Right now, he represents an uncertainty on a team for whom the urgency to find answers is increasing.