"There's nothing to be alarmed about." -- Greg Colbrunn
The Red Sox hitting coach may have been correct in his analysis of the situation following his team's 12-4 loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday. The Sox' current stretch -- losing eight of their last 10 while falling into third place -- most likely is not representative of this group over the long haul.
But after 38 games, the good times of April, and the bad times that have stricken the Red Sox since taking on Texas (a 10-game stretch during which time John Farrell's team has been outscored 62-33), offer enough evidence to understand what we're dealing with.
As Farrell said late Sunday afternoon, "As much as we cashed in in the month of April, maybe cliché, but things are evening out."
Sirens were not set off in the clubhouse following the punctuation to a 2-5 homestead, but analysis and explanations were easily uncovered.
"No need to panic," said Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo. "No need to say we're not going to get the job done. We believe what's happening here. We have to stay with the process.
"I think these guys are too experienced and been around long enough to know these ups and downs are part of the baseball season. I don't think anybody's losing confidence."
So, with a nine-game road trip now looming, it might be time to take stock of the Red Sox lineup's lot in life.
WHAT HAS GONE WRONG
The biggest issue, by far, during the 10-game downturn has been the Red Sox' inability to produce with runners in scoring position. They are 13-for-79 (.165) in such situations over this stretch, with a .200 batting average on balls put in play. The combination of Will Middlebrooks, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Shane Victorino is 0-for-27 with three walks with runners in scoring position during the span.
(Prior to May 3, the Sox were hitting .302 with runners in scoring position, and they carried a gaudy .368 batting average on balls put in play in the scenario.)
So, what's it mean?
Too many holes in any lineup will lead to such struggles. Especially when you factor in that the drought is being highlighted by the hitter who will be seeing the most at-bats (Ellsbury) and the most counted-upon run-producer (Ortiz). But is that representative of what this team is carting out? Probably not.
The Red Sox still are second in the majors in OPS (.787), fourth in runs (181), fourth in batting average (.268) and first in pitches per plate appearance (.405).
They have the fifth-best average when hitting with two strikes, having seen the second-most such pitches of any team (after Oakland). And no team in baseball has put fewer first pitches in play than the Red Sox. It's a trend that wasn't altered during the 10-game stretch, as the Sox put a league-low 16 first pitches in play (compared to Tampa Bay's 52 over the same span.)
The point is that all signs point to the Sox not wavering from their hitting mission statement, and that type of approach usually will help exit any abyss.
"One through nine, I think we have one of the better lineups in the game," Colbrunn said. "For the long haul, the type of hitters we have, the way they battle each at-bat, over a 162-game schedule it will be fun to watch. These hitters are good enough hitters to not get out of their approach. It's a tough stretch."
But approach alone isn't going to turn the tide. Production from the players counted on to produce will.
(The Red Sox are 2-5 when Ellsbury doesn't collect at least one hit this season. They are 3-9 when Mike Napoli goes hitless. The record is 8-10 on games Middlebrooks goes without a hit, and 3-6 without a hit from Victorino.)
Farrell hasn't resorted to any drastic lineup alterations to date, but it might be time to start thinking about alternative scenarios, perhaps starting with the leadoff spot.
Go back to Ellsbury's 2009 season when then-manager Terry Francona took the outfielder out of the leadoff spot on the last day of May. A big part of the decision stemmed from the fact the speedster carried just a .268 on-base percentage against left-handed pitching. Right now, Ellsbury's OBP vs. lefties stands at .258.
The move back then worked wonders. Hitting at the bottom of the order, Ellsbury's OBP against left-handers jumped to .458 in the 35 games leading into the All-Star break (during which time the Red Sox went 23-12). It led to Francona ultimately reinserting a new-and-improved Ellsbury into the leadoff spot, setting a tone for the season's second half.
At the time of Francona's '09 lineup adjustment, he turned to Dustin Pedroia, Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew to fill the role of leadoff hitter. None were truly built for the job at the time (combining for a .291 OBP in the lineup's top spot), but they filled in adequately enough to help the Sox to a 26-12 record over that span.
The logical answer if Farrell is looking to put Ellsbury on hiatus from the leadoff spot is inserting Victorino atop the batting order. He has manned the slot 208 times in his career, hitting .251 with a .320 OBP and .731 OPS. (This, of course, would be contingent on the outfielder's health, considering he was examined at Massachusetts General Hospital after colliding with the right field wall Sunday.)
The subsequent move could be either to alternate Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava in the No. 2 spot, or move up Pedroia to his most familiar place in the order.
Nava has continued to produce, but he is carrying a lower batting average (.238; .214 BABIP) and OBP (.333) against lefties. He has just two hits against southpaws since April 13. That might force some juggling, leading Gomes to the second spot, where he is 4-for-13 with five walks this season.
The adjustment with Pedroia obviously would slide up Ortiz into the third spot, with Napoli hitting cleanup. The second baseman clearly has been productive in the three-hole, but right now his skill set would seem to be even more suited to hitting second. Of No. 3 hitters, Pedroia has the third-best on-base percentage and batting average but sixth-worst slugging percentage.
The part of the equation that might be difficult to swallow when it comes to taking Pedroia out of the third spot is the fact the second baseman has more hits (26) and walks (9) than any Red Sox with men on base. But he also is the only player on the team who carries an OBP over .400 (.421), and Napoli his hitting nearly 60 points higher in the cleanup spot (having played an identical number of games at No. 4 and No. 5).
THE BIGGEST FIX
Through all the concerns regarding hitting with runners in scoring position, and if players are hitting in the right spots, perhaps the most pressing long-term issue may be how the Sox can function against left-handers.
The Sox have dropped their last four games against lefty starters, totaling four extra-base hits. And with Tampa Bay's Matt Moore and David Price on deck, answers are going to have to be uncovered in a hurry.
When looking at who among the Red Sox hitters have been part of the solution regarding hitting lefty starters, it begins and ends with Pedroia (.344), Ortiz (.316) and Victorino (.310). But after that trio resides some uncomfortable numbers from players relied upon to beat up on southpaw starting pitchers.
Gomes (.160 batting average), David Ross (.200), Ellsbury (.205), Napoli (.233) and Middlebrooks (.241) haven't helped the cause when it comes to jumping out early against lefty starters.
But as much of a slump as the Red Sox have hit against lefty starters, it is the left-handed relievers who have provided the most difficulties. Sox hitters are hitting a combined .164 against lefty relief pitchers, worst in the major leagues.
Stephen Drew (1-for-16 vs. left-handed relievers), Jarrod Saltalmacchia (0-for-12), Ortiz (1-for-10) and Victorino (1-for-9) all have struggled when facing the left-handed non-starters this season.
History suggests -- based on the hitters' past performances -- there will be a numbers adjustment as the season unfolds. But, all of a sudden, time is somewhat of the essence.
"I see a little bit of frustration setting in, but I think that's natural," Lovullo said. "I think we have high expections, and when we don't have success we experience frustration. I think the best thing we can do is go back to the building block of preparation."