It’s not every year that, two months into the season, we are still trying to figure out what to make of the defending World Series champions. But that is precisely the situation of the 2014 Boston Red Sox.
Through about the end of May, the Red Sox find themselves looking up at most of the American League East, sitting in fourth place, seven games behind Toronto. At this point last season, Boston was 32-22 and atop the division.
But the first third of 2014 has been marred by inconsistency. Last year, the Red Sox had four winning streaks of four games or more, highlighted by a seven-game run in mid-April. In 2014, It took until the last week of May for the team to put together its first four-game winning streak. If anything, this season has been defined by a losing streak. Ten straight games. In 2013, the team never lost more than three at a time.
What makes the start even more frustrating for this team is that its perceived strength has become a weakness. The Red Sox have largely the same starting rotation as last year, but the results have been drastically different. The starters’ ERA in 2013 was 3.84 with a .247 BAA. This year, those numbers are up to 4.51 and .278, respectively.
While Jon Lester and John Lackey have been arguably better this season, they have been offset by the rest of the staff. Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Jake Peavy have all been significantly worse. Buchholz, specifically, has been a disaster with a 7.02 ERA and 1.98 WHIP. This comes after a season in which he was a Cy Young Award candidate until he went down with an injury in June that sidelined him most of the rest of the season.
Things haven’t been much better offensively, either. Their 213 runs on the season puts them just behind the mid-way point among teams, and their .244 team average puts them in the bottom third. This comes a year after leading the league in scoring and finishing in second with a .277 average.
Especially bad has been the production against right-handed pitching. Among A.L. teams, Boston trails everyone but Seattle. A year ago, they were tops.
So what does all this say about the 2014 Red Sox? Of course, with so many of the same players on each team, discrepancies this large are odd. There was a realistic chance for a mild drop-off because of the roster changes they did make this past offseason, but this has been a more than they bargained for.
Replacing Jacoby Ellsbury with rookie Jackie Bradley, Jr. has proven to be a significant obstacle to overcome at this point in the year. Fellow first-year player Xander Bogaerts is still adjusting to Major League pitching and has not been able to deliver what Stephen Drew did. And, in left field, Grady Sizemore, Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava haven’t been able to replicate what Gomes and Nava did while platooning there last season.
Two months into the year, though, probably represents a longer period of growing pains than team executives would like to admit they expected. As defending World Series champions, and in the Boston market no less, there are expectations that come with the territory.
Some of the sluggishness can be attributed to a championship hangover. It’s not uncommon in any sport for the title-holder to get off to a slow start. But that excuse can only last for so long.
Injuries haven’t helped, either. Shane Victorino has now made two trips to the disabled list, and Mike Napoli has joined him now, as has Will Middlebrooks. The rotation has also thinned as of late with Doubront and Buchholz hitting the shelf.
It may be the adversity of fighting through injuries and playing from the bottom of the division that inspire the Red Sox going forward. After all, this is a team that last year thrived when most everyone thought they were down for the count. Thursday night’s come-from-behind, walk-off win over Atlanta was one of the first times that shades of 2013 started to show.
This team also still seems to be trying to find its own unique identity as it did last year when beards took over New England. They were a unifying force, and something that probably helped them overachieve.
So, as much as the 2013 team may have outperformed expectations, this 2014 squad has so far underachieved. But there’s still time for that to change. The pieces are there and more will likely be coming. For them to repeat as champions, though, they’re going to have to take a different path than they did a year ago.