AFTER not awaking even a single morning with more losses than wins last season, and never standing worse than third in their division, two weeks into 2014 the Red Sox woke up Monday with a record of 5-8, ranked last in the American League East — and reeling.
Only one AL team, the Royals, had a worse winning percentage. And while the Sox were dropping three of four during a weekend series with the rival Yankees, they were confronted with the possibility that injuries could cost them the services of Koji Uehara (shoulder) and Dustin Pedroia (wrist), who are arguably the club’s most important pitcher and position player, respectively.
It wasn’t a good spot. In fact, it still isn’t as the Red Sox look to start moving forward tonight in Chicago, and though it’s enticing to think that three games against the White Sox’ league-worst pitching staff could be something of an antidote for an ailing Boston offense, let’s not get ahead of ourselves with hopes of a full-blown resurgence and return to form.
Instead, Red Sox fans should at this point simply be hopeful that their team can tread water and stay afloat during this ride through rocky waters. Because there’s reason to think things will get better.
The danger is that if Boston’s slide continues it could get buried in a division that may lack an elite team, but doesn’t appear to have any pushovers, either. Especially considering the toll injuries have already taken on every club, it’s hard to envision any of the five running away with the East — however, at the same time, a cluttered, competitive mix also means it will be that much harder for a team to claw its way back into things after falling behind early.
In four of the past five years, the AL East cellar dweller as of May 1 also occupied that spot at the end of the season — the lone exception being the 2011 Red Sox, who were, of course, ill-fated in their own way. So if the Sox’ bad start turns into a brutal April, it could put some serious pressure on their pursuit of repeating.
But they don’t need to turn everything around instantly. First, they merely have to stabilize things. And if they just can find a way to do that, while avoiding major injury issues, they should be fine. Really.
The club got some positive news in that regard Monday, with multiple reports indicating Pedroia’s left wrist isn’t broken, and that he’ll likely avoid a stint on the disabled list. There’s still some concern, as the second baseman is 5-for-36 since falling on his arm in the home opener, and the pain won’t disappear because of a prognosis, but it’s encouraging to think that after addressing the issue Pedroia’s production should be significantly better than it’s been (which is in line with the 10 worst hitters in the AL).
And he isn’t likely to be alone in improving, based on the numbers that go beyond those suggesting the Sox had the AL’s fourth-worst offense — 3.54 runs per game — after scoring just 11 times during a four-game set in New York.
The runs may not be there. Neither may be the walks (at 7.8 percent, 12th in the AL), nor the power (an extra-base hit in 6.1 percent of plate appearances is 14th of 15 AL teams). But there are signs that the team’s approach remains much the same as it was a year ago. And so as the sample size expands, there’s reason to think things will even off.
The Sox are seeing 3.98 pitches per plate appearance; last year it was 4.01. They’re among baseball’s most disciplined teams, swinging at only 26.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, an improvement on last year’s 28.2 percent.
They’re similarly patient in terms at hacking at pitches in the zone — 61.7 percent now, 62.4 percent then — and they’re making contact at an almost identical rate. Opponents have challenged them slightly more aggressively, but that rate stands to drop as Boston’s slugging percentage rises, and the bottom line is that if the Sox stay consistent at-bat to at-bat, and true to their 2013 methodology, the numbers should equalize.
For example, entering Monday the Sox had the AL’s fourth-best batting average overall (.255), but the fourth-worst with runners in scoring position (.204). Shortstop Xander Bogaerts was 13-for-30 with the bases empty, but 0-for-16 with men on. And a team that proved itself so clutch last season was hitting .187 in close-and-late situations.
Eventually, those and other numbers are likely to meet somewhere in the middle if the Sox keep adhering to their principles. And when they do, maybe Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks are back. Maybe Pedroia and Uehara are healthy. Maybe this team starts looking like the reigning champs again.
In the meantime, the Sox just need to stay afloat — lest things slip too far away from them.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.