The Dog Days of August

Analyzing the Sox struggles over the past week.

lackey

The Sox are lucky that John Lackey’s ankle injury isn’t more serious.

The Red Sox have gone 5-5 over their past 10 games and just lost 3 out of 4 against the Royals in Kansas City. They didn’t play their best ball in their previous series in Houston, but managed to take 2 out of 3 due to a couple of clutch hits. While they remain in first place in the AL East, they dropped to 32-28 on the road as they head across the border for a 3-game clip in Toronto. Globe writer Peter Abraham argues that the Red Sox actually had a productive road trip by emerging three games up on the Rays, but I contend that the Sox missed a serious opportunity to distance themselves from Tampa, who have lost five straight after being swept in LA. In this post, I’ll chronicle exactly what went wrong during the trip and offer some predictions about what lies in store for the remaining 42 games of the season.

Playing from Behind

Generally, I can’t watch the first couple innings of the Red Sox game because I’m eating dinner or running errands after work. By the time I turn on NESN, it seems the Sox are already down on the scoreboard. The Red Sox have shown an incredible ability to come from behind this season, but it’s much more comfortable to play with a lead. Let’s take a look at the Sox run differential by inning over the past week to visualize just how much they’ve been playing from behind:

Run Differntial

Clearly, the Sox have spent a significant amount of innings behind in the score. In fact, the only game in which they weren’t losing for at least one inning was during their 5-3 victory Saturday against Kansas City. They have been behind in the score during 34 of their 63 innings played (54% of the time) and have held the lead in only 16 of those 63 innings (25%). Clearly, this isn’t exactly a formula for winning; take, for example, the two wins against Houston in which the Red Sox trailed the Astros for a large part of both games. The numbers suggest that the Sox were lucky to emerge victorious 3 out of 7 times in the past week. Now let’s take a look at the reason for the Sox struggles.

Trouble Getting Started

The Red Sox starters rank 5th in the American League with a 3.95 ERA (this is close to their 4.03 FIP, which signifies that this number is not influenced by fielding errors or park adjustments). But in the past seven days, Sox starters have ranked second-to-last (only to the Rays) in ERA at a bloated 6.00 clip. The rotation of Lester, Lackey, Doubront, Dempster, and Peavy (with an aborted spot start by Steven Wright in Houston) simply has not gotten the job done. Much of the problem has come in the first three innings.

Sox pitchers have given up 18 runs in the first three innings, which is nearly 50% of the total runs they have given up in the past week. A large part of the problem is that starters are laboring through the first inning, setting a terrible tone for the game and spending their energy early, which hinders their ability to pitch deep into game. Sox pitchers have, on average, thrown 19.4 pitches in the first inning over the first 110 games of the season. How does this compare to the last week?

pitches

Sox pitchers have thrown, on average, 25.3 pitches in the first inning over the past week. They have had three particularly bad performances from Wright (38), Lester (41), and Doubront (34). If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: first inning pitching plagued Bobby Valentine’s squad in 2012 with a 6.50 ERA in the beginning frame ranking second-worst in the AL. While the Sox first inning ERA has improved to a league-sixth 3.90 ERA this season, the recent trend shows that Sox pitching (with Lester and Doubront especially worrisome) has reverted to their old ways.

My guess is that pitching-astute manager John Farrell and clever pitching coach Juan Nieves take note of the Sox recent struggles with their starters in the first inning and change some aspect of their preparation. Perhaps they make the warm-up bullpen longer or encourage Sox pitching to attack hitters more aggressively in the first inning. Luckily, Sox hitters have performed well despite the pitching funk, thumping away to a .346 wOBA in the last week which ranks fifth in the AL. So long as the Sox can correct the inconsistencies in starting pitching, particularly in the first inning, they should be able to carry their winning ways into September.

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