Commentary

Underperformance is the real issue

Easy to blame injuries, but stars not carrying their weight is bigger Sox problem

Updated: July 13, 2012, 7:30 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Just about nothing went as expected.

At 43-43, the Boston Red Sox have their worst record in the first half in 15 years. Boston went into the break at 38-48 in 1997. That's also the last season the Red Sox finished with a losing record.

On a team filled with high-priced stars, only one showed up in the first half. David Ortiz has been Boston's rock amid the choppy waves of injury and underperformance. He's on pace to break Ted Williams' club record for home runs in a season by a player over age 35 (38 in 1957).

Of the 13 highest paid players on the team (earning a combined $128 million), only Ortiz performed to expectations.

That's not to say he's been the only bright spot. Journeymen, rookies and fringe major leaguers have kept the Red Sox afloat.

Will Middlebrooks played so well that the team cut ties with an established star in Kevin Youkilis. Middlebrooks' .538 slugging percentage is the highest for a Red Sox rookie at the break since Fred Lynn's MVP season in 1975.

The bullpen, once in shambles, has a 3.12 ERA. Over the past 50 years, only two Red Sox bullpens finished with a lower ERA: 1967 (2.90) and 2007 (3.10). Scott Atchison, a 36-year-old journeyman, emerged as the first-half MVP of Boston's pitching staff.

Mike Aviles' defense was once considered a pressing area of concern. Those seem like simpler times given the ensuing carnage. However, Aviles' defense has been one of the bright spots of the first half, measuring as the third-best defensive shortstop in the American League, according to defensive runs saved.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is on pace for 32 home runs, which would break Carlton Fisk's club record for home runs in a season by a catcher (26). Teaming with Kelly Shoppach, Boston's catchers lead the majors in home runs and rank second in the AL in OPS.

From Daniel Nava to Clayton Mortensen to Pedro Ciriaco, Pawtucket call-ups consistently exceeded expectations. Nava's career appeared to be on the Morgan Burkhart track: A nice story while it lasted. But with a .904 OPS against righties, he's forcing his way into future platoon plans.

All of those names read like an optimistic midseason analysis of Pawtucket.

Injuries ravaged the roster in the first half, forcing many of those unlikely players in to regular roles. The Red Sox placed 20 different players on the disabled list, six more than any other American League squad. Of those 20, 11 have appeared in an All-Star Game.

In all, the Red Sox lost a combined 1,083 days to the disabled list in the first half.

Injuries abducted Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Andrew Bailey from the roster. Dustin Pedroia finally succumbed to his seemingly inevitable DL fate. For all but Crawford, there's no reason to think that production won't come with health in the second half.

Far more troubling are the unproductively healthy.

As difficult as the injuries made the first half, it's poor production from key players that has plagued Boston most.

Imagine a first half in which the performances of Nava, Atchison and Middlebrooks were complemented by strong play from the healthy core.

Gonzalez 2011 Hit Chart
ESPN Stats & Information In 2011, Adrian Gonzalez led the majors with a .394 batting average against fastballs, including 17 home runs.

Adrian Gonzalez and Jon Lester don't have injuries to blame. Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett were disappointments long before injuries struck.

Gonzalez went on an 18-game hit streak to finish the first half, the third-longest streak in the American League this season. Yet, even a hot bat couldn't resurrect his power stroke.

Gonzalez has just one home run in his last 107 at-bats. His six home runs at the break are 10 fewer than he had in the first half of 2012 and the lowest total among starting first basemen in the American League. He's averaging a home run every 56.5 at-bats. In 2009, a home run came every 13.8 at-bats.

Sometimes these things are just a matter of feet. Last year, Gonzalez's average fly ball travelled five more feet than it does in 2012.

Gonzalez 2012 Hit Chart
ESPN Stats & InformationThis season, Gonzalez is hitting .290 on fastballs (74th in the majors) with just four home runs.

In 2011, Gonzalez led the majors with a .394 batting average against fastballs, including 17 homes runs. This season has been a different story. He's hitting .290 against fastballs (74th in the majors) with just four home runs.

Gonzalez is still a doubles machine at home, but that hasn't been the case away from Fenway. Remember Marlon Byrd? Even he had a higher OPS on the road (.703) than Gonzalez (.683).

The front three of Boston's rotation has been equally underwhelming. Lester, Beckett and Buchholz have combined for a 4.78 ERA. That's a run and a half higher than the 3.24 ERA they combined for in 2011.

For Lester, Fenway has not been a friendly place. His 5.80 ERA at home is second highest in the AL, and he has just two wins in 10 starts in Boston.

Lester's strikeout rate is in its fourth straight year of decline. Meanwhile, opponents are hitting line drives at an increasing rate. His secondary pitches haven't been there. Opponents hit .136 against Lester's curveball, which was his out pitch, in 2010. This year? .333.

Like Lester, Beckett's strikeout numbers are down significantly. His 6.5 strikeouts per nine would be a career low, two fewer than his career average. His fastball velocity continues its descent -- after averaging 94.1 miles per hour in 2009, it has declined each year and sits at 91.7 mph in 2012.

The most significant area of concern with Beckett is his performance out of the stretch. With men on base, he's striking out just 10 percent of batters. Last year, it was 24 percent. That's helped translate to a .299 batting average against with men on base, up from .213 in 2011.

Can Gonzalez find his power stroke? Can Beckett and Lester re-establish themselves as aces? These will be the key questions in the second half.

In Boston's 43 wins, Adrian Gonzalez has contributed one home run.

The Red Sox are just 12-20 when Lester or Beckett starts.

Forget the injuries. Imagine where Boston would be if the healthy stars contributed.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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