With the departure of David Ortiz, the Red Sox were supposed to replace their retired star’s offensive output by committee.
They needed MVP candidate Mookie Betts to continue to rake. They needed Xander Bogaerts to play like he did for the first three quarters of 2016. They needed Andrew Benintnendi to make good on the promising first sample size he put together at the end of last season.
They needed new acquisition Mitch Moreland to be a viable bat to go along with his glove. They needed Hanley Ramirez to provide some clutch at-bats. They needed to get something from Pablo Sandoval.
And, at least to an extent, all of those things have happened. But it still isn’t working.
After another fruitless offensive outing, in which they wasted another great Chris Sale outing by refusing to score, Bogaerts acknowledged the slog Thursday night.
Bogaerts' full comments on missing Ortiz: pic.twitter.com/br73DqB5cE
— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) April 28, 2017
The Red Sox, who sit at 11-10 thanks in large part to strong pitching, are struggling to score runs. That much is inarguable — they’re tied for 27th in runs scored. But they aren’t hitting poorly. So is it just about missing Ortiz, or is it something else?
Let’s take a look at where Boston ranks.
The biggest dearth that Ortiz left is power. Boston has the fewest homers and worst isolated power number in the majors, as well as the sixth-worst slugging percentage in baseball.
But, even without the power, Boston's offense hasn’t been bad, so to speak.
The good: The Sox have the lowest strikeout percentage in baseball, the second-best hard-hit rate, the seventh-best walk percentage, and the fourth-best batting average.
So, getting guys on base and putting the ball in play isn’t the issue.
Delving into individuals in the lineup, four of Boston's eight everyday starters are hitting over .295 — Betts, Bogaerts, Moreland and Benintendi. Bogaerts is the only one of the four who isn’t hitting for power — yet — sporting a .324 slugging percentage.
But Ramirez, even with a couple of big late-game hits, still hasn’t produced, while Dustin Pedroia is off to a slow start despite the Orioles fireworks. The catching duo has provided flipped results, as, this year, Christian Vazquez is scorching while Sandy Leon is scuffling. Pablo Sandoval — now on the 10-day DL with a sprained knee — has been solid, hitting the ball hard while getting unlucky with a .218 BABIP.
Basically, the Red Sox are getting expected results from the offense, even with a couple of early-season struggles. But this lineup, even without Ortiz, is too talented to turn into one of the worst in baseball because a couple of vets are off to slow starts.
Other numbers provide some glimpse into how Boston’s offense can be so proficient at making contact and getting on base without scoring, and it isn’t all about the lack of the Large Father.
According to Fangraphs, the Red Sox have been the second-worst baserunning team in baseball, tallying -5.4 baserunning runs to date. They also have grounded into the third-most double plays. This provides some explanation for the baserunners-to-runs ratio.
Is that enough to absolve Ortiz's absence as the reason for the woes? Definitely not. Losing the MLB leader in OPS and extra-base hits is going to have some impact.
But, with all the talent in the lineup, and the numbers they've tallied, the question as to why the struggles are so acute isn't all on Ortiz's big shoulders.
The most likely answer: It’s all just early-season noise. Boston has, oddly enough, been good with runners in scoring position this year, hitting .282, good for seventh in baseball. So it isn't a "struggling in the clutch" scenario.
Its offense also got off to a rough start power-wise last season, even with Ortiz, hitting only 19 homers. The Red Sox would average 37.8 over the remaining five months.
Bogaerts is on the record that early-season weather affects the team’s power, saying, flat-out, “It’s April, so it’s not easy to hit home runs.”
So, perhaps, once it’s scalding hot at Fenway again, the Red Sox will return to their traditional slugging ways. But the early numbers are particularly puzzling.
Papi isn’t coming back. So the Red Sox would be better served not worrying about him, and hitting up to their own capabliities.