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Who are the real Red Sox?

Posted by Adam Kaufman  May 17, 2013 08:24 AM

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To alter a bar from Eminem, will the real Boston Red Sox please stand up, please stand up, please stand up?

The Red Sox got off to a scintillating 20-8 start to their 2013 season, which has been followed by an up-and-down 4-9 stretch as the showers have fallen in May. It would seem the city’s sports teams aren’t limiting that Jekyll and Hyde behavior to a certain squad on Causeway Street.

So who are the real Red Sox? Well, coming off a disastrous 69-win 2012 campaign, it’s not the club that began the year with a .714 winning percentage. The good news is, it’s not the team with a paltry .308 effort either.

Let’s examine the drop-off or, as many have called it, "market correction."

Simply put, the Red Sox offense and pitching success through the first 28-game sample that lasted until May 2 flipped like a light switch the next morning. With the Sox sitting with the best record in the majors, they were scoring an average of 5.3 runs per game while allowing just 3.5. Despite a rash of injuries, some more significant than others, the team was balanced, whether it came to analyzing the starters, the bullpen or its patient pitch-taking batters.

However, as the likes of David Ortiz, John Lackey and Joel Hanrahan got healthier, injuries struck again.

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Hanrahan, in his first and likely only year as the team’s closer, was lost for the season on May 7 with what resulted in Tommy John surgery and a procedure to repair his right flexor tendon. His limited time on the mound was poor (9.82 ERA, 4-of-6 converted saves in 7.1 IP), but the comfort of consecutive All-Star seasons with the Pirates still provided room for optimism had he been able to return. Alas, he won’t.

Andrew Bailey, an injury-plagued disappointment in his own first year in Boston in 2012, got off to a great start (1.46 ERA, 5-for-6 in save chances in 12.1 IP) in his rebound season as the Sox replacement fireman before a right biceps strain sidelined him on April 29. Though he appears to be inching closer to a return, his mates are just 6-10 in his absence.

The newly designated closer became set-up man extraordinaire Junichi Tazawa. His numbers this year are misleading. The fourth-year pro is 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA in 19 relief appearances, along with a pair of blown saves, but he’s actually got a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings against the majority of the American League, and a whopping 10.80 ERA in 3.1 innings over four contests versus the division rival Blue Jays.

These men are just three examples of how the impact of the closer role has manipulated the structure of John Farrell’s bullpen. That coupled with adequate starters not named Jon Lester or Clay Buchholz, and the team’s ERA has ballooned well over a run from that opening stretch (3.39) to this recent slump (5.06). Opponents' batting average (.224 to .266), on-base percentage (.306 to .333) and slugging percentage (.371 to .425) have all also risen by a healthy margin from April to May. Mind you, that last set of numbers includes two wins over the Blue Jays by a combined 13-2 margin to start this month.

Without going into a long and convoluted explanation, a look at the OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) for splits relative to a player’s total OPS is averaged at 100, with a lower total being better for hurlers and higher desirable for hitters. Essentially, the Red Sox pitching staff overachieved in April (92) and has underachieved in May (114).

Concerning the offense, the team’s run-production is down to 3.8 runs per game during its rut as the pitchers have surrendered roughly 5.5 runs a contest. Like I said, those April and May numbers basically just took a long stare in the mirror. In two weeks, the club’s run-differential of plus-49 has dropped by 23 runs. Not good.

There have been dips across the board, sure, whether it’s batting average (.271 to .246), on-base percentage (.347 to .324) or slugging percentage (.446 to .424), but the Sox still rank among the game’s best at the plate in a number of categories, including runs scored (197, 3rd), on-base percentage (.338, 2nd) and slugging percentage (.438, 4th).

The issue with this team isn’t its offense, no matter how much people want to complain about slow starts for free agent-to-be Jacoby Ellsbury or wiffin’ Will Middlebrooks.

Similar to Stephen Drew, Middlebrooks has turned his luck around of late, Dustin Pedroia’s tearing the cover off the ball at the moment, and David Ortiz is off to another monstrous start, though hindered a bit by a sore oblique and maybe a bruised ego.

As for the recent issue with runners in scoring position, that stat’s like the power play or penalty kill in hockey. Ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys; you get it.

It’s really not a case of running into top-tier opponents during the skid for the Sox, either. As good as the Rangers (27-14) are, and they’re among the best in baseball, the Twins, Blue Jays and Rays (a collective 55-63) are average at best. Borderline mediocre.

Nope, concerns going forward surround the inconsistencies and unreliability of many of the arms. The bullpen has baseball's sixth-worst ERA at 4.32 and while Ryan Dempster and John Lackey haven’t been bad, the 12-0 combined performance of Lester and Buchholz could make an older fan think back to “Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain” after some time. Shame we can’t place much blame on Alfredo Aceves or Daniel Bard, but even a favorite punching bag gets replaced eventually.

The Red Sox are a good team, maybe very good. They held a share of first place in the AL East from the start of the season until just one week ago, and there’s no reason to think the now-second place division-hoppers couldn’t return to that perch. But, in the end, the highs and lows we’ve already seen in less than two months will likely average out to a very respectable 87 to 93 win ballclub for a team with uncertainty in the bullpen and lingering questions about the back-end of the rotation. Still quite the improvement for what was projected to be a bridge year.

Now cue the “this guy doesn’t know anything” 10-game winning streak…

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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