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What the Red Sox need to fix to get over early season struggles

(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

It's been a rough start for these Red Sox, but there's plenty of room to improve.

When another solid start from the staff ace goes wasted, when 2013's best American League home team is swept in its first home series of 2014, and when a championship team defined by its daily focus on the details returns looking sloppy en route to a 2-4 start, the natural inclination might be to worry. And to wonder where things have suddenly gone wrong.

But don't. It's not worth it, as my Boston.com colleague Chad Finn pointed out. Not yet, at least.

After Yovani Gallardo and the Brewers shut out the Red Sox to complete a three-game sweep at Fenway Park on Sunday afternoon, Boston is at the bottom of the AL East and, just a week into the new season, is on the cusp of its first four-game losing streak since Bobby Valentine patrolled the dugout. But while that sort of start doesn't necessarily jibe with our expectations for this club, many of which are tinted by our memories of last October, the Sox' current predicament was not exactly unexpected in the least.

Although the games didn't actually count, let's remember that Boston wasn't particularly sharp throughout spring training, and that sort of inconsistency can carry into the regular season. Let's also remember that while they never lost four straight, the team that collected eight-carat rings this past Friday lost six of seven at one point last May, the last three defeats coming consecutively, at Fenway Park, against a Twins team that ultimately lost 96 games.

And let's remember that this isn't just a routine start to the season. As the reigning champions they've made a high-profile visit to the White House, then another to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, on their only off-day. They had an hour-long ceremony prior to their home opener. They're learning how to turn the page, how to acclimate to the intensity of April when they know the adrenaline of October, and how to wear the bull's eye.

Adjusting to life at the top of the mountain isn't easy, as the Sox have are now showing for the third time in a decade. The 2005 team similarly opened the season 2-4 when coming off a title, while the 2008 team started 3-4. In both of those previous cases the bats were slow to come alive, as they've been again this year, and both of those teams stranded more than seven baserunners per game during its sluggish start. But both of those clubs finished April with winning records. By the end of May each was at least five games above .500. They figured things out relatively quickly, and eventually made the playoffs.

There's no reason to think these Red Sox will be any different. They're dealing with a couple of injuries that have sent starters -- Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks -- to the disabled list, so their depth is somewhat depleted, yet they had the winning run on base in the eighth and ninth innings of their opening-day loss, and each of their first two losses to the Brewers was tied in the ninth inning or later.

Those games were at least winnable, and, who knows, maybe with one or two more timely hits their record is reversed. Maybe they're 3-3. Or, well, maybe they're still 2-4.

In any event, they still will have played only six games -- and so there'd still be 156 to go. That's nearly 96.3 percent of the season remaining, so everything should be considered in that context, and any numbers presented with the acknowledgement that the sample size is still minuscule. But if you're looking to see where the Sox need to improve moving forward, here's a look at a few areas that have proven problematic thus far:

  • They're not hitting with runners in scoring position: This is the most obvious of the Sox' concerns, as the club is hitting just .136 (6-for-44) with men on second and/or third, having totaled only nine RBIs in 50 plate appearances. That average is the worst in the American League, fourth-worst in the majors, and the same is true of Boston's .445 on-base plus slugging in those spots. The club hasn't been good with men on in general, really, as the Sox are hitting .194 with at least one base occupied (compared to .304 with the sacks empty).
  • They've had problems at the top: The Red Sox had to know it wouldn't be easy to replace Jacoby Ellsbury as their leadoff hitter, but they probably didn't think it would be as difficult as it appeared over the first week. Boston's leadoff men are 3-for-25 this season, equating to an AL-worst .120 average that's accompanied by a just-as-woeful .214 on-base percentage. Much of that is a reflection on Daniel Nava's .115 start -- which should improve soon, based on his abilities as a hitter -- though it won't be a surprise if the reins are soon loosened on his comeback and Grady Sizemore gets a chance to fill the role he starred in with the Indians.
  • They've had problems at the bottom, too: Their numbers only put them in the middle of the pack when compared with others around the game, though a .219 average and .286 OBP from batters 7-9 suggests the Sox aren't getting much from the lower third of their order.
  • They're not working enough walks: The Sox are walking in only 6.9 percent of their trips to the plate, sixth-lowest in the majors. That's the same percentage as Boston's 2012 team finished with, while last year's club was at 9.1 percent for the season.
  • They've failed to capitalize in hitters' counts: When batters are ahead in the count, hitters across baseball had posted a .275 average and .459 OBP through Sunday. The Red Sox, however, had hit .234 in that situation (ranked 24th), with the third-worst OBP (.395) in the game. With a .221 average, they're almost as good when the pitcher has the upper hand during an at-bat. Furthermore, they're hitting just .200 after the count gets to 2-0 -- .125 when they put the ball in play at that count -- and just .211 after it gets to 3-1.
  • They've had opportunities -- but lacked great opportunities: Going into Monday, the Red Sox had only five plate appearances this season with a runner on third and less than two outs. The Blue Jays were the only big-league team with fewer, and the big-league average was 12.
  • They're struggling in 'close and late' spots: The Sox have had chances to impact the outcomes of games -- they just haven't seized them. The White Sox and A's are the only AL teams with more plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the team tied, ahead by one, or with the tying run on deck than Boston's 49, however the Red Sox have a .140 average (27th), .245 OBP (22nd), .163 slugging, and .408 OPS in those spots.
  • Relievers are handling them: Part of the Sox' struggle to pull out games late seems attributable to the difficulties they've had matching up with relievers. Batting just .184 with a .494 OPS against opposing bullpens, a Boston club that last season seemed to be well-equipped for any type of late-game chess match hasn't looked quite so balanced or versatile so far this year.
  • Their pitchers are having trouble with right-handed hitters: Right-handed hitters have touched Red Sox pitching for a .315 average so far, 70 points above the league standard, and third-worst in the bigs. Conversely, lefties are hitting just .189 against Boston, which slots the Sox staff at fifth-best. The biggest culprits are the Red Sox' right-handed throwers, who'd yielded a .345 average and .946 OPS against righties through Sunday.
  • They've been vulnerable when pitching from behind: Opposing hitters are batting .367 with a 1.055 OPS against Boston pitchers when ahead in the count, that average ranking as the majors' third-highest, and the OPS ranking fifth-highest.
  • They've struggled defensively. According to the rating published at Baseball-Reference.com, the Red Sox enter Monday tied with the Blue Jays as the most defensively inefficient team in baseball, a metric that attempts to measure the percentage of balls in play converted into outs. More traditional numbers agree that the Sox haven't been good with the gloves, too, as Boston's six errors and .973 fielding percentage are better than only Texas' eight and .963 in the AL.

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