No team embodies the “It’s not how you start, but how you finish” mantra quite like the Red Sox, though that’s probably not something they take pride in.
With a star-studded heart of the order, Boston entered Sunday ranked fourth in the Majors in team OPS (.756). Yet their leadoff spot lagged almost 100 points behind, at an MLB-worst .662. The revolving door at leadoff has most prominently featured Kiké Hernández (45 starts), but Christian Arroyo (nine), Marwin Gonzalez (seven), Danny Santana (seven) and Michael Chavis (four) have also taken a turn.
“We’re working on it, trying to find good matchups, and hopefully the guy we put in the leadoff spot comes through,” manager Alex Cora said. “We’re trying to be consistent, but we haven’t been. That’s real.”
Recent games have magnified the problem. Four of the auditionees (with the exception of Chavis, who was optioned to the Minors this past week) have appeared at leadoff at least once in the previous 11 games, and the combined results: 7-for-46 (.152), three doubles, two walks, four runs scored, four RBIs and 12 strikeouts.
That's a .152/.188/.217 slash line (.405 OPS), which isn’t nearly good enough for the lineup spot that sees the most at-bats. Based on win probability, 10 of the past 11 leadoff performances have negatively affected Boston’s chance to win. In total, the 11 recent scores combine for a -.287 WPA. Over a full season, that’d be -4.23 WPA, or the value of more than four losses.
“Somebody has to step up,” Cora said. “Somebody has to come through.”
The right-handed-hitting Arroyo was expected to have his chance to win the role against Tampa Bay's lefty starters in a key series starting on Tuesday, but he exited Sunday's 7-3 series-finale loss to the Royals with a right shin bone bruise.
If the Red Sox can find even league average production from the leadoff spot, it’s easy to see how much more productive the offense could become. Their Nos. 2-5 hitters -- Alex Verdugo, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers -- all have a 120 OPS+ or better.
Cora was asked about, say, moving Verdugo up to leadoff, where he started 33 games last season. But he doesn’t want to tinker with the part of his lineup that isn’t broken.
“For now, we’re gonna keep these guys where they’re at,” Cora said. “There’s other pieces that we don’t want to move where they’re at, and we feel comfortable where we’re at with that group.”
Dalbec’s hot streak
First baseman Bobby Dalbec entered Sunday with an eight-game hitting streak, and one small tweak is largely responsible for that.
Dalbec began choking up on his bat about a week ago, which has shortened his swing and made it easier for him to bring the barrel to the ball.
“Easy way to create more time for myself and that’s what I needed to do,” he explained. “So if I am a little bit tardy, I have that to help me out a little bit.”
The adjustment is one he implemented on his own, and although choking up isn’t a new concept to him, the rookie has never done it so consistently. Of course, why stop now when he’s battering the ball to all fields?
On Saturday, Dalbec went 3-for-3 with a triple, a home run and three RBIs. The home run, as well as his second-inning single, were struck sharply to the opposite field. When he’s doing that, he knows his timing at the plate is where it needs to be.
“I haven’t really been trying to pull the ball this season,” Dalbec said. “I’ve just been late and rushed so it looks like that.”
Not so much these days, though. All 11 of his hits during the eight-game streak came with an exit velocity of 97.6 mph or higher. In that span, his OPS (.699) surged by more than 100 points.
“I’m just trying to ride the wave, you know?” he said. “Let go of things quicker, just not really put as much pressure on myself, day to day, pitch to pitch. Just trying to have more fun.”