Once David Ortiz
and some other key players heat up offensively, the defending World Series champions will look much improved. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
With their 2-1 loss to the White Sox Tuesday night, the defending world champion Red Sox fell to 5-9 on the season, tying them with the Reds and Astros for the third-worst record in baseball at this early stage of the season. That's obviously not where Boston wants to be at this point in the season, but while slow starts by reigning champions aren't all that common, they aren't all that damning, either.
Last year's World Series was the 109th since the creation of the American League in 1901. The Red Sox are just the 25th champion to have a losing record after their first 14 games the following season (see table at bottom). However, of the previous 24 defending champions to open the season with a losing records in their first 14 games, 17 finished the year with winning records, seven returned to the postseason and four repeated as World Series champs. Those last two figures may not sound all that encouraging for the Red Sox, but it's important to remember that almost half of the teams in our sample played before the advent of divisional play, never mind the current two wild-card format. In the divisional play era (which started in 1969), five of the 13 champs to get off to such slow starts recovered to reach the postseason and two (the 1973 A's and 1978 Yankees) won the World Series again. In the wild card era (starting in 1995), two of the four reigning champs got back to October, though neither won the title a second straight time.
Overall, while just four of those 24 defending champions went on to repeat, that's 16.7 percent. The rate of repeats among all World Series winners is 19.8 percent (21 of 106, leaving out 1904, 1994, the two years when there was no World Series and a repeat was thus impossible, and this year). That difference is not significant.
So history suggests that Boston shouldn't be discouraged by its slow start, and the present concurs. The primary reason for the Red Sox' poor performance this season is a lack of offense, and there's ample reason to expect that to improve. The team's lineup has thus far been hit hard by injuries. Rightfielder Shane Victorino has yet to make his 2014 debut due to a hamstring strain. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks played in just four games before landing on the disabled list with a calf strain. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia hurt his left wrist in the fourth game of the season, has seen his bat go ice cold since and didn't start any of the last three games.
The production, or lack thereof, the Red Sox have received stemming from those three injuries alone has crippled their lineup. Outfielder Daniel Nava has started 12 of Boston's first 14 games with Victorino out, and Jonathan Herrera and Ryan Roberts have combined to take Middlebrooks and Pedroia's places in the lineup. Combine the batting lines of those three with what Pedroia has done in his eight starts since he hurt his wrist and you get a cumulative batting line of .161/.227/.237 in 128 plate appearances from what amounts to a third of the batting order. It's no wonder the Sox haven't scored more than four runs in any of their last six games.
Given that, Boston had to cringe Tuesday night when its hottest hitter, Mike Napoli, dislocated his left ring finger sliding into second base. The good news there is that Napoli immediately had the finger reset and splinted and is said to be day-to-day.
There's more good news. Pedroia found out on Tuesday that his wrist is not broken, and after three days off and a cortisone injection, he is hoping to return to the lineup on Wednesday. Victorino has been sent on a rehab assignment to Double A Portland and is close to returning. That will allow the Red Sox to go with the hot hand in leftfield, where manager John Farrell will be able to choose from among righty Jonny Gomes, whichever of Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. (both lefties) is not starting in center, or whichever of the switch-hitting Nava or lefty Mike Carp remains on the roster after Victorino is activated.
The Red Sox also have yet to see David Ortiz (.701 OPS) get hot and can expect more from Xander Bogaerts (.651 OPS) at the plate, which means that there's potential for improvement at as many as six positions (both outfield corners, designated hitter, second base, shortstop and, with Middlebrooks' ultimate return, third base). Those improvements aren't guaranteed, and one only need look back two years to find a Sox team that had high hopes going into the season only to get off to a slow start (4-10) and finish dead last in its division. But there's no need to panic in Boston just yet.