Friday April 13th, 2012

At 1-5 entering their home opener today, the Boston Red Sox are in worse shape than they were last year when they began 0-6. The 0-6 start was an anomaly by a set team that would be the best club in baseball until September arrived. This year's team has far more loose ends and questions: catcher, shortstop, leftfield, rightfield, closer , starting rotation and, if you believe Bobby Valentine needs early success to validate the cultural change he brings post-Terry Francona, manager.

Suddenly there is something else to worry about: If Kevin Youkilis doesn't hit, the unsettled vibe on this team severely worsens. Afterall, Youkilis should be one of the foundations of the team -- a professional hitter smack in the middle of the lineup and three-time All Star who should be above cause for concern.

But the trendlines on Youkilis bear watching -- beyond his 2-for-20 start to the season that included a seat on the bench for the third game. Since the All-Star break of last season, Youkilis has hit .186. His total bases have decline three straight years. Now 33 years old, he has missed an average of 43 games per year since he turned 30. The injuries include a sports hernia that knocked him out of much of the pennant race last year. He hit his last home run Aug. 14; since then, including spring training, he has hit .165 with only five extra base hits, all of them doubles, in 103 at-bats.

Like Carl Crawford, Youkilis is an unorthodox hitter who needs to make mechanical adjustments as he ages. Youkilis last year batted with his feet nearly together and the tip of his bat nearly parallel to the ground and pointed at the pitcher. The stance slowly had become an exaggeration of itself since his big 2008 season, the only 100-RBI campaign of his career. With the bat wrapped around his head, Youkilis often didn't get the barrel into the hitting zone on time.

Youkilis and hitting coach Dave Magadan understood the danger and difficulty of trying to re-make a swing during a season, so they put off an overhaul until spring training. They used Youkilis' 2008 stance and swing path as their templates. Youkilis spreads his feet a bit more and doesn't wrap the bat nearly as far around his head.

The results have not come come quickly. He struggled in spring training, leaving Florida with only one extra base hit, a double. And now he has struggled out of the gate in the regular season. He has hit one line drive and a ton of grounders. And the man formerly known as the Greek God of Walks has yet to draw a base on balls.

Youkilis is too good of a hitter not to start hitting with authority again. He's an important righthanded presence between Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz. But it could be that he simply needs more time to lock down his timing and mechanics.

But here's the trouble for the Red Sox: There are too many other parts of the team that "need time" for the club to establish its identity. Daniel Bard needs time to develop into a legitimate fourth starter. The bullpen needs time to coalesce without Andrew Bailey. Crawford needs time to come back from his wrist injury. Mike Aviles needs time to prove he's an everyday shortstop. Valentine needs time to learn about his team and for his team to learn about him.

And time is not something afforded in abundance in the AL East for a franchise that hasn't won a postseason game since 2008, has played 35 straight games without winning back-to-back games and is coming off one of the worst September collapses of all time. So welcome home, Red Sox. And welcome to early-season pressure.

The Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, those brothers in misery from last September, have picked up where they left off. They are a combined 3-9 with a .224 batting average. So much for getting off to a good start to put the infamous collapses behind them.

Should we be surprised? No. Teams that collapse in September just don't bounce back the next year, despite all the happy talk they generate in spring training.

No matter how you define a collapse, the 2011 Red Sox and 2011 Braves rank among the five worst pennant race folds of all time. One list for last year by Cliff Corcoran removed teams that played decently while blowing a big lead, such as the 1951 Dodgers (26-22 down the stretch) and 1978 Red Sox (25-22). Other teams turned red hot and passed them.

I like the idea of sticking with teams that blew a big lead and played poorly to define the worst collapses. So here is that list of the teams that suffered the biggest collapses -- the Red Sox and Braves would slot as the third and fourth teams on the list -- and I've added what happened to those teams the next year. As you can see, none of them made the playoffs in the year after the collapse and all but one of them posted a worse winning percentage:

The Phillies' problems on offense are real, but they may not be as bad as you think -- as long as you apply the new baseball math to what makes a bad offense. After last season saw offense muted to levels we hadn't seen in 19 years, it will be interesting to see if we are looking at the beginning of a pitcher-dominated era.

The data so far this season is extremely small, providing but a tease of what this year might bring. But the early indication -- the very early indication -- is that we are picking up where we left off. And so Philadelphia may just be able to hang in there until Chase Utley and Ryan Howard return from their injuries. The Phillies won Thursday night, 3-1. They have three wins this season, with two of them requiring three or fewer wins for the victory. The Phillies-Marlins game was one of four of the nine contests played Thursday night in which three runs were all that was needed for a victory.

Of the 95 games played in the majors this year, 22 of them were won with three or fewer runs. We still have 96 percent of the season to play, so let's not get carried away. But it's something to keep an eye on: the percentage of games won with three runs or fewer has been climbing in recent years. Check out the annual percentage of games in which the winning team scored three runs or fewer:

No, we haven't calibrated the Way Back Machine to 1968, when 35 percent of wins required no more than three runs. But this great recession of runs is real. In five years, from 2006 to 2011, the number of games won with three or fewer runs jumped 46 percent. Expect the downturn in runs to continue -- as well as the well-armed Phillies to hang in there with a depleted offense these first two months.

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