The Boston Red Sox have some offensive holes in their lineup with four players hitting under .200. How long can an offense survive carrying limp bats?
How often does an obscure MLB player get universal and sustainable recognition for hitting incompetence? Step forward and take a bow long retired shortstop Mario Mendoza. Mendoza was a .215 career hitter for three teams whose average generally hovered slightly north or south of .200 and within the structure of the clubhouse that .200 became the “Mendoza Line.” A noted name to join the lexicon to define a player whose skills with the stick needed some serious improvement.
The Red Sox now have their own internal competition as four players have their own race to elevate their averages to the Mendoza Line. The current front-runner is Eduardo Nunez who is slogging ahead with a .190 average. Close behind is a pack of three erstwhile competitors – Steve Pearce (.177), Sandy Leon (.175), and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.170).
As a handicapper, I would place Leon as the most likely not to reach the magical line since Leon has managed three seasons of falling under .200. An accomplishment that is negatively noteworthy. Conversely, I would give an edge – a considerable one – to Nunez. Nunez has the highest career average (.276) and is closest to achieving the goal of exceeding the Mendoza Line.
Bradley has one ability that the other three historical do not – incredible hot streak. But, alas, as the at-bats accumulate the task becomes more difficult. Pearce is also one capable of an extended streak and recently has shown a bit of spark, but that is wait and see. Pearce, Leon, and Nunez all have limited opportunities thanks to a mix and match approach by manager Alex Cora.
Sometimes a special skill will outweigh poor hitting and with Leon and Bradley that not so secret ingredient that somewhat mitigates ineffectual hitting is defense. Neither Nunez or Pearce are considered exceptional defensive players. All four seem to be relatively skilled at the “little things” to at least contribute – moving a runner along or even bunting.
In baseball today, home run is king and hitting home runs can absolve a player of batting average failure. Jay Bruce remains in the lineup thanks to that skill and Joey Gallo hit 40+ the last two seasons while nudging the Mendoza Line. Pearce and Bradley certainly have that occasional outbreak of power as noted in the playoffs last season, but this year it is in hiatus for now.
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Despite this downturn by the four mentioned, the Red Sox are still fourth in the American League in team average (.257). Where it can impact is when all four or three are in the lineup. A nice respite for opposing hurlers similar to facing a pitcher attempting to discover what a bat is used for when summoned to the plate.
The next problem with players sequestered around the Mendoza Line is how it infiltrates the rest of the lineup. Why take a chance with a hot bat when Leon awaits? And if conversely, a player is also facing a slump, such as Andrew Benintendi, at this point you have another bat that is AWOL.
The worry is present for this observer of all things Red Sox. Pearce is 36-years-old and in baseball years that is like dog years. Skills can vanish quickly. And Bradley? JBJ is a career .234 hitter and that is well below the MLB average and a world of metrics peripherals. Leon is there strictly for his defensive ability. Eventually, poor hitting is reflected in excruciating losses despite excellent pitching. We see this popping up continually as a key point in the game often rests on the bat of a slumping player.
The Red Sox are fortunate since a prize has been discovered in their developmental cracker jack box – Michael Chavis. Maybe there are a few more prizes in that box? The Red Sox may be obligated to take that risk.
The Red Sox are in a race for the playoffs as the one-third mark of the season approaches. Tampa Bay and New York are not going away and the only avenue may be a Wild Card, but a stagnant offense can certainly end that hunt. For now, they need at least three players to leave the Mendoza Line in the rear-view mirror.