It looked like the Boston Red Sox were set up for years of championship contention around this time last year. They were en route to winning 108 games and the A.L. East title. Mookie Betts had put together an MVP campaign, and J.D. Martinez matched every offensive stride as the best free-agent signing from that offseason. Chris Sale was as dominant as everyone expected him to be after he was brought to Boston via blockbuster trade before the season started. Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers emerged as young stars, while deadline acquisitions like Steve Pearce and Eduardo Nunez were played far better than expected. Dave Dombrowski looked like a genius. Alex Cora looked like the next great Red Sox manager. David Price was even getting along with the media!
Outside of Sale slowing down near the end of the year, nothing went wrong in Boston all throughout 2018. Everything clicked for one magical season, and given the youth and talent of their biggest contributors, everyone assumed it was only the beginning. Flash forward to September of 2019 and, well... things changed. A year after winning the World Series, the Red Sox were eliminated from playoff contention on September 20th. Dombrowski was fired less than two weeks into September, and much of his front office staff along with him. Sale had been shut down in August, while Price was shut down shortly afterwards. Despite the rival Yankees suffering a historic series of injuries to their best players and having one of the worst teams in baseball in their division, Boston couldn't never hold any momentum, and have lost the right to defend their title in October baseball. Just about everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. How did this happen?
As much as everyone will like to point at Dombrowski and Cora's decision to go with closer by committee as one of the biggest issues of this year's team, that ultimately ended up a sideshow. Boston definitely lost a handful of games they would have otherwise won because they trotted out Matt Barnes or Ryan Brasier instead of a traditional closer dedicated to his craft. But looking at the big picture, the pitching as a whole simply regressed, and that makes it difficult to bemoan the lack of a designated closer-- someone like Craig Kimbrel can only do so much when the team goes down three runs in the fourth because the starting pitching is so poor.
Last year's top three pitchers in the Red Sox rotation-- Sale, Price, and Rick Porcello-- all won double-digit games. Sale was the ace, going 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA, a sub-1.000 WHIP, and a hilarious 13.5 SO/9. Price went 16-7 with a 3.58 ERA, 1.142 WHIP, and nine SO/9 in his best season in a Red Sox uniform. Porcello held down the fort as the No. 3 starter with a 16-7 record despite a 4.58 ERA. The run support was consistently outstanding, but as a whole the trio didn't have many "blow-up" games where they'd struggle to make it past the fifth inning.
That wasn't the case this year. Sale went 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA before getting shut down. Price went 7-5 with a 4.25 ERA before hitting the shelf with his own maladies, while Porcello went 13-12 with a 5.56 ERA. Sale's decline stands out the most, but the main takeaway is that the top three starters regressed in a way the offense couldn't make up for.
Betts wasn't going to bat .346 every season of his career like he did in 2018; likewise, Martinez wasn't going to hit .330 again. Their regression was expected to a degree, and this year Betts is hitting only .291 with 28 homers, while Martinez sits at .301 with 35 home runs. As a whole, the offense was essentially perfect last year, and was never going to be as good. But nobody in Boston expected the starting pitching to slide as much as it did, and in tandem with the natural and expected decline of their offensive output, it sunk the team.
It's impossible to point a finger at any one issue and lay blame for the disappointment that was the 2019 Red Sox, just as how it was impossible to give all the credit to a single individual aspect of the 2018 team. As anyone who has watched or played sports can tell you, there are just some days where absolutely everything goes right and it almost feels like a fever dream. But along with those days come the days where everything goes so poorly you can't do anything except forget about it and move on. The Red Sox had an entire season of everything going right, and it resulted in a World Series championship. 2019 was the season where everything went wrong, and the fallout has already begun.