Defending the Red Sox’ Offensive Approach

Coming into the season, the Red Sox rotation looked to be around league average. Instead, watching Red Sox starters this season has been like sticking 30 sporks in your eye: difficult, time consuming, and quite painful. So they’ve been worse than we thought.

The results from the starting staff have been bad and that badness has been unexpected but not nearly as unexpected as the Red Sox’ inability to score runs. While the rotation had a low upside, Boston’s hitters were expected to crush the ball. Indeed, the Red Sox were projected to score the most runs in baseball, but instead they’re seventh in the American League and closer to the last place White Sox than the first place Blue Jays.

To date, the offense has been mediocre instead of outstanding and, more importantly, hasn’t been good enough to cover for the starting rotation’s early season difficulties. But as you know if you read FanGraphs regularly, just citing runs scored isn’t enough. Though if it were I’d be finished right now and, I won’t lie, that has some appeal! Still, we want to know why, so let’s find out why.

The easy answer is BABIP and regression back to the mean. You’ve heard this story before, I’m sure, so apologies up front for that. But anyway: the Red Sox have a team BABIP of .256, which is the lowest in the league. The lowest team BABIP last season was the Padres, who posted a .277 mark. The lowest full-season team BABIP since 2000 is .269 (nice!) by the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays. So you’d expect a team with the hitters such as the Red Sox have not to be the worst team by BABIP in the last decade and a half. Their true talent is probably higher than that, so that number is probably going to go up.

The Red Sox have also been wretched with runners on base, sporting a 90 wRC+ (24th in the league) and a .696 OPS (25th). Put those runners in scoring position and the Red Sox hitters actually drop their OPS to .660 (26th) and their wRC+ to 77 (27th). This is bad sequencing. It might not sort itself out wholly but there’s no reason it won’t improve at least marginally.

That’s the easy answer and I could just say that and wipe my hands of this whole thing, but Matthew Trueblood wrote an interesting piece at Baseball Prospectus on Tuesday. In it he posited two main problems for the Red Sox’ offensive malaise: under-achieving hitters and a too-patient approach to at-bats. It’s this second idea I’d like to explore further.

It sounds odd to suggest the Red Sox’ patience is their problem. They’ve long been a patient team, one that gets on base, grinds out at-bats, and puts pressure on opposing pitching staffs in the process — and they’ve long scored a ton of runs doing things that way. That approach served them well throughout the last decade-plus, as the team has routinely been one of the better hitting teams in baseball.

It’s possible that this is a new offensive era where bullpens reign supreme so the old “tire out the starter so you can beat up on the bullpen” idea doesn’t work anymore. There is probably something to that. Bullpens are better than they’ve ever been and getting into the bullpen in the seventh inning, to pick an inning, isn’t the advantage it once was. Still, it’s not like there are no bad relievers in baseball. There are. Teams are better at shielding them from important situations than they used to be, if for no other reason than there are fewer of them, but like lousy TV shows in the the golden age of television, they do exist. The Yankees, for example, the team with the best bullpen in baseball by fWAR, have three relievers with FIPs over 4.00, and two of those are above 5.00. Those relievers have accounted for 33.2 innings. That’s 30 percent of all the relief innings thrown. The Royals have seven relievers with FIPs over 3.00. Those aren’t bad relievers, per se, but their performance is hardly elite, and they’ve accounted for over 70 percent of the relief innings thrown for the second-best bullpen in baseball.

It should be pointed out, and watch out because I’m going to point it out right now, that getting to the bullpen isn’t the entire goal of patience. The other goal is to get on base. I don’t need any metrics to tell you a team with a runner on base is more likely to score a run than a team without one. Getting on base helps teams win baseball games. So the question becomes, is the Red Sox approach, which is helping them get on base, hurting them in other ways?

Perhaps they are letting too many good pitches go by. Mr. Trueblood cites the Red Sox’ passivity on first pitches, and it’s true: batters who hit the first pitch are finding more success than they have before on a league-wide level. This season the league is slugging .422 when swinging at the first pitch. But, when Red Sox hitters swing at the first pitch, they’re slugging .615, so it’s kinda hard to kill them for being selective there.

You could say, well, swinging at the first pitch is effective so they should do it more, but it’s that patience that allows them to do so well in that situation. Boston hitters are only swinging at the pitches they can drive, the most hittable of the hittable. Presumably, if they were to swing at more first pitches those first pitches would be of lesser quality and the results would be as well.

Some hitters are more malleable than others when it comes to approach, but often we say you can’t teach a batter to know the strike zone. Or, phrased differently: altering a batter’s approach is difficult and often impossible. Hitters are creatures of habit and each develops their own approach and understanding of the strike zone over decades of growing and learning the game. You wouldn’t ask Vlad Guerrero to swing only at strikes just as you wouldn’t demand Adam Dunn expand the zone. Well, okay, the White Sox did, but still, you shouldn’t. The Red Sox have a group of hitters whose natural approach, at least as a group, is patient. Asking them to abandon that approach, regardless of what the numbers tell us about how the league is doing against first pitches in the first month plus of the season, is potentially problematic. Maybe the Red Sox need to re-assess the kind of hitters they value. Maybe a new era of baseball has dawned and passed the Red Sox by. But I’d suggest that even if the data points that way, it’s too early to reach such a conclusion, especially in light of the previous data presented.

The key to hitting is to swing at strikes and take balls. Unless the hitter can hit pitches outside the strike zone hard, swinging at them only helps the pitcher get him out. This is simple stuff, but it can easily be lost amid the numbers. I know I lose it sometimes myself.

I think that in this case the simplest solution is the correct one.  The hit-quality data tells us the Red Sox are 27th in hard-hit balls and first in softly hit ones. The Red Sox’ extremely low BABIP backs this idea up. The numbers tell us what our eyes tell us — that the Red Sox have not been hitting the ball well.

But as we know in baseball, what happens today isn’t necessarily indicative of what will happen tomorrow. Players go into and out of slumps. Teams do, too. Boston has tied itself to Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, and revolving doors at catcher and right field. Some of their hitters have been under-performing, such as Mike Napoli and such as anyone who has played right field for Boston in the last two seasons. David Ortiz, Xander Bogaerts, and Mookie Betts all got off to slow starts. All these hitters have either a track record of success at the major-league level or a pedigree that suggests such success is viable. There isn’t much choice for Boston’s front office at this point except to ride out their players’ slumps and hope that, at the end of the season, the production is there. Right now the only saving grace in the Red Sox lineup is their ability to get on base. If you believe the numbers, they back up what the the talent says: Boston will hit better. They might not lead the league in runs scored, but then this is baseball. You can’t predict it.

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7 years ago

“Instead, watching Red Sox starters this season has been like sticking 30 sporks in your eye: difficult, time consuming, and quite painful.”

You know the way to our heart, Mr. Kory.

7 years ago
Reply to  Harry

Sadly, what he describes is all too true. For games I can’t watch live, I always find myself skipping the Sox pitching for the first few innings, instead just watching the hitting and bullpen (which neither have really been much better anyways)

7 years ago
Reply to  Harry

I actually had to look this word “sporks” up on the Internet.

I immediately assumed it was a typo for forks and apparently it’s not.

7 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Kory

They stuck sporks in your rear? What kind of grade school did you go to, man?

7 years ago
Reply to  Yelp

Yeah, where did you grow up that you never had sporks? I guess thinking about it, it’s probably just a way for the schools to be cheap and only provide one utensil. But still, they were a staple of cafeterias.