May 12, 2015
The Case Against Boston's Offense
The Red Sox are struggling, and while no team is to be condemned this early in a season, they seem to be in some real trouble. They’re 14-17, but, more importantly, they’ve scored only 135 runs. At this pace, they’ll score 705 over the full season. They’re below the American League average in runs per game, which indicates a downright weak offense, if it happens at Fenway Park. We knew their run prevention would be poor, but to whatever extent their ineffectiveness at bat is a real phenomenon, it’s crippling. Boston needs a juggernaut of an offense to win the AL East, and a near-elite one just to remain competitive.
The question we most need to answer, then, is whether they have such an offense. Is the mess the team has been in the early going its real identity, or are things about to turn around? To answer that, we need to get a handle on what the team does well, what it does poorly, and from where the problems they have had so far are coming.
I see at least three problems that are affecting the Red Sox at a macro level:
Luckily, the Red Sox are deep, as well as explosive, so they should be able to overcome these players’ sharp declines—as long as they acknowledge the reality of the situations, and replace the players in question proactively.
A Too-Patient Approach
Here’s the problem with all of that rosy talk: The Red Sox are approaching their plate appearances in an outmoded way. They’re drawing a lot of walks because pitchers are letting them do so. They’re making more contact at the cost of hard contact, and especially, at the cost of power on contact. The Sox are swinging at the first pitch just 18.4 percent of the time, easily the lowest rate in MLB. And they're doing so in the worst era to do so: If the 2015 season ended today, it would break the 2014 season’s record for best aggregate performance by batters who swing at the first pitch, relative to those who don’t. Through Sunday, hitters who stepped into the box hacking were slugging .422, while those who took the first offering were slugging .382. The Red Sox’s long-held take-and-rake theory is falling apart. Pitchers have learned how to minimize damage against that kind of offense, and as a result, that kind of offense is no longer the advisable way of doing things. If the Sox can’t become more aggressive and find pitches to hit earlier in counts, they’re in real trouble.
Their Times Through the Order Splits
The problem is that many bullpens no longer have a soft underbelly. The league is hitting a collective .235/.310/.363 against relief arms this season, the worst performance (relative to the league as a whole) on record. Batters strike out 21.7 percent of the time against relievers. It’s not an absolute good to get an extra at-bat against the Juan Nicasios and Radhames Lizes of the world. Eight bullpens have a sub-3.00 ERA this season, and while that’s unlikely to last, the broader point stands.
More daunting, for the Red Sox specifically, is that they really struggle until they get one or two looks at an opposing starter—and then they really struggle again, as soon as the parade of relievers begins:
Boston Red Sox, By Time Through the Order, 2015
Now, maybe this is just noise, something time will iron out. There’s a column I didn’t show you in the table above, one that might give that impression:
Boston Red Sox, BABIP by Time Facing Opponent in Game, 2015
I’m not terribly convinced by the luck argument, though. The Red Sox have a unique approach, and a unique recent history, in terms of the way their team hits. The 2013 Sox had the highest team BABIP this side of Herbert Hoover’s presidency. That team also had an arrestingly large number of guys who fit a certain mold: patient, strikeout-prone, but with lots of power, and the ability to foul off pitches they didn’t square up, instead of weakly putting them in play. Any team at a philosophical extreme in a particular aspect of the game has to be evaluated on that aspect a little differently than other teams are, and no team is more extreme in its philosophy at the plate than Boston. In my opinion, the Red Sox have a fundamental problem on offense that isn’t captured by reading their individual stats or nodding toward the usual peripheral indicators.
It’s not that the way the Sox do their offensive business is wrong, per se. It’s just that it seems to have been built for the last decade, not this one. It can succeed even now, but doing so will require some moderation. An extreme commitment to taking pitches, seeking deep counts and working out of two-strike holes is not conducive to scoring runs in the modern environment. It’s not an organization or a city known for moderation, but that’s what Boston needs. Without it, the Bam-Bam BoSox aren’t going to be able to outslug their defensive shortfalls.