The Red Sox probably aren’t going to hit home runs and that’s okay
The Boston Red Sox have just six home runs through the team’s first 13 games, but they won’t need to go deep to be successful in 2017.
A lot has been made about the Red Sox’ power deficiency over the beginning of the season. At a time when the league-wide home run rate is up 10% over last year and on pace for a record-setting season, the Red Sox have just six home runs through 13 games. With only four in their first ten, they matched their lowest production since 1990.
Pablo Sandoval currently leads the team with three, while Mitch Moreland, Andrew Benintendi, and Sandy Leon all have one apiece. If you expected Sandoval to be leading the team in home runs at any point this season, well, congrats you were probably the only one. Right away, though, we can diagnose some of their early problems in the power department. There are four notable names missing from that group – Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley, and Xander Bogaerts.
Last season, Betts and Ramirez were two of three Red Sox players to reach the 30-100 milestone. David Ortiz was the remaining third of that trio, but he, of course, won’t be coming back to boost their power numbers. Bradley was fourth on the team with 27 homers and Bogaerts fifth with 21. The easiest way for the team to start hitting the ball out of the yard is to have their home run hitters actually hit home runs. That’s step one.
But even after Betts, Ramirez, Bradley and Bogaerts start contributing, it’s hard to see where there is much more power to be found in the lineup. Mitch Moreland, who has reached the 20 home run plateau in three of his previous full seasons, is the next logical member of the Red Sox’ power group. By pushing Hanley Ramirez to the DH-spot on a nearly full-time basis, Moreland is logistically a replacement for David Ortiz but is more accurately a substitute for the Red Sox’ previous third/first baseman Travis Shaw.
Moreland and Shaw are actually offensive doppelgangers and have produced uncannily similar numbers over their careers. With roughly 2,000 more plate appearances we can be more comfortable in Moreland’s floor, but what we’ve seen over his career is what we’re going to get. He’s more or less a player that will reach base at an average clip, provide decent pop, and drive in a few runs over the course of the season. He’s off to a torrid start right now, slashing .333/.429/.583 (176 wRC+) with a league-best nine doubles and ten extra-base hits, however, that production is due to regress.
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After him, Sandoval, Benintendi, and Dustin Pedroia are the most likely to hit for power in the Red Sox lineup. As mentioned, the Panda leads the team in home runs right now – but is also hitting .143/.196/.381 with a 49 wRC+. More troubling is that he swings at the second-highest rate in baseball, but makes contact at the 146th. He’s essentially employed an all-or-nothing approach so far by swinging at everything and has been lucky enough to the point where three of his six hits have left the yard. But that’s an approach that is rarely sustainable for prolonged periods of time. Even during his disaster of a season in 2015, Pablo wasn’t swinging and missing the way he is now.
Then there’s Benintendi and Pedroia. Based on ZiPS projections, neither player is expected to figure as a big-time home run hitter. Dan Szymborski’s model likes the rookie more and expects him to launch 12 homers, but is down on the second baseman and expects him to follow up a resurgent 2016 with just 10 homers.
Benintendi’s been a power hitter in the minors, consistently posting ISO ratings at or above .219, but that power has never translated into home runs. His offseason workout regimen that added a significant amount of muscle could help him in that department, but he’s always profiled as a player that will hit a ton of doubles. As for Pedroia, I’d caution to the side Szymborski’s analysis. As a leadoff hitter, it really doesn’t matter that he won’t hit for much power anyways. As long as he’s able to approach the .376 OBP and .825 OPS marks he posted a year ago, he’ll have done his job.
All of which is to say, the Red Sox don’t have many players that can be looked upon to hit the ball out of the park on a regular basis. Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez are the most likely to do so, and they’re not even guaranteed to reach the 30-home run mark. Which, for the record, isn’t a bad thing.
According to the Providence Journal, manager John Farrell has no concerns with his team’s power shortage.
"“We’re not worried about it,” John Farrell said. “We like the doubles we have. That’s the way this team is built.”"
He’s exactly right. The 2017 Red Sox weren’t built to hit home runs in the way they have in years past. They currently lead the MLB in hits (128), doubles (29), OBP (.353), batting average on balls in play (.332), and have the lowest strikeout rate of all (15.5%). They’re only 15th in runs scored at 57 but are just 12 away from the Rangers in first who have 69. The mantra of this team will be function over style, something we’ve already seen through their first 13 games. Chris Young attempted to bunt home Mitch Moreland during the seventh inning of their 2-1 win over the Rays on Sunday, for example.
Players and management are aware that they aren’t going to hit 225+ home runs this year. Instead, they’ll reach base at an elite rate and add runs the old-fashioned way – by making contact. Their league-best k-rate and ability to put the ball in play have led to four come from behind wins so far. It isn’t pretty, but their 8-5 record proves that it’s effective.
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That 1990 team that put up just four home runs in their first ten games, they went on to win the American League East despite finishing with just 106 on the year. The power-outage is no cause for concern.