Red Sox power outage coincides with low strikeout rates

BOSTON, MA - JULY 20: Dustin Pedroia
BOSTON, MA - JULY 20: Dustin Pedroia /

The Boston Red Sox are bucking the trend spreading throughout MLB by refusing to swing for the fences at the expense of surging strikeout rates.

When the rest of the baseball world zigs, the Boston Red Sox zag. While other teams are relying heavily on home runs, this team has found success scoring runs in other ways.

Home run rates have reached heights we haven’t seen since the steroid era, rising steadily from 2.6 percent to 3.3 percent over the last decade. No, this isn’t a sign that the majority of players have found ways to circumvent the drug testing policy. Hitters have simply changed their approach.

As the home run totals have drifted upward, so have the strikeout rates. In 2007, the major league-average strikeout rate was 17.1 percent. So far this season that number has risen to a whopping 21.6 percent. The league-average strikeout rate has risen every year since 2006, and set a new all-time record every year since 2008. The league has become saturated with free swingers intent on driving the ball out of the park at the expense of contact rates.

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Strikeouts are no longer taboo. A slugger who piles up 200+ strikeouts can still be considered a success as long as they make a run at 40+ homers. Take Aaron Judge for example. The rookie phenom for the New York Yankees is well on his way to accomplishing both. He leads the majors with 34 home runs while striking out over 30 percent of the time.

The Red Sox have taken the opposite approach. Only two major league teams have tallied fewer home runs and Boston ranks last in the American League in that category. While this lack of power would be a death kneel for many teams, the Red Sox have countered by being among the hardest to strikeout.

Boston owns the third lowest strikeout rate in the majors at 18.6 percent. That rate would have seemed high a decade ago, yet by today’s standards it’s considered elite. Only two Red Sox hitters with at least 200 plate appearances enters the day with an above-average strikeout rate. Mitch Moreland is the most strikeout prone lineup regular with a 23.3 K% that ranks as only the 40th highest in the majors.

On the other end of the spectrum, the toughest hitters to strikeout reside on this Red Sox roster – Eduardo Nunez (9.1%), Dustin Pedroia (9.7%) and Mookie Betts (9.9%) claim the lowest strikeout percentages in the majors.

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Red Sox hitters collectively own a .334 OBP that ranks sixth in the majors. They may not be a lineup stocked with sluggers, but when you have runners on base and put the ball in play, good things can happen. Boston has the fewest home runs in the league, yet it hasn’t stopped them from being above average in runs scored. Paired with a pitching staff that owns the league’s best ERA, that should be enough most nights.

It’s almost as if the Red Sox have reinvented Moneyball. Teams are shelling out top dollar on the open market for home run hitters, while the Red Sox have pieced together a lineup of efficient hitters without breaking the bank.

This is partially out of necessity. Boston had to pay Pablo Sandoval to play elsewhere and owe over $50 million combined this season to a pair of underachieving pitchers. Clogging the payroll with ill-advised contracts left no room under the dreaded luxury tax to replace the thunderous bat of David Ortiz. Rather than overpay for a poor man’s version of Big Papi, they improvised by pivoting in another direction.

Fans may long for the days when the Red Sox were bludgeoning opponents with a relentless lineup, yet the ultimate goal lies at the end of the postseason path. Teams that reach that stage on the backs of their top sluggers may find it more difficult to swat home runs in the cool October weather. Finding other ways to score is essential in the playoffs and the Red Sox have proven capable of that.

Over the last few years we’ve seen the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals win championships with lineups that lacked power but made up for it with timely hitting. Those teams also had strong pitching staffs, just as the Red Sox do.

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Most teams are striving to rack up prolific home run totals even if it means a record-setting strikeout pace. Boston is following the blue print of what wins championships.