Red Sox hitters thriving with aggressive approach at the plate

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 10: Mookie Betts
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 10: Mookie Betts /

A more aggressive approach to swinging at pitches in the strike zone has benefited several members of the Boston Red Sox lineup.

One of the philosophies that Alex Cora looked to instill when he took over as manager of the Boston Red Sox is an aggressive approach to swinging at pitches in the strike zone. So far the plan seems to be working.

We tend to think of the Red Sox as a team that grinds out at-bats, making a pitcher work to drive up their pitch count while waiting for them to make a mistake. The approach has worked well for years but baseball evolves and players must learn to adjust. With a greater emphasis on stacking the bullpen with power arms, starting pitchers aren’t going as deep into games as they once did. That limits the benefit of the patient approach intended to tire the starter in order to pick on the bullpen.

Now lineups need to do more damage against the starter in order to get a lead so that their own bullpen can shorten the game in the later innings. This is where an aggressive approach can be beneficial.

The Red Sox lead the majors with a 72.2 Z-Swing%, which measures the percentage of swings at pitches inside the strike zone. Don’t be afraid to swing early in the count if it’s a good pitch to hit.

An example of this was provided by Mookie Betts to lead off Tuesday’s 14-1 shellacking of the New York Yankees. Betts laid off a fastball down and away to get ahead in the count 1-0. The prototypical leadoff hitter generally aims to take pitches in order to see the opposing pitcher’s arsenal. Yankees starter Luis Severino tried to sneak in a fastball over the heart of the plate to even the count, assuming Betts would take it in his first plate appearance. Not this time. Betts crushed the pitch to deep center for a double that was mere inches from leaving the park.

Being aggressive doesn’t mean the Red Sox are up there hacking away. The key is swinging at pitches inside the zone. Their 28.9 O-Swing%, which measures the percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone, is middle of the pack. Red Sox hitters also own the second-lowest strikeout rate in the majors at a mere 16.1 K% this season.

No hitter in the lineup exemplifies this discipline more than Betts. Only five major league hitters swing at a lower percentage of pitches than Betts, who owns a 33.3 Swing%. That makes sense given his role in the lineup. However, he’s still swinging more often at pitches in the zone. His 58.4 Z-Swing% matches the career high he set in 2016 when he was runner-up for the AL MVP award.

Yet despite the more aggressive approach, Betts has been able to do damage when he does choose to swing. He has swung and missed only four times in 45 plate appearances this season, producing a major league-best 1.7 swinging strike percentage (SwStr%). Betts is also fifth in the majors with a 97.8 Z-Contact%, which measures the percentage of pitches in which contact was made inside the zone.

Betts is swinging more often at pitches in the zone and making contact on those pitches as well as anyone while avoiding chasing pitches outside the zone. Seems simple, right? Clearly, the approach is working for him given that Betts is currently leading the batting title race with a .432 average. He’s also second in the league with a 1.263 OPS.

Betts isn’t the only one benefiting from this aggressive approach. Hanley Ramirez ranks 11th in the majors with an 80.9 Z-Swing%. He’s always been far more aggressive than a hitter like Betts but this would still easily represent a career high for Ramirez. So far it’s working, as Hanley is hitting .359 with a .883 OPS this season.

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Red Sox hitters make contact when opposing pitchers throw in the strike zone. Six regulars in the lineup have a Z-Contact% north of 90 percent this season. Only 39 American League hitters can say that. Xander Bogaerts ranks 40th in the league with an 89.8 Z-Contact%, barely missing the cut.

Andrew Benintendi provides an interesting case. A batting average floating barely above the Mendoza Line suggests he’s struggling. However, his 95.9 Z-Contact% is sixth in the league, showing he makes contact when pitchers throw in the strike zone. He also has the discipline to lay off pitches outside the zone, drawing a league-leading 11 walks and only striking out four times.

Benintendi’s meager batting average is the result of a well below-average .233 BABIP that begs for regression to the mean. Just because he hasn’t produced results in a small sample size doesn’t mean the approach isn’t sound. Benny will turn things around. A clutch game-winning double on Sunday followed by a pair of extra-base hits against the Yankees could be a sign he’s already pulling out of the early season slump.

Following Tuesday’s offensive explosion, Boston is third in the league in runs scored. Both teams ahead of them in those rankings have played two more games so far. Going by runs per game, the Red Sox (5.6 runs per game) trail only the Los Angeles Angels (6.5). Boston is also second in the league with a .259 average and third with a .761 OPS.

Next: Three keys to a dominant Red Sox team

We’ll need a larger sample in order to determine how effective this new approach has been but from the data we have, it’s clear the Red Sox hitters are listening to the advice of their new manager.