Balls are flying out of Fenway Park once again and the Red Sox have gotten back to being an offensive juggernaut. Are they finally ready to win in October?
You might not think a jump from scoring the 10th most runs in baseball to 2nd would qualify as huge. And if you are looking solely at runs scored, you might even be right. But offense in MLB is far more complicated than any one number can capture. As the 2017 season came to a close, it seemed painfully obvious that the Red Sox offense was deeply flawed. Yes, it scored 785 runs and had a healthy +117 run differential, but it was missing something. That something was power.
The 2017 club ranked just 27th in home runs hit. It’s .407 SLG was 26th. The team was generally a strong base running team, which helped them to outperform their peripherals. But an offense which lacks a true middle of the order threat is going to have trouble advancing through the playoffs. October is a different breed of baseball than the six months that precede it. You are facing good or great pitchers more consistently, bullpen usage is different, and even rotations get trimmed down to four men. Quite simply, it’s harder to score runs. Having a dynamic offense that can do so in a variety of ways is often one of the keys to a deep run. That was certainly true of last year’s eventual champion, the Houston Astros.
We’ve identified the problem. Now how do we fix it?
Enter Tim Hyers. In 2017, Hyers served as the assistant hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Like the 2017 Red Sox, the 2016 Dodgers has a bit of a power problem. While they had barely more than the league average amount of home runs, they had just the 17th highest SLG in the majors. In 2017 they finished with 221 HR, good for 11th in the majors. Their SLG jumped up to 7th. How? They put the ball in the air more often.
When Tim Hyers agreed to become the new hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox, it wasn’t his first time with the organization. He had actually cut his teeth with the organization as an area scout. His hard work eventually earned him a promotion to minor league hitting coordinator, which he continued to serve as until 2016. His eventual return to Boston brought with him the “launch angle revolution.” While it’s easy to assume that means hitting the ball in the air more, it’s more about optimizing launch angle than increasing it. But for many, that means getting more loft into your swing, as was the case for a number of Red Sox hitters who are having improved seasons. The results have been spectacular.
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It’s a whole new ballgame.
As we approach the midpoint of the season, the Red Sox have scored the second most runs in baseball. They are on pace for 824 by season’s end, which would be an increase of 39 runs. They are also second in home runs, with 100, and are on pace for 231. A jump of 63 HR is remarkable, considering they’ve only added one new hitter to the lineup. J.D. Martinez is a big part of the change, of course, but he’s not the entire answer. In fact, increases in home run rate by Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland have also been major factors.
Mookie Betts is on pace for 42 HR in 118 games, a staggering 57 HR pace over a full season. Xander Bogaerts should land somewhere near his 2016 HR total of 21. Mitch Moreland would probably end up in that range as well, if he were to play games at the same rate he has thus far. Since he is the starter now, we could take a guess at how much more time he’ll spend on the field. If he starts 90% of the remaining games, he’ll see action in about 83 more. If he continues hitting home runs at the same rate, he’ll finish with a career high 26 by season’s end. His rate over a full season would be about 31.
Speaking of J.D. Martinez…
While there have been a number of internal improvements in the power department, let’s not understate the impact of having a genuine middle of the order threat again. J.D. Martinez is on pace for 51 HR this season. But he’s not doing it by lifting the ball more. In fact, he’s lifting it less. Again, it’s about optimization, not purely more fly balls. Since most of MLB had come up being coached to swing for line drives, not home runs, it’s understandable that most hitters could stand to add a little more loft to their game. But it’s an approach that needs to be tailored to each individual.
And Martinez is an absolute hitting savant. He watches an insane amount of video and obsesses over his swing. When he makes changes, it’s usually for good reason. The changes he made from last year to this seem to be working wonders. And the only hitter in baseball who is squaring the ball up more than him is Mookie Betts. Betts has 14.1 Brls/PA. Just under 1 more than Martinez who sits at 13.2 so far. For raw Barrels, Martinez leads the majors at 37. His signing appears to have been a good one.
The strides we saw from Red Sox hitters in 2016 had a bit of a regression in 2017. The 2018 season doesn’t seem to care, though. It’s picking up right where 2016 left off. Is this offense finally good enough to win in the playoffs? Let us know what you think! For our part, indications are positive. At least for now.