Steven Wright

The Red Sox Can’t Keep It On the Ground

I’ll apologize for the title here. It’s somewhat vague, and you probably came hoping to read about how the Red Sox offense is a groggy, not-really-awake-but-not-really-asleep juggernaut, and you know, they might still be one. Sadly, that’s not what we’re covering today. If the Red Sox could keep hitting liners and deep fly balls, I’d love it. But what troubles me is that the Red Sox pitchers are the ones that can’t keep anything firmly attached to the field.

On the surface, the pitching staff has looked great. It’s been a stark improvement so far, as the Red Sox currently lead the majors in K/9 at 10.27, as opposed to a 7.57 mark last year. That’s ballooned a bit by the crazy pace that pitchers like David Price (13.50), Rick Porcello (10.95), and Craig Kimbrel (18.90) have set, but it’s nice to see people paid to throw baseballs in a Red Sox uniform throw the baseball really well for a change.

Once you dig deeper, you start to notice some red flags here and there. The FIP for this team – at 4.12 – is very close to the 4.17 FIP from last year’s squad. There’s a scary 1.27 HR/9, while the 2015 team had a palatable (for a team playing in Fenway) 1.11 mark. They’ve been marginally better, sure, but why isn’t there more distance between this group and last year’s staff?

It’s the fly balls. The Red Sox are playing with fire when it comes to fly balls. They’ve been burned already, and probably will be again.

As of Tuesday night, Boston has the third-lowest groundball rate in the majors, at 39.5%. That alone isn’t cause for concern, since the Royals are fourth with a 40.8% rate. Thing is, that isn’t in a vacuum. The Royals have an exceptional outfield defense and a spacious outfield in Kauffman Stadium. The Red Sox, well, they don’t have either, or at least they don’t have the park. They do have Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, who are good defenders in their own right, and the Holt/Young platoon in left, which ranges from okay to good. Not a bad outfield by any stretch, but they aren’t playing in Kauffman, and collectively, might not defend as well as the Royals’ outfield. There’s a lot less real estate in Fenway than there is in Kansas City’s ballpark. Fly balls are going to do more damage simply because of that.

The Red Sox are playing with fire when it comes to fly balls. Boston has the third-lowest groundball rate in the majors, at 39.5%.

It doesn’t help that the Red Sox are dead last in groundball rate at home this year, at 36.3%. On top of that, batters generally pull the ball a whopping 40% of the time in Fenway, regardless of whatever batted ball it is, so you know they’re taking advantage of the Monster. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that the Red Sox haven’t been getting more of the safer groundballs that would keep that home run threat of fly balls neutralized.

The sheer number of strikeouts so far has taken some pressure off the increasing number of fly balls, but once that drops to more believable levels, we’re going to see a lot more batted balls put in the air. At this point, I’d lament that the Red Sox need guys who are good at getting grounders, but the team already has a few starters that can do that. They’re just not reliable sources of them. Joe Kelly’s groundball-inducing stuff is out of commission right now, and the only starter close to Kelly’s 48.1% rate is Steven Wright’s 45.9%. Porcello’s not far behind, but his issue is giving up homers – the worst type of fly balls. The Red Sox have some guys who can minimize fly balls, but one’s injured, another’s a mercurial knuckleballer, and the other is giving up bombs every other inning. Not a good situation.

An alarming trend is that the relievers aren’t doing much to help here. The Red Sox bullpen is dead last in groundball rate, at an even 33%. Only two pitchers have passed the 40% threshold: Koji Uehara and Robbie Ross. Everyone else is dealing with those pesky fly balls, and consequently, dealing with what might happen if one goes a long way. Case in point:

It’s probably not fair to only pick on Kimbrel, since he’s the one with K/9 pushing 20, but nearly the entire bullpen’s had some issue with not getting grounders. Matt Barnes owns a 7.1% groundball rate. I guess it’s no surprise that he gave up a homer Tuesday night. What a shocker.

I’ll give the bullpen credit, though, they are 5th in the league in K/9 with a 10.75 mark, so the damage is limited by that, at least. However, the Boston bullpen is the only one with a GB% below 40%.

Team K/9 GB%
Yankees 13.37 43.8%
Mets 11.29 44.0%
Astros 10.93 43.4%
Cardinals 10.80 49.4%
Red Sox 10.75 33.0%

The Red Sox relievers are getting guys out, sure, but when they’re not striking them out, the contact they allow is very disturbing, and that’s completely different than how other dominant bullpens stay dominant.

The main retort to all of this is that I’m just playing out some Small Sample Size Theatre, and maybe I am. I don’t expect Craig Kimbrel to have a 4.05 ERA this year or continue to allow fly balls at a 77% rate. Things will probably go back to more acceptable baselines for these guys. The trend, though, is troubling.

If the Red Sox continue to allow fly balls instead of going for grounders and weak contact, it’s not going to end well. You’ll see more doubles/triples/home runs in more high leverage situations. The Red Sox staff needs to come back to earth, and bring their batted ball profile along too.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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