As a team, the St. Louis Cardinals are hitting .266/.339/.458. They’ve scored 259 runs in 48 games. They are the second highest scoring team in baseball with the second highest OPS in baseball. They are very good! They are also behind the Boston Red Sox by 17 runs, 30 points of batting average, 21 points of on-base percentage, and 28 points of slugging. Oh and they’ve done it in one more game. The Cardinals have been very good. The Red Sox have been much better. What is the real difference between the offenses of the Cardinals and Red Sox? The difference cam be found in this one statement: through almost two months, the Red Sox have a potentially a historic offense.
Last year the Blue Jays led baseball with 891 runs scored, which was a ridiculous 127 more than the second place Yankees. The year before that it was the Angels who scored 773. In 2013 the Red Sox scored 853. The last team that scored 900 runs or more in a season was the 2009 Yankees, who totaled 915. That was seven seasons ago. The last team to score 950 runs in a season was the 2007 Yankees, who scored 968 nine seasons ago. After that you have to go back to the 2003 Red Sox, who put up 961. That was *gulp* 13 seasons ago. Through those 47 games, the Red Sox are averaging 5.87 runs per game. That’s a pace for 951 runs scored. That’s better than the ’09 Yankees, better than the ’07 Yankees, and flirts with the ’03 Red Sox. We’re talking about straight runs totals here too, which ignores the fact that those early 2000s teams played in a much more favorable run environment. Right now with the 2016 Red Sox, we’re talking about the kind of offense that shows up once every decade.
With the 2016 Red Sox, we’re talking about the kind of offense that shows up once every decade.
Further, there aren’t many holes in the lineup. Yes, catcher has been a bit of an offensive black hole, and left field hasn’t been a bed of roses either, but beyond those two positions, the Red Sox hit up and down the lineup. By Total Average (TAv) the team boasts three top five players at their positions, four top 10, and six top 15. David Ortiz, shockingly, is the best hitting DH in baseball. Xander Bogaerts is the third best hitting shortstop, and Jackie Bradley is the fifth best hitting center fielder. Aren’t you glad they didn’t trade him for a reliever?
How does a team put themselves on pace to score that many runs? By hitting everything thrown at them. FanGraphs tracks Pitch Type Linear Weights, which tell how well players, or in this case teams, fare against specific pitches. According to that metric or set of metrics, the Red Sox are the third best team in baseball at hitting fastballs, the best team at hitting sliders, the second best against change-ups, and the sixth best against cutters. They’re only middle of the pack against curveballs, so there’s your weakness, I guess. Add it all up and the Red Sox are good at hitting just about every kind of pitch. What do you do when facing a team like this? Hope you have a curveball and it’s on that night, I suppose. If not, you’re in some trouble.
The real question most people probably want to know is, “Are these guys really this good?” Any team this good is going to have a number of best-case scenarios playing out. For example, despite being 40 and on a retirement tour, David Ortiz is as good as he’s ever been. That’s bizarrely wonderful, but still bizarre. We probably shouldn’t expect this to continue, and yet there’s no real reason to think it’ll stop. Ortiz is known for slow starts, but once the weather warms up he’s usually one of the best hitters in the game. So now that the weather is finally starting to warm up, he’s going to cool off? Maybe, but there’s nothing in his numbers that says “fluke.” Jackie Bradley is hitting to what must be his 250th percentage PECOTA projection. That’s not to say it’s flukey, just that, like Ortiz, it wasn’t possible to predict this kind of performance without the use of numerous illegal substances.
At this point we should probably bring up the elephant in the front parlor, which is BABIP. We all know what BABIP is, but it’s become a shorthand for luck. It’s easy to look at a high BABIP team or player, shout “Regression!” and pass that off as analysis. The Red Sox have been a high BABIP team this season (currently second in BABIP, one point behind Detroit) and they feature some particularly high BABIP players. If you sort qualified players by BABIP, Bradley, Bogaerts, and Shaw are all in the top 10 in the game. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you hit the ball hard and spray the ball around you will post a high BABIP, and all three players have done that this year.
It’s easy to look at a high BABIP team or player, shout “Regression!” and pass that off as analysis.
You could fairly say it’s unlikely Bogaerts, Shaw, and Bradley will all finish the season with BABIPs in the .400 range. But you could also fairly say it’s not like a huge fall is coming. Last season four players finished the season with BABIPs of .380 or higher. Bogaerts in particular has shown an ability to post a high BABIP, putting up a .372 BABIP just last season. By virtue of his ability to make solid contact and go the other way, he gets lots of hits on balls in play and keeps that number high. Bradley is doing that this season as well. Shaw has a smaller track record so there’s less data with which to help us determine his true talent level.
The issue here isn’t that the luck is going to change, it’s that it’s very difficult to continue to display these kinds of skills over the entirety of a six month season. Players slump. Teams slump. Whether or not the Red Sox can keep this up remains to be seen, but a high BABIP doesn’t necessarily mean the team as a whole or any specific players have been lucky or that they’re playing over their heads.
With that out of the way, now it’s time to look in the other direction. While some people seem focused on whether the Red Sox are due for a fall, I wonder if they might get even better. Despite being a good player, to my eyes at least Mookie Betts can be better than he’s played so far. The Red Sox also have put up all the above silly numbers without much production from left field, a typically offense-heavy position. When Brock Holt gets healthy he is probably a better hitter at this point than Blake Swihart, but probably not a whole lot better. Perhaps this will be Andrew Benintendi’s spot come late August, or perhaps Dave Dombrowski will make a deal for a player like Ryan Braun, who is hitting .361/.429/.583. There is room for improvement there at least. That’s assuming things stay the same at catcher where the Red Sox continue to get very little offensively, which is yet another reason it might be worth the team’s time to get Blake Swihart some more time behind the dish in Triple-A.
Yesterday the organization honored the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Red Sox, a team that won the AL pennant and took their season to the seventh game of the World Series. This season is young and much can change between late May and late September, but right now these Red Sox look like one of the best-hitting teams this decade. With some health, some luck (always a necessity in baseball), and maybe a few smart moves at the deadline, the 2016 Red Sox could etch their name along their forefathers as a team worth remembering three decades from now. If they do, their offense is going to be a prime reason why.
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