Hitting With Two Strikes: Can the Red Sox Do It Again?

As I am sure you already know, in 2016, the Red Sox’s offense was one of the best groups in baseball. They scored more runs than anybody else, had the best TAv in the American League, and the best wRC+ and OPS in baseball. For the most part they won games with their offense. This quality is reflected in the offseason moves the team made to acquire better pitching and complement that run-scoring strength with improved run prevention. There is no doubt that the additions of Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg are exciting and will improve the ball club, but I want to stay focused on that beauty of a 2016 offense for just a little while longer. Specifically, I am interested in how successful it was in two-strike counts.

Having a successful two-strike hitting approach is an often talked about area of focus for players and teams, and seems to come with advice in every direction. Shrink the zone. Expand the zone to protect the plate. Shorten up your swing. Widen your stance. Stay inside the ball. Be a two-strike brawler. I don’t really know about the specific merits of any of these things. It seems to me that having a fairly consistent approach regardless of count would reduce the likelihood of getting exploited by a pitcher’s tactics. But my advice can just as easily be added to the list in the previous sentence. In any case, whatever Red Sox hitters were doing last year when the count had two strikes, it was working. As a team they found themselves in two-strike counts around half the time, but in those situations hit .209/.277/.324, which by OPS was 30 percent better than the major league average.

This probably does not come as a huge surprise. As noted above, the Red Sox had a great offense last season, so it would be really odd if they just wilted in the face of two strikes. And if they did then we wouldn’t be talking about them as having a great offense. These two things, hitting and hitting with two strikes, are related. In four of the last five seasons the team with the highest OPS has also had the highest OPS in two-strike counts. The connection was not just at the top of the charts: for the 2011 through 2016 seasons, team hitting performance with two strikes was strongly correlated with their hitting in general (as measured by OPS; r = 0.816). Basically, good hitting teams tend to hit well (relatively) even when they are faced with two strikes.

The idea of good hitting teams hitting well in (mostly) all situations makes sense, but things get a little more interesting when looking specifically at how the Red Sox hitters performed last year. Here are all the players who accumulated at least 200 PA with the Red Sox last season, and one guy who didn’t reach that threshold but warrants inclusion:

Player 2016 OPS w 2-strikes 2016 OPS+ w 2-strikes Career OPS w 2-strikes
David Ortiz 0.845 221 0.697
Dustin Pedroia 0.663 154 0.674
Xander Bogaerts 0.660 152 0.609
Sandy Leon 0.656 151 0.510
Mookie Betts 0.654 150 0.638
Brock Holt 0.648 148 0.604
Andrew Benintendi* 0.640 144 -
Chris Young 0.633 140 0.525
Jackie Bradley 0.617 136 0.525
Hanley Ramirez 0.598 129 0.618
Christian Vazquez 0.402 54 0.441
Travis Shaw 0.393 51 0.419

* : did not reach 200 PA. Only had 118.

This shows a couple of noteworthy items. First, all but two Red Sox players (Travis Shaw and Christian Vazquez) posted an OPS in two-strike counts that was better than the league-average OPS (.522) in such counts last year. That result comes from Baseball’s play index, through which a player’s performance (OPS) in a certain split (e.g., two-strike counts) can be compared to the league-wide performance in that split. The measure for this is sOPS+ and is what is shown in the third column. So David Ortiz’s 0.845 OPS with two-strikes was 121% above the league’s mark. Have we mentioned that he was 40-years old last year? What a tremendous final season.

The second noteworthy aspect of the data shown in the table is that other than Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez, all of the players who performed above the league average also performed above their career marks – note that we don’t have a major league career mark for Andrew Benintendi because he debuted last season, so for now his career mark is his 2016 mark. That overall performance is remarkable. Almost every Red Sox batter who got a reasonable amount of playing time hit better in two-strike counts last year than their established track records would have had us expect. Shaw and Vazquez, again on the wrong side of this analysis, joined Pedroia and Hanley in underperforming relative to their career levels; those two, Shaw and Vazquez, were just terrible with two-strikes last year. I recognize that there are significant questions/doubts regarding what Pablo Sandoval will provide in 2017, but Travis Shaw did not exactly leave a high-bar for him to exceed.

Having the majority of your everyday lineup and bench perform in difficult counts better than the league and better than has been typical for them is a good recipe for a potent offense. Performing better than league-average can be chalked up to the fact that Red Sox hitters are (for the most part) better than league-average hitters. The fact that almost the entire group outperformed their individual levels is related to them having strong years, generally, but is somewhat interesting. Every team gets worse with two strikes, but the Red Sox managed to limit the reduction: the ratio of their OPS with two-strikes to their total OPS was third-best in baseball. What was going on here? Were hitting coaches Chili Davis and Victor Rodriguez preaching an effective two-strike approach that the players were receptive to and able to implement? Was it just a general approach that worked regardless of count? For example, not changing the approach much, as I suggested above. Importantly, will it carry-over to 2017?

To generate a rough idea of what we might expect these hitters to do in two-strike counts in 2017 given the excellent 2016 performance, I looked into the year-over-year correlation for OPS in two-strike counts. Excellent resources already exist for this sort of analysis for many hitting statistics, but not this specific split on which I am focused – perhaps that is for a reason. In any case, I examined data from non-pitcher batters who accumulated at least 150 two-strike plate appearances in a season between 2011 and 2016. Player data sets were then divided into even and odd season halves, with the requirement that a player had at least 250 PA total in each half. In all, 257 players met these criteria. With this sample of players I found the correlation between even- and odd-OPS to be 0.548, which is moderate. It is around the values reported for OBP and SLG in the linked article (using a much larger dataset). Again, hitting and hitting with two strikes are related. Essentially, the year-over-year correlation I found suggests that about a third of the performance in two-strike counts can be attributed to something about the player’s skill, with the rest best attributed to random (or unknown) variation. Things like BABIP, pitchers faced, weather, and health will all considerably influence the outcome.

All told, last year’s over-performance in two-strike counts was wonderful, but it reeks of looming regression. Good hitters, as the Red Sox have in their lineup, are likely to perform better than the league, but going into 2017 expecting them all to perform better than their career levels again is ill advised, and the only moderate year-to-year correlation in two-strike hitting I found suggests that the performance will change due to things that are (for the most part) out of the player’s control. This certainly doesn’t mean that the offense is going to fall to bits this year. I still expect them to be a top-five group. After all, this is just one performance split and is likely much ado about nothing. But all else being similar, which is a major assumption, this is an example of why I suspect the run-scoring side of the Red Sox will not be as outstanding as it was in 2016. Good thing they worked on shoring up the run prevention side of the team this offseason.

Photo by Brad Penner/USA Today Sports Images

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