Hope For The Hard-Hitting Sox

It’s been a strange start to the season for the Red Sox. Seemingly half the team missed time with the flu and the other half was probably sick too but played because the show goes on whether you’re half passed out and horking or not. Then there’s the disappearing act perpetrated by the team’s rotation, the numerous non-horning-related injuries, and the fact that the Red Sox opened at home against the… Pirates? Lots of weirdness there. What has piqued my interest though is the struggles of the offense. 

Without David Ortiz and with Mitch Moreland it’s fair to say we should expect a bit of a step back from the 2016 Red Sox in terms of run scoring in 2017. But what we’ve seen so far is more than the step back we should expect. Is this team not the offensive force they were last season? So far, no, they’re not. The Red Sox have managed 39 runs in nine games, about major league average production. They’re hitting .267/.340/.381 in those games. For context, last year’s Red Sox (again, with Ortiz and without Moreland) hit .282/.348/.461. The big difference between the two is the slugging percentage, and indeed the Red Sox have struggled when it comes to hitting for power. They are last in baseball with just four homers on the season (tied with Toronto) and in the lower half of the league when it comes to extra-base hits. They have just 25 and I’m pretty sure Mitch Moreland has all of them.

The team has gone somewhat unrewarded compared to what their batted ball data might expect them to have generated.

But despite pedestrian stats, the underlying numbers should serve to give Red Sox fans some hope. Why? Because, in essence, the Red Sox are hitting the ball hard. FanGraphs has a stat that carves batted balls into three categories: soft, medium, and hard, based on exit velocities. The Red Sox are currently second in baseball in hard hit percentage, a hair behind the Tigers. The harder you hit the ball, the greater the chance for a hit, for extra bases, for a home run. Players that hit the ball hard don’t always get hits in individual at-bats (as we’ve seen) but they do, over time, hit for higher averages and more power. Yet the Red Sox don’t have much in the way of either average or extra base hits. This means, in essence, the team has gone somewhat unrewarded compared to what their batted ball data might expect them to have generated. Now, this is all early season stuff, so small sample size warnings apply here in big red warning lights, but it’s hard to look at those numbers and be pessimistic, especially considering the injuries and illnesses the team has dealt with to date.

More specifically speaking, the Red Sox have a few reasons to expect more from their offense. One of those reasons is Mookie Betts. Betts has struggled this season, hitting .174/.296/.174 in five games. However, the AL MVP runner-up is recovering from a nasty bout of the flu, an illness that tends to sap your strength, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that Betts has struggled to exhibit any power on the young season. Based on last season though, we can be pretty confident that Betts will hit and hit very well soon enough. The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier pointed out on the Red Sox broadcast yesterday that Betts had only swung and missed four times on the season, which is very good, whereupon Betts promptly swung and missed. Poor Alex! Even so, five swings and misses in six games in our modern game is fantastic, and it should be pointed out that Betts has yet to strike out. He’s been a hole in the middle of the lineup so far but there’s little reason to expect that to continue. 

More surprisingly, Pablo Sandoval has looked quite good so far! Okay, yes, he still can’t hit right handed, and his plate patience is best described as ‘man on fire’ but those are things we knew before. The issue at hand is can Sandoval provide any positive value for this team or not, and so far, based on this small sample of games, it seems he can. The results do not look good on their face, but again, turn to the Hard Hit percentage and see that Sandoval is hitting the ball hard 40.9 percent of the time. He’s also hitting the ball softly just 18.2 percent of the time. That, combined with an even split between fly balls and grounders, makes me think he can be a singles and doubles hitter at the end of the lineup for the Red Sox this season without much trouble. If he was hitting the ball on the ground all the time that might not work even if the balls were hard hit, but about 60 percent of his hits are in the air, counting line drives and ground balls together, so that counts as a legitimately good start to the season, even if the slash line hasn’t caught up yet.

It has been an odd season. The Red Sox are hitting the ball hard and for the most part don’t have much to show for it. Their best hitters, Betts, Dustin Pedroia, and Xander Bogaerts have struggled at the plate, while Sandy Leon and Mitch Moreland have carried the team offensively. It’s early. Those things will even out. Except for Sandy Leon who is a golden god. They shouldn’t have the flu forever, sapping their strength and pulling players (and broadcasters!) out of games in the middle innings. It’s early, and the Red Sox offense hasn’t quite been there yet, but even with the injuries and illness, they’re still hitting the ball hard which means they’re coming.

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