There are many ways to score a run in a baseball game, but the easiest, at least in terms of simplicity and directness, is the home run. No need to fuss about with multiple hits, hitting and running, the gaps, sliding, or really even moving fast. Bam, run scored. Done. Of course, if you are a Red Sox fan this season, you might not know about this. The Red Sox have hit seven home runs in the 16 games they’ve played. They are the last team remaining where the number of home runs they’ve hit can be spelled out. Eric Thames of the Brewers by himself has hit more home runs than the totality of the Red Sox roster. The Red Sox were slow starters last April as well, hitting 19 homers then which was good for second to last in baseball, and that wasn’t great, but this is a new low in the power department. To catch last year’s squad with nine games left in the month they’d have to average 1.33 homers per game and given what they’ve done, that seems unlikely. But really the more pertinent question beyond, “Can they hit 1.33 homers per game over the next nine contests?” is: what happened to the Red Sox’s power? The Red Sox hit 208 homers last year, ninth best in baseball. Where’d all the homers go?
The 2016 Red Sox featured three guys with 30 or more homers and seven with 15 or more. Of those seven, two are gone.
One possible answer is roster turnover. The 2016 Red Sox featured three guys with 30 or more homers and seven with 15 or more. Of those seven, two are gone. David Ortiz retired and the Red Sox dealt Travis Shaw to Milwaukee because every team needs to meet MLB’s quota for injured relievers. That still leaves five of the guys on the roster though. Injuries and the flu have been prominently featured during the beginning of the season, so perhaps they’re at least partly responsible. Jackie Bradley has been hurt and has only played in four games, so his bat missing from the lineup is significant. That still leaves two 30 homer guys in Hanley Ramirez and Mookie Betts and two other guys with significant power in Dustin Pedroia (15 homers in 2016) and Xander Bogaerts (21). Betts missed time with the flu as did Ramirez and though it wasn’t announced I wouldn’t doubt some players who didn’t miss time were feeling the illness as well. My guess is this is at least partly responsible, but clearly that doesn’t answer the whole question.
We’re so early in the season that running into a few hot pitchers can also tip the numbers. So far the Red Sox have faced a number of very good starters, from Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon of the Pirates, to Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann of the Tigers, to any starter for the Rays, and yesterday, Marco Estrada and his amazing changeup of doom. Still, that’s only something to tip the numbers, not ruin them by itself.
The next step is to look at the batted ball data. If you think about it, there are really three requirements that have to be met to create a home run. First, the ball has to be hit in the air, a fly ball, but, secondly, it can’t be an infield fly ball. Third, it must be hit hard. If the Red Sox haven’t been hitting the ball hard, well, that’s probably our answer, and that that likely backs up the flu theory as well. So going to the batted ball data, FanGraphs puts batted ball velocity into three buckets: soft, medium, and hard. Sort by “hard” and you’ll find the team with the second most hard hit balls in baseball is your Boston Red Sox, at 41.4 percent. So they’re hitting the ball hard, that solves one requirement. How about the other two? Here’s where we get into some problems. The Red Sox have hit fly balls 32.6 percent of the time they’ve put the ball in play. For context, that’s 23rd in baseball. Last year it would’ve been 26th. Not hitting the ball in the air isn’t necessarily a problem, more ground balls and line drives go for hits than fly balls, but line drives and fly balls don’t go for home runs.
The other, possibly more problematic aspect of this is that of those fly balls, of the 32.6 percent, 10.8 percent are infield flies. Infield flies never go for home runs, so we’re really talking about only 21.8 percent of balls in play even have a chance to fly over the wall. That’s pretty low. Thing is though, last season the Red Sox had a 34.8 percent fly ball percentage and an 11.2 percent infield fly ball percentage, meaning their overall numbers weren’t that different than they are now.
The difference is that last year 12.8 percent of all fly balls hit in baseball went over the wall, or about one in every eight fly balls. This year, right now, the Red Sox are at five percent, or one in every 20 fly balls. Last year’s Red Sox hit a homer on 13.2 percent of their fly balls. The 2015 team did it 10.9 percent of the time. That’s roughly the area that’s to be expected, and this year’s Red Sox will, over time, likely build towards a number in that area. The five percent they’re at now is mostly bad luck, hitting the ball to the deepest part of a park, crunching one off the Monster, what have you.
In the end, the Red Sox are missing Ortiz and Shaw, many of their best power hitters have been stricken with the flu, an illness that tends to sap strength and takes significant time to fully recover from, Bradley has been hurt, and they’ve been unlucky when it comes to batted balls. They’ll hit more homers even if their batted ball profile doesn’t change at all, but it’s not entirely bad luck. Injuries, good pitching, and possibly the lack of fly balls to the outfield have combined to hold them down too.
It should be said however, that the cold of April is traditionally a time when home runs are down anyway. The coming hot summer air should help a few more of Red Sox flies sneak over the wall, but even so, the possibility exists that this Red Sox roster might be different offensively than we expected coming into the season. The slugging group that was swept out of the playoffs last season may have been replaced with a more singles- and doubles-dependent type of offense. That’s not bad, just different. After all, there are many ways to score runs in baseball, even without homers.
Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports