Coming into 2017, we all knew the offense wasn’t going to be as prolific as it was the season before. It’s pretty hard to score as many runs when you lose one of baseball best’s hitters in David Ortiz. But it’s not as if the new guys aren’t pulling their weight either – Moreland wasn’t going to be Ortiz, but he’s been solid thus far, and now that he’s in a starting role, Andrew Benintendi is looking more and more like a star, 0-for-20 streaks aside.In terms of individuals, the real drag on the offense has been from two mercurial players that aren’t doing so hot right now: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Sandy Leon. While the entire offense has issues – such as failing to turn hard-hit fly balls into homers – those two have not hit any kind of peak with the bat this season.
I don’t like to rail on JBJ. He’s one of the most fun players on the team to watch, and when he’s on, he’ll hit for power like you’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, he’s still off, thanks to a hyperextended knee injury in April, and a slow return once he was healthy. All of that has coughed up a very meh .248 TAv.
You can chalk it up to a .235 BABIP, but a change in his batted ball distribution isn’t so convinced that it’s all bad luck. Bradley has eschewed liners and grounders for fly balls this season, and while that’ll be good for his power, it won’t be good for those ball-in-play stat lines. Fly balls have the lowest chance of any batted ball type to turn into a hit (~15 percent), so even if the BABIP goes up and his triple slash levels off, it probably won’t exceed what he did last year (.267/.349/.486). The power might stick, but the average won’t.
That being said, we have yet to see Bradley at the height of his baseball powers. He’s always due for a month-long surge where he seems unstoppable, and the peripherals seem to suggest it’s coming. When he hits it in the air, Bradley’s pulling the ball less and spreading it around more. He’s also been a part of the team-wide issue of not converting fly balls to homers, which we’ll get to later. For now, Bradley’s working his way back. And if anything, his defense will keep him in the lineup.
Sandy Leon is a different story. The Red Sox caught lightning in a bottle with him last year, and rode a improbable .293 TAv for half a season. This season, well, some of that lightning’s gotten out and bolted. A .240 TAv combined weaker contact overall has resulted in his production cratering, and a loss of the starting job to Christian Vazquez, who is somehow hitting .309. Leon is still hitting for power, which is good, but he just can’t seem to do anything else at the plate. He’s swinging at more stuff in the zone, but his contact hasn’t increased very much. If Blake Swihart had been any healthier, Leon might have not made it this long on the roster. He’s still a good defender behind the plate, so that’ll cement his spot for now, but if the hitting woes continue, that defense might not be enough to keep him there. Vazquez isn’t anything special with the stick either, but his defense is far better than Leon’s.
I’m not even going to talk about third base. You don’t need my analysis to realize that it’s just an eldritch horror at the hot corner right now.
The worst part about the offense is how baffling it is. Going by Fangraphs’ hit quality buckets, the Red Sox are third in the league in hard-hit percentage at 36.2 percent, behind the Tigers and the Diamondbacks. There’s nothing particularly wrong with their overall batted ball profile either, until you get to the fly balls. The amount isn’t the weird part – it’s the lack of them being turned into homers. See, the Tigers have a 12.9 percent home runs per fly ball rate, and the D-Backs are at 16.3 percent. The Red Sox? A measly 9.4 percent. That’s the second-worst rate in the league. It’s pretty startling that this team would have such a hard time getting homers, despite the rate at which they’re getting hard contact in the air. Again, not everyone is going to be Ortiz and do damage whenever they get a ball in the air, but the drop-off is still shocking.
The Red Sox are trying to make up for this in other ways. They’re the second-best team in the majors when it comes to making contact, and they have the lowest whiff rate in the majors. It’s not what we’re used to, considering the high-slugging teams we’ve seen recently, but runs are runs. It just has to be more consistent.
So the Red Sox aren’t totally inept at the plate, but they’re not out of the woods yet. They’ve got a lot of streaky hitters – and a couple really putrid ones – that can really tank the offense when they’re not rolling. They’ve also had issues pushing fly balls over the fence, but if the revamped offense can score runs without homers, it’ll still work. The whole situation is just a tough pill to swallow right now. The Red Sox can, and will score runs. It sucks to be told to wait, but that’s what we’ve got to do.
Photo by Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports