Upswings in a Down Offense

So, last week I talked about the Red Sox’s silver linings during the ALDS against the Astros. There were a few, and in a surprising turn, the team left us with an optimistic view on the future. You’ve got a bunch of young guys who looked to be underachieving at the plate, along a strong pitching staff that, with a little more health, could dominate next year. There’s a lot to look forward to, especially when you see how the young nuclei of other top teams have blossomed. You can only hope the Red Sox’s core does the same, and they’re certainly on the same path.

In that same piece, however, I did offer up a scapegoat for 2017 failures in the form of the disappointing offense. Compared to 2016, the Red Sox offense plummeted, finishing at 23rd in the league in True Average with a .254 mark in 2017 after posting a .269 mark the previous year, which was good for sixth-best in the league. Several Red Sox regulars saw not-insignificant drops in their production, with the most glaring examples being Mookie Betts and Hanley Ramirez. But you’ve probably read it all, so that’s enough about the disappointments, because even I’m getting frustrated at remembering the futility. Believe it or not, there were a few position players on the Red Sox who defied the team’s anemic offensive trends and really stood out amongst a season of cold lumber.

Andrew Benintendi

How do you follow up an impressive September? You establish a baseline as a slightly-above-average hitter, and record a 20-20 season at age 23. It helps when you start hitting the ball even harder than you did in your cup of coffee the season before. Remember when there were rumblings that he’d be platooned with Chris Young for the majority of the year? Me neither.

It’s hard to get a handle on someone who hasn’t even had 800 plate appearances at the major league level, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that you’d consider bad. He’s walking at a great clip and not posting exorbitant strikeout numbers, all while making slightly more contact in the zone. Back in his 2016 stint, pitchers tried to beat him with fastballs, but he’s turned around on them much more in 2017 to the point where he’s not getting first-pitch strikes as much as he used to.

Benny didn’t getting caught up in the home run craze that’s sweeping the league, but there are other paths to the upper echelon of hitters that don’t require a dinger every third game. The Red Sox will be more than happy with an above-average hitter manning left field for the foreseeable future, especially one as polished as Benintendi.

Christian Vazquez

The phrase “if he could only hit” has been uttered far too many times when it comes to glove-first fielders. For a while, Vazquez was the poster child for that phrase when it came to the Red Sox. He wasn’t ever a prolific hitter in the minors at any level, and that didn’t change upon reaching the majors. This year, however, things were finally looking up for him when it came to the bat.

You’re probably tired of seeing that highlight, but man, that really is a majestic home run.

With the Red Sox emphasizing contact over power, Vazquez slapped the ball around this year, slashing .290/.330/.405 in 345 PA. His share of plate appearances should increase in 2018, especially after a year where he seemingly took a step forward with the bat. I say seemingly here because if you look under the hood, things don’t seem as progressive. In 2014, Vazquez had a .239 TAv in 200 PA despite slashing .240/.308/.309, and TAv wasn’t too kind to him here either, giving him a paltry .244 mark despite clearly better numbers. It looks like TAv sees that .290 batting average as empty, and I can’t disagree, even if it was a good year by the catcher’s standards.

Despite the decent numbers Vazquez posted this year, they could end up being a mirage. Apart from a few more fly balls, Vazquez’s batted ball distribution hasn’t dramatically changed enough to make this outcome repeatable, and he’s not hitting the ball harder or softer than he usually does either. His .348 BABIP is more a cause for concern here, as it seems a result of pure luck more than anything else. The most likely conclusion here is that this was a more positive outcome than expected, and a repeat would be unlikely. Vazquez isn’t a bad player, but his bat isn’t likely to stay this good. But if he’s so keen on keeping his TAv around .240, I’d rather take this year’s empty .290 average version of Vazquez than the .240 one.

Eduardo Nunez & Rafael Devers

These two had to be grouped because they were both excellent hitters in 2017, but combined, they had just 410 PA in a Red Sox uniform. So the obvious expectation is that you want them to keep on being good, but you don’t really know what to expect.

Let’s start with Nunez. When he came to Fenway, he knew exactly how he wanted to hit in that ballpark. He pulled the ball more, hit it in the air more frequently, and somehow started hitting the ball harder more often. We’re all familiar with Nunez as a hitter over his career: he swings a lot, doesn’t walk, and has a modicum of power in his bat. His memorable time on the Red Sox is what happens when you fine-tune that approach to a ballpark friendly to right-handed hitters. There’s nothing glaringly unsustainable about his peripherals, but it’s also really hard to imagine him getting more than 300 PA next year outside of stepping in for injuries. So he’ll probably still be good – not excellent, just good – in a limited role, if the Red Sox do indeed re-sign him.

And now we get to Devers.

Devers has registered 240 PA in the majors and put up an ISO of .198. Of the Red Sox players with over 150 PA in 2017, he’s third with a .275 TAv, behind Nunez and Betts. He’ll be 21 come Opening Day. Sure, he’s got a few things to work on – the strikeout rate’s a bit crazy, he’s not exactly hitting a ton of liners, and he needs to stop swinging at stuff outside the zone so much – but we’re also talking about a kid who can’t even buy beer and he’s already squaring up nigh-unhittable pitches.

He’s gonna be good and fun, and of all the diamonds found in this season’s rough offense, Devers might shine the brightest.

Photo by Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports

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