The 2016 Boston Red Sox were an offensive juggernaut. Their lineup featured a diverse array of offensive talents, with power, contact skills and speed on display throughout the batting order. Boston’s 878 runs scored (5.4/game) paced the MLB and led the AL by a country mile, with second place Cleveland at 777 runs (4.8/game).
Most pundits expected this year’s iteration of the Red Sox to smash baseballs in a similar fashion. But Boston has struggled to score at times, with 440 runs through 93 games, a 4.7 runs per game that sits at a mediocre 12th in the majors. Boston’s offensive fundamentals are still there, with the second best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors and the fifth best batting average. So what’s the underlying issue?
Where has the power gone?
A power outage. While Boston’s offense is still good at avoiding strikeouts, working walks and getting base hits, they are towards the bottom of the league in extra base hits and home runs. 2016’s squad was 10th in home runs per at bat and first in extra base hits per at bat. They are at 28th and 27th in those statistics thus far in 2017. Not surprisingly, their slugging percentage decreased from .461 (first) to .411 (21st) in the process, along with a massive drop in ISO from .179 (fifth) to .147 (28th).
Much has been made of the Red Sox inability to hit home runs this season, but I figured a lot of those home runs might have turned into doubles and triples. This clearly isn’t the case with an extra-base hits per at bat rate that has gone from 1st to 28th. Boston is having a systemic issue hitting the ball hard and deep.
Get the ball in the air
The first step in analyzing this issue is to take a look at the batted ball data. In order to consistently garner extra-base hits, teams need to hit flyballs. Groundballs are great for singles, but do little in the way of doubles and home runs. Sure enough, Boston’s flyball hitting ability has decreased significantly on a relative basis from 2016 to 2017. While their gross flyball percentage has gone up from 34.8% to 35.1%, their relative rank has decreased from 13th to 20th, indicating that the Red Sox have failed to keep pace with an MLB that is hitting more fly balls in general.
Boston converted 13.2% of their flyballs into home runs in 2016, which was middle of the pack, however only 10.5% of their flyballs are leaving the yard in 2017, which is a putrid 29th. While HR/FB ratio can be a fluky statistic in smallish sample sizes, Boston’s inability to hit hard flyballs this season justifies the decrease in conversion of flyballs to home runs. Boston’s 2016 squad was 16th in hard hit percentage on flyballs, but they’re dead last in 2017. Less hard hit flyballs also mean less doubles and triples.
So Boston is hitting less fly balls. Of those flyballs, they are hitting them significantly less hard. And, subsequently, their flyballs aren’t leaving the yard as much. Boston’s lack of power in 2017 is beginning to make more sense. But what doesn’t make sense is why a lineup that is largely unchanged from 2016 is struggling so much in 2017.
Not barreling it up
Analysis of Boston’s ‘Barrels’, which Statcast defines as batted ball events hit at the ideal exit velocity and launch angle to produce extra-base hits, can provide some answers. In 2016 the Red Sox hit a barrel 7.0% of the time on batted ball events (“BBE”) among their top 10 most frequent hitters. David Ortiz paced the team, with a 15.7% barrels/BBE rate and 27 more nominal barrels than the second place Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Travis Shaw all maintain solid barrel/BBE rates above 8.0% as well, while Betts and Bogaerts were both above 5.0%.
Fast forward to mid-July 2017 and there are some significant deviations in Boston’s ability to barrel up the ball. The barrel rate among their top 10 most frequent hitters has decreased from 7.0% to 5.5%. The loss of David Ortiz, the best hitter in baseball in 2016, certainly has had a major impact. While Ortiz’s replacement, Mitch Moreland, leads the Red Sox in barrels/BBE and is second on the team in extra-base hits with 31, his slugging percentage is a feeble .432 to Ortiz’s .620.
Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts are doing their part and squaring up the ball at a similar pace to 2016. But Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia have struggled mightily with batted ball authority in 2017. Bogaerts is hitting barrels at 1/5 the clip in 2017, while Pedroia’s barrel profligacy has been halved. Not surprisingly, both hitters have struggled to hit home runs this season as well. Bogaerts, after hitting 21 in 2016, is only on pace for 10 this season. Pedroia, who hit 15 in 2016, is on pace for a mere seven.
Another point that deserves mention is the loss of third basemen Travis Shaw, who was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason. While Shaw was not a great overall hitter in 2016 (wRC+ of 87), largely due to an inflated strikeout rate, he did pack a punch when he made contact. Boston’s third baseman in 2017, who have produced league-worst offensive output from the position, have barreled only 10 balls thus far, while Shaw amassed 28 by himself in 2016.
So what have we learned? Boston’s overall offense was the best in baseball in 2016, but has regressed to league average in 2017. The team is still hitting for a high average, avoiding strikeouts and working walks at a similar pace to 2016. The real difference in 2017 is a stark loss in power, evidenced by a steep reduction in extra-base hits and home runs. Unfortunately for Boston, this change seems real, with decreased flyball, hard hit flyball and barrel rates to support the loss in power production. This issue isn’t based on any single factor, but an accumulation from the departures of David Ortiz and Travis Shaw and the struggles of Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts.