Friday, June 2, 2017

The Red Sox Mashed in May

After scuffling in April, Boston's offense turned things around in May (CBS Boston)
After leading the majors in a host of hitting categories last year, including runs, hits, doubles, AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS, and total bases, the Red Sox were expected to have one of baseball's best offenses in 2017. Despite losing David Ortiz to retirement, they still boasted a fearsome lineup headed by Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, and Jackie Bradley--all of whom exceeded an .800 OPS last year. With a healthy Pablo Sandoval, an ascendant Andrew Benintendi and the solid-if-unspectacular Mitch Moreland in the mix, Boston's batting order looked potent on paper.

It was surprising, then, when runs were suddenly hard to come by during season's first month. After averaging 5.4 runs per game in 2016, Boston managed just 3.9 in April. Their power vanished, yielding only 15 home runs and a .111 ISO in 24 games--well below last year's .183 ISO. They were hitting the ball hard and often, but not into the gaps or over the wall with any regularity. A whopping 74 percent of their hits were singles, which obviously isn't ideal, especially for a team that plays its home games in front of a 37-foot high doubles magnet in left field.

The team's best hitters simply weren't driving the ball like they used to. Pedroia managed just one extra-base hit--a double--in 86 plate appearances, failing to live up to his Laser Show nickname. Bogaerts wasn't much better, tallying a mere two extra-base hits (no homers) in 80 plate appearances. Bradley, who's notoriously streaky, began the season in a slump and also totalled just two extra-base hits in April. Ramirez didn't provide his usual thump, taking 15 games to go yard, and Betts cleared the fence only twice in April.

These offensive woes led Bogaerts to voice the team's frustrations by saying how much they missed Ortiz's presence in the middle of the lineup, even though his replacement (Moreland) was their only steady source of power with 12 doubles (but just two homers).

Their paralysis at the plate followed them into the basepaths, where they looked like the station-to-station Red Sox of yesteryear rather than the athletic bunch that ranked sixth in the American League in steals last year. Despite having several players who can impact games with their legs, they didn't take advantage of all the extra stolen base opportunities that resulted from runners being on first base, rather than already in scoring position or back in the dugout after riding one out. But the Sox stole just 10 bases, too often waiting around for home runs that never came.

As the weather warmed, however, so did Boston's bats, producing 5.7 runs per game in May which was good for second in the AL. After never exceeding eight runs in any game during April (which they only did twice), the Red Sox eclipsed double digits five times in May. And after being held to one run or less in six of 24 April games, they only had one such game in 28 May contests.

Boston's average held steady at .269, but its hits went for extra bases much more frequently. They nearly doubled their home run output from 0.63 HR/G to 1.18 HR/G and saw a similar spike in doubles, which rose from 1.63 2B/G to 2.14 2B/G. Their ISO jumped 60 points month-over-month, and suddenly no one was talking about Big Papi anymore. The power surge corresponded to a slight uptick in strikeouts (19.3 K% in April vs. 20.2 K% in May) but an even larger rise in walk rate, which jumped from 8.3 percent to 10.5 percent. As such, the Sox improved their OBP from .334 in April to .351 in May, which also contributed to the bump in runs.

Not surprisingly it was two of Boston's Killer Bees--Betts and Bogaerts--who led the charge, combining for 32 of the team's 96 extra-base hits. Betts slugged seven homers and 10 doubles, giving him the second-most extra-base hits in the Majors last month. Bogaerts was back to his old self, batting .351 with 15 extra-base hits (tied for 10th in the MLB). Pedroia chipped in 10 extra-base hits and 16 RBI while slashing .295/.376/.442 (right in line with his career .301/.366/.443 marks) before landing on the DL. Bradley only had 17 hits in 77 at-bats (.221), but nine of them went for extra bases, including five that left the yard.

It also helped that they were more aggressive on the bases despite starting out in scoring position more frequently. After stealing just 10 bases in 16 attempts during April, the Sox swiped 22 in 28 attempts in May.

With the offense firing on all cylinders and David Price finally healthy, the Red Sox are rounding into form. After going 21-21 to open the season, they won eight of ten to finish May. They still have holes to address at third base (can we get a re-do on that Tyler Thornburg for Travis Shaw trade?) and could use more depth, but overall they appear to be in good shape heading into summer.

One final note is that the Red Sox haven't hit for power at home, with just 16 round-trippers and a ,113 ISO in 27 games at home compared to 33 dingers and a .172 ISO on the road. Fenway isn't a great home run park, but don't expect that trend to continue, especially if the offense is built more around singles and doubles rather than the long ball. Fenway's conditions are ideal for those kinds of hits, so you can bet the Sox will start hanging more crooked numbers on the manual scoreboard in left.

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