The Red Sox recently went through a four-game stretch that they would like to forget. In the midst of enjoying a phenomenal August that saw them go 15-4, they then lost four straight, including being swept at home by the mediocre Orioles. The losing streak began on a Chris Sale start, ironically. He gave up seven runs in in only three innings, with three strike outs and three walks. Even Cy Young-caliber pitchers have bad days, apparently. It was the first of a three-game stretch where the Red Sox were outscored 36-9.
Teams go through hot and cold streaks all the time. It even happens to competitive teams such as the Red Sox. Normally such a thing, while newsworthy, does not have any analytical value. A few pitchers had bad starts, and the offense scored only ten runs in four games. Perhaps it is fair to be concerned about Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodríguez, but we all know there is nothing to worry about Sale. (He went seven shutout innings with 11 strikeouts, three hits, and no walks in his very next start.) The offense is obviously not going to continue scoring 2.5 runs per game, as they have scored 4.81 runs per game to date. The Red Sox will probably be fine.
But Boston’s runs per game belie the fact that their offense ranks only 18th in baseball when correcting for league and park effects. Filtering down to just the AL, their offense is the fourth-worst in the league. My BtBS coworker Merritt Rohlfing mentioned this as well in his article on the Red Sox’s offense. He focused on the struggles of a few specific players; I will focus more on the team as a whole.
The Red Sox do a great job getting on base, ranking fourth in the AL with a .334 OBP, just slightly below the Yankees and Cleveland. The Astros’ offense is in a league of its own. It is a good thing that the Red Sox are doing so well in the most important individual offensive category, because their power is in the cellar. They have the second-worst slugging average and isolated power in the AL at .412 and .150, respectively. It is worth mentioning that the Angels are last in those categories, but that is with Mike Trout missing 39 games. The Red Sox are also last in the AL with 139 HR, which is eight fewer than the the White Sox. On the bright side, they do rank fifth in doubles with 237.
So how does a team struggling so much in the power department score 4.81 runs per game? For one, the good OBP helps a lot. They have also lucked into some good numbers with RISP, hitting .274/.363/.433. According to Baseball Reference, the Red Sox have hit 14 percent better with RISP. That might not sound very significant, but it makes a huge difference over the course of a season.
Another factor working in the offense’s favor is their contact rates. Their 18.9 percent strikeout rate is second in the majors to the Astros. They are just a hair better than Cleveland, though they switch places when going by pure contact percentage.
A run saved is a run scored, and the Red Sox have some of the best run prevention in baseball, which helps make up for the power outage. Notice that I did not say it has been the pitching or the defense exclusively. It is the combination of the two. The Red Sox have allowed only 4.17 runs per game. That is fourth-best in baseball, and that is with the team playing in the hitters’ haven of Fenway Park.
Breaking it down further, the starting rotation’s 4.48 RA9 ranks fourth in the AL, and their bullpen’s 3.47 RA9 ranks second. Of course, Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel are doing wonders in deflating those run averages. But so is the defense. Their 35 DRS is tied with the Reds for third-best in the majors. To be fair, though, most of that is Mookie Betts. However, they have other plus defenders, such as Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.
So let’s recap: We have a Red Sox team with a subpar offense as a result of poor power numbers, but they score runs thanks to great contact rates and luck with RISP. Their run prevention is excellent, thanks in part to their great defense.
Doesn’t this sound a lot like the 2014 Royals? You know, the team that won 89 games and came within one game of a World Series championship? The Red Sox are a less extreme version of that Royals team, but the similarities are there: low power boosted by great contact rates, and a great defense helping with run prevention.
Obviously the comparison is not perfect. The Red Sox walk a lot more than the 2014 Royals did, and their power numbers were not nearly as bad, either. The Red Sox’s bullpen, while good, is no HDH, and their starting rotation is more top heavy. Coincidentally, the advanced defensive metrics of the 2014 Royals were boosted by their own elite corner outfielder, Alex Gordon.
The most interesting thing about this comparison is how contact rates have been an strong indicator of postseason success since 2009, with high-contact teams performing better than expected in October. It is a theory that, to my knowledge, was first postulated by Joe Sheehan. Correlation does not equal causation, and postseason play contains sample sizes that are way too small to permit firm conclusions, but it is an interesting trend nonetheless. Even if we were to put a lot of stock in this theory, the Red Sox’s main competitors are the Astros and Cleveland, both of whom have better contact percentages.
The Red Sox make up for their lack of power in other areas, but it’s still a problem. It is difficult to string together singles against the caliber of pitching that they will face in the postseason.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.