The Red Sox have been one of the biggest stories of this early 2018 season. They are off to a historically good 17-4 start, despite losing the last two games of the weekend to the Athletics.
Wins are wins, but the Red Sox have been helped by an easy schedule so far, with twelve of their seventeen games coming against the Rays, Marlins, and Orioles. The Marlins might be a historically bad team, and the Rays and Orioles are projected to battle it out for last place in the division with projected win totals of 73 and 72, respectively. There is still something to be said about going 11-1 against those bad teams, and they did destroy the Angels last week as well. They are still major league teams — yes, even the Marlins — and you would be hard pressed to find a twelve-game stretch in history where a team won eleven games.
The Red Sox have achieved this by firing on all cylinders. The offense in particular has been ridiculous. As a team, they are hitting .277/.344/.467 with 26 HR and 58 doubles. That doubles number leads the league by 11! They also lead the league with a 17.5 K%, which is especially impressive for reasons we will get to shortly.
Last June, I wrote about how the Astros were on a historically good pace with their offense. They finished the season with a 121 wRC+, good for fourth-best all time in the live-ball era. The 1927 Yankees are still the best offensive team of the live-ball era, unsurprisingly, with a 126 wRC+. The Red Sox currently have a 118 wRC+, and it was at a 132 wRC+ before their tough weekend.
I think it is safe to say that they will not finish the season as the best offense since 1920, but there is not a lot of flukish good luck that is apparent from the stats, at least not as a team. They have a .310 BABIP and a 12.0 percent HR/FB ratio. I expected to see that their xwOBA was much lower than their actual wOBA, but that is not the case at all. As a matter of fact, their .399 xwOBA is 34 points higher than their actual wOBA!
As for the individual hitters, I mean just look at this...
Mookie Betts in particular is hitting like peak Barry Bonds. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs broke down how he has accomplished that. As Sullivan says himself, Betts is obviously not going to sustain this. His 20.0 percent HR/FB could be the result of his increased launch angles, but his .345 BABIP is high, even for a hitter of his skill and speed. As is the trend with the team, his xwOBA is higher than his actual wOBA. The difference is much greater, though. He has a .563 xwOBA against a .498 wOBA. He is currently among the league leaders in WAR at FanGraphs.
If you you have watched a lot of NESN broadcasts lately, you have probably heard a bit about how new manager Alex Cora has coached hitters to be more aggressive. Sullivan has recently done a great job writing about this.
With all due respect to the tremendously talented Jeff Sullivan, I do not believe that “bringing to an end a long era of patience” is the correct way to describe the Red Sox’s changed approach. As he mentioned, the team is not walking less or reducing their frequency of swings outside the zone.
The Red Sox are not being more or less patient. What they are doing is being less passive. It is great to work the count, but it becomes less so when that comes at the cost of declining to swing at good pitches in the zone. Walks are great, but hits, especially extra-base hits, are better.
Cora is leveraging ideas that any serious baseball fan has likely had. Why don’t hitters swing more often at first pitch strikes? Why don’t hitters swing more often in 3-0 counts when the pitcher frequently throws one right down the middle?
Let’s further break down how much more aggressive the Red Sox have been in hitters counts and how it has helped them. The 2018 is obviously a very small sample size, but the purpose of this exercise is to be more descriptive, not predictive. All the 2018 data in this article are accurate through April 20th.
Red Sox First Pitch Approach
The Red Sox’s wOBA on first pitches in 2017 is not especially impressive. A .343 wOBA is good, but not especially so. In 2018, however, those extra swings are clearly paying off for them.
Red Sox 3-0 Approach
|League 3-0 count wOBA||.528||.582|
This is really striking. They are swinging almost three times as often in 3-0 counts when pitches are thrown in the strike zone. It needs to be said that even on a team level, the sample sizes here are really small. Players rarely swing at 3-0 pitches.
Ahead in Count Approach
Even though the Red Sox have a nice swing rate, it is a modest increase over the previous year when compared to first pitch and 3-0 counts. What really helps is that .401 wOBA compared to the league’s .370 wOBA. Obviously, these data include 3-0 counts.
The team currently has a 35.0 wRAA, which is really something considering that number was at -24.2 for the entire 2017 season. They are easily leading the league in this category, with the Athletics in second place with 21.3 wRAA. I was curious as to how much this extra aggression is helping the Red Sox, so I crunched some numbers.
The Red Sox have accrued 11.6 wRAA from swinging more often on first pitches in the zone. They have gotten 11.4 wRAA from swinging more often at strikes thrown in hitters counts, and 3.5 wRAA of that comes from 3-0 counts. If my calculations are correct, they are getting a lot of extra offense by being more aggressive when compared to the rest of the league.
As a whole, the Red Sox have increased their launch angles from 10.6 degrees in 2017 to 13.3 degrees in 2018. That could help explain the increased wOBA, which could also be coming from small sample size luck.
All teams have strong analytics departments, so it is likely that opposing teams have caught on to what the Red Sox are doing. It will be interesting to see how opposing pitchers adjust to the Red Sox’s new approach. Personally, I hope this leads to hitters throughout baseball becoming more aggressive with pitches in the zone. As Joe Sheehan recently pointed out, April 2018 is going to go down as the first month ever where hitters have struck out more often than they have gotten base hits.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, have 201 hits against just 126 strike outs. Some kind of regression will likely come, but their change in approach is working out extremely well.
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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.