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Are the Red Sox tinkering with their offensive approach?

For years, the Red Sox have been known for taking as many pitches as possible. Do their recent acquisitions suggest a change?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last ten to fifteen years, it’s become abundantly clear what the Red Sox strategy on offense has been. They’ve formed an identity of a team that draws a ton of walks, and sees as many pitches as any other team in the league. They’ve taken the concept of knocking starting pitchers out of a game early and turned it into a science. In the process, they’ve churned out some of the game’s best lineups year in and year out. Unfortunately, when you start to succeed at something for so long, the league starts to catch up and adjust. That’s exactly what’s been happening to Boston over the last couple of seasons.

Starting in 2013, opposing pitchers have started to pound the zone more and more against the Red Sox. Boston has continued to try to work the count and lay off as many pitches as possible, but that’s only started to result in more strikeouts. In each the past two years, they have swung less than any other team in baseball, both overall and on pitches in the zone. Despite the fact they’ve successfully made contact on the pitches they have swung at, they’ve had one of the ten highest strikeout-rates in both seasons. 

Year Swing% (Rank) Z-Swing% (Rank) SwStr% (Rank) K% (Rank)
2013 43.7% (30th) 62.4% (30th) 8.6% (T-23rd) 20.5% (9th)
2014 44% (T-30th) 61.6% (30th) 8.4% (T-24th) 21.5% (7th)

While the strikeouts aren’t the end-all-be-all, there’s a clear problem here. Opposing pitchers are giving the Red Sox batters a choice. They’re going to throw strikes, and you can either take them all and rack up the strikeouts, or you can abandon your comfort zone and swing earlier in counts. To this point, Boston has taken the first option. It hasn’t been a complete disaster, either. Obviously, the 2013 offense did just fine and eventually helped take home a championship. Last year, however, the offense fell flat on its face. Though this issue wasn’t the only reason that happened, it’s certainly a part of the problem.

For their part, Ben Cherington and the rest of the front office have recognized the issue, and started to address the balance conundrum. While it’s great to have batters who are going to work the count, it’s also important to keep the opponents honest. Looking at the acquisitions of the past six months or so, it’s clear that Boston has prioritized aggressiveness in their new hitters.

Of course, the poster boy for this change in philosophy is Pablo Sandoval. Some were upset about the acquisition of the third baseman because of his poor plate discipline, but it appears to be a perfect way to offset the over-abundance of patience in the lineup. Over the last two seasons, no qualified batter in the game has swung at more pitches than Sandoval, and just two have swung at more balls thrown in the strike zone. So while he’s definitely does not fit the stereotypical model a Red Sox hitter usually falls in, he’ll swing at a ton of pitches, and it’s worked to the tune of a 122 career wRC+. 

The other big addition this offseason, Hanley Ramirez, certainly doesn’t jump out as an aggressive hitter as much as Sandoval, but he still fits the bill. His swing-rate has been higher than the league-average in each of the last three seasons, and the same goes for his in-zone swing percentage. On top of that, his aggressiveness was even more apparent during his great 2013. Although it was only a little more than a half season worth of at bats, Ramirez was one of the best hitters in the game with a 191 wRC+. En route to that amazing season, both his Swing% and Z-Swing% reached career-highs.

Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back just a little further, Rusney Castillo also fits this bill. While his athleticism and power potential have never been questioned, some wondered if his aggressiveness would fit with the Red Sox’s offense. Although he doesn’t have the experience to pull up reliable numbers to back this up, we can look at a few scouting reports. 

From Sox Prospects:

Wants to hit; aggressive first-pitch swinger. Expands the zone, but knows what he can handle.

From Baseball America:

A line-drive stroke, an aggressive hitting approach and occasional power.

And from Fangraphs:

His aggressiveness may hint at a high chase rate on pitches out of the zone, but he shows a pretty solid knack for getting the bat to the ball in all areas around the plate.

On the surface, giving such big money to an unproven player with this kind of approach seems like a very un-Red Sox thing to do. However, if they’re looking to balance out the lineup with more aggressive hitter, it makes perfect sense.

In that same vein, we can go back to July to see the start of this trend with the Jon Lester trade. Instead of taking prospects back in the deal, Boston opted for a return of Yoenis Cespedes. Obviously, he’s not on the team anymore, but no one can say for sure flipping him was the plan all along, and he makes perfect sense for a team trying to get more aggressive. He’s not an on-base machine by any means, but he swings at pitches he likes, and makes good contact more often than not. He’s not really necessary the new lineup that features Sandoval, Ramirez and Castillo, but instead of questioning his fit with this team back in July, perhaps we should’ve been looking at it as a change in philosophy.

It’s not that I think the Red Sox are going to abandon their patient approach altogether. That would be silly. They’ve had tons of success with that kind of offense. On the other hand, the league has clearly started to catch up to them. When you’re striking out more than most teams in the game while you’re swinging and whiffing less than most, it means one thing. You’re watching too many strikes go by. Now, the front office has brought in multiple players who should offset that worry. While Sandoval and Castillo, and to a lesser extent Ramirez, won’t draw tons of walks or see tons of pitches, they’ll take most strikes they see and make hard contact. In a game that’s defined by constant adjustments, it’s nice to see the Red Sox are making their own.