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Why aren't the Red Sox walking?

For a long time, the Red Sox have drawn more walks than any other team. Why isn't that happening this year?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past 10-15 years, the Red Sox have established a clear identity on offense that every team across the league has recognized. Year in and year out, they have built lineups that work counts better than just about every other team in the league and get as many free passes as anyone else. From Kevin Youkilis to Manny Ramirez to Dustin Pedroia to David Ortiz, they’ve seemingly always been built around absurdly patient hitters, consistently leading to one of best offenses. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the offense will be built that way at this point since it’s been like this for almost the entire time I’ve been watching this team.

This year, however, things have gone a bit differently. It’s not that they’re suddenly full of A.J. Pierzynski types, but they’re not in the same position in walk-rate relative to the league that they typically are. As a team, the Red Sox currently rank 16th in walk-rate, making this just the second time since 2002 that Boston has finished outside of the top five in that category, with the other time coming in 2012. They recovered the last time to get back to their old ways and eventually win a world championship. Will they bounce-back again starting next year, or are we seeing a shift in Boston’s offensive philosophy?

My first thought when I saw where the team ranked in walk-rate was that it had something to do with them playing so poorly at the start of the year. If you remember, there was a stretch in May and June when this lineup was as bad as any in recent memory, struggling to push more than a single run across the plate night in and night out. Intuitively, it would’ve made sense if hitters in that kind of struggling lineup were trying to hard to do all the damage on one swing and forgetting about patience. However, that hasn't been the case here. The 2015 Red Sox have actually had a significantly lower walk-rate in the second half, when they’re offense has been much more aesthetically pleasing. This season, when the lineup’s been at its best, its been an aggressive group.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

This isn't a total surprise, as I pondered before the year whether or not the organization was moving more towards this style of offense and away from their signature "watch twelve pitches per at bat" strategy. At this moment, it makes sense to look at the 2015 lineup’s plate discipline numbers. While they’re higher than their typical last place in swing-rate, this team is still in the bottom half of the league there, ranking 25th. The same can be said for Z-Swing% (swing rate on pitches in the zone), where they rank 29th, and swinging strike rate, where they rank 28th. Strangely enough, there haven’t been a ton of recognizable changes in their offensive strategy, but the results have been significantly different. The one thing that does jump out is the fact that they climb up in the rankings in all of these categories over the second half.

So, with the overall team numbers not telling us much of a story, it makes sense to look towards the players that are responsible for the change of the team’s approach. As I alluded to in the linked piece above, a few of the new players in the organization are the ones leading this charge. Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez and Rusney Castillo all have walk rates of five percent or lower. That may be slightly lower than expected for all of them, but no one expected them to be the second coming of Youkilis. For the most part, we saw this coming with this trio.

Another player who has been somewhat responsible for the low walk rate has been Blake Swihart, who is tough to get a grip on in this area. On the one hand, he never really drew a ton of walks in the minors, so him having a relatively low walk rate in the majors isn’t that shocking, and perhaps we shouldn’t expect major improvement from him in this area. On the other hand, this is a guy who was rushed to the majors way ahead of schedule, and it’s absolutely possible we’ll see major improvements from him as he matures. He’s the biggest wildcard in this area in my mind.

Finally, we have two players that have carried low walk rates all season that nobody could have expected. Although Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts have led the offense for the majority of the year, they haven’t done so in the classic Red Sox fashion. It’s less notable with Betts, who’s 6.9 percent rate is only slightly below average. Bogaerts, on the other hand, is walking just 4.8 percent of the time, putting him in the bottom 25 among qualified hitters. Given their past scouting reports, minor league track records and, in Bogaerts’ case, previous major-league numbers, I would expect them to improve tremendously in this area moving forward.

In the end, I’d guess it’s more likely that the Red Sox will get closer to their old ways than them drifting closer to the bottom of the walk-rate standings. One of Sandoval or Ramirez will likely be gone before the year starts, which should help in a big way. More importantly, their young players should grow as they get older, eventually taking over for the Ortiz and Pedroia’s of the world. If the offense is going to grow from this season, them making strides in their approach will likely go a long way.