Dave Dombrowski and Ben Cherington have both had strong careers as front office members, but they are different in many ways. One of those differences is the way in which they deal with the media. While Cherington typically kept things to himself, so far Dombrowski has been relatively open about how he sees the team. Although, to be fair, it remains to be seen how much of what he’s said since coming to Boston has been true.
In one of his recent media sessions, Dombrowski was asked about what he thought about the Red Sox offense. His comments were interesting, as he expressed confidence in the unit, but compared them to the Royals. Kansas City has been a tremendous team for the last couple of years, of course, but they’re contact-oriented, below-average power lineup is a pretty far cry than recent good Red Sox teams. It’s an interesting comparison, and looking at Boston’s roster, it appears to be a solid match.
With two consecutive ALCS appearances, it’s become clear that this specific style of offense can work in the right environment. One thing about the style, however, is that more runs need to be "manufactured." The Royals tend to go put together crazy rallies that appear to be lucky more often than just about any other team in baseball. While there is obviously luck involved (there’s luck involved in just about every aspect of baseball), another major factor is the fact that they always have their opponents on their heels. At any given moment, there is a threat of a steal, a hit-and-run, a bunt, or some other "small ball" play. The Red Sox can start to emulate that year, at least in terms of their base running ability.
Over the past 15 years when the Red Sox have regularly had one of the premiere offenses in baseball, there’s been a distinct style associated with their lineups. Boston’s hitters took pitches, drew walks and hit dingers. Despite having some burners like Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury, they’ve never been a particularly scary base running team as a whole. In 2016, that can change, and it will make their offense that much better. After David Ortiz and (maybe) Hanley Ramirez, there’s not a lot of proven power in this lineup. Being able to create runs on the base paths will help make up for that lack of power.
In 2015, the Red Sox were merely an average base running team. As a club they finished with the 19th most stolen bases in the league, making them below-average in that respect. According to Fangraphs’ BsR stat, which measures all aspects of base running, they ranked 14th. Baseball Prospectus’ BRR is a similar stat, and Boston finished the year 12th. Although they weren’t bad on the base paths, there is definitely room for improvements with some tweaks to their running strategies.
Looking at the roster, any sort of base running improvement is going to be led by Mookie Betts, who is far and away the best baserunner on the team. While BRR ranked Betts just outside the top-60 in base running, BsR said he was the second best runner in the game after Billy Hamilton. By the eye test, he certainly seems like an elite base runner, even if one concedes he may not be quite as good as BsR says. He has stolen at least 20 bases in all of his professional seasons, including 21 last year and over 30 in his last two years in the minors. More impressively, he hasn’t gotten caught very often, meaning he can increase his stolen base totals substantially if he attempts more. It’s not just the stolen bases, though. Betts proved to be a very smart base runner in 2015, taking extra bases at every given opportunity. Plays like this highlight the type of big-play impact he has on the base paths.
After Betts, Brock Holt is probably the strongest base runner on the roster. Although he doesn’t steal a ton of bases, both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospects have him as something close to a top-30 base runner. Just watching him, you can see that he’s a cerebral player, especially after he gets on base.
Beyond them, they have guys like Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley. Despite what some national broadcasters say (looking at you 2013 Tim McCarver), neither of these guys are burners by any means. While they’re obviously good athletes, they are not what you think of when you think of strong base runners. However, they make up for their relatively lack of speed by being extremely smart, taking extra bases at every opportunity, but not being overly aggressive. It’s an underrated skill set, but it’s one that can play huge dividends in a long season.
Rusney Castillo and Dustin Pedroia represent huge wild cards in this area. Castillo’s is because he hasn’t shown the skills to excel as a base runner, but he’s shown the athletic ability. If he can take a step forward in his decision making this year, he can be a big plus even after getting on base. Pedroia, meanwhile, is almost the opposite. We’ve seen him be a strong base runner in the past, but age is a fickle beast, and the second baseman is on the wrong side of 30. He can still make plays with his feet at times, but how often is the question the Red Sox will find the answer to.
Finally, they have Blake Swihart. It’s not often one thinks of a catcher as a strong base runner, but Swihart is a different animal, showing athleticism behind the plate that teams rarely see. Look no further than his inside-the-park home run.
The Red Sox should be able to score some runs in 2016, but it likely won’t come in the same fashion that we’ve grown accustomed to in recent seasons. They have a lot of good hitters, but not a lot of power. One way to manufacture runs with this style is to steal bases and take the extra base whenever the chance presents itself. With the way the roster is constructed right now, the Red Sox have a chance to improve substantially in this area when 2016 rolls around.