So, are we having fun yet? It’s impossible to look at this season as anything other than an unmitigated disaster, and the disappointment centers on the offense. Even the most optimistic projections had the Red Sox’ pitching staff as a middle-of-the-pack unit, and more realistic outlooks saw it as a bottom-third bunch. The key to the season was the stacked lineup that would carry the struggling pitchers long enough for the front office to find help either outside the organization or from the minor leagues.
Instead, the lineup has fallen flat on its face. While many of the other facets of the organization have failed tremendously as well, no entity is as responsible for this season as the poor offense. It’s not just that the lineup hasn’t been the elite group they were supposed to be. They’ve been one of the worst offenses in baseball, regardless of preseason expectations. Twelve teams in the league have scored fewer runs, but nine of those clubs use a pitcher in their lineup.
The biggest culprit hasn't been their ability to put the bat on the ball, but their inability to turn balls in play into hits. As of today, Boston’s .277 batting average on balls in play is the worst mark in all of baseball. Is there a fair amount of bad luck involved in that? Probably! However, we’re well past the point of writing off all non-normal BABIPs as good or bad fortune. It’s an incredibly complex issue that can be attributed to multiple factors. Today, the one I’m going to take a look at is the team’s one-dimensional hitting style and how it’s playing into increasingly smart and sophisticated defenses around the league.
When the Red Sox have had success at the plate in 2015, it’s almost always come when they’ve pulled the ball. "Well, of course. It’s a lot easier to hit well when you pull the ball. I’m sure the same could be said for every other team in the league, idiot." That’s what the devil’s advocate that lives in my head responded with, and it’s a fair point. With that being said, Boston’s relative success when pulling the ball compared to hitting it up the middle or the other way has been much more stark than just about every other team in baseball. Don’t take my word for it. The following table will tell that story just fine.
As you can see, Boston’s lineup has been fine, while unspectacular, when pulling the ball compared to the rest of the league. When they don’t pull the ball, they are arguably the worst group in all of baseball. It’s not as simple as other team’s just shifting on everyone in the Red Sox lineup, however. While they haven’t had much success hitting the ball up the middle or the other way, it hasn’t stopped them from doing so. The issue has been the team’s complete lack of power to any field other than the batter’s pull side. To the table!
What this says to me is that the team’s low BABIP to center and the opposite field are less related to luck and more related to good contact. Once again, the team is among the worst in the league in both rankings. Furthermore, it allows the opposing outfield to shade in opposite the hitters’ pull side, making it far less likely he’ll bloop a single. The law of averages would suggest some better fortune will be coming for the Red Sox in this area, but as the old saying goes, you make your own luck.
There are a few main contributors to this issue for Boston. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mookie Betts is atop this list. While he’s posting a 223 wRC+ when pulling the ball — a mark that puts him right behind Starling Marte and Adrian Gonzalez on the leaderboard — his wRC+’s when hitting it up the middle or the other way are 36 and -27, respectively. For context, that last mark is worse than every batter with at least 30 such plate appearances besides Omar Infante. To get a better understanding of the issue, we’ll check out his spray chart.
Remember when I mentioned that without power to all fields, outfields can start shading in to take away singles? That’s what’s been happening to Betts. All of his home runs have been to left field, and it’s rare that he’s come particularly close to center and right. On top of that, check out the red dots that represent his line drives. The red dots to right field are all awfully shallow. If he’s going to rebound, he needs to become a more well-rounded hitter, and that starts with hitting the ball with authority to all fields.
The other guy I wanted to talk about was Hanley Ramirez. Although he doesn’t stand out nearly as much as Betts, he is still worth discussing. Ramirez has been fine when pulling the ball or hitting it back up the middle, but he’s struggled going the other way. What’s strange is that this is a new issue for him. In both the last two seasons and his career as a whole, he’s been an above-average hitter to right field. However, he’s currently sitting with an 82 wRC+ in these situations. There aren’t many major differences in his batted ball profile this season, though, and a rebound here is very possible. It’s also worth pointing out that Xander Bogaerts has been at or above-average to all fields this season, which is a huge improvement over last season and an important developmental milestone.
There are a lot of issues with the Red Sox’ offense, and no single problem is to blame for the issues. With that being said, not being able to hit the ball with authority to all fields makes a lineup much easier to defend, and Boston is learning that the hard way this season. Although Betts has been the most glaring example of this particular issue, it’s been a team-wide trend. Whether that makes Chili Davis to blame is hard to determine from the outside, but it’s certainly not a point in his favor. If this offense is going to miraculously power this team back into contention, though, working on this issue is as good a place as any to start.