The Red Sox are playing well to start the season, and the biggest reason for that has been their potent offense. It’s been the best lineup in baseball to start the year, and it is consistently keeping them in games despite an inconsistent performance from the pitching staff. Even more impressively, they’ve been able to do so without hitting a ton of balls over the fence. The biggest factor in their success has been their top-to-bottom production, with very few hitters going through slumps and those slumps not happening in bunches like the last few years. Obviously, this is all very encouraging and it’s a nice throwback to their previous World Series teams that always boasted some of the top offenses in the league.
With that being said, for all of the positives about the lineup, it’s hard to ignore their success on balls in play. Through Monday’s action, the team is the owner of a .337 batting average on balls in play, the highest mark in the league. In fact, while a few National League squads are relatively close, no other American League team has a BABIP higher than .313. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to say that it’s all good luck, as baseball is never that simple. On the other hand, it’s also not all skill because, again, baseball isn’t that simple. The key question moving forward is exactly how large the split is between the good fortune and the true talent.
We’ll start by looking at some history. To start out, no team has ever been able to maintain a BABIP this high through an entire season. In fact, the 1921 Tigers and the 1930 Cardinals are the only teams since 1900 to put up a BABIP of at least .330 over a full season. So, there is certainly some regression coming unless we’re ready to declare this arguably the greatest offense in the history of the league. That’s definitely a stretch. With that being said, it doesn’t really make sense to look through the history of the league for comparisons, as the baseline is constantly changing. Instead, it makes more sense to look for context in the most recent seasons. With that in mind, here are the five most recent league-leading BABIPs, starting with 2015 and working backwards: .322, .326, .329, .321, .318. So, even if the Red Sox are going to see some decline in their BABIP, it shouldn’t be anything too massive.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that early-season performances will carry through the season. To address this, let’s look at some of their tendencies and whether they point towards high-BABIP skill sets. Starting simply, they are hitting line drives in bunches. They have the eighth-highest line drive rate in the league according to Fangraphs’ measures, and the fifth-highest per Baseball Prospectus’ measure. Looking at Fangraphs’ hard hit metric, they have hit the ball hard more than all but ten teams in the league.
Perhaps even more importantly, they are slapping the ball all over the field rather than getting pull-happy. To wit, they rank fifth in opposite field rate and 22nd in pull rate. Obviously, this makes it more challenging for the more complex defenses around the league to shift on them. The flip side of this is a decrease in power, which we’ve seen. However, it leads to more hits and the Red Sox have been able to find the gaps in the opposite field to lead to plenty of doubles and triples.
So, the overall team tendencies point to a high-BABIP skillset, even considering the eventual regression. Let’s quickly look a little closer at the matter at hand, taking into account the hitters who are contributing the most to the team’s success on balls in play. Specifically, I’m talking about Travis Shaw (.418 BABIP), Xander Bogaerts (.369), and Jackie Bradley (.377). So, as with the team, all three of these guys are almost certainly going to see some regression. Though, to be fair, this is the second straight year like this for Bogaerts. However, they also are extremely representative of the team’s overall approach, especially in terms of hitting line drives rather than swinging for the fences. All three of them have relied on doubles and triples in the season, and they hit line drives. Just generally speaking, they hit the ball hard and all of them have the ability to carry a .320+ BABIP.
In the end, the Red Sox aren’t going to stay this good all year. If they do, they’ll be one of the best offenses of all time and that’s a lot to ask for. With that being said, they have the talent to stay right near the top of the league all season. Not only that, but they should stay at or near the top of the BABIP leaderboard. While some regression is coming, it won’t be as heavy as some may expect. Additionally, part of that regression will come in the form of some of their doubles and triples turning into home runs. Overall, however, they have plenty of hitters who profile as high-BABIP hitters. Regardless of what the pitching staff does the rest of the way, this is a lineup that should keep the team in most games moving forward.