We’ve known that Alex Cora was going to be the Red Sox manager for quite some time now — if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s been pretty clear since this process started — but the new man in charge was just introduced to fans and media on Monday. As Bryan Joiner pointed out earlier this week, most of what is said during introductory press conferences are mostly meaningless, and he was right on. That being said, there was one bit of his introductory words that did intrigue me, and that was his bit on being aggressive at the plate. Michael Silverman talked a little about this earlier this week and you can find Cora’s full comments within, but the gist is that he believes the Red Sox need to be more ready to swing in any count.
We still have a long ways to go before we know whether or not this is just something a guy said one time or an actual strategy he hopes to put on display on the field, but at this point we can only assume it’s the latter. If that assumption is true, it is a very good thing for the Red Sox. At this point, we all know Boston’s lineup needs help, and we’re all waiting to see which big bat (or big bats) they bring in. However, the biggest key for the Red Sox is not the new hitter in their lineup, but rather seeing improvement from the hitters that return. After so many batters had down years in 2017, something clearly needs to change. Maybe the approach isn’t the biggest issue at hand, but it seems as logical place as any to start.
Obviously, moving away from a patient approach seems to be as anti-Red Sox as it gets. Boston has been home to some of the most feared lineups of the last 15 years, and all of them were known for wearing down pitchers and working counts. Doing less of that to improve the lineup is not how this team works. The game is changing, though. Pitchers are throwing differently, and the game just looks different. Pitchers are throwing first-pitch strikes more often than they have at any point in the last twenty years, and they’re throwing more strikes in general than they have in the better part of a decade. Strikeouts are at an all-time high, and the best way to avoid a strikeout — particularly when pitchers are throwing first-pitch strikes — is to end the at bat early. We saw this with Chris Sale this year, as many of the teams that had success against him did so by jumping on pitches early in counts. On top of all of that, we are seeing deeper and more talented bullpens then ever before. There is simply less of an advantage from getting a starter out after five innings when there is a good chance you’ll see three dominant relievers over the final four frames.
Quite frankly, it was clear just from watching the Red Sox that their patient approach was costing them. It seemed like every at bat was starting with a first-pitch fastball that went for a strike, and then everything fell apart from there. It would be disingenuous to imply this was the only problem with the lineup, but it was surely an issue. This is a team that swung less than every team in the league besides the Dodgers. Before you get excited that the Dodgers were the NL Champs, the pitches at which they swung were a bit different. The Red Sox were last in baseball in swing rate on pitches in the zone while finishing in the middle of the pack in swing rate on pitches out of the zone. The Dodgers were the reverse. From watching them and looking at these numbers, it seems clear that the Red Sox were falling behind early from watching strikes go by and then being forced to swing at breaking pitches that fell out of the zone. That is a tough way to generate offense.
Clearly, this was a team-wide problem and something to be said of the general approach preached in the clubhouse. That being said, there are certainly some specific players who could benefit from a change in approach. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts come immediately to mind in that regard, as they finished with the lowest and fourth-lowest swing rates on pitches in the zone among all qualified pitchers in baseball. This clearly had an effect on their ability to hit the ball hard as they were constantly falling behind in the count, and the result can be seen in their disappointing numbers at the end of the year. To a lesser extent, Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley and Andrew Benintendi could all also improve from a more aggressive approach at the plate.
Cora was always going to say the right things at his introductory press conference, and being more aggressive is something every manager wants from his team. It’s a matter of being the right kind of aggressive, and oftentimes it’s not something that actually comes to fruition. In this case, though, the Red Sox really need Cora and his hitting coach Tim Hyers to follow through on this. There were plenty of issues with Boston’s offense in 2017 and one quick fix isn’t going to solve all of them, but a more aggressive approach in this changing landscape around the league is a great place to start.