The Red Sox offense in 2017 is probably going to be at least a little worse than it was in 2016. That’s what happens when you lose one of the greatest hitters of his generation who also happened to be among the best hitters in the game in his final season. David Ortiz was obviously a special hitter, and it goes without saying that he’s not going to be replaced on this roster. Of course, this isn’t to say the lineup is going to be bad this year. We saw in the fifth inning of the first game that they can very easily string together a bunch of hits and put runs on the board. Even without Ortiz, this team will be among the top offenses in all of baseball. The biggest reason will be their amazing ability to make contact.
This is the most basic building block of good offensive performance. If you put the ball in play, anything can happen. If you do it often, you’re going to get on base at a decent clip even if you aren’t always hitting the ball square. Baseball is weird, and balls find holes on a regular basis. Particularly in today’s game with the ever-growing strikeout rate across the league, simply putting the ball in play at a high rate is a hugely important skill.
The Red Sox of 2016 were elite in this area. According to Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers, Boston had the highest overall contact rate in baseball, one-tenth of a percentage point above the Angels. It wasn’t that they were just thriving on strikes, either. They topped the contact rate leaderboard on pitches both in and out of the zone to go along with their overall lead. Additionally, they struck out at a lower rate than every team in the league besides the Angels and Giants. Of course, in case you hadn’t heard, the calendar has flipped to 2017 now. We’ve seen these kind of blips on the radar before. The question becomes whether or not the Red Sox can carry this kind of success into the 2017 season.
To start with, it’s clear that the loss of Ortiz hurts here, too. His power was the most notable part of Ortiz’ game and it’s been the focus of his absence from the lineup, but he was also phenomenal at making consistent contact. This was one of the most underrated parts of Ortiz’ game, as he struck out at a ridiculously low 13.7 percent rate last year while most power hitters like him are striking out around a quarter of the time. On top of that, he made contact on 82 percent of the pitches he saw, four percentage points above the league-average rate. The bad news is that Mitch Moreland is taking his spot in the lineup, and that’s a clear downgrade. The new first baseman has consistently made contact at a below-average rate over his career and generally strikes out between 21 and 24 percent of the time.
There’s enough positives here to outweigh the addition of Moreland, though. The most important part is that many of the contact-oriented mainstays are here to...well, they’re here to stay. Dustin Pedroia is the most notable of these. He’s long been a contact-oriented player, striking out around 10 percent of the time on a consistent basis and making contact on around 90 percent of the time in just about every year of his career. Mookie Betts doesn’t have the same kind of track record, of course, but in his short major-league career he’s shown a similar ability to make contact. Of course, with Betts there’s also the added benefit of that being hard contact seemingly 95 percent of the time. Brock Holt also qualifies here. He actually led the team in contact rate in 2016, and while we don’t know just how much he’ll play this year he should be able to keep up the contact rate whenever he does find his way into the lineup. Xander Bogaerts isn’t quite on the same level as these three, but he was above-average in this area last season.
Those mainstays are important and are the biggest reason the team will stay towards the top of the league. There are a few changes in the lineup that should help offset the Moreland addition, too. The most important can be found in left field, where Andrew Benintendi will presumably be playing all season. Last season, despite just recently being drafted and having zero major-league experience, he was able to maintain a contact rate better than Ortiz’ at 83 percent. Obviously, it came over a small sample, but it’s clear that his hit tool is off the charts and this helps back that up. Simply having him in the lineup everyday is an upgrade over playing Chris Young so often against right handers. There is also the fact that Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez figure to be the primary catchers for at least the start of the season. Both are question marks overall at the plate, but they were both above-average at making contact last season. Even if/when Blake Swihart makes his way up to the majors, he’s been above-average in his career as well. This is not a position that’s known for its bats, but the Red Sox are fortunate to have players who can put the ball in play.
Boston’s lineup probably won’t be quite as elite this season without David Ortiz in the middle of it. That’s a given. However, it should still be very good and may be the best in the league. A large part of that is their ability to put the ball in play. It’ll be a different kind of lineup, and it won’t be one that relies on power, but with at least six or seven spots that can put the ball in play at a better-than-average rate, this lineup will have the ability to put rallies together on a regular basis. It’s certainly going to be a fun group to watch.