I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Red Sox have a power problem. The season hasn’t been as bad as some would have you believe, and the offense has sort of started to come around over the last few games*. Some guys are hitting their strides — Hanley Ramirez, in particular, stands out — but the lack of power is still jarring one month into the season. There are many culprits on this front, but the two who stand out the most are probably Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts.
*I wrote this sentence before Monday’s game. The stats that follow are also from prior to the series-opener against Baltimore.
We’ll start with Bradley, because he’s first in alphabetical order and that’s a good enough reason for me. He has not had a strong start to the season, to say the least. Through his first 48 plate appearances, he’s hitting just .209/.271/.326 and has a 60 wRC+ (40 percent worse than league-average). None of that line is good, but what stands out is the complete lack of power. After establishing himself as a .200+ Isolated Power type hitter over the last two seasons, he’s sitting with an ISO of just .116.
Now, obviously we have to address that we’re dealing with a tiny sample. Not only are we just a month into the season, but Bradley missed some time with injury in April. His particular sample is even smaller. Still, this has not been an encouraging stretch, especially for a guy who was struggling to end the previous season.
We’ve seen Bradley struggle enough in the past to know he’s always going to be a streaky hitter. His hot streaks and his defense are enough to keep him in the lineup every day despite some extreme cold streaks. This one has been a little different, though. In the past, his cold streaks have been due to poor plate discipline and an increase in strikeouts. There’s always at least a little bit of pop in his bat even when he’s at his worst.
During this particular stretch, the plate discipline isn’t too worrisome. Bradley’s 25 percent strikeout rate isn’t great, of course, but it’s only 2.5 percentage points above last year’s full-season rate. He’s not striking out a third of the time like other slumps.
Instead, the issue so far in 2017 has been a glaring lack of lift on balls off his bat. In this admittedly small sample, Bradley has a whopping 58 percent ground ball rate, per Fangraphs, which is the 19th highest rate among the 299 players with at least 40 plate appearances this season. He’s had trouble hitting any non-fastballs in the air early on in the season. Per Brooks Baseball, his ground ball rate is up 15 percentage points on offspeed pitches and 24 percentage points on breaking balls.
The good news is really just the small sample. Even despite the lack of lift, Bradley is hitting the ball well. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, he has the 28th highest hard-hit rate among that same group of 299 players and the 89th lowest soft-hit rate. He had months last year where he had trouble lifting non-fastballs — June and July, specifically — and while they weren’t quite to the same extent but he was able to break out of those habits. Assuming he can do so again, he’s making the quality of contact to convert more balls in play to extra-base hits.
For Bogaerts, the issues are sort of the same, and also more pronounced. While he’s never really been the same kind of power hitter that Bradley’s been over the last couple of years (try saying that sentence to someone three years ago), the drop off early in this season has been somewhat startling. Through his first 80 plate appearances, he has an ISO of just .041 — 20th worst among that same 299 player group — with just two extra-base hits on the season.
Of course, his overall production at the plate has been fine with an above-average wRC+, but that’s based entirely on his .365 batting average on balls in play. He’s proven to be a high BABIP player in his career, but sustaining this probably isn’t possible. Some power will have to come.
Part of the issue is certainly his approach. This is a tough one, because this approach helps lead to his high BABIP. The Red Sox shortstop has developed into something of a slap hitter, and he’s taking that to an extreme early in 2017. So far, he’s pulling the ball only 28 percent of the time, down about 12 percentage points from his career rate. Meanwhile, he’s hitting grounders 54 percent of the time leading to a ten percentage point decrease in his fly ball rate. Hitting the ball low and the other way is a pretty easy way to avoid extra-base hits.
It’s worth noting, though, that this might not be forever. Bogaerts has always had some trouble hitting, particularly for power, in April. Over his career, he has an .091 ISO in the first month of the season compared to an overall mark of .122. Last season, when he finished with a career-high .152 ISO, he finished April with a .129 mark. This is something that the shortstop has acknowledged in the past, too.
“I mean the cold is good and bad for me,” he said. “The good part is that it helps me do a little bit less. My effort level goes down because it’s kind of cold. But when it warms up I start swinging a bit bigger. You feel stronger because of the sun and whatever. The cold is good because I just try to do more contact, don’t want to get jammed or off the end for my hands to feel pretty bad.”
Basically, this is what Bogaerts is expecting to happen. The BABIP will certainly come down, but he’s aware of that and he’ll be the own driving force behind it.
Both Bradley and Bogaerts have been major contributors to the team’s overall power outage, but there’s reason to be confident about both. For Bradley, the hope that this is just small sample noise and that he’ll break out of this slump like he’s broken out of others in the past. For Bogaerts, it’s simply waiting for the weather to get warm and learning to live with the slap approach in the meantime.