The numbers in this post, courtesy of Fangraphs, are from prior to Tuesday’s game. In other words, the six-homer barrage against the Angels last night doesn’t count, but I will just say it further supports the point.
It’s only April 18, and we have just enough information with which we can start to form real opinions on things but not enough for those opinions to really have a ton of merit. That being said, I’m going to say a thing that many others have already said despite it probably not holding a ton of meaning at this moment in time. This Red Sox team, and specifically this Red Sox offense, feels different than it did last year. Obviously, the performance has been better very early in the year — Boston ranks second in baseball in both runs scored and wRC+ — but there is also a little more confidence around the lineup. To put it simply, they’ve already done a ton of damage this year, and that’s without getting a full, top-to-bottom contribution night in and night out. A lot of the focus, including on these very webpages, have ben on the newly-implemented aggressive approach that the team appears to be buying into. That is, of course, a major contributor to the early season success. It’s not the only factor, though.
When I talk about the feel of this lineup, a lot of it is about the fact that they always appear ready for one big swing that can break a game wide open. That wasn’t the case for most of 2017, as even when they were succeeding and scoring runs it was a group effort all about moving runners forward one base at a time, aggressive base running and just generally hitting singles and walks. It wasn’t the most exciting offense, even when it was working. This year, the swings have been different as they are hitting the ball in the air and with authority on a more regular basis. The so-called launch angle revolution is no longer a new phenomenon in the game, but the Red Sox seem to finally be buying in.
This is one of those situations in which the numbers and the eye test appear to be matching up, and while it could be too early to be overly confident in the stats it certainly looks to be a focus for Boston’s coaches and hitters. After ranking eleventh in the league last season with a 45.3 percent ground ball rate, they’ve shot down the leaderboard in 2018 with their 40.2 percent rate ranking all the way down at 27th. This hasn’t translated to gaudy power numbers just yet — they rank ninth in baseball in Isolated Power (something tells me that’s going to change after Tuesday’s home run barrage) — but given their propensity to hitting the ball in the air, the fact that they rank in the top-half of the league in both hard-hit and pull rates and the collection of power-hitting potential they have in their lineup on a daily basis, they should stay near the top of that ISO leaderboard throughout the season.
Looking at some of the individual numbers, there are a few names that stand out as primary reasons the team as a whole has changed its position on the groundball rate leaderboard. The first and least surprising difference is J.D. Martinez. The new slugger in this offense was brought in as a different type of hitter, one who was going to fit in not only with the new aggressive approach at the plate but also in the effort to get the ball in the air. He’s currently hitting the ball on the ground just 36 percent of the time. Elsewhere, both Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts have seen improvements in this area, and they own a couple of the lowest groundball rates in all of baseball with each hitting the ball on the ground less than 30 percent of the time. Hanley Ramirez isn’t quite as low as them, but he’s also seen a significant drop since last year. It’s likely no coincidence that these four have also been the four who have most bought in to the aggressive approach.
There are a lot of benefits to hitting the ball in the air, and while hitting for more power is the most important and most obvious, there’s also the fact that they can have longer innings. As I’m sure many will recall, the Red Sox had a major issue with grounding into double plays in 2017. Only three teams grounded into more double plays last year than Boston, which was incredibly frustrating to watch. Of course, many will point out that them getting on base so often was a big factor, and it’s a fair point! However, this year the team has grounded into only seven double plays, the 25th lowest number in baseball. They’ve done this while leading the league in on-base percentage. Who knows if they’ll be able to keep that up, but it’s a huge and underrated factor to them being able to put together all of the big innings they’ve been a part of so far this year.
The Red Sox clearly came into this season with a plan to turn things around at the plate, and so far it is all working. They are being more aggressive on strikes and they are hitting the ball in the air, and they are reaping the benefits. Launch angle and the new(ish) approach towards hitting is not a guarantee of success, it’s not a perfect fit for every hitter and taking part in the so-called revolution does not mean the Red Sox will not hit any slumps along the way. It’s going to come, and it’s going to be frustrating. Still, it’s clear that they are taking all of this to heart, and at the very least it makes for a more exciting group of hitters to watch.