clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The new Red Sox approach at the plate is already ingrained in the lineup

The results haven’t always been there, but it’ll come.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

When Alex Cora first took over as Red Sox manager, there were a few different points of focus. After John Farrell’s run, which had plenty of success, it was always going to be interesting to see what he kept from the old regime and what he changed. Right off the bat, he talked about keeping players on a different schedule, doling out more rest than Farrell ever did and trying to play for the long-haul. He also talked about potentially managing the bullpen differently, particularly with Craig Kimbrel, though that hasn’t come to fruition yet. We haven’t yet seen how he’ll deal with the media in the face of major negativity, as Farrell was great at deflecting attention away from his players. All of that aside, the biggest focus for Cora and his new staff from day one has seemingly been to kickstart a lineup that struggled mightily for much of 2017. Specifically, the coaching staff have been preaching aggression at the plate and jumping on good pitches to hit. We’re only nine games into the season, but it’s already crystal clear just how serious they were about implementing this mindset team-wide.

It’s too early to make any big, sweeping generalizations about anything, but while the team has overall been terrific early on this year the offense has been much more inconsistent. They’ve seemingly been turning it on over the last couple of days, but before that they had been pretty cold, simply doing just enough to pull out close victories behind strong pitching. That said, they’ve shown some flashes and a couple of important players looking for comeback years — Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts — have looked particularly impressive. Even amid the struggles, it still felt more likely that they were eventually going to click than it did during most stretches of 2017. Although they haven’t totally turned a corner yet, they are in a spot in which they must trust the process (I truly loathe myself for using this phrase) behind their new approach at the plate of attacking early pitches in the zone.

Good results or no, the numbers clearly show that this approach is being implemented exactly according to plan, and it’s really impressive how smoothly the transition is going. The assumption, at least for me, was that the implementation of more aggression on pitches in the zone would lead to some more swings on pitches out of the zone, at least at first. That hasn’t been the case at all, however, and the team’s plate discipline has been incredible. The table below shows the team’s swing rates on pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%), on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) and overall (Swing%) over the last five years, according to Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers.

Red Sox Plate Discipline

Year Z-Swing% O-Swing% Swing%
Year Z-Swing% O-Swing% Swing%
2014 61.6 28.6 43.5
2015 64.1 30.6 45.8
2016 62.8 29.3 44.3
2017 62.3 29.5 43.9
2018 71.7 29.1 47.2

Those trends are pretty incredible and really show off the fact that the Red Sox have good hitters who are not only quick to make an adjustment but also have a tremendous understanding of the strike zone. The giant jump on swings against pitches in the zone certainly sticks out like a sore thumb, but perhaps even more impressive is that they are swinging at their lowest rate of pitches out of the zone since 2014. What this has led to is the team making a lot of hard contact early on — both anecdotally using the ol’ eye test and by batted ball metrics that probably don’t have enough data to cite at this point in the year.

Looking down the lineup, it’s clear that everyone has bought in to this strategy, though there are certainly a few names that stand out even more than the rest. J.D. Martinez is the guy who has most taken this approach to heart, swinging at a whopping 85 percent of pitches in the zone, up almost ten percentage points from last year. Hanley Ramirez is right behind him with a Z-Swing% of almost 80 percent, much higher than any other point in his career. Rafael Devers has always been a fairly aggressive hitter, but he’s been able to swing at more strikes and lay off more balls, which is wildly impressive for a 21-year-old on whom the league had tape to watch heading into this season. Further down the list are Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, both of whom are players that were expected to benefit the most from this change. Betts is still swinging at less than 60 percent of pitches in the zone, but it’s still an increase over last year and he’s pairing it with an incredible 14 percent swing rate on pitches out of the zone. Bogaerts, meanwhile, has taken this approach change to heart with a 13-percentage-point increase in Z-Swing% while decreasing his O-Swing% for the third straight year.

With the young season being only nine games old, any trend could be one that sticks around all year, but is just as likely to be a blip on the radar. That said, given how much focus has been on this changed approach and increased aggression, it’s hard to imagine these early-season gains going away. The results have been inconsistent, as mentioned above, but in a changing league with better bullpens and increased willingness to remove starters early in games, focusing more on good pitches to hit than making a starting pitcher work is the smart play for major-league lineups. What Cora and Tim Hyers have been able to do in quickly implementing this strategy to such a successful degree has been one of the big stories of the first week-plus of the year, and it should pay dividends all season long.