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The Red Sox have a grounder problem

It’s hurting them on the field and in terms of watchability.

MLB: New York Mets at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox season has been very bad thus far, which I’m sure you know if you’re reading this. If you didn’t know, well, welcome to the 2020 baseball season. The Red Sox are currently the third-worst team in baseball. Also, they’ve played 17 games and there’s another team that’s only played five, but I’ll let you catch up on that situation elsewhere. Today I want to focus on the Red Sox offense, which hasn’t been as bad as the pitching but has arguably been more frustrating because this is the part of the team that was supposed to keep them in the postseason race. The pitching being bad was a given, but the offense could keep the team around .500. Or so we thought.

Now, for as frustrating as the Red Sox offense has been, it is important to point out that offense around the league has been weird in this short season. For a variety of reasons including but not limited to the fact that pitchers were way ahead of hitters at the end of the condensed camp, we are seeing fewer hits than we’ve grown accustomed to. That’s not to say the Red Sox have actually been good, because they haven’t, but they haven’t been as far from average as one would think. Or, to avoid speaking for anyone else, as far as I would think. By wRC+, they have been the 17th best offense in the sport, sandwiched between the Rays and Giants. So, not stop-the-presses atrocious in this run environment, but I think we can all agree it’s not where this team needs to be to experience some levels of success.

I think there are a lot of reasons it just feels like a drag watching this team hit so far this year even if they’ve been close to average, but the big one is that their balls in play just aren’t exciting. Baseball has been filled with talk over the years of the flyball revolution in which hitters are now hitting the ball in the air more than ever to try and do damage. I talked a bit about it on Tuesday with respect to José Peraza as an example of a player for whom it is not working. But for the most part it is not a bad strategy, and it is part of the reason the 2018 team was so good under the influence of J.D. Martinez.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

For this year, though, the Red Sox are not joining the revolution and it is showing up both in their results and just the general feel of watching this team. As a team, the Red Sox have hit 47 percent of their batted balls on the ground, trailing only the Mariners and Marlins. Those aren’t the offenses you want to be associated with. (It should be mentioned, though, that the Yankees immediately trail Boston with the fourth-highest rate.) Individually, the Red Sox have four of the top 30 ground ball rates in baseball so far this year including two of the top four.

Ground balls aren’t always terrible, and as I discussed with Peraza there is a profile of player for whom keeping the ball low and hoping for the best isn’t the worst idea. That being said, there’s a reason players — especially the best players — are opting for more fly balls in recent years. For one, shifting has made ground balls much harder to succeed with. In the past, a ground ball was more likely to be a hit than a fly ball, but at least partially due to more extreme shifting that is no longer the case. Additionally, you are much less likely to do damage on a grounder, and thus it is a lot harder to sustain rallies if everything is getting hit into the ground. You can only single your way to multiple runs so many times, and it becomes even harder when you hit into so many double plays. The Red Sox are in the top ten in double plays this year despite being in the bottom ten in OBP.

For Boston, things are even worse than other teams with their grounders. You can still hit the ball hard on the ground, and those hard grounders are obviously much better than weak ones. For the Red Sox, their grounders have been extremely weak, which is why they are one of three teams (along with the Rangers and Phillies) who have yet to hit an extra-base hit on the ground. Further, according to FanGraphs’s batted ball metrics, Boston’s grounders are hit with soft contact at a higher rate than any other team in baseball and they’re hit with hard contact at a lower rate than all but three teams. One of those three teams is the Cardinals, too, who are the team mentioned at the top who have only played five games.

To make matters even more frustrating, when the Red Sox do get that ball up and off the ground, they actually hit the ball well! It’s the reason they are still in the top half of the league in Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) despite hitting so many grounders and having exactly zero of them go for extra bases. Again according to FanGraphs, on fly balls and line drives Boston has the sixth highest hard-hit rate and the third lowest soft-hit rate. That is very good! That is how you sustain rallies, put up crooked numbers and overcome poor pitching! It just isn’t happening enough.

When looking for the main culprits here, it’s not super surprising to see that three of the four mentioned above who are in MLB’s top 30 in ground ball rate are lefties. Those would be Alex Verdugo, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi. (Christian Vázquez is the other). Mitch Moreland is not too far behind, either. This leads to a larger trend for the team as a whole, which is that they are getting pounded with changeups. Only the Marlins, by FanGraphs’s metrics, have seen more changeups this year. I would guess that is a combination of having a lot of lefties in the lineup against righties along with having a team that is aggressive. It’s easy to feel confident throwing a changeup against a team that swings more, and changeups are pitches that dip in the bottom of the zone, basically begging to be hit into the ground.

And so, this offense is what you get when you hit everything into the ground. You have an overall performance that isn’t terrible, because when they hit the ball in the air they actually hit it well. But they can’t compound on that because it is often hit into the ground, and often for a double play. I wish I had a constructive way to solve this issue, but I don’t. Instead, I really wanted to figure out just what is making this team so frustrating and, frankly, boring to watch at the plate, and I think this is it. There’s too much talent in this lineup for them to continue to be so uneven and so mediocre, but until they start getting the ball in the air consistently I don’t see much changing.