As we head into the final few days of the spring with our eyes firmly on the regular season, one of the bigger unknowns remaining on the table for the coming year is just how the ball is going to fly. If you’re thinking it feels silly not knowing the dynamics of Major League Baseball’s actual baseball, well, you’re not wrong. But this is just how things have been for a few years in the league. Early in the spring, almost two months ago now, Eno Sarris and The Athletic reported that MLB was deadening their baseballs. Given how cagey the league has been around this subject in recent years it’s hard to be sure how impactful this will actually be, but this figures to at least be something to which it’s worth paying attention. And thinking specifically about the Red Sox, it should seem to bring with it some positives as well as some negatives.
There are still a lot of questions about how real this effect is going to be, it should be pointed out. It’s still not entirely clear whether the spring training balls are the same ones they’ll be using in the real games, but if they are then they don’t seem all that different. For what it’s worth, in that report linked above an internal memo indicated balls flying at least 375 feet would lose a couple feet of light, a drop one analyst speculated could cut home run rates by five percent. That’s not a consensus, to be clear, but it at least seems feasible.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume there is some deadened ball effect. In some ways, even if the home run rate goes down by five percent, the Red Sox should still be able to get the ball over the wall. Some hitters in this lineup would be affected, as we’ll get to in a minute, but there is also plenty of very real power that should be able to produce with any baseball. Here, I’m talking about players like J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Hunter Renfroe, Bobby Dalbec, and Franchy Cordero. Some of those players have questions and flaws that certainly make their performance anything but guaranteed, but as far as just power goes, they can hit any baseball a mile.
On the other hand, there are some other players in this lineup who would very much be affected. Here we’re talking about Christian Vázquez, who is most often brought up in this discussion. He hits some moonshots, but he also doesn’t have the kind of raw power on a consistent basis to avoid mentioned here. Kiké Hernández is somewhere in the middle here, but between the baseball and moving to a worse homer park the power will likely take something of a drop from some of his better years in L.A. And his fellow utility man, Marwin Gonzalez, is in this discussion as well as he’s only shown more than roughly average power in one season, 2017. For all of those guys, if the ball does prove to have any sort of significant effect on how the ball is flying, they may be wise to shift toward more of a contact-based, shoot-the-gaps type of approach.
But even if we flip things around to the other side of the ball and focus on when the Red Sox are on defense, there’s good and bad here. On the more negative side, for one thing two of their biggest obstacles this year are the Yankees and Blue Jays, both of whom possess even more raw power than Boston. Beyond that, there are some questions about the Red Sox outfield defense this year. There is certainly reason for optimism, as Alex Verdugo and Hunter Renfroe appear to have the ability to cover center and right field very well. At the same time, they are playing in their respective areas of Fenway, which we all know can be a chaotic outfield. If balls that were previously home runs are falling short, presumably that is going to lead to more action for the outfielders. How that works out for Boston is an open question.
With that being said, there is still the obvious benefit there that it is the pitchers who should theoretically benefit from any changes the most. In case you haven’t heard, the Red Sox are a team built around their offense, with the pitching being the X-Factor in their quest to surprise contention. That, ultimately, feels like the biggest answer here to this question of who will be most affected, positively and negatively. Teams with more talent on offense compared to pitching would be the ones to feel this affect the least. The Red Sox need to keep runs off the board. A good chunk of their offense should be able to hit, and hit for power, no matter what. Their pitchers being able to keep enough runs off the board to keep games in reach is what this season will come down, and any help they can get on that front should help.
As I said, it’s hard to speculate too much about what this is going to mean around baseball because we don’t know what specific affects we’re going to see once the action really starts. And it is of course important too that MLB has not exactly earned the benefit of the doubt with anything around the baseball. All that said, if the baseball is affected the Red Sox should get a slight boost from this, especially if their outfield defense adjusts to the new dimensions around them quickly and prove to be a plus out there.