The Red Sox are playing phenomenal baseball, and I think the fact that they are off to a 12-6 start is a big surprise to a lot of people. It is certainly a surprise to me, as I saw them as more of a .500 team and expected them to play at roughly that rate to start the season as well. They are beating good teams and good pitchers, though, and they’re doing it with a well-rounded effort. The rotation, to me, has been the biggest story, as their starters have been able to keep them in just about every game early on in this schedule. That was obviously the biggest question for this roster coming into the year, so seeing them perform like this is huge.
The offense has been a big part of the success as well though. The Red Sox are getting contributions from up and down the lineup, from their stars like J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers to some surprises like Christian Arroyo. All together they lead all of baseball with 100 runs scored, and their 127 wRC+ is the best in all of baseball, nine points higher than the second-place Angels. Between the pitching and the offense, if there was going to be some smoke and mirrors to the success one would assume the pitching would be the culprit. But there’s certainly some questions about how sustainable the current Red Sox offense is.
Most of this discussion comes down to batting average on balls in play. Most people reading this are likely familiar, but in case you are not BABIP is, well, exactly what it sounds like. It’s just a measure to see how many balls that are put into play fall in for hits. Generally speaking it’s discussed as a “luck” stat, with deviations from the norm (typically teams and players settle in with a BABIP around .300) being attributed to good or bad fortune. That’s an oversimplification — especially for individual players, some hitters are naturally better or worse at driving up BABIP, and the same goes for pitchers — but when numbers are way out of whack, there is often something going on there.
That brings us to the Red Sox, who have a .342 batting average on balls in play as a team this season. And while it is an oversimplification to just wave your hands and say “it’s luck,” it’s more accurate the smaller the sample is. Here, we are obviously dealing with a small sample of only 18 games, and we are also looking at a big deviation from the norm. Consider that just this season, in similar sample sizes across the league, Miami and Washington are tied for the second-highest BABIP as a team. They sit at .316, 26 points behind Boston. Furthermore, the highest BABIP by a team ever over a full season is from the 2017 Rockies, and they finished with a .332 mark.
All of that is to say: The Red Sox are not going to finish with a BABIP that is this high. It’s just not the way baseball works, and it’s always safe to bet against a team doing something that has never been done in the history of the game. You’ll pretty much always be right if you err on that side. The question is how much regression are they going to see, and will it be to the point where we have to worry about what we’re seeing from this team?
The first and most obvious place to look for how much they have “earned” of this unsustainable BABIP is the batted ball data. Here, the Red Sox don’t really look like a team that would be breaking BABIP. In terms of hard-hit rate on FanGraphs, they are right in the middle of the pack at 14th in baseball. On the other side of the coin, they have the sixth-highest soft-hit rate. They also don’t rank out of the norm in terms of hitting line drives (they rank ninth), and they don’t use the whole field at a much higher rate than the rest of the league.
So that part of things is a bit of a downer and suggests that there probably has been a decent amount of luck for the Red Sox to get to this point. That’s not to say we should be expecting this offense to crater, though. There are a few key points that should keep us optimistic with this offense. The first is that they have the talent. A lot of their success has come from guys who we expected to contribute. They have five players with a wRC+ of at least 140, meaning all five have been at least 40 percent better than league-average. They won’t all stay that hot, but J.D. Martinez, Alex Verdugo, Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts should all stay on the very productive side of things, high BABIP or no. Arroyo is the only player in that group who seems like he doesn’t belong, and even he is passing with flying colors by the eye test.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that they have beaten a whole lot of good pitchers already this season. Granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t getting lucky in those games, but at a certain point if you beat enough good pitchers you should get the benefit of the doubt. For the Red Sox, they’ve been able to get to, among others, Lucas Giolito, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tyler Glasnow, and José Berríos. If you can get wins under your belt against that caliber of opponent, luck or no, you’ll take it.
I also believe the Red Sox are going with a team-wide approach of aggression that lends itself to making your own luck. They’re not waiting around to swing at pitches, which typically means they are getting to pitches that they want to hit. They are fourth in baseball in terms of swinging at pitches both in the zone and out of it, but they are also in the top ten in overall contact rate. That doesn’t mean they will sustain an all-time high BABIP, to be clear, but having a clear plan and executing on it consistently is a good way to get the results you’re looking for.
To finish things off, I’ll go with what I think is the most important point here. That is the fact that multiple things are allowed to be true at once. In this context, that means the Red Sox offense can both be very good and also playing above their skill level at this point in time. The BABIP is going to come down. That’s just how this goes. But there’s also plenty of room to fall for them to still be good. As I mentioned at the top, they are nine points above the second highest wRC+ in the game. This lineup is talented, and that’s the biggest reason for their success. So yes, expect to see fewer singles fall in moving forward, and the overall production to fall a bit. But certainly don’t expect for the offense to crater, or even stop being among the best in the game.