The best three hitters in the Red Sox lineup are, pretty clearly, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez. I think you’d have a hard time arguing otherwise. You can put that trio in whatever order you’d like (I’d have it as it’s listed, but that’s not important), but those are the top three. So being the fourth-best hitter on a team with those names could theoretically be pretty disheartening. You could be a forgotten man in some sense. But Alex Verdugo does not appear to be upset about things at all, and he is certainly not forgetting. In fact, he is benefiting from that core group of sluggers, and on the other end they are benefiting from having him in front of him.
Before we get into that, it’s worth looking briefly at the last couple of years for the Red Sox outfielder. As we all know, Verdugo came over from L.A. in the Mookie Betts trade, being given the impossible task of replacing arguably the best player developed by the Red Sox in over a half-century. Some would collapse under that pressure, but Verdugo never seemed even a little bit fazed. That said, while he was a rare bright spot on the 2020 roster, his 126 wRC+ was boosted by a .371 batting average on balls in play, which made it fair to wonder whether he was merely a good hitter rather than someone who had a chance to be in that next tier up.
This season, the concerns have been put to rest. In terms of overall performance at the plate, Verdugo has technically taken a slight step back, sitting with a 122 wRC+ as we sit here Wednesday morning. But he’s getting there in a much more sustainable way with a .301 BABIP that might actually be a tad low given his offensive profile. And he’s also doing it by putting everything in play, which is particularly notable in an era defined by pitchers missing bats. To wit, the 25-year-old has struck out only 12 percent of the time, and he’s combined contact with power to put up a very solid .179 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG).
For some more context on what Verdugo is doing in that respect, he is one of only four players in all of baseball this season with a strikeout rate no higher than 13 percent and an ISO no lower than .170. He’s joined by José Ramirez, Yuli Gurriel, and Anthony Rizzo, which is not a terrible group at all to be mentioned with. And while this doesn’t have much to do with the topic at hand, I will just note that his power and contact combination only gets stronger when the situation becomes bigger, as he has a 3.6 percent strikeout rate and .306 ISO in high-leverage situations, albeit in a small sample size.
But what is important to the topic at hand is that, for all the clutch power we are seeing from him this year, the contact-oriented approach makes him a perfect fit for this lineup, and it’s enhanced by the guys hitting behind him. Now, the elephant in the room is that he should probably be hitting leadoff, and I won’t argue too hard against that with the only counterpoints being, A, that he doesn’t like hitting leadoff (I’ve seen no evidence for this being the case, but it’s possible), and B, the offense just keeps producing. But the important thing is that Verdugo precedes the big bats in this lineup.
We’ll start with the more obvious side of the coin, which is just that Verdugo is always getting on base and keeping the pressure on the opponent in front of the big three mentioned at the top of this post. His high-contact rate combined with a good plate discipline puts him on base at a .349 clip, and his athleticism and IQ on the bases make the defense pay a little extra attention to him when he does reach base. That just opens up RBI chances for the players behind him, each of whom is in the top 30 in that category. Verdugo isn’t solely responsible for that, of course, but given the issues they’ve had all year at the bottom of the lineup, he’s a big part of it.
But the other side of the coin is that Verdugo is benefiting greatly from hitting in front of these other hitters. Lineup protection is something that can often be overstated, but that’s not the same as saying it is a thing that does not exist. Pitchers are more likely to stay in the zone if there are big bats coming up, and Verdugo has seen that. He’s seeing more pitches in the zone than ever before at a clip of 52 percent (per Baseball Savant), and a good chunk of those pitches are fastballs.
If you were to look at how the outfielder is performing against different pitches this year, you would see that he is destroying fastballs, whiffing less than 11 percent of the time while putting up an expected wOBA (an all-encompassing offensive stat based on batted ball data plus other metrics, on the same scale as OBP) of .376. He’s been fine against other pitches too, but fastballs in particular have been money for him. Normally, you would see pitchers adjust and start to throw him more breaking and offspeed pitches, but that’s easier said than done. Verdugo is good at laying off pitches out of the zone, and has been throughout his career, and pitchers wisely don’t want to risk putting a free baserunner on in front of the sluggers coming behind him.
So Verdugo is feasting on the fastballs, which are a bit more common because of the guys hitting behind him, and then he is using that to get on base, which in turn is setting up better opportunities for the big bats behind him. We learn about symbiotic relationships in school, and this is a perfect example. Whether or not everyone should be bumped up a spot to put Verdugo in the leadoff spot is a different discussion, but the Red Sox are getting everything they need from their right fielder where he’s hitting right now, and if they do move him they better make sure the other three move right along with him.