For a team that struggled to score runs against the New York Yankees last season, the Red Sox made quite a statement against the Yankees this week in the teams’ first series of 2018. In taking 2-of-3 from New York, the Red Sox scored 27 runs. Last year, in 19 games, the Sox scored just 59.
That is an increase of nearly 300 percent.
Which brings us back to the Red Sox’ much-discussed change in approach this year – and to comments made by owner John Henry in spring training.
“I’m just saying from my perspective at least, we’ve made a lot of changes. I think our approach last year was lacking offensively and we had issues that the players have already talked about,” Henry told reporters. He added: “We would’ve had significant power last year if we had a different approach. That’s my opinion. It may not be true. But I think we have a very good offense.”
Whether Henry is right remains to be seen over the long haul, but the Red Sox are suddenly off to a good start. Yes, the Sox added J.D. Martinez to their lineup, too – no small thing – but whether a simple change in approach can make a difference remains to be seen.
The home runs? They’re still not where the Red Sox want them to be, but that’s only part of the issue. Last season, while major leaguers were collectively hitting more home runs than ever before, the Red Sox ranked last in the American League; this year, they’re 11th. Naturally, we haven’t even played 10 percent of the schedule yet, so the sample is decidedly small.
But the timing of those Red Sox homers has been near impeccable.
Remember: the Red Sox didn’t hit a grand slam during all of last season. This year, they already have three. And whether they’ve come early in the count or late in the count, they’ve demonstrated that the Red Sox are, as manager Alex Cora has put it, looking to do “damage” when they have pitchers on the ropes.
Last night, the Sox did not a grand slam. But they came close.
In the second inning, with the Sox holding a 1-0 lead, Mookie Betts came to bat with the bases loaded. Along with Xander Bogaerts, Betts is one of the players that the Sox would like to see be more aggressive, especially in key spots. So what did Betts do? He swung at a first-pitch fastball from Sonny Gray, blasting a ball to the triangle in right center field that resulted in a sacrifice fly.
Make no mistake, he was swinging away. Betts got a first-pitch fastball and attacked it:
Now let’s go back to the previous night. In this game, the Sox were getting walloped. They were down 8-2 when Martinez stepped up against Masahiro Tanaka in the fifth. Again, the bases were loaded. And again, the Sox swung at the first pitch, Martinez belting a grand slam to straightaway center field that made it an 8-6 game.
Martinez almost always looks to hit the ball in the air. But again, look at count here – and look at his left shoulder. He’s looking to lift the ball – to do damage.
In the simplest sense, at-bats with the bases loaded are obviously when hitters have the biggest advantage – particularly when ahead in the count. Last season, the Sox had 132 at-bats with the bases loaded – fifth-most in the American League; they did not hit a single grand slam. This year, in just 14 such at-bats, the Sox already have hit three.
Just the same, this isn’t all about grand slams. It’s about intent. When the bases are loaded, even a double can score three runs. The bottom line is that the pitcher is on the ropes, and the Red Sox are now looking for knockouts instead of trying to score with jabs. As much as we talk about “approach,” situational hitting is as much about mentality or, better yet, attitude.
So, bases on slugging percentage and paying particular note to league average, here is where the Sox ranked last year with the bases loaded, courtesy of the ESPN stat machine:
And here is where they rank now:
Whether this all persists is anybody’s guess, but also know this: when Xander Bogaerts hit the Red Sox’ first grand slam of the season last weekend, he did so on a 3-2 pitch. On the prior offering – a 3-1 fastball – Bogaerts sat on the pitch and fouled it back. He sat again on 3-2 and didn’t miss – crushing the ball over the left field wall. On Wednesday, Betts did something similar – sitting on a pitch in the middle of the plate and swinging with intent.
At this time, it’s worth noting that the Red Sox still have just 10 homers this year, 11th among all American League teams. Maybe that number will go up and maybe it won’t. But unlike 2017, the Red Sox too routinely left pitchers off the hook when they had multiple runners on base, they’re doing something they didn’t previously do.
They’re making their swings count.
-- By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
You can hear Mazz weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program, and from 6-7 p.m. on The Baseball Reporters. And you can get a closer look every Tuesday and Friday with the Behind The Seams blog. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.