Christian Vázquez stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the Red Sox’ Sunday afternoon contest against the Seattle Mariners. The previous batter was Xander Bogaerts, who struck out on a Nick Margevicius 90-m.p.h. heater that he chased off the edge of the plate. The Red Sox were down, 1-0, in the bottom of the first — a usual occurrence for the squad in this young season.
Yet the Red Sox still found themselves in the driver’s seat with just one out, and on the first pitch of the at-bat, Vázquez capitalized. Margevicius tried to go with that same fastball, but this one caught enough of the outer edge of the plate for Vázquez to shoot it to right field for a base hit.
The single tied the game at one apiece, and helped propel the Red Sox to a 5-3 win, giving them a series split with the Mariners. Vázquez’s approach was the most important piece in that moment and illustrated something manager Alex Cora and hitting coach Tim Hyers have preached: situational hitting and putting the ball in play.
Despite missing the playoffs in 2019, the Red Sox on paper had one of the best offenses in baseball. They ranked third in batting average (.269) and on-base percentage (.340), fifth in slugging (.466) and OPS (.806), and 10th in homers (245). Yet when it came to situational hitting and putting the ball in play, they struggled mightily. With a man on third and less than two outs, the Red Sox had the fifth-worst OPS (.797). Their .294 batting average ranked 23rd in those situations.
During an eight-game losing streak against the Yankees and Rays in late July/early August that essentially derailed any hope of reaching the postseason, the Red Sox had 17 plate appearances with a man on third and less than two outs. They drove in just four of those runners — one on a single, one on a ground out, two on sacrifice flies.
Cora, who was dismissed by the Red Sox after the season for his involvement in the Houston Astros 2017 cheating scandal, went back to the drawing board with his coaching staff just days before that.
“I had a meeting with Tim and [assistant hitting coach Peter Fatse] about X amount of bats are for the team, and the rest are for the player,” Cora said.
Cora and his staff want their hitters to be aggressive, but calculated in that aggression. Even though Vázquez had a breakout season in 2019, the Red Sox believed he surrendered his bat-to-ball skills at the expense of launch. Vázquez wasn’t the only one, which is why the team repeatedly emphasized the value of putting the ball in play and forcing the defense to work.
“Pitchers are going to bring their A game,” Hyers said. “They’re going to bring their best stuff at you to minimize runs. So it’s not that we can just swing. You’ve got to get a quality pitch and stick to a plan and go from there.”
The Red Sox have some of the most complete hitters in baseball. In a league ruled by home runs and strikeouts, their lineup can beat you in multiple ways.
“I don’t like to consider myself a slugger,” J.D. Martinez said. “I consider myself a hitter who can drive the ball. And I think a lot of guys kind of have that same identity here.”
That identity lives at the top of the order, with Alex Verdugo, Martinez, Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers. They can win by the homer, a single that finds a hole, or a double in the gap. Yet Martinez isn’t quick to boast on that, understanding the tough reality hitters face.
“I think what people don’t understand is that this is a stuff-over-command league nowadays,” Martinez said. “It’s guys that throw 100 miles an hour. You see it every day, every team.
“When I was coming up, there was one guy in the league who threw 100 and it was [Aroldis] Chapman. Now there are two guys on every team that throw 100.”
In turn, the hitters who don’t possess elite bat-to-ball skills are left with three outcomes that critics believe have eroded the sport: strikeout, homer, or walk. The reason?
“Pitching is always ahead of hitting,” Martinez said.
For every countermove that an offense presents, pitching presents another counter.
Currently, it’s attacking the strike zone north and south. Fastballs up, breaking balls down, then perhaps expand away with two strikes. Velocity above the hands is tough for most hitters to barrel. Martinez said there’s a counter to that but he didn’t disclose what it was. Hyers, however, did elaborate a bit.
“We try to stay direct, have a direct swing path,” Hyers said. “You have to be direct to the baseball. And that’s not trying to be loopy or lose the barrel on the backside.”
The home run, though, is what pays. Hyers and his staff understand that, which is why they give their players room during an at-bat to produce their A swing, an approach that allows them to slug. But, again, it has to be the right situation, against the right pitcher.
“There are guys that have quality stuff and some arms coming out the bullpen or some starters that you’ve got to battle and survive for that day,” Hyers said.
Despite going through somewhat of an offensive lull, the Red Sox entered Monday first in the majors in batting average (.276), slugging (.455), and OPS (.794). They have the fifth-lowest strikeout rate (22 percent). And while they’re still working to be more productive with runners in scoring position (hitting just .238), there’s more of a willingness to accept lesser contact in those instances. They have a 34.7 percent fly-ball rate with RISP (ranked 16th in the majors).
There’s anecdotal evidence, too. Recently, they pounced on White Sox starter Lucas Giolito for eight runs (seven earned) backed by eight hits in an inning-plus of work. Two of the hits were homers, but the other six were all singles that came in the first inning, including a timely bunt by Vázquez. It was a clear display of beating an opponent in multiple ways.
“That was something that was very nice to see,” Bogaerts said. “Very different, and something that we have in our back pockets.”
The Red Sox have bought into different, or, maybe, they have accepted who they really are: hitters.
“You’ve got to be a hitter before you’re a slugger,” Martinez said.