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Alex Speier

Can the Red Sox have an elite offense without hitting home runs?

Chris Young slid home safely in a game against the Orioles earlier this season.John Tlumacki/Globe staff file

The Red Sox didn’t homer … again. After their 3-1 loss to the Yankees on Wednesday, they have just 11 homers through 20 games, fewest in the big leagues -- and the same number as Eric Thames of the Brewers has delivered singlehandedly. Eighteen teams have at least twice as many homers as the Sox, headed by Milwaukee, which already has cleared the fences 40 times.

The Red Sox went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, leaving them hitless in their last 12 plate appearances with runners on second and/or third. That rut runs counter to the team’s production in such situations to this point in the season – the team has been among the AL’s most efficient with runners in scoring position in terms of average (.286, 2nd), OBP (.374, 3rd), and OPS (.802, 5th) – but the recent slide is fuel for skepticism.

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April cold-weather statistics offer a significant element of deceit, but at least in terms of perception, the Red Sox right now are a drastically altered team from the one that demolished opposing pitching staffs a year ago – particularly given the absence of longtime linchpin David Ortiz.

A year of change Red Sox' offense through 20 games in 2016 and 2017 (MLB rank in parentheses)
Category 2016 2017
Runs per game 5.1 (4) 3.9 (21)
HRs 15 (25) 11 (30)
Average .276 (3) .273 (1)
OBP .338 (4) .339 (3)
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com

As Julian Benbow writes, Yankees manager Joe Girardi views the Red Sox as a team with a deep and talented lineup, albeit one that seems unquestionably different without a singular masher.

There’s plenty of reason to think, as Peter Abraham wrote recently, that the Red Sox’ power outage is a temporary condition. A year ago the Sox had 15 homers through 20 games – the fewest to that point in the AL. From that point forward, they blasted 193 homers, the fifth-most in the majors.

Nonetheless, it would be a bit shortsighted to take for granted the idea that the Red Sox will repeat that reversal. This stretch of 20 games might represent an aberration – or it might represent the beginning of a pattern.

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So what if this is who the Red Sox are? Can they still feature an elite offense even in the absence of the sort of thump that characterizes the rest of the division and, indeed, most of baseball?

Even in Wednesday’s defeat, the Red Sox offered clues as to how they can feature a strong offense even without homers. Against rocket-armed closer Aroldis Chapman in the ninth inning, they delivered tough at-bats, plating one run, getting the tying run on base, and extending the lefthander to 33 pitches before Jackie Bradley Jr. and Josh Rutledge struck out to end the contest.

While the Sox haven’t had power, they’ve demonstrated an unusual ability to put the ball in play, something that has allowed them to produce regular pop-gun rallies. To date, the team has struck out in just 16.1 percent of plate appearances – a mark that would be the second lowest by any team since the start of the 2012 season, surpassed in this era of huge velocity only by the 2015 Royals (15.9 percent).

Still, that Royals team featured an adequate rather than elite offense. And to date, the 2017 Red Sox are slipping below the benchmark for adequacy (their 3.9 runs per game rank 21st in the majors and 11th in the AL).

The Red Sox entered the year anticipating that, even if they fell short of last year’s league-leading standards, they’d still have one of the better lineups in the game. They haven’t to date. Can a team emerge as a standout offense without benefit of the longball?

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It’s certainly happened, but rarely. In 2013, the Cardinals team that the Red Sox beat in the World Series led the NL in runs per game and finished third in the majors even as they had the third fewest homers. That team led the NL in both OBP and doubles, traits that the Red Sox (who currently lead the AL with a .339 team OBP while ranking tied for fourth with 36 doubles) believe can propel their lineup.

“This is a team, because of our athleticism, the way our offensive approach has been, it’s a high doubles team. And the bottom line is to score runs, however that might be,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “I like the fact that we’ve got a deep lineup that’s capable of either manufacturing runs or not necessarily just being reliant on whether you hit a home run or not.”

Still, while teams have proven capable of sustaining decent offenses with modest home run totals, instances like that 2013 Cardinals team – which ranked close to the top of the big leagues in runs scored despite ranking near the bottom in homers – are rare. In fact, the 2013 Cardinals are the only team since the 2008 Twins to finish in the top-five in the majors in runs and the bottom-five in homers.

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The Red Sox’ status as the preseason AL East favorite formed with the expectation that they’d have the best offense in the division. They currently rank fourth. There’s a chance they can alter their status even without a considerable increase in homers … but to do so, they’d have to represent a true outlier in a baseball landscape where offenses increasingly are built around teams that swing for the fences and care little about swings and misses.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.