Jim Davis/Globe Staff file
With Alex Cora now in place as the Red Sox’ new manager, attention surrounding the team will turn to the search for offense. Yet while the focus will naturally fall on potential additions – with particular curiosity surrounding whether the team will make a run at J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer – the impact of such an addition is easy to overstate.
Certainly, the addition of a middle-of-the-order bat represents an important aspiration for a Red Sox team that scored 103 fewer runs in 2017 than 2016. Yet the impact of a single newcomer likely will pale next to what kind of improvement – if any – the Red Sox can achieve from their returning lineup members.
As much as offseason assessments are inevitably dominated by new players, nothing can do more to transform the Red Sox’ outlook for 2018 than better performances from their holdovers. Cora suggested as much.
“There’s certain guys here that, they’re going to get better,” said Cora on Monday. “I expect Xander Bogaerts to be a better player. Mookie Betts, he had a great season, but I expect him (to be better). These guys are going to take a step.”
Of course, the Sox don’t even need to see such players take a step beyond what they’ve done. Rather, the team hopes to see their young core return to levels they’ve already achieved. And beyond Cora, one of their coaching staff changes looms particularly large in the Sox’ hopes of doing just that.
The addition of Tim Hyers as Red Sox hitting coach reunites Bogaerts, Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Rafael Devers with a familiar instructor. Prior to joining the Dodgers as their assistant hitting coach in 2016-17, Hyers spent the 2013-15 seasons as the Red Sox’ minor league hitting coordinator, with an interim stint as the big league hitting coach in 2014 when Greg Colbrunn suffered a brain hemorrhage.
Hyers had an up-close view of Bogaerts as he emerged as one of the game’s best prospects in 2013 (on the way to key contributions in the World Series), of Bradley as he worked to find his way back from all-consuming big league struggles in 2014 to Triple A excellence and then a big league breakthrough in 2015, and of Betts as he transformed from a light-hitting middle infielder to one of the game’s most dynamic young talents in 2013 and 2014.
* - OPS+ compares a player’s or team’s OBP and slugging percentage to league averages, adjusting for park effects, where a value of 100 is average, and anything above that is above-average.
He knows the sorts of conversations that departed hitting coach Chili Davis and assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez had with the young Sox’ players in recent years, allowing him to continue and build upon that dialogue.
“Obviously, there’s a comfort level with a lot of the players,” said Hyers. “I saw them when they were in the minor leagues and worked with them for many hours. That comfort level made [the Red Sox job] really intriguing.”
Hyers combines familiarity with the Sox’ homegrown core – and the offensive approaches that characterized them at their best – with views refined while working with a Dodgers team that went from scoring 4.12 runs per game (19th in the majors) the year before he and hitting coach Turner Ward joined them to 4.48 runs per game (14th) in 2016 to 4.75 runs per game (12th) in 2017.
The Dodgers and Red Sox lineups ranked as the two most selective in the majors in 2017, with the Dodgers swinging at 43.7 percent of pitches and the Sox swinging at 43.9 percent of offerings. Yet while the Red Sox tended to be passive on pitches in the strike zone (swinging at a league-low 62.3 percent of such offerings) while proving vulnerable to its expansion, the Dodgers chased the lowest percentage of pitches (26.2 percent) in the majors. When they saw good pitches to hit, they tended to drive them in the air, ranking sixth in the majors in fly ball rate (37.0 percent of all batted balls) and second in the frequency of hard contact (35.5 percent).
As was the case with Cora and the Astros, Hyers worked with hitters intent on attacking strikes and doing damage by driving them.
“I probably don’t see [the difference between the organizational hitting philosophies] as maybe that dramatic, but being around the LA hitters, they do really have an emphasis of getting the ball in the air and staying through it, driving the baseball. That’s a priority for them,” said Hyers. “I see the numbers [for the Sox and Dodgers] are different. Maybe it’s just the intent of being aggressive in some hitter’s counts, some advantage counts, that you can take advantage of. Talent-wise, both organizations, both teams have a lot of talent that can do similar things with the baseball.”
Hyers has seen the transformative impact that changes in approach – a focus on using the legs for leverage and impacting the ball in front of the body and staying through the ball to produce line drives and fly balls – can have on players with strong hand-eye coordination. An emphasis on those elements helped Justin Turner and Chris Taylor go from obscurity to stardom in Los Angeles.
“When they changed a little bit of their mechanics, learned to make that adjustment, create some leverage within the swing, and gained confidence, the numbers followed,” said Hyers. “They were really good hitters but they really found their mechanics that they gained confidence in.”
So much of what the Red Sox are trying to accomplish revolves around an effort to restore the performances of Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley – all of whom were American League All-Star Game starters in 2016.
The decision to change managers and overhaul the coaching staff arose in no small part from the Sox’ recognition that any championship aspirations rely on seeing their young players perform at something closer to the peak of their abilities than the nadir. Hyers is a part of that.
He spoke glowingly of the upside of both Bradley and Bogaerts, of their work ethics, of the untapped power potential for Bogaerts if – when once again healthy after a physically challenging 2017 season – he can do more to involve his lower half while looking to drive the ball. While the Sox’ new hitting coach is now decompressing at home following the World Series, he plans to travel this offseason to meet with some members of the Red Sox roster to discuss any alterations they might be looking to make in pursuit of bouncebacks. It’s a task he’s eager to commence.
“I’m so excited to talk to them,” said Hyers. “I know their swings very well from previous years and grinding with them in the minor leagues. I’m excited to talk with them, see the adjustments they’ve made, see the things they felt comfortable with and maybe some things they’ve struggled with and how the league has adjusted to them.
“First and foremost is understanding where they’re at and what they want to accomplish,” he added. “I’m excited. They’re only going to get better. I can’t wait to get back in the cages with them, to talk, and see where this can go.”
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