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Alex Speier

Red Sox planning a more aggressive approach at plate

Xander Bogaerts last season was among the players in the majors least likely to swing at the first pitch.JOHN MINCHILLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

All along, J.D. Martinez represented the upgrade the Red Sox wanted. A player who blasted one homer for every 10.9 trips to the plate in 2017 — the highest home run rate in the majors since Barry Bonds’s 73-homer season in 2001 — loomed as an obvious difference-maker for a team that finished last in the American League in homers.

Nonetheless, a case can be made that Martinez represents the second — and not necessarily most significant — change for the Red Sox as they pursue a run-scoring boost.

On the day the Red Sox agreed to terms with Martinez, Red Sox principal owner (and Globe owner) John Henry repeatedly articulated a belief that the Sox could see a considerable boost in their production with a different approach.


The 2017 Red Sox in many ways ran counter to what was occurring across the rest of baseball. While the team ranked among the best at hitting with two strikes, a typically passive approach in early hitters’ counts limited its upside.

The seven best counts in which to hit, by OPS, are (in order): 3-1, 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, 0-0, 1-1, and 0-1. The Sox ranked 20th or worse in the majors in each of those — a bottom-third offense in the counts that offered the greatest opportunities.

While the team ranked among the six most productive offenses in the three worst counts (0-2, 1-2, 2-2), the upside of being elite in those counts is typically limited. In those two-strike situations, a single qualifies as a great outcome, while home runs remain rare.

Finding the right count How the Red Sox OPS by count compared to MLB in 2017
Count MLB OPS Red Sox (MLB Rank)
3-1 1.369 1.221 (29)
2-0 1.020 .952 (20)
2-1 .964 .870 (24)
1-0 .957 .918 (22)
0-0 .941 .822 (27)
1-1 .917 .875 (23)
0-1 .866 .730 (29)
3-2 .832 .832 (16)
2-2 .477 .533 (6)
1-2 .414 .458 (4)
0-2 .387 .480 (2)
SOURCE:  Baseball-Reference.com

Success in the early counts is defined by extra-base hits and homers. The Sox rarely gave themselves a chance to capitalize on such opportunities, a fact that proved glaring to team officials as the season wore on.

“When you watch 160 games you see certain patterns that really should not have repeated over and over again,” wrote Henry in an e-mail. “By the time the playoffs started there were a number of factors that were going to be looked at during the offseason. I thought [hitting coach Chili Davis] and [assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez] were terrific hitting coaches and two men who did a great job for us and are great people. In 2016 we led the league in scoring runs. What changed?


“Dave [Dombrowski, president of baseball operations] could answer that better than I could, but the game is changing and players sometimes can stop listening. Dave thought we needed new voices in the clubhouse. We thought the whole club could improve by having a new staff, the right staff, with different ideas and philosophies that are not necessarily where the Red Sox have been over the last 15 years.”

New manager Alex Cora has spoken frequently about his hope that returning members of the lineup will start cutting loose on first pitches and in hitters’ counts. A year ago, he saw the Astros blast a major league-leading 55 homers and 117 extra-base hits on the first pitch of their plate appearances.

The Red Sox, by contrast, ranked last in the AL in average, OBP, and slugging percentage on the first pitch. They likewise ranked last in the majors in the percentage of first pitches at which they swung (21.1 percent). Of the 216 players in the majors with at least 400 plate appearances last year, Xander Bogaerts (11.9 percent, 212th), Mookie Betts (12.1 percent, 211th), and Dustin Pedroia (15.2 percent, 204th) all ranked among the hitters least likely to attack a first pitch.


Red Sox individual player statistics on the first pitch, 2017 * - Rank out of 216 MLB players with 400+ plate appearances
Player First pitch swing % (MLB Rank*) Average (Rank*) Slugging (Rank*) Groundball % (Rank*)
J.D. Martinez 41.6 (10) .397 (62) .778 (38) 39.7 (118)
Hanley Ramirez 34.6 (53) .345 (118) .691 (62) 32.7 (178)
Eduardo Nunez 32.8 (75) .375 (83) .514 (149) 56.3 (10)
Jackie Bradley Jr. 27.2 (125) .358 (106) .623 (87) 47.2 (63)
Mitch Moreland 22.8 (162) .289 (178) .400 (194) 45.5 (75)
Andrew Benintendi 19.6 (187) .279 (186) .476 (164) 40.0 (115)
Dustin Pedroia 15.2 (204) .250 (198) .300 (209) 50.0 (29)
Mookie Betts 12.1 (211) .233 (204) .535 (139) 32.6 (179)
Xander Bogaerts 11.9 (212) .241 (202) .276 (212) 48.3 (50)
SOURCE: Stats Inc., Baseball-Reference.com

Such selectivity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In 2016, the Red Sox likewise ranked last in the majors with a 21.1 swing percentage on first pitches. But that team — en route to leading the majors in offense — typically drilled line drives or drove the ball in the air when connecting with first pitches.

The 2017 Red Sox often hit ground balls on the first pitch, suggesting hitters who were hunting the wrong sorts of pitches or locations at a time when they could afford to take risks.

Davis and Rodriguez tried to encourage their hitters — particularly Bogaerts — to take more chances on first pitches a year ago. Bogaerts was fully aware of the fact that he was often giving away a strike at the start of a plate appearance, but couldn’t figure out how to correct course.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating,” Bogaerts said in the middle of last season. “I go up there wanting to swing at the first pitch and I can’t. It’s ridiculous. The pitchers, obviously they’ve got to know that. If I know that, they know it. They’re giving me a meatball.”

The fact that Bogaerts was aware of his struggles suggests that a change of course isn’t a simple turnkey issue. Nonetheless, given that the shortstop — among others — wasn’t able to adjust his plan of attack on the fly last year, the Sox felt that it was time to change the coaching staff.


The Sox have tremendous talent throughout their lineup. In terms of pure hitting ability, Betts, Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers all have remarkable hand-eye coordination as well as natural bat speed that can allow them to make consistent hard contact.

If the Red Sox can tap into that skill set with both better health and a better offensive approach, the impact on their lineup may surpass even the upgrade offered by Martinez.

That said, the Sox view the addition of Martinez as one that could have ripples for the rest of their offense. The 30-year-old is considered one of the game’s foremost students of hitting, both in terms of how he analyzes his own swing and how he develops a plan of attack. He swung at the first pitch 41.6 percent of the time last year — the 10th-highest rate in the majors — and hit .397 with a .788 slugging mark in such counts.

In player-to-player conversations that involve Martinez, the Sox hope they can amplify some of the themes being emphasized by their overhauled coaching staff this year.

“What he brings in that clubhouse, the way he prepares, I’m looking forward to him connecting with players,” said Cora. “That’s also something he’s going to bring as far as preparation and using information.

“We were talking about it the last two months. Now we got a guy, he believes in it. I know he’s willing to share information. That’s going to be an asset for us.”


That, at least, is the Red Sox’ hope. At a time when the team faces an increasingly daunting task in its effort to remain atop the American League East, the idea of an offense upgraded by a more aggressive approach — one that runs counter to some of the philosophies that fueled the team’s three championships — represents a critical element of the team’s blueprint for 2018.

“You have to change with the game and as I said, it’s changing quite a lot,” wrote Henry. “You can’t place all of the blame [for last year’s approach issues] on coaches and managers. They can only coach and manage. [But] this year we will see a very different approach.”

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.