ANAHEIM, Calif. — Tied for 10th is better than 27th.
That’s where the Red Sox rank in major league baseball in home runs — with 19 through 16 games, after finishing 27th with 168 last season. Now, it isn’t as good as baseball-leading Colorado’s 27 or the Angels’ 26, but it’s progress. Hitting six of them Tuesday night didn’t hurt, and J.D. Martinez’s presence has helped, but it certainly isn’t the main reason for it.
The Red Sox didn’t hit their 19th home run until May 5 in their 29th game last season, when they had a 15-14 record. The Red Sox were slugging at a .379 clip and had 68 extra-base hits.
Entering Wednesday’s game against the Angels, the Sox had 69 extra-base hits in 13 fewer games. The Sox bolstered those numbers with three more homers — on Rafael Devers’s first career grand slam in the third inning, Martinez’ solo shot in the seventh, and Mitch Moreland’s two-run drive to right in the ninth — to give the team 22 homers through 17 games.
The factors include the approach, the confidence to drive the ball, to be an offensive offensive team rather than a defensive offensive team. The Red Sox used to be so “get on base” conscious that they forgot how to “let it rip,” so to speak. With that in mind, they lead the majors with a .359 on-base percentage, so by not stressing it so much they’re actually excelling at it.
We’ve heard the story of Mookie Betts and Alex Cora, where Cora wanted Betts to be more like a George Springer leadoff hitter than a traditional get-on-base, slap-it-around kind of hitter. Cora didn’t want a table-setter. He wanted the full-course meal, and he now seems to have it with an aggressive approach by his leadoff hitter.
Martinez’ fourth homer of the season came Wednesday at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, but it’s become obvious that Fenway Park is not going to be the place where he hits the vast majority of his homers. He hits it to the deepest part of Fenway, right of center. His biggest numbers are likely to come on the road, where center and right-field porches are more friendly to his approach.
“I think hitters can finally feel their hands,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said when asked about the surge in homers. “It’s awfully tough to hit in cold weather. You just don’t have a good grip on the bat. You just don’t feel right. And of course, when the weather is that bad, balls that are hit well often times get knocked down. We should probably have a few more home runs just based on the way we’ve hit the baseball.”
Jackie Bradley Jr, who homered and had three hits on Tuesday night, said he finally felt good at the plate after playing in freezing conditions for a few days.
“You just feel looser, you feel like you’re able to really concentrate more on each at-bat. It just feels better to hit when it’s warmer,” he said.
Does that mean if you succeed in the colder weather that puts you ahead of the game?
“I guess you can look at it that way,” Bradley said. “We were winning and managed to hit well when it was cold, so when you get into this warmer weather you just feel so much better.”
The Red Sox were outscoring teams, 36-11, during their five-game winning streak heading into Wednesday night’s game. Betts was hitting .442 (19 for 43) with 11 extra-base hits (six doubles, five homers) in 12 games during April. That includes his three homers on Tuesday.
Bradley was hitting .364 (8 for 22) with seven runs scored in his last six games.
The Red Sox had scored 99 runs, their most through 16 games since 2003, when they had 105.
Hyers thinks the presence of Martinez has made a huge difference to the lineup, even though Martinez is not yet clicking like he’d like to be.
“One guy can make a big difference,” Hyers said. “It stretches out the lineup. Pitchers have to pitch the hitters around him differently. Plus, you just have a guy who takes every at-bat so seriously. He may not always succeed, but I noticed even in spring training he was treating every at-bat like it was the ninth inning of a tie game against the Yankees.
“I think when other players see that, and how seriously he takes it, they take it seriously as well.”
One thing Martinez’s presence has likely done is make Hanley Ramirez’s life a lot easier.
“I think someone like J.D. can rub off on Hanley,” Hyers said. “If he’s trying hard for a hit I’m going to try to match that intensity, and what I have to do to get a base hit. It’s a very healthy thing.”
Hyers, however, thinks the Red Sox can’t be lulled into a false sense of security. He understands, as do the hitters, that there are scouting reports out there and the Red Sox need to find a way to rewrite or change the narrative, whatever that might be.
If the Red Sox are no longer considered a grind-it-out kind of lineup but have become more aggressive, then other teams know that as well.
“I enjoy the chess match,” Hyers said. “We have to find ways to keep teams guessing. We have to keep making adjustments so we don’t become predictable, and that’s what will keep us successful. This is a game of constant adjustments and the teams that can make the most successful adjustments will come out ahead. We need to be that team.”
And so Hyers has his hitters always trying to find ways to accomplish that from at-bat to at-bat. When pitchers know a hitter is locked into a certain philosophy or looking for a certain pitch in a certain situation, then the hitter becomes easier to solve.
It’s why some hitters start out hot and then dramatically cool off when pitchers have figured out that predictability.
At the same time, nobody wants their hitters to be overloaded, either. There’s a fine line between making adjustments and keeping the status quo.
Right now, the Red Sox’ offense is moving up the charts and loving it. The ball is flying off their bats and creating “damage,” as Cora likes to call it.