Little does more to embody the contrast between the performances of the 2017 and 2018 Red Sox lineups than a single, startling number: Five.
A team that stood alone as the only one in the majors not to hit a grand slam last year has cleared the fences five times in the first 21 games of the season – thus becoming only the second team in history to hit at least five grand slams before the end of April. (The 1996 Expos hit six April grand slams, though their final two didn’t come until their 25th game of the season.)
The handful of grand slams matches the team’s highest total for any single month since at least 1925 (the earliest year in which Baseball-Reference.com has such records), equaling the five four-run homers launched by the team in Sept. 2013. Already, the team has more grand slams than it hit in 59 of the previous 92 seasons. This year’s Sox are already nearly halfway to the franchise record of 11 grand slams in a season, set in 2005.
Yet the bases-loaded production hasn’t just been limited to grand slams. In 25 plate appearances with no vacancy on the bases, the Sox are 10-for-21 with a walk and three sac flies, scoring 32 runs in those moments. A great deal of the team’s strong offensive start (5.9 runs per game, 2nd in the majors to the Yankees) is a product of its bases-loaded production.
Some of those monster offensive numbers are a product of a small sample size, but there also seems a clear difference in approach. In 2017, the Sox seemed more intent on putting the ball in play with the bases loaded (17.9 percent strikeout rate) than doing damage, resulting in extra-base hits in just 7.7 percent of plate appearances with three runners on base.
This year, the team is taking more chances in hopes of driving the ball. The Sox have struck out in seven of their 25 plate appearances with the bases loaded (28 percent), but they’ve regularly hammered the ball when they have put it in play (24 percent of plate appearances with the bases loaded).
That development reflects the team’s eagerness to pounce on pitches that are in the strike zone. With the bases loaded, the Sox have swung at 74 percent of pitches located in the strike zone – up from a roughly 65 percent mark a year ago. They are unloading on pitches in the situations that can have the most dramatic impact, yet the readiness to do so hasn’t come at the expense of a sound approach, as reflected by a chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone that is only marginally higher than last year’s.
|Plate Appearances||156 (10)||25 (T-8)|
|Average||.288 (12)||.476 (2)|
|OBP||.308 (17)||.440 (4)|
|Slugging||.379 (25)||1.238 (1)|
In many ways, what the team is doing with the bases loaded serves as a window into what has transpired overall with the team’s offense through this still-early stretch of the season. Here are the hallmarks of the team’s offense to date:
■ The Red Sox have been swinging – a lot. In 2017, the Sox swung at the second-lowest percentage of pitches (43.9) of any team in the majors. This year, they’ve swung at 47.5 percent of the pitches they’ve seen, the second highest rate in the majors (behind only the Tigers).
■ Yet while the team has swung aggressively, they’ve remained disciplined in terms of how they’ve approached pitches in the strike zone. The team has chased 30.3 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone – above the league average (29.2 percent), but still relatively close to it. Nine teams have chased a higher percentage of pitches outside of the zone; the Orioles lead the majors with a 32.7 percent chase rate.
■ The Sox do swing and miss quite a bit (34.4 percent, 6th highest in the majors) when expanding the strike zone, but that changes in two-strike counts. When hacking with two strikes, the team does a good job of getting the bat on the ball, with a 33.3 percent swing-and-miss rate – the third-lowest in the majors in two-strike counts. The ability to get the bat on the ball with two strikes – even on pitches outside the zone – helps to explain why the Sox have the lowest strikeout rate in the majors, and in turn helps to explain why the Sox lead the majors in both average (.218) and OPS (.639) in two-strike counts.
■ The Red Sox have been the most aggressive team in the majors when it comes to swinging at pitches in the strike zone, attacking 70.6 percent of such pitches – well above the league-average (66.1 percent). When they’ve swung at those pitches, they’ve made consistent contact with them, swinging and missing just 12.2 percent of the time – the second lowest whiff rate in the majors. The team is hitting .297 (5th in the majors) on pitches in the strike zone with a .525 slugging mark (2nd).
■ As much as the team has focused on taking chances in hitters’ counts, the Sox haven’t just been feasting on fastballs. Their numbers against pitches characterized by BaseballSavant.com as four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs, and sinkers are solid (.286 average, 6th in the majors; .466 slugging, 8th in the majors) but not extraordinary. Their numbers against secondary pitches, on the other hand, have been elite, with the team leading the majors in both average (.265) and slugging (.465) on all other pitches.
These combined traits help to explain a great deal about why the Sox are excelling with the bases loaded. Pitchers who don’t have a free base to work with feel compelled to throw strikes. Regardless of whether the pitch in the zone is a fastball or off-speed pitch, the Sox have been ready and able to attack such offerings, helping to explain their two first-pitch grand slams. Yet the team also has two grand slams in two-strike counts (one by Xander Bogaerts on a 3-2 pitch, another by Rafael Devers on a 1-2 offering), showing a team whose contact abilities have afforded pitchers little breathing room.
To date, it’s been an impressive combination of skills, one that – at least for the first nearly four weeks of the season – has created an impression of a lineup that has an explosiveness that rarely characterized its 2017 predecessor.