Red Sox hitters have handled high velocity exceptionally this year. How?
In Tuesday night’s 8-7 victory over the Marlins, the Red Sox engaged in a form of batting practice that said a lot about the state of the game. Against a conga line of Marlins pitchers who threw anywhere from 95-100 miles per hour, the Sox lineup lined pitches all over the park, amassing five hits against upper-90s pitches — their most since collecting six hits on pitches of that speed against the Rays on June 3.
One day later, Red Sox manager Alex Cora could only shake his head, marveling at how easily his hitters seemed as they stayed back on fastballs and drilled them up the middle and to the opposite field.
“As a .237 hitter, when people were throwing very hard, I would panic. I wanted to get the head out and all of a sudden I’m rolling over,” said Cora, before the Red Sox erupted for 11 runs on 12 hits in the seventh inning of Wednesday night’s 14-6 rout of the Marlins. “It impresses me, honestly. To hit at this level with the stuff they’re throwing on a daily basis here, and for them to hit it like it’s 88, 89, it’s impressive. But I think them staying in the middle of the field, that’s what I look for . . . They have that ability, hitters nowadays, where 100 doesn’t matter. If you throw it over the plate or you don’t have secondary pitches, they’ll hit that fastball.”
While there’s truth to the notion, the Red Sox have handled high velocity at an exceptional level in 2018 — a critical component in the team’s surge to a league-leading 5.4 runs per game. Entering Wednesday, the Sox led the majors with a .291 average against pitches of at least 95 m.p.h. Their .456 slugging percentage against such pitches ranked second in the majors.
Such marks are a far cry from what the team did a year ago. In 2017, the Sox hit .237 (19th in the majors) and slugged .351 (25th) against offerings of 95-plus m.p.h. So what’s different?
Assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett — who wasn’t with the team in 2017, and so wasn’t positioned to compare this year’s approach to last year’s — identified a few factors. The first is the talent of the lineup.
“I do know that these guys are ready to hit the fastball. We have some really talented players that can hit fastballs with anybody. When they’re looking for it, when they’re on time for it, they’re dangerous,” said Barkett. “Not everybody can do what these guys do. No doubt.”
On top of the physical skill to attack fastballs, Barkett believes that the team’s nightly breakdowns of how opponents’ fastballs move as they cross the plate play into the team’s success against high velocity.
The team discusses the sorts of swing paths that will maximize their chances of doing damage based on how the pitch acts. The adoption by several hitters of a swing meant to get on the plane of the pitch — rather than a more traditional approach that is down and direct to the ball — has created more margin for error in allowing hitters to drive pitches even when their timing on a fastball is slightly off.
“I don’t really think it’s anything earth-shattering. It’s just basically like the New England Patriots offensive coordinator talking to the offense and, this is the game plan for the game, this is the playbook, and this is how we’re going to do it,” said Barkett. “That goes into game-planning — how we’re going to attack: ‘This guy is a high-spin-rate guy, you’ve got to set your sites up and stay on top. This guy is a sinkerball guy, you’ve got to get underneath it, stay to it and through it, get it in the air.’
“Those are the kinds of conversations that hitting coaches have with hitters these days because of all the information out there. We talk about getting on plane. We do a lot of drills to work on that and have those types of conversations.”
Searching for relief
Righthander Ryan Brasier, who was unavailable on Tuesday night due to pregame discomfort in his foot, declared himself healthy and ready to pitch on Wednesday.
“It just kind of started bothering me a little bit [Tuesday] afternoon during catch and running,” said Brasier. “It was minor.”
At a time when Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree have struggled, Brasier (0.90 ERA in 20 innings) has emerged as the Red Sox’ most consistent reliever in August, resulting in growing late-innings responsibilities. Righthander Joe Kelly has also been working his way back into higher-leverage situations this month, during which he has a 1.54 ERA with 12 strikeouts and four walks over 11⅔ innings.
“Little by little, the stuff is actually better right now than what it was early in the season. Now he’s throwing 100 miles per hour every time,” said Cora. “It’s just a matter of him putting guys away with other stuff and we feel he’s getting there.”
Brasier, who entered in the eighth inning Wednesday night, faced four batters and made one mistake on a full-count offering to Austin Dean, who homered to center field for the Marlins’ parting shot.
Knuckleballer Steven Wright showed no ill effects on Wednesday, one day after tossing two scoreless innings in a rehab outing for Triple A Pawtucket. The Red Sox are deciding whether Wright (2-1, 3.38 ERA) will pitch in a minor league game on Thursday or simply throw on the side, but he’s expected to be activated when rosters expand on Sept. 1.
Chris Sale, meanwhile, threw on flat ground for a third straight day, stretching out to 120 feet.
He’ll continue to play catch through the weekend before the lefthander sits down with Sox officials to map out a schedule moving forward.
Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers and catcher Christian Vazquez (serving as DH) joined Pawtucket for a rehab game on Wednesday. It was Devers’s first rehab appearance since landing on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain on Aug. 17, and the third rehab game for Vazquez in his return from a broken pinkie suffered on July 7 . . . Single A Greenville righthander Denyi Reyes was named South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Year after forging a 10-3 record, 1.89 ERA, and 122 to 13 strikeout-to-walk rate in 21 games (18 starts) for the Drive. The Sox promoted the 21-year-old to High A Salem in early August . . . PGA Tour golfer Justin Thomas, in town for the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston in Norton, toured Fenway Park and threw out the first pitch.