Opinion

What the Boston Red Sox really need

The Red Sox need players who can hit RHP

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Aug. 26, 2017 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Ask anyone who is somewhat of a consistent baseball fan and they will be able to tell you what went wrong with the 2017 Boston Red Sox. They would probably start off by mentioning who the BoSox did not have on their roster for the first time in more than a decade (David Ortiz). Then, attempting to make a semblance of a logical connection to the retirement of Big Papi and the Red Sox glaring ’17 flaw, they would probably bring up the fact the team finished 27th in the entire league in home runs, with a paltry 168 team total.

The Colorado Rockies, ranking 21st in MLB with 192 total home runs, were the closest fellow postseason team to their lowly number, as a Wild Card team. The closest divisional winner comrade to the Red Sox were the Cleveland Indians, finishing smack in the middle at 15th, with 212 long balls. On one hand, it is pretty amazing the Red Sox were able to win 93 games with the pervasive power outage inflicting the team. On the other hand, it is an evident flaw for a team with lofty expectations and a window of contention, which, while it should be open (hopefully) for quite a bit, seems to have gotten jammed three-fourths of the way up.

Getting a tad into more advanced numbers, the Beantown squad finished 26th in the league in slugging percentage (.407) and 22nd in WRC+ (92). Here’s MLB.com’s definition of WRC+, for those unaware.

wRC+ takes the statistic Runs Created and adjusts that number to account for important external factors — like ballpark or era. It’s adjusted, so a wRC+ of 100 is league average and 150 would be 50 percent above league average.

No matter what statistic you look at, the Boston Red Sox were, somewhat surprisingly, not a good offensive team last year. While bounce back offensive seasons should and can be expected for certain players, there is a consensus among the Fenway Faithful that a bat needs to be added, especially considering the New York Yankees recently added the premier offensive weapon (outside of Mike Trout) in baseball with Giancarlo Stanton.

As a potential counter to the Bronx Bombers’ move, the Red Sox have been linked to the imposing free-agent slugger, J.D. Martinez. In fact, the Sox currently have a five-year offer dangling in front of his face.

Obviously, even if they do not sign Martinez, the Sox still need offensive production. However, maybe the surface-level solution to the Boston’s offensive woes last season is not the practical one. Get power, sure. With that said, Dave Dombroski and Co. should be focused on a specific type of power. The Red Sox need a bat, or two, who can hit right-handed pitching.

Looking at Boston’s projected Opening Day lineup as of right now, there is a very healthy mix of right and left-handed hitting, with four right-handed and five left-handed hitters. Consequently, one would assume the team would be in a decent position to hit both types of pitching.

This anticpated lineup is nearly identical to last year’s, with the loss of Pedroia, to start the season at least, and the switch from Pablo Sandoval to Rafael Devers marking the only differences. So, this group has remained pretty stagnant, meaning the results from last year are more than meaningful. Take a look at the difference in production the entire team had against RHP and LHP.

2017 Boston Red Sox Team Statistics vs. RHP and LHP: 

vs. left-handed pitching: 

  • 1413 PA (plate appearances), 100 wRC+ (10th in MLB), .759 OPS (11th in MLB) and .406 SLG (21st in MLB) 

vs. right-handed pitching: 

  • 4925 PA, 90 wRC+ (25th in MLB), .729 OPS (24th in MLB) and .407 SLG (26th in MLB) 

Boston performed considerably worse, relative to the league especially, when pitted against right-handed pitching. Against left-handed pitching, despite still doing poorly in the power department, they were in the top-third in offensive production in all of baseball. A problem has now evidently presented itself, even more so when you look at the plate appearance discrepancy between the right and left-handed pitchers the Red Sox had to face. They had to face right-handers nearly 3,500 more times last year.

As aforementioned, this stark contrast in performance cannot be attributed to an imbalance of right-handed and left-handed hitters in the lineup, either. They had left-handed hitters, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mitch Moreland, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers (kind of), plugged regularly in the lineup last year and will have all four next year. Compared to the right-handers Boston had in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Christian Vazquez, Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia (kind of), there is not a discernible gap in offensive production between either group. So, where did Boston’s struggles against right-handers stem from?

Of Boston’s hitters in 2017 who had, a minimum of 50 plate appearances against RHP, only five posted above-average seasons against them: Eduardo Nunez (145 wRC+), Andrew Benintendi (111 wRC+), Chris Young (107 wRC+), Hanley Ramirez (101 wRC+) and Mitch Moreland (101 wRC+). Mind you, two of them were really only very slightly above-average. Benintendi performed well against his right-handed counterparts and Moreland did league-average. I also cannot help but wonder how Boston’s number against right-handers would look if one were to take off Nunez’ torrid couple of months.

Meanwhile, two left-handed hitters struggled mightily against the handed pitchers they typically are supposed to do better against. Bradley Jr. sported a sub-par 84 wRC+ and Devers an 87 wRC+. Career-wise, JBJ has fared better against RHP (94 wRC+) than LHP (91 WRC+), which is also distorted by his puzzling offensive production versus righties last season. I think we should expect some sort of bounce back from Bradley Jr. against southpaws next season and Devers’ sample size was relatively small, so try not to read too much into that number at this juncture. With that said, Devers posted a 188 wRC+ against left-handing pitching, placing 13th in baseball with a minimum of 50 plate appearances last year. That’s scary good.

Anyway, having left-handed hitters does not guarantee success against right-handed pitchers. It is a nice base, having that lineup diversity, yet the fact of the matter is Boston performed horribly against right-handing pitching in ’17 and it is something that needs to be addressed if they are to thrive offensively. Its importance is stressed, when considering 72% of MLB pitchers are right-handed, according to a 2012 study.

J.D. Martinez would go a long way towards solving this issue, although he has been better against left-handers in his career. Yet for the sake of considering our hypothetical, let’s pretend J.D. Martinez does not go to the Red Sox. What other power bats remain, who especially excel against right-handers?

To answer this question, I compiled a fairly arbitrary list of  nine power bats, who would be able to either play 1B or DH for Boston, on the free agent market. This list included Logan Morrison, Curtis Granderson, Mike Napoli, Adam Lind, Todd Frazier, Matt Holliday, Jose Bautista, and Lucas Duda.

Here are how the nine performed against right-handed pitchers in 2017:

  • Logan Morrison (449 PA): .356 OBP, .548 SLG, .298 ISO (isolated power) and 137 wRC+
  • Adam Lind (269 PA): .364 OBP, .534 SLG, .231 ISO and 127 wRC+ 
  • Lucas Duda (380 PA): .342 OBP, .525 SLG, .298 ISO and 126 wRC+ 
  • Curtis Granderson (410 PA): .337 OBP, .470 SLG, .255 ISO and 114 wRC+
  • Todd Frazier (437 PA): .348 OBP, .388 SLG, .173 ISO and 101 wRC+
  • Matt Holliday (326 PA): .301 OBP, .418 SLG, .199 ISO and 89 wRC+ 
  • Mike Napoli (365 PA): .286 OBP, .415 SLG, .223 ISO and 80 wRC+ 
  • Jose Bautista (525 PA): .310 OBP, .377 SLG, .174 ISO and 83 wRC+ 

Maybe not so surprising, the top four in that group are all left-handed hitters, while the bottom four are all right-handed swingers. Eliminating the bottom four from contention, let’s assume the top four are all viable additions for the Red Sox. Logan Morrison, as far as last year was concerned, was clearly the best masher against right-handed pitchers. However, it’s interesting to note that Morrison and Duda posted similar power numbers against right-handed pitchers, with each sporting a .298 ISO. Lind, Bruce and Duda were not very far behind Morrison, in terms of overall production against righties, and with such a small discrepancy in performance, I think it would be wise to expand the window to three years. How have the top five, in this group, done against right-handed pitcher from 2015-2017?

2015-2017 Stats vs. RHP 

  • Logan Morrison (1132 PA): .333 OBP, .477 SLG, .235 ISO and 118 wRC+ 
  • Lucas Duda (942 PA): .347 OBP, .487 SLG, .255 ISO and 124 wRC+ 
  • Adam Lind (1105 PA): .345 OBP, .488 SLG, .213 ISO and 120 wRC+ 
  • Curtis Grandson (1421 PA): .360 OBP, .486 SLG, .238 ISO and 130 wRC+ 

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Granderson has excelled above the pack against right-handed pitchers in the last three years. With that said, at 36 years of age, he seems to be on the downswing of his career. Further, his brief stint with the Dodgers towards the end of last year saw him post an unsightly .161 batting average, which did no favors to his free agent value. On the flip side, his price may be cheaper than guys like Duda or Morrison and could serve as a fine fourth outfielder for a Boston club who will probably not re-sign free agent outfielder Chris Young.

Lucas Duda may have not been the best overall hitter of the group, but he certainly seems to have been the best power hitter against right-handed hitters in this span. His ISO, which attempts to measures a batter’s raw power, leads the pack by a considerable margin. His 2017 season, which saw him blast 30 home runs, was a bounce-back after an injury-riddled ’16 campaign.

Prior to the ailing year, Duda posted two consecutive 3+ fWAR seasons in ’15 and ’14. He also posted an unusually low .238 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) last year, which could indicate he was a bit unlucky. If he posts a BABIP closer to his career .280 mark going forward, there is definitely room for added value over the 1.1 fWAR he accumulated in 2017. Also, his average 90.3 exit velocity (placing 24th in MLB among batters with a minimum of 150 batted ball events last season) and his 42.1 hard hit percentage (placing 11th in MLB among batters with a minimum of 400 plate appearances) are excellent predictors for future success. This may be a guy the Red Sox should have interest in, if Martinez was not to sign. He could serve as a very useful platoon partner with Hanley Ramirez, while being able to play first base and the outfield, if need be.

Next, we have Adam Lind, who has quietly posted pretty good offense numbers over the past couple of seasons. Granted, this is a guy who, regardless of circumstance, has to be platooned, seeing a mere 32 plate appearances against lefties in ’17 and 50 plate appearances in ’16. The former Nationals’ slugger also does not have as much power as Morrison or Duda and does not possess the same upside either. He will be cheaper, for sure, but not the impact bat Boston needs.

Lastly, we have Logan Morrison, whose 2017 season was a big breakout for the left-handed masher. He posted a 3.3 fWAR last year, which is better than his previous six seasons combined. With not a long history of continuous success, one may be weary as to the sustainability of his stellar ’17. While he may not do quite as much damage as last year, Morrison’s improvements were real and the consequence of a revamped approach. He took to the fly ball revolution we are currently seeing in MLB, posting a career high 46.2 FB%, far from his career 37.5 FB%. This was a tremendous shift in his batted ball outcomes, one which worked in his favor. He may have struck out more frequently, but he walked at a greater rate and set a career-best mark in home runs, with 38.

The new hitter we witnessed last season could very well be what we watch going forward. At 30, he is also the youngest of the group, with Duda being a year his senior. Morrison seemingly will get the largest contract of the four but Duda should not be far off. He could play first base and outfield for Boston.

Morrison and Duda seem like the ideal candidates for the Red Sox to target on the free agent market, if Martinez does not come to Boston. That’s an if, but it is always good to have a backup plan. The two absolutely rake against right-handed pitching and thirty home runs are very real possibilities for both next year. The Red Sox need guys like that and it just so happens they would come at a much cheaper price, too.

If I had to narrow it down to one player, Morrison seems to have the most potential and his relative youth puts him in a position to be valuable on a two to three year contract.  Jay Bruce went through the same transformation as Morrison, focusing and executing the act of hitting the ball in the air. He just landed a three-year, $39 million contract with the New York Mets. Morrison probably won’t top that, in spite of the fact he had a better season than Bruce.

Three years, $39 million sounds much nicer than the $150-$200 million contract Martinez is seeking. Plus, with the historically great 2018-2019 free agent class on the horizon, the Red Sox could used that saved money to land Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, etc. Martinez is the conspicuous immediate power upgrade, but Morrison could provide the Red Sox with a cheaper alternative with high upside, legitimate pop against right-handed pitchers and financial flexibility. That does not sound like a bad option.

 

 

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