Opinion

The 2017 Boston Red Sox and infield fly balls

The Boston Red Sox should consider consciously trying to hit less infield fly balls 

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Feb. 19, 2018 – Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

Generally, I try to live my life looking into the future. The past can cripple us if we let it, moments that will never exist again except inside of our fallible memories. As Spike Jonze crafted into his cinematic masterpiece ‘Her,’ “the past is just a story we tell ourselves.” Too often people are stuck in their “story” and they forget to write more chapters. It is actually really sad.

Anyway, reading the paragraph above, you probably think I have a vendetta of sorts against the past. I do not. The past can actually be a very valuable tool if you choose it to be. There are many things to learn from our history, through our successes and failures. The 2017 Boston Red Sox are no different.

They won 93 games and were American League East champions but their offense, particularly in the power department, did not live up to expectations. Getting by with Mitch Moreland as David Ortiz‘s replacement, just did not cut it. So, they learned from their past and signed the premier slugger on the free-agent market, J.D. Martinez.

They improved where they failed in the past. This failure is obvious, though. The “failure” I am about to talk about for the 2017 Boston Red Sox is less obvious. The Boston Red Sox led the American league in IFFB% (infield fly ball percentage) last season.

Outside of a strikeout, an infield fly ball is the worst outcome for a hitter. It certainly is the worst batted ball outcome. The reason being is the percentage of batters getting on-base, thereby increasing the probability of scoring a run, when they hit an infield fly ball is extremely low.

Sure, there are misplays on infield fly balls and hitters reach base on them occasionally. It is just rare. Plus, when one does hit an infield fly ball, the perpetrator will almost never turn it into a double, triple or homerun. It would take a miracle and/or many defensive screw ups.

Essentially, infield fly balls are the closest thing to automatic outs that are not technically automatic outs. They are not ideal or valuable. Hence, why it was a problem that the Red Sox IFFB% was an American League-leading 11.4%.

Now, they were unable to attain the distinguished honor of leading the entire MLB in IFFB%. The San Diego Padres earned that with their unsightly 13.3 IFFB%. Still, Boston was second in all of baseball. That is not a good thing.

With that said, a team can hit lots of infield fly balls and be one of the better offensive teams in the sport. In 2016, when the Sox had lots of thump in their lineup, they ranked fifth in this category at 11.2%. Last year, the team-leader in wRC+, the Houston Astros, ranked fourth in IFFB% at 11.0%. Obviously, hitting infield flies at a high rate is not beneficial, this merely shows there are ways to still thrive in spite of the fact.

Regardless, hitting less infield fly balls leads to less “automatic outs” being handed to the other team. If Boston consciously tries to hit less infield fly balls in ’18, they may be a better offensive team. I say “may be” because if this is implemented team-wide, hitters may have to concede interrelated benefits.

Hypothetically, let’s say Mookie Betts, Boston’s best overall player, decides to try and hit less infield fly balls. What would he have to sacrifice? Would he have to change his swing? Does he, then, attempt to change his launch angle so the ball is less elevated? If a player really wants to avoid infield flies altogether, they could conceivably get “on top” of the baseball and aim for more grounders.

No one wants Mookie Betts to hit more grounders. Fly balls lead to more valuable results than ground balls.   This is one big contradiction. I want to see the Red Sox hit less infield fly balls but I do not want them to completely change who they are as hitters. There probably exists a perfect medium, where they could change their approach slightly to ward of infield flies. This is not a perfect world, though.

Truthfully, I do not know what would happen if Boston tried to hit less infield fly balls. It would likely be advantageous for the team’s offensive production, but I am concerned with my unsubstantiated hypothetical. I am not smart enough to decipher what the trade-off could feasibly be. In all likelihood, though, it is contingent on the individual player.

Getting back to Betts, however, we have an interesting, albeit small sample, case study with him. Behold, a table, with Mookie Betts’ batted ball outcomes and overall offensive production (wRC+).

 Season IFFB% wRC+ GB% FB% LD%
2015 10.5 120 38.2 42.4 19.5
2016 12.3 137 41.4 39.4 19.3
2017 14.8 108 40.4 42.8 16.8

In each of the past three years, Betts’ IFFB% has jumped up considerably. I really cannot explain why but we should acknowledge that it has happened. There is not a correlation to be spoken of or anything. All we know is Betts hit more fly balls and infield fly balls last year, less line drives, and had his worst offensive season in the majors. His ground ball and fly ball percentages have fluctuated so much in the past three years, it is hard to prove much of anything.

The superstar did rank 17th among qualifiers in IFFB% in 2017, though. Correspondingly (probably), he posted a career-high in Soft Contact% at 18.2. In 2016, his Soft Contact% was 17.4% and in 2015 it was 16.1%. Meanwhile, his Hard Contact% spiked to a three-year high in 2017 at 35.7%. He is sacrificing the middle, possibly trying to hit ball harder and consequently coming up with softer contact when he fails to connect.

This makes me wonder if this strategy is best for Betts, if this is, in fact, what he was aiming to do. This really could be an aberration. Even so, the right-handed hitter is probably a guy who can consciously cut down his infield fly ball percentage without changing his batted ball outcomes too much. Would it, thus, cut down on his soft contact percentage and lead to improved offense results? My wager is “yes.”

Moving away from that tangent, Boston did get rid of some of their biggest infield fly ball offenders from last year. Among hitters with a minimum of 100 plate appearances with the BoSox, Pablo Sandoval led the team with an abysmal 22.7 IFFB%. He is gone. The second-worst offender was Sandy Leon with an 18.7 IFFB%. He will likely not get as many plate appearances in 2018. Lastly, Chris Young was the third-worst, hitting into infield flies 18.6% of the time. He is also gone.

I do not have the time of day to sift through every single Red Sox player to diagnose the sustainability of their infield fly ball percentages from last year. I will say this, though. The only three Red Sox regulars to have above-average (or, below, depending on how you look at the world) IFFB% were Jackie Bradley Jr. (8.5%), Mitch Moreland (4.9%) and Christian Vazquez (4.1%). That is not a lot of regulars.

Look, I am not sure if Boston would benefit tremendously from shifting their offensive approach to consciously hit less infield fly balls. The trade-off from doing so is uncertain and potentially risky. Regardless, this is something the team should be mindful of.

Infield fly balls give the other team, essentially, free outs. The Red Sox have been good at giving free outs in the past. There is a new manager in Boston now, though, and his name is Alex Cora. He seems willing to challenge conventional wisdom and change the team’s prior strategy. Perhaps giving the competition automatic outs is something he will consciously try to avoid.

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