Tank Talks Sox: Is the Red Sox power outage real?

If it is, can they still contend?

David Tanklefsky
April 28, 2017 - 3:26 pm
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No Boston baseball team in the last half-century has been close to as feeble as the 1992 Red Sox. They hit just 84 home runs and scored only 599 runs. Making exceptions for strike-shortened seasons, they are the only Red Sox team in 50 years to hit less than 100 homers and score less than 600 runs. 

They had a pitching staff that featured two former Cy Young Award winners at the top of the rotation in Roger Clemens and Frank Viola. They were second in the American League with a 3.58 team ERA. And yet, they stunk. They finished with 73 wins, 23 games out of first place. Tom Brunansky led the team with 15 home runs. Yeah. They were that bad.

Here's the scary thing: when it comes to power and run production, the 2017 Red Sox are on pace to be just about as anemic. Through 21 games, Boston is last in the majors with 11 home runs. They are on pace to score just 602 runs. Boston's offense is the reason the most dominant pitcher in town since Pedro Martinez has four no decisions in five starts with a 1.19 ERA. 

First, some context. It's early and it's cold. While the Red Sox power scarcity is concerning, 21 games is still a relatively small stretch of time and Boston, like most teams, consistently tops their April home run total in subsequent months as the weather warms up. 

On top of that, the Sox are still doing a lot of things pretty well at the plate. They're second in the league in batting and fourth in doubles. Mitch Moreland has been a two-bag machine, Andrew Benintendi is hitting .366 in the last two weeks and Mookie Betts has raised his average above .300 after hitting .174 in the season's opening week. Boston has the lowest strikeout rate in all of baseball. They've been terrific at putting the ball in play and getting base hits. They're currently tied with Houston for most singles in the A.L. So what's going on?

Obviously, plenty of the power outage has to do with the absence of The Big Man. David Ortiz wasn't just an All-Star caliber DH last season. He was the best 40-year-old player baseball has ever seen. We knew it would be impossible for one player to replace his 38 homers, 48 doubles and insane 1.021 OPS and it has been. At the pace the Red Sox are slugging, they'd be happy if someone could post 60% of his 2016 numbers.

Without Ortiz and the fear he struck into opposing pitchers, the Sox young cadre of stars like Betts and Xander Bogaerts are seeing far fewer juicy pitches to hit. Looking at pitch frequency maps from early this season, those two are clearly getting a lot more pitches low and away in the zone and considerably less over the heart of the plate. 

There are also serious issues at the hot corner. As Alex Speier of the Boston Globe pointed out earlier this week, the Red Sox have had the worst offensive production at third base of any team in baseball over the last four years. In a league with corner infield mashers like Miguel Cabrera, Manny Machado and Evan Longoria, that's a black hole that becomes more glaring when you remove a bat like Ortiz's. With Pablo Sandoval off to a poor start and on the disabled list again, the Sox started Josh Rutledge and Marco Hernandez at third in their bellweather series against the Yankees this week.

Given those prospects, Boston might want a give-back on that Travis Shaw trade. Though he tailed off as the season went on, Shaw gave Boston 17 home runs and posted a .726 OPS in 2016. So far this year in Milwaukee he's hit five homers and slugged .571. He's making $17 million less than Sandoval for the season. What a business.

Where to turn? The Sox desperately need Hanley Ramirez to return to his comeback 2016 form when he blasted 30 homers and slugged .505. If there's reason to be optimistic that he will, it's because Ramirez had only one home run in April last year too and then got exponentially better as the year went on, hitting a whopping 17 home runs in August and September.

But what if the Sox get only incrementally better in the power department? What if they are a lineup comprised of young, talented, professional big league hitters who struggle to hit home runs? Can they still compete and be a below average power hitting team?

Recent history says it's tough. As home runs have become more of a cornerstone for big league offenses, the number of teams who have made the playoffs without hitting at least a nominal amount of them is slim.

Since 2000, only nine American League teams have won their division while hitting less than 160 home runs. No A.L. East team has done it. 

This Sox offense is nowhere near as bad as their counterparts from 25 years ago, but they are learning a painful lesson nonetheless: you can hit all the singles you want, but it don't mean a thing if someone isn't going to knock those suckers in.

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