Tank Talks Sox: Warning track power

In a historic homer environment, Boston lags behind

David Tanklefsky
June 23, 2017 - 2:17 pm
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In a column earlier this year, we asked if the Red Sox lack of power was a reflection of early season, cold weather struggles or if it was symptomatic of long-term offensive issues. My verdict at the time was that Boston would hit better than they did in April (they have) but that their power problems would linger (they have too). 

Having an offense that isn't propelled by home runs, doesn't mean the Red Sox can't compete and make the playoffs. But if they do, they're bucking the trend. Boston is becoming way less of a home run hitting team at precisely the same time that the rest of baseball is relying on long balls to produce runs at a rate never seen before.

Baseball is in the midst of a historic home run surge. Teams are averaging 1.28 homers per game. That's on pace to be easily the highest ever. So too is home run to fly ball ratio. Before 2002, baseball had never had a season in which the average home run to fly ball rate topped ten percent. This year it's at an astounding 13.9%, more than a full percent higher than last year's already record-setting rate. 

With major league baseball in the throes of a power surge, the Red Sox power outage continues to be noticeable, especially for a talented lineup that's been solid when it comes to run production through other means. Boston is last in the American League in home runs by a large margin (the Mariners, who are second-to-last in the league have 11 more long balls than Boston). The Sox are 14th in isolated power (ISO), a figure that measures a batter's raw power. They're also last in the A.L. in home run to fly ball rate and second-to-last in baseball behind only the meek Giants.

Most Sox regulars are posting lower home run to fly ball rates than last year with the exception of Xander Bogaerts and Chris Young. Some players are seeing large decreases:

HR/FB Rates 2016/2017:
Dustin Pedroia: 9.9/3.1
Hanley Ramirez: 21.1/14.5
Andrew Benintendi: 10.8/6.5
Mookie Betts: 13.2/11.0
Jackie Bradley Jr.: 18.1/16.1

Why does all of this matter? Because home runs are becoming the life blood of the modern major league offense. As home run rates have risen, so too have strikeouts. In each of the last four years, a new record-high strikeout rate has been reached. That means fewer balls put in play and fewer chances for batters to get knocked in on non-home runs.

While lots of baseball pundits have posited about why homers up, there is no conclusive evidence to support any one factor in particular. But there are a few main culprits responsible for the Red Sox lack of power. 

First, Boston's well-documented third base issues loom large in their overall struggle for homers.

League average third base production: wRC+: 97, .173 ISO, 13.2% HR/FB
Red Sox third basemen: wRC+: 47, .097 ISO, 11.1% HR/FB

And the designated hitter position, where predominately Hanley Ramirez has labored to replicate even a modest amont of David Ortiz's insane late-career success:

League average DH: wRC+: 107, .194 ISO, 16.7% HR/FB
Red Sox DH: wRC+: 84, .143 ISO, 13.4% HR/FB

When you're not getting close to league average production out of a key corner infield spot and the DH position, you're going to struggle to hit for power.

Teams with low home run/fly ball rates aren't necessarily unskilled at hitting for power. They may simply be unlucky. If a few more long fly outs had turn into home runs, the HR/FB rate goes up pretty quickly. But Boston isn't just hitting long fly outs. They're hitting a lot of infield flies too. Boston is currently running the fourth highest infield fly percentage in the league. 

All of this isn't to say the Sox don't have a solid offense. They do. They've hit plenty of doubles and are averaging more runs per game than last year. But the fact remains: the game is getting more reliant on home runs than ever before and the Red Sox aren't hitting them.
 

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