Slow Start, Peripherals, and Contracts (Redux)
After an abysmal start to the season, the 2022 Boston Red Sox turned their season around since I wrote my last article about the team. They have gone 28–12 over their last 40 games making it much easier to watch this team from a fan perspective. They managed to right the ship offensively after a brutal start to the year and have continued it throughout the past month and a half. I wanted to take a look back on the statistics that I thought needed to improve if the Red Sox were to get back on track and see if they really did improve or if maybe something else happened that provided the spark that they needed.
At the time of my initial article, the Red Sox were 29th in walk rate at only 6.5%, which was only ahead of the White Sox who have not turned their early-season struggles around. They are now currently in 25th place for walk rate improving by almost a full percentage point sitting at 7.4% now. The great news is that they became a league-average team over the past 40 games. From May 11th to June 22nd, the Red Sox are walking at an 8.1% clip which is good for 16th in the entire league. When you have elite hitters such as J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers, walking should not have to be the priority and league average is perfectly fine with how well the team puts the bat on the ball.
Before May 11th, the Red Sox had the highest O-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at outside of the zone) in the entire league. Since May 11th, the Red Sox are ranked 14th in O-Swing% which represents a huge swing in positive improvement. They are making opposing pitchers throw more competitive pitches which suggests they will get better pitches to hit. We will take a look, later on, to see if the players I singled out last time changed their approach at the plate.
In the previous article, I mentioned how Devers has been swinging wildly but it inherently is not that much of a big deal just because of how good he is. But, he would still benefit from swinging less and seeing some more pitches that he can drive. He did manage to cut down on his O-Swing% as it is now 41.4% compared to the 43.8% on May 11th. He is walking slightly more while still hitting the absolute snot out of the baseball. Raffy could swing at just about every possible pitch and I still think he would bat at least .250. Xander and J.D. continued to swing the bat well over this timeframe as well so nothing to report on that front. But now it is time to take a gander at everyone else since May 11th and see what improved.
We saw about a week and a half stretch where Trevor Story looked like the best baseball player the world has ever seen. From May 16th to May 26th, Story hit 8 home runs showing off his power that was lacking for so much of the start of the season. Since May 11th he is slashing .236/.317/.521 while playing elite defense. He looks to be playing close to the level that we had come to expect.
His Savant peripherals look significantly better than they did earlier this year. After being in the lower 20th percentile for xwOBA and xSLG, he is now in the 43rd and 52nd percentiles for xwOBA and xSLG respectively. He still has a high K% and Whiff% but his contact is now much better which is making up for his swing and miss tendency. If he continues to keep hitting the ball hard and play elite defense, his contract will be well worth it.
His zone contact rate improved immensely over the past 40 games, with the rate being at 85.3%. Before May 11th he was a full 10 percentage points below this mark at only 75.0%. He is making contact with pitches in the zone at a rate that we would expect from a hitter of his caliber. He is also swinging at more pitches in the zone than he was previously, as his Z-Swing% over the past 40 games is 72.8% compared to 69.0% to start the year. All the data tends to suggest that he is just seeing the ball better now and making better contact with the pitches that he can drive. The Red Sox have to be happy with the past month and a half from Story.
Verdugo’s slash-line of .273/.318/.374 suggests that his luck has now begun to straighten itself out a bit. His Savant peripherals still tend to suggest that he will experience some more improvement in batting average and slugging percentage. His BABIP from May 11th to now is .303 which is a massive turnaround from the .216 BABIP he posted at the beginning of the season. He is striking out at a paltry clip while making decent to above-average contact. Although he is not Mookie by any stretch, Verdugo has shown that he is an above-average big league player that will stick around on this team.
Kiké also picked it after May 11th with a slash-line of .262/.319/. 427. Despite finding himself on the injured list now, he was looking like the Kiké we saw in the second half of 2021. Along with playing some of the best defensive centerfield in all of baseball, Kiké’s Savant peripherals kicked it up a little notch. He is no longer bottom 15% in many important percentiles like xBA, and xSLG. There is a possibility that he will not fully retain all the production that came in his impressive 2021 season, but I do think he has kept himself a place on the roster for the time being.
His soft contact rate since May 11th has decreased substantially while having an increase in both medium contact as well as hard contact. I outlined this in the previous article as something that needed to turn around which it has. Hitting the ball harder results in higher expectancies for things like batting average as well as slugging percentage. If he keeps making harder contact, his batting average and slugging percentage should stabilize to a productive level.
So the Red Sox have found their role for Bobby this season for the time being. He has been platooning at first with Franchy Cordero and occasionally for a pinch-hit every now and then. Bobby has always struggled with catching up to fastballs that have speeds of 96+ MPH, so it makes sense to have him hitting against guys without top-tier fastball velocities. His wRC+ since May 11th is 115 which is leaps and bounds better than the 34 wRC+ he put up before May 11th. The slugging percentage is much better and his OBP over that timeframe is .327. Alex Cora has found the role for Bobby that limits his shortcomings as well as accentuates his strengths.
The team did find a way to get back on track. Approach changes and harder hit balls contributed to an impressive turnaround for a team that has begun to meet its expectations. Other players have stepped up that I did not list in my initial article such as Christian Vazquez, Jarren Duran, and Franchy Cordero. It is no longer the three-man show it was to start the season, the entire team is contributing to the success over the past month and a half. Continued success is reliant upon sustaining the hitting (which will be tough) and the continued great performances from the starting rotation.
Knowing Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox are not going to make any drastic deadline deals for any marquee player that results in them giving up a top 5 system prospect, but I do see a couple of important deals getting done. They need to sure up the bullpen and add some arms to use in high-leverage situations. A reunion with Daniel Bard seems like it would be a great addition to the team or possibly a trade with Arizona to get another seasoned veteran like Mark Melancon or Ian Kennedy who could perform better in a different environment. Time will tell, but this Red Sox team should be competing in October this year.