Slow Starts, Peripherals, and Contracts
The 2022 Boston Red Sox have gotten off to the worst start that I have ever experienced as a fan. 11–19 after 30 games is a massive disappointment combined with a failure to reach contract extensions for both Bogaerts and Devers in the offseason. With a dismal offensive performance to start the season, many fans were saying “well, it has to get better” or “ they’ll turn it around”. But that has yet to really take form as the offense continues to falter and average just a tad over 3 runs per game.
If the Red Sox are to improve offensively, they need to right the ship in a couple of big ways. From looking at the team stats to individual peripheral stats courtesy of Baseball Savant, we will take a look and try to figure out why the offense has been so disappointing.
The Red Sox are currently sitting in 29th place in terms of walk rate among the entire league. Their walk rate of 6.5% lies just ahead of the Chicago White Sox. For reference, the Red Sox had a walk rate of 8.4% last which was good for 20th in the league. Inherently when you have guys with elite bat-to-ball skills like JD and Raffy, you are going to have fewer walks. But when the walk rate has decreased substantively from 2021 to this year, there have to be some adjustments made.
According to Fangraphs, the Red Sox have the highest O-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at outside of the zone) in the entirety of the league. At 35%, they swing rather wildly at the plate making it easier for pitchers to get away with throwing non-competitive pitches. With a swing rate of 50.8%, they also swing the most in the league. This makes me wonder if we can pinpoint specific players who have been swinging at pitches more than they usually do or at least compared from last year to this year.
Although he has been hitting extremely well, Devers has been swinging rather wildly to start off. He currently has an O-Swing% of 43.8% compared to 36.1% for the 2021 season. Cutting those swings down would improve his OBP and walk rate to a higher level. Baseball Savant currently has his chase rate in the 8th percentile of all qualified hitters. So Raffy cutting down on his outside-of-the-zone swings would make his great start even better. Between Bogaerts and Martinez (the only other guys to be hitting on the team), their O-Swing rates are slightly higher but nothing out of the ordinary for the two of them.
Now let’s look at everyone else…
Big ticket free agent Trevor Story has gotten off to a rather slow start in a Boston uniform. Slashing .204/.282/.276, the Boston media and fans have begun to take some issue with his performance throughout April and early May. The adjustment from Coors to other parks is never understated, although by this time in the season players are generally more adjusted. Yes, Story is no longer in Coors, but what is going on right now with him?
Taking a look at his Savant page, his peripherals look pretty brutal. He is in the lower 20th percentile in xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, K%, and Whiff%. It seems so strange that a player who consistently has been above the 50th percentile in most of these categories throughout their career has been this bad to start the year.
One telling statistic that explains a lot of his struggles are his contact rates. Throuhgout the entirety of his career Story averaged around an 83.7% contact rate on pitches he swung at in the zone (Z-Contact%), whereas this year he is only at 75.0 Z-Contact%. A decrease in zone contact oddly combinedwith a decrease in swings in the zone as well. In 2021, Story swung at 76.2% of pitches thrown in the zone compared to just 69% to start this year. These numbers lead to suggest that he will regress back to a production level that we would associate with Trevor Story if he can fix those issues or at least revert them to a level we would expect more of from him.
Contrary to Trevor Story’s peripherals, Verdugo’s seem to suggest that he has been getting unlucky. We know from previous years that Verdugo does not strikeout and puts the bat on the ball. With his Whiff% and K% being in the 95th percentile, that has not changed. His xSLG, and xBA are both in the upper quartile for qualified players so it seems to suggest that he will pull his current slash line up from .213/.252/.324. His BABIP is well over .100 below his career average which again reinforces the notion that his slash line will improve. Unlike Trevor Story, I do not believe Verdugo should look into changing his approach at the plate too heavily. The balls in play will start to fall soon and he’s fallen victim to the deadballs being used currently (Thanks Manfred).
Kiké has also been struggling mightily during the first 30 games, slashing .168/.242/.271. His peripherals however have also been brutal much like Story. His xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and HardHit% are all bottom 15th percentile to start the season. For the 2021 season, he was above average in just about all of these categories so maybe there is a reason we can pinpoint as to why his slow start is occurring.
His batted ball statistics on Fangraphs suggest that he is just not making great contact. His rate of soft contact is over 14% higher than his career average and his rate of hard contact being 10% lower than his career average. The lowest line-drive rate of his career with his highest flyball rate ever tend to suggest this as well. Kiké is at his best when he’s lining up fastballs on the inner-half of the plate which is something he has yet to really do so far this season. If he wants to get back on track, he needs to square up the balls better than he has been doing so far this year.
If we know one thing about Bob, it is that he will strikeout at a high rate. However, his contact has gotten significantly worse this year. What saved him in the second half of last year was that he started to pull fastballs and gain some power to the pull side of the field. This year though he has not done that in the slightest. The slash line is extremely ugly with .222 slugging percentage which is rather hard to do for a guy with that much pop. The wRC+ of 34 is very telling as Bob has been a liability on offense to start the year which has forced the Red Sox to recall Franchy Coredero from Worcester.
Despite a small reduction of his strikeout rate to start the year, his xwOBA and xSLG have regressed substantially. Much like Kiké and Verdugo, his BABIP has been brutal to start the year. He just cannot seem to barrel up the balls he was in the 2nd half of last year. He only has 5 recorded barrels on statcast this year along with a hard contact rate that is 17.4% lower than his 2021 campaign. Much like Kiké, Bobby needs to start barreling more balls if he wants a chance to keep some of his ABs in the near future.
With all that being said, there is a way for the team to get back on track. Adjustments by the coaching staff and players need to be made but the offense can be salvaged. Verdugo will turn it around just based on natural luck turning in his favor but an approach change will be key with the other players. They need to walk a bit more and stop swinging outside the zone. It sounds simple, but not all of the hitters on the team can be Raffy with how well he hits pitches out of the zone.
The next month or so will be really telling with what happens regarding the Bogaerts and Devers contract extension talk. If the team continues to perform this poorly, things might not look great for a Bogaerts deal…but if the offense starts to turn around, we could see meaningful games played in August and September.