Red Sox owner John Henry took some heat Monday when he insisted the Red Sox made significant offseason changes, despite the fact much of the roster remained unchanged.
Those comments seemed moot hours later when the Red Sox reportedly agreed to a deal with free agent slugger J.D. Martinez, but the reported agreement might actually reinforce Henry’s opinion. Prior to Martinez, Boston’s on-field offseason moves were indeed limited. But changes in the coaching staff — the dismissal of John Farrell and most of his staff — are in line with an apparent shift in the club’s hitting philosophy.
The Red Sox appear to be joining the fly-ball revolution.
The “airball” movement (fly ball has negative connotations in some circles) has taken over baseball the last few years. Players like Martinez revitalized their careers by trying to hit the ball in the air, and the game’s most productive offenses also are the ones hitting the most fly balls.
In the past, former Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis preached a more traditional approach to hitting: work the count and hit line drives up the middle.
That worked for the Red Sox, and Davis is considered one of the best hitting coaches in baseball. But the club obviously felt a change was needed after Boston finished in the middle of the pack in runs scored and 27th in all of baseball in home runs.
Enter Tim Hyers. The Red Sox hired the 47-year-old away from the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he served as the assistant hitting coach. The Dodgers, led by airball convert Justin Turner, hit plenty of fly balls. Only five teams had a higher percentage of fly balls among batted balls last season, according to Fangraphs.
“We’ve always wanted, as hitters, to hit the ball hard and get on base and slug to drive in runs. But now, with all the technology, we can start to put a number on it,” Hyers told ESPN.com. “If you hit a ball 15 to 30 degrees in the air and you hit it 95 to 100 mph, it’s going to be a productive swing. That’s what they were shooting for [in Los Angeles], and it worked out really well.”
New manager Alex Cora probably is on board after one season with the Houston Astros. Cora got a firsthand look at one of the league’s analytical leaders, and the Astros, too, hit a bunch of fly balls, finishing 10th in Fangraphs’ rankings.
Now seems like a good time to mention the Dodgers and Astros met in the World Series.
It obviously takes more than just hitting more fly balls. It’s also about hitting the ball hard, and far too often in 2017, the Red Sox fell behind in the count, putting themselves in a position where the pitcher dictated the at-bat. When pitchers get ahead, it’s easier to induce bad conduct. It’s simple.
Under the new regime, expect the Red Sox to attack earlier in the count.
“I think the key of an offense is to have a consistent approach,” Cora said in November at his introductory press conference. “Hunting pitches that you can do damage with. The first pitch or a 2-0 pitch. Sometimes the first pitch available is the one that you can do damage on, so we’re going to have guys ready to do damage early in the count, regardless.”
This is a crucial adjustment in today’s game. Bullpens are better than they’ve ever been, and teams feel more confident lifting starting pitchers after just two times through the order. There’s not necessarily the same incentive to work the count because pitchers already are being lifted earlier in games for relievers throwing upper-90s in the sixth inning.
No one will help facilitate these changes more than Martinez, though. He’s aggressive — 26 of his 45 home runs came on the first three pitches of an at-bat — and his focus at the plate is solely on hitting fly balls. It’s all he wants to do.
“I’m not trying to hit a f—— line drive or a freaking ground ball,” he told Fangraphs last spring. “I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. Only five active players have a better OPS since the start of the 2014 season: Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper.
While Martinez likely benefited some from the thin desert air in Arizona, there’s reason to believe he’ll do some considerable damage at Fenway Park this season. In fact, if the Red Sox are able to start lifting the ball more, it’s almost a certainty they see more home runs, especially at home, where park factors indicate right-handed hitters especially can do more damage.
There’s obvious potential for the Red Sox to return to 2016-like offensive production in 2018. Obviously, having a hitter like Martinez gives the Red Sox a middle-of-the-order threat like they haven’t had since David Ortiz in 2016, but if they get considerable buy-in to changing philosophies from players not named Martinez, there’s a chance for Boston’s offense to once again score runs in bunches this season.