Patience and production give Red Sox game's best offense -- and record
Following a four-pitch fourth inning last Tuesday night, Tigers starter Max Scherzer was cruising through the Red Sox' lineup, having needed only 43 pitches for the first 12 outs. Even after Mike Carp battled him for seven pitches before striking out, Scherzer had expelled only 50 pitches to get nearly halfway through the game.
As Jonny Gomes walked to the plate, he saw Scherzer's low pitch count and decided to take the first two pitches, no matter what, just to force the righthander to labor. After watching a strike and then a ball, Gomes fouled off two pitches before singling to shallow left, starting a one-out rally that culminated in Will Middlebrooks driving home Gomes and Stephen Drew with what proved to be the decisive runs in Boston's 2-1 victory.
In reflecting on the at bat over the weekend, Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn praised Gomes' gameplan against Scherzer and the whole lineup's ability to grind out at bats. In some ways, the fact that Gomes got a hit was almost an incidental bonus -- most important was the adherence to an approach that has created plenty of opportunities for Boston's offense this year.
"What we've done to this point is not an accident," Gomes said. "There is a method to the madness."
The Red Sox have baseball's best record at 87-58 and lead the majors with 757 runs this season, which, despite having 17 games remaining on their schedule, is already 23 more runs than they scored in their 93-loss campaign. Also anomalous is that Boston has hit only 158 home runs which, though it ranks seventh in the majors, would be the lowest such rank for the highest-scoring offense since the 2001 Mariners.
There are two major reasons for the Red Sox' potent offense: a disciplined plate approach and incredible lineup depth.
Boston leads the majors with 526 walks, ranks second in seeing 4.03 pitches per plate appearance and has put the fewest number of first pitches in play.
The approach isn't a mandate for any particular at bat but rather a macro worldview. It's about driving up the starters' pitch count to get him out of the game by the fifth or sixth inning, while remaining agile enough to pounce on an appealing first or second pitch. It's also about being especially patient in the first game of a series to force the opponent to go to the bullpen -- both to tax its relievers but also to get an in-person scouting report for the rest of the series.
As for the Red Sox' lineup depth, consider this: The average major league hitter has a .717 OPS, which is approximately the production most teams get in the Nos. 1, 2 or 6 spots of the lineup. Boston, meanwhile, is getting better production at every single lineup slot, including a .758 and .722 OPS, respectively, from the No. 8 and 9 spots. Every Boston hitter with at least 100 plate appearances has an adjusted OPS+ that is above league average.
"Every time we start an inning," Colbrunn said, "we've got good hitters coming up."
It's mildly reminiscent of Boston's 2004 World Series-winning lineup when Bill Mueller, then the reigning American League batting champ, was the club's most regularly used No. 8 hitter. The key difference: the '04 team had in-their-prime David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
"We're not going to have someone in the top-five of MVP voting," Gomes said. "We may not have anyone top-10. But our lineup is No. 1."
With so many capable hitters, the Red Sox are not at the mercy of whether a star or two is slumping or streaking. Their hitters have taken turns getting hot in such an orderly fashion that one practically expects there to be a literal baton circulating the clubhouse. First baseman Mike Napoli, for instance, powered the team when Ortiz missed April while recovering from his Achilles injury, and rightfielder Shane Victorino had a scorching August with a team-leading seven home runs while others slumped. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury have also taken their turns hitting everything in sight.
"We've done a really good job of passing the torch and hiding the slumps," Gomes said.
The combination of the two traits -- depth and patience -- means "there's always guys on base," Napoli said.
For him, that's almost been literally true this season. An average player with his 524 plate appearances will have batted with 313 runners on base, according to Baseball-Reference.com; Napoli has actually batted with 419 men on, and he's driven home 64 of them (that, plus the 21 times he scored himself via home runs, gives him a career-high 85 RBIs).
On average, each team has had 65 innings in which it has scored at least three runs, but the Sox have had 90 such innings thanks to the sustenance of rallies through prevalent baserunners.
Boston has long been a franchise that appreciated the art of getting on base by any means. Before the 1999 season, then-GM Dan Duquette, who now holds the same position in Baltimore, championed Jose Offerman's on-base percentage as a replacement for departed free agent Mo Vaughn. More importantly, it's been more than a decade since this franchise adopted an on-base emphasis under former general manager Theo Epstein, who signed Ortiz, Jeremy Giambi, Kevin Millar, Todd Walker and Bill Mueller before his first season, in 2003.
Despite that focus, the 2012 Red Sox had the franchise's worst walk rate since 1931, averaging just one free pass every 14.41 plate appearances. After second-year GM Ben Cherington added Gomes, Napoli, Victorino and Drew in one offseason -- as well as installed Colbrunn and assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez -- they've improved that rate by 25 percent to one walk every 10.88 plate appearances.
"Clearly there were a number of things I didn't do well enough and we didn't well enough last year, and getting on base was one of them," Cherington said. "That was something that we focused on last offseason. A lot of that's personnel. There's an approach we can talk about. Our staff does a great job -- Greg Colbrunn, Victor do a great job reinforcing it every day -- but a lot of it is personnel."
Colbrunn said the message in spring training was "be who you are" rather than force something they are not. Fortunately for Boston, most of their hitters are patient anyway.
"That's just how guys are," Napoli said. "Grind out at bats and pass it onto the next guy."
It's a swiftly remade identity for a club that has swiftly remade its fortunes.