After beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-2 in Game 2 of the World Series, earning a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, the Boston Red Sox appear well on their way to their fourth title since breaking the curse in 2004. It follows a regular season in which they won 108 games in a division that featured another 100-game winning team and a 90-game winner (but also the O’s) and featured the best offense in the game.
The Sox led the league in runs scored, weighted on base average (wOBA), batting average (.268), on-base percentage (.339), slugging percentage (.453) and OPS (.792) this season. They were 9th in homers and stole the third-most bases in the league, featuring a deadly combination of power and athleticism that was unrivaled in the Majors in 2018.
They were a juggernaut, and teams should be trying to copycat everything they do. But that’s not what happened in 2018.
The Red Sox, along with other top offenses like the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros, did two things that essentially separated them from the rest of the pack this season — they didn’t strike out, and sacrificed power for contact with two strikes.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora noted the difference between how his team approaches offense and how most of the rest of the league does.
Alex Cora: "We live in an era that .210 with 30 home runs and 70 RBI is acceptable, it's a good season. We don't believe that."— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) October 25, 2018
While Cora was perhaps exaggerating with those numbers a bit, the larger point is made — the Red Sox are not going to be one of the teams that sacrifice batting average and accepts strikeouts, even if it means gaining some power as a result.
During the regular season, only two teams (Cleveland and Houston) finished with a lower strikeout rate than the Red Sox’ 19.9%. Somehow, Boston managed to score a ton of runs, with a decent amount of power mixed in, without striking out a bunch of times.
So, what does this mean for the Phillies? Well, they finished with the 3rd-highest strikeout rate (24.8%) and a .234 batting average that was tied for last in the Majors. The Phils’ .314 OBP was tied for 18th and their wOBA was 21st. Even worse, while their walk rate of 9.5% was 4th-best in baseball, they were just 15th in home runs this season. That’s not nearly enough power to make up for having the worst batting average in the league.
One area in which Boston has excelled, especially in the postseason, is their ability to do damage with two strikes and two outs.
The Red Sox began the fifth inning with a groundout and a popout. Starting with Christian Vazquez -- who had a 46 OPS+ this season and was down two strikes -- Boston went single, single, walk, walk, single. The Red Sox have been patently absurd with two outs this postseason.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 25, 2018
And lest you think this is some freak occurrence of October, it is not. Below is a chart comparing how Boston performed with two strikes this year to how the Phillies did.
Hitting With 2 Strikes - 2018 Regular Season
|BOS||3215 (17)||.590 (1)||.200 (1)||.264 (2)||.325 (1)||586 (1)||69 (9)||1253 (26)|
|PHI||3449 (2)||.535 (11)||.174 (t-12)||.249 (12)||.287 (9)||543 (5)||68 (10)||1520 (3)|
In some categories, the Phillies did not do too badly in this regard. While the Red Sox had the best OPS, average, slugging percentage and the most hits with two strikes, as well as the second-best OBP, the Phils’ OPS was 11th, their average was tied for 12th, their slugging percentage was 9th, and they had the 5th-most hits and one fewer home run than Boston in those situations.
Not bad, right? However, Phillies hitters had the second-highest number of plate appearances in which they had two strikes on them, while Boston was 17th. It’s also why the Phillies had the 3rd-most strikeouts with two strikes, while Boston had the 4th-fewest.
That’s a big difference.
Much of the Red Sox’ success with two strikes came from being better at making contact, an area the Phils struggled in greatly. Boston had the 3rd-highest contact rate (79.3%) in baseball this year, while the Phils were 2nd-worst (74.7%). Both teams swung at the same percentage of pitches out of the zone (29.9%, tied for 20th), but when Boston did expand, they made a LOT more contact (66.4%, 3rd-highest) than the Phils, whose 58.1% contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone was the worst in baseball.
We’ve seen that manifest itself in foul balls and balls in play rather than strikeouts this postseason for Boston.
The numbers become a bit more interesting when you look at pitches in the strike zone. Boston was a bit more aggressive swinging at pitches in the zone (67.8%, 13th) than were the Phillies (66.0%, 21st), and again, the Sox were far better at putting the bat on the ball inside the zone (87.2%, tied for 3rd) than the Phils, (84.3%, 4th-worst).
Those figures are reflected in this next chart, which takes a look at both teams’ numbers when ahead in the count last season.
Hitting When Ahead in the Count - 2018 Regular Season
|BOS||2269 (4)||1.033 (3)||.309 (3)||.483 (10)||.550 (2)||516 (2)||87 (3)||218 (22)|
|PHI||2073 (13)||.979 (t-17)||.276 (26)||.484 (9)||.495 (21)||403 (28)||77 (t-11)||249 (5)|
Hey, the Phillies did draw the 4th-most walks when ahead in the count last year, hence their 9th-best on-base percentage in those situations. That’s all good. But their 403 hits were 3rd-least, leading to a low batting average, low slugging percentage, and low OPS, all in situations that should favor the hitter.
Hence, an inconsistent offense that didn’t score nearly often enough.
The Phils also had the 3rd-fewest hits on the first pitch of an at-bat and had the 5th-lowest OPS on the first pitch, meaning pitchers generally weren’t afraid to get a quick strike-one on Phillies hitters. Being more aggressive on the first pitch, especially when recent data tells the team pitchers are pumping first-pitch strikes against you, might be a solid strategy at times, too.
Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see what the Phillies did wrong this year. They didn’t force pitchers to start enough ABs with pitches out of the zone. They got into two-strike counts a lot. When they were ahead in the count, they missed way too many pitches in the strike zone, and in general, struck out far too often.
Fixing it is a much harder proposition.
The Red Sox believe it is important to put the ball in play with two strikes and avoid striking out. They believe in working a count to the point of finding a pitch in which to do damage, and then they are good enough to hammer that pitch when they get it. They believe batting average matters and that power isn’t everything, and we’ve seen how effective that philosophy has been for them, as well as the Astros, in 2017.
To be fair, this is the philosophy hitting coach John Mallee says he wants this team to have, but that message either didn’t get through to the players this season or they simply weren’t good enough to execute that plan. Certainly, Boston has more talent than the Phillies, and fixing what ails the Phils may not be possible with current roster.
It’s not as easy as saying, “Hey, go be like the Red Sox.”
But it’s clear that, if the Phillies want to improve offensively next year, they need to strike out less, get into two-strike counts less often, make opposing pitchers pay when Phils hitters are ahead in the count, and simply put, improve upon their league-worst 29.1% hard-hit rate and get more hits.