Hitting has come around, but will it bend against iron?
By most any measure, the Red Sox are a very good offensive team. They ranked third in the American League in runs, second in on-base percentage, and second in slugging percentage. Once Victor Martinez came aboard at the trade deadline, only the New York Yankees scored more runs per game, but just barely, and they played in a home ballpark that is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.
Hidden in those numbers is a potential cause for alarm. Against the league’s best pitching, the kind that surfaces in the playoffs, the Red Sox were not a very good offensive team. Of course, every team fares worse against an ace; that’s what makes them the best pitchers. But compared to their playoff opposition and the league in general, the Red Sox’ struggles have been especially acute.
Last year, the Red Sox’ season ended after Matt Garza two-hit them over seven innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Their flailing underscored an unavoidable imperative about the postseason: The first team to win 11 games must conquer elite pitching from the first round until the World Series.
There are no back-of-the-rotation innings-eaters, no spot starters culled from the minors. In the playoffs, with each at-bat carrying a heightened intensity, batters need to come through against the toughest pitchers in the sport.
“At some point, you’ve got to hit quality pitches,’’ Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “And you’ve got to do some thing with them.’’
This year, more often than not, the Red Sox didn’t. Against the top 15 American League pitchers in ERA+ (ERA adjusted by ballparks), the Sox hit .220 with a .266 on-base percentage and a .327 slugging percentage. The league average against those pitchers was .248, .292, and .387.
The Red Sox have elite starters in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, but their postseason foes have proved capable of handling aces. The Angels batted .275 with a .726 OPS against the top 15. The Yankees hit .271 with a staggering .779 OPS against the top 15 pitchers in the AL, which is a testament to how good their offense is this season. The Twins hit .258 with a .734 OPS.
The league average in OPS this year against all pitchers was .763. So the Yankees were better against the top 15 pitchers in the league, on average, than every team was against every pitcher. Their homer-friendly ballpark gives them an advantage, but the OPS is still astounding.
When Sox general manager Theo Epstein assembles his team, performance against frontline starters is a minor factor. He would argue this season is either not a large enough sample size or an exception to the norm.
“The elite players are going to hit the better pitchers as a rule,’’ Epstein said. “Every once in a while, you find outliers. But if you build your team around that, you’re going to win about 80 games, because the majority of pitchers you face aren’t the elite guys.
“It’s not a primary concern. But it’s nice. It’s not a reason to acquire somebody, but I think it can say a lot about who someone is.’’
A batter who can hold his own against the best competition requires several attributes. It takes someone who can handle high velocity while still being able to stay back on offspeed pitches. It takes someone who brings a game plan to the batter’s box and doesn’t overreact. It takes someone with proper balance.
It takes someone like Martinez. When Epstein considered trading for Martinez, he observed that the switch-hitter excelled against elite pitching. It didn’t make or break Epstein’s evaluation, but it didn’t hurt.
“It underscores what kind of hitter that he is,’’ Epstein said. “He’s so calm in the box, so balanced. He sees the ball so well, has such a plan up there, that he does have the ability to hit all kinds of pitching, good pitching.
“I think we’ve probably performed unusually poorly against some aces this year. So it’s an added bonus that Victor is the kind of guy that can hit good pitching. Certainly, in October, that’s helpful.’’
Martinez this season was one of the Sox’ two most valuable hitters against top pitching. Martinez hit .279 against the top starters. The other was Kevin Youkilis. His .812 OPS against the 15 best pitchers was tops on the team, which shows the chasm between the Red Sox and Yankees when it comes to hitting elite pitching - only one Sox player (Youkilis) is better than the Yankee average.
The Red Sox will receive an immediate test tomorrow against the Angels’ John Lackey. From scouting and firsthand experience, the Red Sox know what Lackey will do. He paints the outside corner with sliders, and runs his fastball inside on righthanded hitters, cutting it into their hands.
When the Sox face frontline pitchers, Magadan reminds his batters of an edict: Make the guy make three quality pitches to get you out, not just one. The best pitchers can fool a batter into putting a pitch out the strike zone weakly into play, even when behind the count. Patience is key.
The approach gives a batter the best chance, but guarantees nothing. “You’re not going to get 10 runs off them,’’ Jason Bay said. Sometimes, one hit can be the difference.
“And once you do that, then he’s got to kind of adjust his game plan,’’ Magadan said. “We’ve got him in a position where, now he’s got to get away from his comfort zone.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to hit a quality pitch. Because you know, if a pitcher makes a quality pitch, and it gets hit, you start making him think. Do I need to make even a better pitch? Do I need to change the way I’m pitching? Do I need to add a little extra? If he continues to make his pitch, and we’re rolling over on balls, popping balls up, that’s exactly what he wants.’’
Everyday players get about 600 at-bats in a season, and “you give a handful away,’’ Bay said. The playoffs are different. The competition is better, the stakes are higher.
“You’ve got adrenaline every pitch,’’ Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. “Adrenaline, concentration, focus level - everything is there. During the season, you know you’re getting two more or three more at-bats, you kind of watch him and work him. Your focus is there, but it’s not as much as the postseason. I’m telling you, in the postseason, it’s totally different with every player.’’
The Red Sox proved throughout the season they can score runs. “You’re not going to face any playoff team that doesn’t have great pitching,’’ Jed Lowrie said. Now the Sox have to prove they can hit it.
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.