By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox have had some issues this season that could ultimately prevent them from getting back to the World Series. Their lack of home runs hasn’t been one of them.
After the Red Sox’ second straight walk-off base hit, this time off the bat of rookie wunderkind Andrew Benintendi, it’s important to look at what’s really important for this offense if it wants to be a top contender in the American League. It’s not important that the Red Sox hit home runs so much as they score runs period – especially in the clutch.
The Red Sox have been one of the AL’s best teams in what MLB.com calls “late/close” situations. They are defined as at-bats in the seventh inning or later with the team trailing by three or fewer runs, tied, or ahead by one run. They also include bases-loaded situations with the team down by four, a.k.a. situations where David Ortiz can do this:
Anyway, in late/close situations, the Red Sox currently rank:
– Second in runs, batting average, and OBP
– First in hits, doubles, and RBIs
– Fourth in OPS and fewest strikeouts
In the seventh inning or later, the Red Sox rank:
– First in doubles
– Second in batting average and hits
– Third in runs, RBIs, and OPS
The Red Sox’ hitting has not been explosive, but it’s most certainly been timely. Meanwhile, it’s at least a minor concern that the Red Sox enter Wednesday last in the AL with 61 home runs – but it’s not as big a concern as you may think.
Regular season runs have not been the best predictor of success for recent AL champions.
Only three out of the seven league champs this decade have finished in the top-5 in the regular season in that category, and none of them have led the league. Last year’s Indians ranked 10th. The Royals ranked 14th in 2015 when they won the World Series and 15th in 2014.
The 2013 Red Sox, however, ranked fifth in the AL in homers. The 2010 and 2011 Rangers ranked fifth and second, respectively. Home runs can certainly be an asset for eventual AL champions, but it’s definitely not a requirement.
Regular season stats like runs scored and batting average have been much better indicators of playoff success in the AL. Only one of the last seven AL winners has finished lower than sixth in the league in runs, the 2014 Royals (they finished ninth). The 2013 Red Sox led the league. The 2016 Indians finished second.
Meanwhile, none of the last seven AL champions have finished lower than fourth in the league in batting average. The 2016 Indians were fourth in that category, while the rest were top-3. The 2013 Red Sox finished second.
The 2017 Red Sox? Sixth in runs and third in average entering Wednesday, despite their seemingly alarming lack of home run power.
How about some fancy advanced stats? The Red Sox rank second in the AL in contact percentage and have swung and missed the least out of any team in the league. They’re also the second-hardest team to strike out. The 2014-15 Royals led the league in contact rate, while the 2016 Indians ranked fourth.
The ball may not be going out of the ballpark as much as you’d like, but the Red Sox are certainly putting the bat on it.
If there’s anything that should be a legitimate concern for the Red Sox offense, which has been better than you may think, it’s that the 44-22 Astros have been that much better. In most of those categories where the Red Sox offense ranks second, the Astros rank first. And Houston also hits home runs; George Springer has 18 and Carlos Correa has 12 entering Wednesday. The Sox and Astros begin a sneaky-important three-game series in Houston on Friday.
It’s worth noting that the Yankees and Aaron “The Great Bambino” Judge also rank near or ahead the Red Sox in these key offensive categories.
But for now, let’s worry about what the Red Sox can control themselves. It’s a much bigger concern than the offense that the starting rotation hasn’t pitched up to its expected standard so far. David Price is working his way back after just four starts, Rick Porcello has regressed from his Cy Young performance in 2016, and Chris Sale has been inconsistent since his dominant April.
Until the starters can get it together and consistently pitch like they’re capable of pitching as a unit, the struggle to hit home runs won’t matter. But the lack of power shouldn’t be as concerning to you as it may be, anyway.
What really matters is this Red Sox offense has been clutch, and scoring the actual runs is more important than how they do it.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.