The Recipe for the Red Sox’ Secret Sauce

Every plate appearance, every run, and every win is magnified in the postseason. The Red Sox came to bat more than 6,000 times, scored nearly 900 runs, and won 108 games during the regular season. In the playoffs, it’s been roughly 400 plate appearances, 68 runs, and nine wins so far. Because it is the playoffs, and because it is fun and important and special, when players and teams do something out of the ordinary, it stands out and deserves greater discussion. This postseason, the Red Sox have scored more than half their runs with two outs and, with two outs and runners in scoring position, are hitting like J.D. Martinez in the middle of a hot streak. That’s amazing, and it is great for the Red Sox, but we should be a little leery of trying to extract some sort of design or strategy from this great run.

Over at the Athletic, Jayson Stark has some of the amazing numbers the Red Sox have put up this postseason, including how they’ve scored 36 of their 68 runs with two outs. Teams usually score about 37% of their runs with two outs, so an increase by close to 50% is impressive. To try and determine how unusual of an occurrence this is, I ran a simple test, looking at the percentage of team runs scored with two outs from August 1 to August 13 of this year, roughly approximating the number of games the Red Sox play in October. During that one random stretch, no team was as high as 53% like the Red Sox arecurrently, but four teams were above 45%, with the Nationals at 48% to top the league. This is just one random stretch, but with a standard deviation of seven percentage points, what the Red Sox are doing puts them in the top 5%.

Then, for the same dates, I looked at team stats for runners in scoring position with two outs. Nobody ran numbers quite like the current Red Sox streak, with a wRC+ in the 220s, but there were two teams with at least a 190 wRC+ in the sample. One of those teams was the Braves. The other was these Boston Red Sox. So while what the Red Sox are doing is unusual, it also isn’t something that is impossible — and, indeed, the Red Sox seemed to do it earlier this season in early August.

We know the Red Sox are capable of runs like this even if we wouldn’t expect them in the playoffs, but trying to determine a team-wide skill is a little more difficult. Below we see Boston’s total regular-season numbers along with MLB averages.

Red Sox Regular Season Offense
Tm BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
BOS 9.0% 19.8% .269 .339 .454 .185 110
MLB 8.6% 21.7% .252 .323 .417 .165 100

The Red Sox walk like an average team, but they do much better than league average with strikeouts. It’s a contact-oriented team. The only AL teams with a lower strikeout rate than Boston were Cleveland and Houston. The Red Sox have a higher batting average — likely the result of making more contact — but they also hit for more power, as seen by the high ISO. Overall, the Red Sox were one of the five best offensive teams in baseball. As for the strikeouts, the club has a lot of players with good track records in that regard.

Mookie Betts’ 15% K rate in his MVP-level season is actually higher than his career average of 12% coming into the year. Xander Bogaerts has a career 18% K rate. Andrew Benintendi was lauded as the seventh overall pick for his hit tool and that has continued throughout his professional career. Martinez has a 23% strikeout rate this season, but it is a touch better than his career numbers. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rafael Devers strike out a lot, but Eduardo Nunez is a free-swinger who makes a lot of contact.

Boston has accumulated a bunch of players with good bat control, though most of those players hit for a bunch of power, too. It’s not clear that sacrifices have been made to make more contact, but rather, these are players who haven’t been forced to make a decision on whether to sell out contact for power because they can do both.

Let’s move on and see how Boston did with two outs this season.

Red Sox Regular Season Offense with Two Outs
Tm BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
BOS 10.4% 20.2% .256 .340 .427 .171 105
MLB 10.0% 22.8% .239 .323 .395 .156 95

This is almost exactly what we would expect. Numbers across MLB get worse with two outs, and the Red Sox numbers uniformly moved in the same direction. Now let’s look at two outs and runners on base.

Red Sox with Two Outs and Runners On
Tm PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
BOS 1149 11.8% 18.1% .263 .358 .443 .180 113
MLB 31939 11.0% 22.1% .241 .333 .399 .158 98

There might actually be something to notice here. The league gets slightly worse than average while the Red Sox get better, principally through a lower strikeout rate. Going one step further, here’s the Red Sox offense in the regular season with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Red Sox with Two Outs and RISP
Tm PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
BOS 780 14.2% 16.7% .270 .383 .460 .190 126
MLB 20415 12.7% 22.2% .237 .344 .395 .157 98

Now this is fascinating. The Red Sox have gotten their best results with two outs and runners in scoring position. The strikeout rate goes way down and somehow, the isolated slugging goes up. If the Red Sox were truly making some sort of contact-oriented approach, they should be sacrificing power to put the ball in play. Instead, they are putting the ball in play more often and hitting for more power.

There’s a couple fairly simple explanations for this. As for the strikeout rate, Betts alone is responsible for roughly one percentage point in the drop, as he struck out just one time in 43 plate appearances with two outs and runners in scoring position. As for the increase in the numbers, Benintendi, Betts, Bogaerts, and Martinez combined for a 214 wRC+ in these situations in 275 PA, while the rest of the team put up a 78 wRC+ in 505 PA this year. In total, the rest of the team outside the aforementioned quartet put up an 82 wRC+ this year. The better performance this season is due to stars playing a bit better than expected over a small sample.

Finally, let’s look at two-strike hitting. Here are Boston’s numbers compared to MLB overall.

Red Sox with Two Strikes in Regular Season
Tm BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
BOS 7.5% 38.4% .206 .269 .336 .130 60
MLB 8.1% 40.9% .183 .255 .289 .106 49

Again, this is what we would expect the difference to be based on overall numbers. The Red Sox are better than average by just about the same margin that they are overall. Nobody hits well with two strikes. Well, almost nobody.

Best MLB Hitters with Two Strikes
Name Tm PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO wRC+
Mookie Betts BOS 316 10.1% 28.8% .304 .380 .550 .246 148
Jose Ramirez CLE 359 13.6% 22.3% .229 .345 .465 .236 118
Alex Bregman HOU 340 13.2% 25.0% .242 .344 .427 .184 117
Mike Trout LAA 333 18.9% 37.2% .201 .366 .367 .167 114
Brandon Nimmo NYM 325 14.5% 43.1% .204 .342 .394 .190 110
Anthony Rendon WSN 321 10.0% 25.5% .260 .336 .413 .153 103
Nick Markakis ATL 345 10.4% 23.2% .261 .336 .399 .139 99
Manny Machado 2 Tms 309 10.4% 33.7% .228 .307 .417 .188 98
Corey Dickerson PIT 287 1.7% 27.9% .288 .303 .435 .147 98
Max Muncy LAD 277 14.1% 47.3% .193 .307 .403 .210 98
Freddie Freeman ATL 342 8.5% 38.6% .250 .319 .403 .153 94
Juan Soto WSN 268 15.3% 36.9% .216 .336 .366 .150 94
Lorenzo Cain MIL 315 12.7% 29.8% .262 .356 .335 .073 93
Xander Bogaerts BOS 317 5.0% 32.2% .253 .297 .436 .182 92
Mallex Smith TBR 283 10.2% 34.6% .250 .339 .327 .077 90
Jesus Aguilar MIL 356 8.4% 40.2% .228 .292 .430 .203 90

With two strikes, the Red Sox look no different than the average MLB team until you factor in Mookie Betts. With Betts, they are one of the best teams in baseball with two strikes. Before this year, it appears Betts had a more contact-oriented approach with two strikes with fewer walks and strikeouts and less power. He’s traded away some of that contact for power and ended up a much better hitter.

Boston is an incredibly talented team that happens to not strike out very much. It’s not clear, however, that this is some sort of strategy that can be duplicated unless teams can find their own Betts, Benintendi, and Martinez, though a lot of teams could have had this Martinez last winter. The Red Sox had a great regular season because of great players. They are having a very good postseason thanks to those same players, as well as some timely hits by Nunez and Bradley Jr., whose homers have accounted for a quarter of Boston’s two-out scoring binge. The Red Sox are probably going to keep hitting because that’s what good-hitting teams do, but if the magic stops, it’s not because they lost their approach. It’s probably because a few good pitchers beat them. That happens sometimes.

We hoped you liked reading The Recipe for the Red Sox’ Secret Sauce by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Fireball Fred
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Fireball Fred

This is of course without Dustin Pedroia, who has I believe been an exceptional two-strikes hitter

cherry_pi
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cherry_pi

My good Fred, you are CORRECT. Take a look at his career triple slash with two strikes reference with the league average for every (arbitrarily chosen) three years that he played:

Pedroia career: .251/.318/.349
2018 league avg: .173/.245/.274
2015 league avg: .177/.244/.272
2012 league avg: .178/.244/.273
2009 league avg: .186/.259/.283
2006 league avg: .194/.264/.300

(reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.fcgi?id=pedrodu01&year=Career&t=b)