Commentary

Four reasons for offensive optimism

Questions persist, but the Red Sox's bats should show improvement

Updated: March 31, 2010, 3:05 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPN Stats & Information

But will they hit?

Over the winter, the Boston Red Sox added a top-of-the-rotation starter in John Lackey and overhauled their defense. Offense seemingly was put on the back burner. Jason Bay, the team's top run producer and power threat, left for the Mets. In his place is Mike Cameron, a 37-year-old lifetime .250 hitter who by May will move into the top 10 on the all-time strikeout list.

Questions about Boston's offensive capabilities are understandable, particularly after the team mustered a total of 15 hits in three American League Division Series games against the Los Angeles Angels.

David Ortiz may be in decline and there's no Manny Ramirez in the lineup, but this isn't exactly a return to the days of Bob Zupcic and Luis Rivera. Far from it. There's little doubt that 2010 will feature a far more balanced lineup and a deeper bench.

Without question, Victor Martinez and Marco Scutaro are major upgrades at their respective positions. The Red Sox's lineup actually may have little trouble making up for the loss of Bay. But that doesn't mean the offense is in the clear. Even with Bay in the fold, the Red Sox had major offensive weaknesses in 2009. Some were addressed in the offseason, but questions remain.

Let's dig a little deeper to look at four storylines that will help provide the answer to that burning question: Will they hit?

Adrian Beltre Escapes Safeco

Mike Lowell's offense wasn't questioned. But his poor defense and chronic injuries led Boston to sign Adrian Beltre, a player whose five-year tenure in Seattle would have to be described as an offensive disappointment. Can Beltre duplicate Lowell's offensive production?

Coming off a career season for the Dodgers in 2004 (.334 BA, 48 HRs, 121 RBIs), Beltre cashed in with a long-term deal with the Mariners. But in Seattle, his best season netted only 26 home runs and 99 RBIs. Slowed by injuries, he hit his low point last season with just eight home runs and a .683 OPS. And with the Red Sox this spring, he has only one extra-base hit in Grapefruit League play. Not exactly corner infielder production, especially for a big-market club.

So where exactly is the room for optimism, you ask? It's actually quite simple. Beltre no longer has to play half of his games at Safeco Field, one of the most hostile venues for right-handed hitters. Instead, this predominantly pull hitter now has a 37-foot wall at his disposal.

Consider these numbers: Last season at Fenway Park, hitters from the right side posted a .277 batting average and .473 slugging percentage, the highest in the league. At Safeco, they hit .239 with a .363 slugging percentage, third lowest in the majors. Prior to joining the Mariners, Beltre played in yet another unfriendly environment for righties. Last season, Dodger Stadium was home to the second-lowest slugging percentage for right-handed hitters.

Beltre has spent his entire career playing in parks that were not advantageous to his swing. Last season, Beltre hit .390 when pulling the ball, compared with .289 when hitting it up the middle or the opposite way. Now, he moves to the other extreme in Fenway, where those pull numbers should be even better.

So just how much was Beltre stunted at home? His home/road splits in five seasons with the Mariners tell the story. Beltre hit .254 at home compared with .277 on the road. He had 51 more extra-base hits on the road and a significantly higher slugging percentage.

Another season like 2004 may never happen again, but Beltre's pulling tendencies bode well for his time at Fenway.

The Problem Against Lefties

The Red Sox finished eight games behind the Yankees in 2009. But if you count only games started by right-handed pitchers, Boston would have been just 1.5 games back.

The Red Sox finished 65-42 against right-handed starters, but just 30-25 against lefties. By comparison, the Yankees were 36-18 against lefty starters (though it helps that they never have to face CC Sabathia).

Boston's 30-25 record against lefty starters was by no means terrible. In fact, it was the ninth best in the majors.

Take a closer look, and the cause for concern becomes more apparent. Boston actually won 18 of its first 26 games started by a left-handed opponent. But from June 24 on, the Red Sox were 12-17 against lefties and 40-23 against righties.

For whatever reason, the Red Sox completely fell apart against left-handed starters last season. Compared with their performance against righties, the numbers aren't particularly revealing. That is, except in the wins category.

Again, it comes back to New York. The Red Sox were 2-6 against Andy Pettitte and Sabathia, the Yankees' pair of southpaws. Against their right-handed starters, the Red Sox were 7-3.

This is an area where Bay's absence could be felt, as Bay mashed lefties to the tune of a .980 OPS. But all three of the Red Sox's free-agent signings are right-handed hitters proved to be effective against lefties. Cameron and Scutaro have a combined .400 career batting average against Sabathia.

Last year, shortstops Jed Lowrie, Nick Green and Alex Gonzalez combined to hit .215 against lefties and had more strikeouts than hits. Scutaro arrives having hit .269 against lefties, but with an impressive .389 on-base percentage.

Also promising is a full season of Martinez, who hit .323 against lefties after joining the Red Sox, a massive improvement over Jason Varitek's .236 average.

Ultimately, the Red Sox's success against left-handed starters could hinge on one man: David Ortiz. Will he be the feeble slugger who had a .593 OPS against lefties going into June 1? Or the player who posted a respectable .793 OPS against lefties after that date? As long as Lowell is still on the roster, Ortiz may be on a short leash when it comes to facing southpaws.

Hitting in the Ninth Spot

When compiling an offseason wish list, stability at the No. 9 spot in the order generally is not a top priority. But Scutaro has a chance to be a game-changer at the bottom of the order.

It's clear that Scutaro will be a major offensive upgrade over 2009's hodgepodge of shortstops. Boston's shortstops combined to hit just .235, ranking 26th in the majors. Their on-base percentage was a mere .297, 25th in the majors. Only Cleveland's shortstops whiffed more than Boston's (128 strikeouts). But Scutaro ranked fifth among major league shortstops with a .379 on-base percentage and hardly ever swings and misses.

Scutaro's offensive impact will be felt out of the ninth spot in the order, where he's expected to start the season. Thanks mostly to that same crop of shortstops, the Red Sox received very poor production out of the nine hole in 2009. As a team, the Red Sox had the second-best on-base percentage in the majors last season. However, their No. 9 hitters combined for a .302 on-base percentage, ninth in the AL.

Scutaro figures to get on base more than any other No. 9 hitter in the majors. Last season, only Kelly Shoppach had an OBP greater than .360 among those with 100 plate appearances hitting ninth.

The biggest beneficiary will be those at the top of the order, particularly Jacoby Ellsbury. For all his good work atop the lineup, Ellsbury was not great leading off an inning. Leading off the game, he hit .275 with a .325 on-base percentage. Leading off any other inning, Ellsbury hit just .254.

The lesson? All of those wasted at-bats at the bottom of the order prevented Ellsbury from hitting where he is most comfortable: with men on base. Last season, Ellsbury hit .313 with men on base, third best on the Red Sox. After being reinstated into the leadoff spot in July, that jumped to a .352 batting average.

If Scutaro can set the table for Ellsbury, pitchers could be in for some long innings going into the heart of the Red Sox's order.

Late-Inning Struggles

During the first six innings, the Red Sox had the best offense in the majors. Boston scored 26 more runs than any other team in the first six innings, and no team got on base more or had a higher slugging percentage.

The bats weren't so potent late in games. The Red Sox hit just .243 from the seventh inning on, 24th in the majors, and the third lowest for a Boston offense over the last 35 years. The contrast with the Yankees couldn't have been more extreme. New York scored more runs from the seventh inning on than any team over the last 35 years.

That difference was reflected in the standings. Boston was 8-52 when trailing going into the seventh, the Red Sox's worst such record since 2000. The Yankees were 16-52. Those eight wins add up: The Red Sox finished eight games back in the AL East.

So which Red Sox players were wielding the coldest bats late in games? The most surprising name has to be Dustin Pedroia, who hit .322 in the first six innings, but just .231 after that.

Bay was another culprit. Only Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard had more RBIs than Bay in the first six innings. However, he just wasn't the same hitter late in games. Bay hit just .235 and had only 25 of his 119 RBIs after the sixth inning. Check out some of the players with more RBIs after the sixth: Chase Headley, Casey Blake and Seth Smith.

What changed in the offseason? Consider that Bay, Varitek and the Red Sox shortstops combined to hit just .216 after the sixth inning. Those players are now either gone or riding the bench.

Again, Scutaro shines where his predecessors failed. He hit .287 with a .385 on-base percentage after the sixth. His 31 runs scored would have been tied for the club lead.

And a full season of Martinez could make all the difference in the world. In 2009, he was arguably the best hitter in the baseball after the sixth inning. Only Matt Kemp (47) had more late-game RBIs than Martinez (46), but he did it in 43 more plate appearances.

Overall late in games, Martinez hit .328 to go with the second-best OPS in the AL behind Alex Rodriguez. He was particularly dominant over the final two months with Boston, hitting .417 with a 1.220 OPS after the sixth inning. Those numbers are unsustainable, but a full season of Martinez could turn the tide late in games.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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