The 30: Even From Last Place, the Red Sox Have Kept Their Eyes on the Ball

John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Welcome to the golden age of strikeouts. Since 2005, the leaguewide strikeout rate has increased every year, reaching an all-time peak of 20.4 percent in 2014. Through two and a half months, umpires are calling fewer low strikes this year, but that has led to only a slight drop, as the 2015 strikeout rate currently sits at 20.2 percent, still one of the highest in major league history.

The reasoning behind the trend is simple: The more strikeouts your pitchers throw, the less your opponents put the ball in play — and vice versa. Balls in play usually lead to good things for an offense and bad things for a defense. Put yourself on the right side of the strikeout battle and you give yourself a better chance to win.

However, as this week’s four featured teams show, K’s aren’t everything. The Red Sox employ MLB’s second-toughest batch of hitters to strike out, and they’re still in last place. Cleveland’s starting pitchers are on the verge of making strikeout history, yet they’re in the cellar, too. Cubs hitters have struck out more than any other MLB team, and they’re one of the 10 best teams in baseball. As for the Dodgers, well, they’re just really good, thanks to, among other things, the whiff-iest bullpen in the majors.

Time to choke up with two strikes. It’s Week 10 of The 30.

Best Prolonged, Parrot-Related Walkoff-Homer Celebration of the Week

I’ve already professed my deep appreciation for Edwin Encarnacion’s home run trot, which includes him raising his right arm into an oddly stiff pose and has earned him the excellent nickname “Edwing.”

encarnacion-parrot

Despite his 13 homers in 2015, Encarnacion has hit only .233/.319/.451, and recently missed multiple games due to a shoulder injury. But on Tuesday, his shoulder cooperated long enough to fuel a dramatic finish to the Jays’ game against the Marlins. With Toronto trailing by one and a runner on base, Encarnacion walked to the plate looking for a fastball from A.J. Ramos. He got one on the first pitch and launched it to Thunder Bay. He then trotted slowly out of the box, holding on to his bat. He kept holding it, and holding it, until a split second before he reached first base. He then flipped the bat to the ground and immediately went into parrot-perch mode.

The Jays are the hottest team in baseball — winners of 11 in a row and owners of baseball’s best run differential. They’re hitting gobs of homers and especially crushing left-handed pitching, leading the majors in offense against southpaws by a mile and producing the eighth-best results of any team in the wild-card era. If they want to continue their climb up the AL East standings, having the full power of the parrot would be a big help.

Boston Teed-Off Party

A dugout spat between John Farrell and Wade Miley last week highlighted the frustration of the last-place Sox.

30. Philadelphia Phillies (22-42 record, minus-91 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Milwaukee Brewers (24-40, minus-64, LW: 30)
28. Oakland A’s (26-39, plus-15, LW: 25)
27. Boston Red Sox (27-37, minus-60, LW: 22)
26. Miami Marlins (27-37, minus-22, LW: 28)
25. Seattle Mariners (28-35, minus-45, LW: 24)
24. Colorado Rockies (28-34, minus-35, LW: 26)
23. Cincinnati Reds (28-34, minus-17, LW: 27)
22. Chicago White Sox (28-33, minus-53, LW: 23)

Tim Britton is one of the sharpest beat writers in the business. The Providence Journal scribe works sources doggedly, has a keen grasp of analytics, and isn’t prone to the kind of headline-grabbing theatrics that can sometimes drift into Boston sports reporting. So when he starts a game story with a lede like this — “BOSTON — At 9:42 p.m. on June 12, the 2015 Red Sox season died” — it’s time to sit up and take notice. Picked by many to win the AL East, the Sox instead occupy last place, arguing among themselves and falling to the second-worst record in the American League.

Choose any facet of the game, and Boston’s been mediocre or worse. The Sox rank eighth in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved, thanks almost entirely to Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, who’ve shoved the team to last in the AL in left-field and third-base defense, respectively.1 The bullpen ranks 27th in the majors in Wins Above Replacement, with late-inning veterans Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa generally doing the job, but few reliable options to bridge the gap to the eighth and ninth innings. Curiously, the starting rotation — expected to be the team’s weakest link — has actually become more respectable lately, balancing iffy returns from Joe Kelly and offseason acquisitions Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Justin Masterson2 with encouraging results from Clay Buchholz and a great start to lefty phenom Eduardo Rodriguez’s big league career.3

However, the biggest disappointment for this Red Sox team has been the terrible performance of its offense. Despite what we’ve seen from the Royals over the past year and change, not striking out doesn’t mean much if you’re also not getting on base or hitting for power. Boston ranks just 26th in park-adjusted offense this season, cozying up to also-ran teams like the Brewers, Phillies, White Sox, and the lucky-but-not-very-good Twins. And there’s no shortage of blame to go around. Mookie Betts, the highly touted center fielder whom scouts loved and the Bill James Handbook projected to hit .321/.405/.493 in his first full MLB season, is hitting below the Mendoza Line in June, dropping his season-long line to .237/.296/.381 and earning him a demotion to the bottom third of the order. Multiple injuries to catchers forced the Sox to call up top prospect Blake Swihart faster than they might have otherwise, and that hasn’t worked, either, with the batting-gloves-less 23-year-old scuffling in at .221/.264/.298.

Expecting rookies and near rookies to mash right away might not be fair, and the Sox could probably score a bunch of runs even with the youngsters struggling. That is, if the middle third of the lineup weren’t failing miserably. Sandoval, the no. 6 hitter, has coupled bad defense with a .256/.314/.389 batting line that ranks 15th among 22 batting-title-qualified third basemen. The nos. 4 and 5 hitters haven’t been any better: David Ortiz has heated up over the past few days but is still hitting just .229/.313/.414 for the season, while Mike Napoli sits at .200/.297/.380, raising fears that both thirtysomething sluggers might be nearing the end of the line as productive major leaguers.

Still, after all that pessimism, let’s throw in a little silver lining: From multiple injuries, to young guys like Betts, Swihart, and Rusney Castillo struggling out of the gate, to the older guys looking old, to the two big offseason signings making Sox fans run to their calendars to see when those deals will finally expire, nearly everything that could have gone wrong for the Red Sox has gone wrong. Going forward, we should expect at least a few breaks to go Boston’s way. In mid-June, we’re still not quite at the point where all stats should be considered stable and reliable for the rest of the season; OBP and home run rate typically take longer to stabilize, for instance, and that could bode well for Ortiz, Napoli, Sandoval, & Co. bouncing back. And remember, this is the 2015 AL East, a division that features no truly great teams and could yield an 88-win victor.

So yes, the Sox have dug themselves into a gigantic hole to start the season, but it’s still too early to call the time of death.

Escalating the Arms Race

With their starters striking out batters at a historic rate, the Indians look to the farm system for defensive help.

21. Atlanta Braves (30-33, minus-14, LW: 20)
20. Arizona Diamondbacks (30-32, plus-5, LW: 19)
19. Cleveland Indians (29-33, minus-10, LW: 14)
18. San Diego Padres (32-33, minus-6, LW: 17)
17. Baltimore Orioles (31-31, plus-15, LW: 21)
16. Minnesota Twins (34-28, plus-2, LW: 6)

While Boston’s high-contact approach at the plate has the potential to help run scoring, striking out a lot of batters carries a significantly higher correlation to run-prevention success. By that standard, the Indians rotation should be dominating.

This season, Indians starters have struck out 10 batters per nine innings and 25.2 percent of all the batters they’ve faced. Even granting that strikeouts have surged over the past decade, that’s an abnormally high number. In fact, it’s the highest strikeout rate for any team’s starting rotation since 1900. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by that number: Coming into this season, the highest strikeout rate for any team’s starting pitchers since 1900 belonged to … the 2014 Indians.4

The whiff barrage starts with Danny Salazar, who I’ve been touting as a breakout pick since the Taft administration. The 25-year-old right-hander has struck out 30.9 percent of the batters he’s faced this season (11.4 strikeouts per nine innings), trailing only aces Chris Archer, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Chris Sale. Salazar’s nastiest pitch is his splitter, which has induced whiffs 27 percent of the time this season, just as it did last year. And opponents are hitting a microscopic .154 against his split in 2015, even lower than 2014’s .183.

In addition to Salazar, three other Indians starters are striking out more than a batter an inning: Corey Kluber (28.3 percent, 10.3 K’s per 9), Carlos Carrasco (27.4 percent, 10.3 K’s per 9), and Trevor Bauer (24.3 percent, 9.1 K’s per 9). Shaun Marcum is the only current member of the rotation with less than a strikeout per inning, and he still carries a better-than-league-average mark of 23.1 percent (8.2 K’s per 9).

Yet for all that impressive bat-missing, Indians starters rank just 18th in run prevention, allowing 4.5 runs per nine innings. If you’re wondering how a staff full of viable Nolan Ryan impersonators could be worse than league average in the very basic and vital area of stopping other teams from scoring, the answer is simple: The Indians have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league.

Following a 2014 season in which their defense cost them 56 more runs than the average team according to Defensive Runs Saved, the Indians are on pace to go minus-29 this year.5 One of their biggest defensive weaknesses is center field, where Michael Bourn has been one of the worst all-around players in the league. He’s hitting just .245/.314/.299 with nine extra-base hits in 57 games. Meanwhile, age and injuries have eroded his speed: After averaging 58 steals a year from 2009 to 2011, he swiped 10 bases last year and has only five steals in eight attempts this year. That loss of speed has also eaten into his range: Bourn ranks 23rd among all center fielders in Defensive Runs Saved this year, after ranking 27th last season.

Cleveland could call up 25-year-old Triple-A outfielder James Ramsey to challenge Bourn for playing time, but Ramsey is hitting a modest .233/.331/.395 this season at Triple-A and he’s been nudged to corner-outfield duty in Columbus. The more intriguing option could be the 24-year-old Tyler Naquin, who earned a promotion to Triple-A last week, following an impressive .338/.408/.453 line at Double-A Akron. It’s just six games, but Naquin has already homered, doubled, and walked five times in Columbus. Granted, Bourn’s in Year 3 of a four-year, $48 million contract, and the Indians might struggle with the notion of benching him just past the halfway point of that deal. But whether it’s Naquin or a possible trade target to challenge for Bourn’s job, Cleveland shouldn’t stand pat with their center-field situation if they hope to rise in the competitive AL Central.

It’s not all bad news, though. Über-talent Francisco Lindor made his major league debut yesterday. A consensus top-10 minor league prospect heading into this season, the 21-year-old shortstop batted .281/.348/.399 in Columbus. While those numbers might not evoke images of peak A-Rod, they still figure to be an upgrade over recently demoted Jose Ramirez, who batted .180/.247/.240 in 46 games. Moreover, Lindor’s defense might be the best part of his diverse tool belt, as he has earned high marks from scouts for both his arm and his range.

After Cleveland called up slick-fielding third baseman Giovanny Urshela last week to replace the struggling Lonnie Chisenhall, Lindor’s arrival completes what could turn out to be a big upgrade to the Tribe’s shaky left side of the infield. When asked earlier this season if they might bring up Lindor, Indians executives demurred, saying they’d like to see their top prospect get more seasoning in the minors first. You could argue that Urshela could have benefited from the same, given the .301 on-base percentage that accompanied his promising power numbers in a limited 21-game stint this year at Triple-A.6 But with the rotation firing bullets like no starting five has before, and a holes-ridden lineup allowing too many balls to fall in for hits, the waiting game needed to end. With Cleveland still within striking distance of a playoff spot, it’s time to find out if the kids are alright.

Effective Boredom

Baseball’s lowest-contact team hopes to wear down opponents with lots of walks and, yes, lots of strikeouts.

15. New York Mets (34-30, 0, LW: 10)
14. Washington Nationals (33-30, plus-2, LW: 5)
13. Los Angeles Angels (32-31, minus-2, LW: 12)
12. Texas Rangers (33-30, plus-11, LW: 16)
11. New York Yankees (34-28, plus-23, LW: 11)
10. Tampa Bay Rays (35-29, plus-14, LW: 15)
9. Detroit Tigers (33-30, plus-4, LW: 13)
8. San Francisco Giants (34-30, plus-6, LW: 8)
7. Toronto Blue Jays (34-30, plus-71, LW: 18)
6. Chicago Cubs (34-27, plus-6, LW: 9)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (35-27, plus-45, LW: 7)
4. Houston Astros (36-28, plus-27, LW: 3)

It’s June 15, which means it’s probably too early to do any “If the playoffs were to start today” exercises. But guess what. We’re doing it anyway: If the playoffs were to start today, the two teams that strike out the most would both make the playoffs. One is the Astros, who lead the AL West. The other is the Cubs, who occupy the National League’s second wild-card spot. Both of those teams have fanned just short of 25 percent of the time.

The Cubs’ no-contact ways don’t end there, either. The North Siders also own baseball’s third-highest walk rate, drawing free passes 9 percent of the time. Combine those two numbers and you have a team that ends plate appearances without making contact more than one-third of the time — the highest mark in the majors.

That approach carries with it a hidden benefit: On the way to all of those strikeouts and walks, the Cubbies have worked an inordinate number of deep counts. According to ESPN research, they’ve worked the count to 3-2 a total of 358 times this season, also the highest such total in MLB. Factor in pitchers hitting — the Jon Lester–led Cubs are the second-worst group of pitcher-hitters in the NL — and all of those full counts become even more impressive.

The leader of the no-contact brigade is Kris Bryant. The phenom third baseman has struck out in 29.7 percent, and walked in 14 percent, of his plate appearances this season. That’s right in line with his minor league numbers, including a 274-plate-appearance stint at Triple-A last year that saw him strike out or walk 41 percent of the time. Other regulars with lofty no-contact numbers include Addison Russell (38.9 percent, though he’s also striking out four and a half times more often than he’s walking), Miguel Montero (36.1 percent), Dexter Fowler (31.4 percent), and the currently injured Jorge Soler (39.4 percent).

Outside of producing some slow and occasionally tedious baseball, all of these pitches tire out opposing starters and get the Cubs to opposing bullpens more quickly. Even in an era when many teams trot out multiple relievers who can touch the high 90s with their fastballs, consistently facing fourth-tier bullpen arms in the fifth and sixth innings will generally produce positive results.

From their pitching staff ranking among the game’s top strikeout machines to the simple fact that they have more talent now with Bryant, Montero, Russell, Lester, and additional new arrivals, there are plenty of other reasons why the Cubs are a much better team in 2015 than they were in 2014. But if you’re looking for the kind of subtle advantage that could raise a team to another plane of success, much like the ’90 Yankees and the ’00s Red Sox, it’s Chicago’s ability to keep grinding out at-bats. If you see a pitcher with an exasperated look on his face this season, there’s a decent chance it’s because he’s trying to navigate the very frustrating — and very effective, once you strip out their horrendous-hitting pitchers — Cubs lineup.

Bullpen Bullets

The Dodgers turn to a high-strikeout bullpen in the hopes of avoiding another October disappointment.

3. Kansas City Royals (34-25, plus-45, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (37-26, plus-60, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (41-21, plus-68, LW: 1)

As I wrote last week, it’s not fair to blame all of the 2014 Dodgers’ playoff failures on Don Mattingly — or Clayton Kershaw, for that matter. By allowing even the best starting pitchers to get the help they need when the game’s on the line, a loaded bullpen can make any manager look brilliant, but last year’s Dodgers didn’t have anything close to a loaded pen. Really, they didn’t have any consistently reliable options beyond closer Kenley Jansen. This year, though, the Dodgers do have that kind of strength and depth in their relief corps, and while they’re one of the elite teams in the majors, that improved pen bodes well for their postseason chances.

So far in 2015, Dodgers relievers have struck out more batters than any other bullpen in the National League — and more than any team in baseball, save for the Astros — flashing a 26.9 percent K rate. That’s up sharply from last year’s relief crew, who fanned 22.3 percent of the batters they faced, good for just 16th in MLB. A bit of that uptick is because of Jansen, who’s been absolutely spectacular since returning from an early-season injury, punching out 20 batters while allowing just four hits and no walks in 11 innings. But most of it is thanks to a group of no-names who’ve come up big in L.A., showcasing both the Dodgers’ scouting and player development chops, in addition to the franchise’s savvy in the trade market.

The best homegrown results come from two Dominican Republic signees. Yimi Garcia was signed back in 2009 and made his 10-inning debut with the Dodgers in 2014. This year, the 24-year-old right-hander has become a key part of the pen, making 29 appearances and striking out 38 batters in 26 innings. While Garcia has given up five homers already, the Dodgers can’t have too many complaints for a pitcher making the league minimum and just getting his feet wet. Then there’s Pedro Baez, who’s currently on the disabled list7 but has arguably been the club’s best reliever this year aside from Jansen. Signed in 2007, Baez has fanned 22 batters and allowed just three walks and one homer in 15.1 innings this season.

Meanwhile, the bullpen’s offseason imports are a diverse and eclectic group. Let’s take a look at the three who are averaging at least one strikeout per inning:

• Juan Nicasio, a 28-year-old righty, spent his entire pro career with the Rockies (mostly as a starter) before coming to L.A. in November for marginal outfield prospect Noel Cuevas. Nicasio’s command has wavered at times this year, as evidenced by his 13 walks in 26 innings, but he has helped to offset that with 29 strikeouts. A fastball-slider pitcher like Garcia, Nicasio has generated whiffs on 16 percent of the sliders he’s thrown.

• Adam Liberatore, a 28-year-old lefty, was drafted in the 21st round by the Rays back in 2010 when Andrew Friedman was running the show in Tampa Bay. One of Friedman’s first moves as Dodgers president of baseball ops was to grab the southpaw, seemingly as a throw-in on a four-player trade that brought Joel Peralta to Los Angeles last November. Instead, Liberatore, who has notched 20 K’s and allowed just 16 baserunners in 18.2 innings, has been the biggest catch of the four players involved in the deal.

• Chris Hatcher came to the Dodgers via the seven-player deal that shipped Dee Gordon and Dan Haren to Miami in December. The 30-year-old righty with an ugly 6.38 ERA hasn’t been as effective as his fellow bullpen acquisitions, but Hatcher has mostly been victimized by bad batted-ball luck. He’s struck out 19 batters and allowed just one home run in 18.1 innings of work, so expect that ERA to drop substantially as regression starts to work in his favor.

All of these relievers have established limited track records for success, but in what figures to be a fruitful trade market for relief pitchers (Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, lots of setup men, and maybe even Aroldis Chapman), the Dodgers could still look to upgrade. If they do, though, it would be more of a want than a need — especially compared to the barren bullpen they carried last year. Whether they make any changes to the pen, the Dodgers will need stars like Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, and Joc Pederson to come through if they’re to finally get past the Cardinals come the postseason. But to break their 27-year World Series drought, they’ll likely need all of that plus strong support from a bullpen that finally looks like it might be capable of providing it.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, MLB Stats, Jonah Keri, Baseball, Strikeouts, Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Cleveland Indians, Michael Bourn, Francisco Lindor, Chicago Cubs, Kris Bryant, Los Angeles Dodgers, Yimi Garcia

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri