Red Sox's patience resulting in good things
Hard-fought plate appearances help club chase starters from games early
When opposing pitchers prepare to face the Red Sox, they know they're in for a battle.
The Boston lineup doesn't have a hitter contending for the Major League lead in homers or RBIs like Miguel Cabrera or Chris Davis, but what it does have is a collection of hitters who take pride in grinding out at-bats with a patient approach that results in many pitches being thrown.
Five Boston players rank in the top 52 in the Majors for most pitches seen per plate appearance, and no Major League team has seen more pitches than the Red Sox this season.
It's an approach that has helped Boston become the most prolific offense in the Majors. Through Sunday, the Red Sox had scored more runs (605) than any team in MLB and ranked second with an average of 5.04 runs scored per game, trailing only Detroit's 5.16.
Every team strives to work long at-bats and drive up pitch counts, but no team does it better than the Red Sox. According to manager John Farrell, that's no coincidence.
"It's one of the main characteristics of who we pursued in the offseason, [players] that have [patience] in their track record," Farrell said. "That is the approach -- a lot of deep counts, try to get in the bullpen as early as possible. This goes back to a lot of conversations in the offseason on who we are going to target, and it's playing out."
The poster boy for this approach is Mike Napoli. Though the first baseman entered Monday with more strikeouts (155) than any other player in the Majors, he also leads all players with 4.53 pitches seen per plate appearance. Dustin Pedroia and Daniel Nava are Nos. 12 and 13, respectively, on the list, with averages of 4.133 and 4.129 pitches seen per plate appearance. Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz are also within the top 52, with an average of more than 3.78 pitches seen each time they step to the plate.
The thinking behind the strategy is twofold.
"My thinking is I like to see as many pitches as I could from a pitcher in a given day," Nava said. "It just gives yourself an idea of what he's throwing the rest of the day. It helps you throughout the game. It helps your teammates. You can go back and you say, 'His stuff's doing this' or 'His stuff isn't doing this.' So I think it's a team thing, too, because you're helping other guys as well."
The other advantage is that it often pushes the opposing starter toward an early exit.
"Early in the game, it's trying to get the starter out in five innings," Napoli said. "Get him out and get into the bullpen."
So far this season, Boston has greeted opposing bullpens earlier than the average team.
The average outing by a starter this season has lasted 5.92 innings. The average start against the Red Sox has lasted 5.43 innings, almost a half-inning shorter. Through 120 games, the Sox have forced opposing starters out before the sixth inning in 63 contests -- about 53 percent of the time.
Whether forcing an opposing starter from a game truly benefits a team is up for debate. As a whole, starters have posted a 4.04 ERA this season, compared to a 3.61 ERA by relievers.
But Napoli looks at it a different way.
"You're playing a team for three games or four games," Napoli said. "If you get to their bullpen early and the second day you get their starter out quick again, then their bullpen is shot. So if guys are pitching on back-to-back days, they're not going to have the same stuff as when they're fresh."
An example of this line of thought came to fruition in late June, the last time the Blue Jays visited Fenway Park. Toronto was the hottest team in the Majors at the time, having won 12 of its last 14. A big part of the team's success was its bullpen, which entered the series with a June ERA under 1.00.
But after Boston's lineup forced Toronto's bullpen to throw 7 1/3 innings in the first game and starter Josh Johnson lasted just 3 1/3 innings the next day, Blue Jays relievers finally cracked. They gave up deciding runs in two of the last three games of the series, and the Red Sox took three of four.
"They battled with me," Johnson said of the Red Sox. "They made me throw a lot of pitches, and it just ran up my pitch count. The first inning was good, and then they made me throw a lot of pitches, fouling some pitches off, taking some close ones and then just hitting all the mistakes I made, so it was tough."
Johnson isn't the only pitcher who has come out on the losing end of a battle with Red Sox hitters this season.
"When you look at them, you think they're a big swing-and-miss team, but they're scrappy," Padres starter Eric Stults said after lasting just 4 1/3 innings in a July start. "They're scrappy every at-bat. The whole series, they fought every pitcher we had out there."
The patient approach isn't something the Red Sox preach or discuss at length. Instead, it's a quality the organization targets in free agency and the Draft.
Rays manager Joe Maddon, who sees the Red Sox multiple times a year as an American League East rival, said the grinding approach is tough to nurture. Usually, a player either has it or he doesn't. And through the years, Boston's front office has made sure to have it in abundance throughout the lineup.
"This has been going on for several years -- them and the Yankees," Maddon said. "In this division, notoriously, you have to get your pitchers to be able to get hitters out in the strike zone. There are other teams you get hitters out outside of the strike zone, so that's why they're such a good offensive club. You've got to get them out throwing the ball within the strike zone, and therein lies the rub. That's why they've been so good for so many years."
The way to counter the Red Sox's approach is simple, Maddon said, but easier said than done. Starters need to be able to locate an above-average fastball for strikes and follow it up by pounding the strike zone.
"If you want to tap dance around the strike zone, then you are going to have a lot of five-inning starters, which really beats up starters and the bullpen, which causes you to lose," Maddon said.
Tampa Bay starters Matt Moore and David Price, who possess above-average fastballs, executed this philosophy when both threw complete games against the Red Sox in late July, each throwing better than 67 percent of his pitches for strikes.
If the Red Sox make it to the postseason, they'll likely see more starters who possess the ability to challenge their approach.
The other downside is that the Red Sox strike out at a much higher rate than most winning ballclubs. Boston batters rank fifth in the AL in strikeouts, and of the four teams that have struck out more, only the Cleveland Indians have a winning record.
But so far, the philosophy has been a recipe for success. Boston enters Tuesday's series opener at Toronto with a 71-49 record and a three-game lead over second-place Tampa Bay in the AL East.
With most of their pitching statistics near the middle of the pack, this year's Red Sox have been propelled by their offense.
Though their patient approach has trade-offs, the Red Sox also lead the Majors in walks and rank second with a .346 on base percentage. For now, at least, Napoli said the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
"It's just guys in here that understand the game of baseball," Napoli said. "We're going to make pitchers show that they can throw strikes."
Michael Periatt is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael Periatt. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.