AP NEWS

Lineup Hitting Its Stride in May

May 17, 2019

Xander Bogaerts surprised himself Wednesday night.

Leading off the 10th inning for the Red Sox, Bogaerts swung at the first pitch he saw from Rockies reliever Chad Bettis and smoked it to right field for a leadoff double.

Bogaerts almost never swings at the first pitch. Just 10 times all year had he put the first pitch in play up until that point. It had become a painful struggle for him, one where he would envision himself hacking at the first offering, but physically felt like he couldn’t do it.

“I think a lot of guys swing at the first pitch except me,” he said. “I need to learn a little more of that from them. Half my at-bats, I want to swing at the first pitch, but for some reason it just won’t get out. The catcher seems like he’s holding my bat and it’s a fastball down the middle.”

After his double, the Rockies intentionally walked Rafael Devers to get to Michael Chavis, who also swung at the first pitch and the Red Sox won the game, 6-5, on a walkoff single.

“Maybe slowly I’ll start getting back and start being more aggressive,” Bogaerts said. “That’s the way it should be.”

Maybe the Red Sox just needed to get back to playing the Alex Cora way.

After an 11-17 start they’ve gone 12-3, and they’ve done it with a forceful offense that is starting to look much more like the one that led baseball in scoring all year in 2018.

The simple formula, the one Cora was preaching since he was hired, is to be aggressive early in the count. The Sox have started to get a bit more aggressive over the last two weeks, but it’s the pitches they’re choosing to be aggressive with that stands out.

Since the calendar flipped to May, Sox hitters are swinging 2 percent more often than they did in the first month. But on pitches in the strike zone? They’re swinging 7 percent more frequently and have gone from being ranked 20th in that zone-swing-percentage in March/April to ranking fifth in May.

The results are clear: the Sox are pounding the ball again. After hitting .239 with a .712 OPS in March/April, they’re clobbering everything to the tune of a .287 average and .885 OPS (second to only the Astros) in May.

And because they’re being smarter about which pitches to swing at, their strikeout rate has dropped, from 20.9 percent in March/April to 19.4 percent in May, while their walk rate has jumped from 9.8 percent to 13.5 percent.

“Believe it or not, I take pride in my walks,” Bogaerts said. “I went up there to see the amount of at-bats I swung at the first pitch, I was 2-for-10 (before Wednesday). I don’t think that’s a good way to go about it. Maybe be a little more aggressive. That last at-bat it paid off.”

The player whose made the more noticeable transformation from March/April to May has been Rafael Devers.

All spring, the Sox were trying to get the free-swinging 22-year-old to stop chasing bad pitches and take smarter at-bats. But when the regular season began, Devers was timid. He was swinging just 48.4 percent of the time, and 68.6 percent of the time on pitches in the zone.

But since May 1, Devers is hacking again. He’s swinging at 59 percent of the pitches he sees. And most importantly, he’s swinging at 79.2 percent of the pitches he sees in the strike zone.

“He’s been dominating the strike zone,” Cora said. “And the last few weeks he’s been hitting the ball in the air, which is the end result. He’s going to hit his home runs, but at the same time, he’s going to keep hitting his line drives, he’s using the whole field and he’s only 22. We’re very proud of what he’s doing.”

Here’s the kicker: Devers is crushing the first pitch. He’s 10-for-20 with two homers on the first pitch this season. If it’s a strike on pitch one, he’s ready for it. If he takes a ball on pitch one, he’s in good shape, hitting .358 with a .930 OPS after a 1-0 count.

“I tell you what, every time I’m on deck I know I’m about to hit because Devers hasn’t missed a barrel in a week,” Chavis said. “It’s been unbelievable. Every time I’m out there on deck, I know a loud noise is about to happen. So, just getting to watch that has been pretty cool.”

Devers started the year hitting third but was quickly moved to the middle third of the order. The way he’s hit, it might be time for a move back up.