How the Red Sox are breaking out offensively at the ideal time

Hazel Mae and Dan Shulman discuss Jose Altuve's clutch 21st postseason home run and why it was so important in Game 4, and Red Sox manager Alex Cora's decision to bring in Nathan Eovaldi in the ninth inning.

As the Boston Red Sox sit tied with the Houston Astros — a team that won three more games and had a run differential 125 runs better than them during the regular season — in the ALCS, after upsetting the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS, the secret to their success is no secret.

This team is hitting the snot out of the baseball.

Even after Tuesday’s 9-2 loss the Red Sox are hitting .300/.366/.544 this post-season with almost as many home runs (21) as the rest of teams alive in the playoffs combined (26). Even over a nine-game span a whole team turning into Aaron Judge is remarkable. In a post-season context, it’s nothing short of absurd.

Everything about the way the playoffs are structured should depress offensive performance. There are no fifth starters and Quad-A pitchers to feast on, starters who struggle are almost always given a quick hook instead of left in to eat innings, and the more frequent days off allow managers to lean on their best relievers, who are consistently well-rested. Even a good hitting team like the Red Sox could struggle under those circumstances. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for instance, are hitting just 241/.318/.378.

Instead of floundering, the Red Sox’s bats are taking off.

Prior to this year’s battle for the World Series, there have been 26 playoffs that have included wild-card teams, meaning at least four teams participated in multiple rounds. During that span, the best-hitting club in each post-season to play in two or more rounds (by OPS) has averaged a .755 mark — a full 154 points below the 2021 Red Sox. Just 30.8 per cent of these teams have cracked .800, and just two others have breached .900 — strangely, both were Red Sox teams in 1999 and 2007.

While Red Sox fans may have become accustomed to this level of post-season hitting, it’s simply not normal. That difficult-to-explain production might sit uneasily with fans less attached to the Red Sox considering Alex Cora’s involvement in the 2017 Astros sign-stealing scandal, but it would be unfair to draw a straight line from A to B with no evidence. What we do know is that the Red Sox are on fire offensively, and the question is how it’s coming together right now.

Some of the factors aren’t difficult to explain. The Red Sox entered the playoffs with an excellent lineup that posted a 107 wRC+ during the regular season (sixth-best in the majors) and an even-better 116 in September. That’s a good starting point. The team also has Kyle Schwarber, in the midst of a career-year, bringing a significant offensive upgrade after he played just 41 games with the team during the season.

Another factor is that this lineup appears well-geared for playoff action because it handles velocity well. The leaderboard for top hit generators against fastballs 95 m.p.h. or more includes five Red Sox in the top 45, and Rafael Devers is the only player in the majors this year to hit three home runs against fastballs 99 m.p.h. or more. That helped Boston dispatch Gerrit Cole, and thrive against Tampa Bay Rays fireballers like Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Shane Baz.

The driving force for their success that seems most out-of-the-blue is the production of Enrique Hernández, who has always been more of a solid hitter than a masher. Even that isn’t too hard to understand when you look at some of the streakiness in his history. This is undoubtedly the most memorable hot streak of Hernández’s career, but he’s had two nine-game stretches in his career that top the OPS he’s sporting now in mid-2015 (1.517) and late-2018 (1.485):

While he seems to have made a tangible adjustment to where he stands in the batter’s box, almost any good hitter is capable of going off for a span that stretches fewer than 10 games. What we’re seeing is surprising, but not unprecedented.

Perhaps the most important development for the Red Sox is they simply haven’t seen any of their regulars slump. Boston has eight qualified hitters with an OPS above .700 in the playoffs — a number higher than what both the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves have posted as teams. Even their ninth-most effective hitter, Hunter Renfroe, is slashing an unimpressive but far from disastrous .226/.368/.290.

Every other team has had to deal with some kind of black hole in their lineup. For the Astros, that’s by design with Martin Maldonado, but whether it’s part of the plan or not, the catcher’s .043/.120/.043 drags down their offence. The Braves are getting a grim .143/.308/.143 from their backstop, Travis D’Arnaud. The Dodgers have two of their biggest stars, Trea Turner and Justin Turner, giving them virtually nothing.

The Red Sox are as relentless as they are explosive on offence. It got them past a strong New York Yankees team, allowed them to upset the AL’s best club, and kept them in the fight against an Astros squad that looked truly dominant in the ALDS. If they can keep anything like this pace up, they’ll continue to be far more dangerous than their work in the regular season indicated.

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