Boston Red Sox don’t need J.D. Martinez to compete in 2018

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 24: J.D. Martinez /

The Boston Red Sox are in search of a power bat, but is one top free agent the answer to their needs?

It’s been a forgone conclusion that J.D. Martinez would wind up in a Boston Red Sox uniform for the 2018 season. With the Yankees’ addition of Giancarlo Stanton, the siren song of adding a power bat is louder than ever.

But the Red Sox don’t need to add Martinez, or anyone else for that matter, to keep up with their rivals in the AL East. This team is already very good, one that’s captured two straight division championships. And with some positive regression, a dose of improved health and embracing of the so-called “fly-ball revolution,” they could be even better this season.

Positive regression

The 2017 Boston Red Sox won the AL East by two games despite reduced production from every position in the lineup. That’s right. Every single holdover from 2016 performed worse in 2017. And every single successor was worse than their predecessor, with one notable exception. Observe:

2016 Red Sox Lineup (Fangraphs WAR in parenthesis)

C Sandy Leon (2.5) / Christian Vazquez (0.0)

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1B Hanley Ramirez (2.7)
2B Dustin Pedroia (5.4)
SS Xander Bogaerts (4.9)
3B Travis Shaw (1.6)
LF Brock Holt (0.2) / Chris Young (1.1)
CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (5.0)
RF Mookie Betts (7.9)
DH David Ortiz (4.5)

2017 Red Sox Lineup

C Christian Vazquez (1.6) / Sandy Leon (0.3)
1B Mitch Moreland (0.9)
2B Dustin Pedroia (1.9)
SS Xander Bogaerts (3.2)
3B Rafael Devers (0.9) / Devin Marrero (0.2) / Pablo Sandoval (-0.4)
LF Andrew Benintendi (2.2)
CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (2.3)
RF Mookie Betts (5.3)
DH Hanley Ramirez (-0.4)

A few takeaways from all of this:

  • It’s fairly remarkable this team won the division despite so much regression in performance from their core. Including Benintendi, who added about one win over the Holt/Young combo, this lineup was a net 21 wins worse than the previous edition.
  • They won, in part, because even though the performances of Betts (3rd), Bogaerts (8th), Bradley (12th) and Pedroia (17th) were markedly worse, they were still solid relative to their peers. Betts and, in particular, Bogaerts, should be given more credit for their elite level production both at the plate as well as in the field.
  • Of course, hitting and defense comprise but 2/3 of a team’s performance. The addition of Chris Sale (7.7) made an enormous difference, as did the improvement of Craig Kimbrel (3.3 in 2017 vs. 1.2 in 2016) and a full season of near all-star level production by Drew Pomeranz (3.1).

Most importantly, it is reasonable to assume that, given the ages of Betts (25), Bogaerts (25), Bradley (27) and Benintendi (23), not to mention with a full season of at-bats from Devers (21), this team’s production level next season, if not equal to their otherworldly 2016, will be better than their 2017 output.

Yes, there are legitimate concerns about what Pedroia and HanRam have left to offer. Ramirez’ regression, in particular, is disconcerting because the entirety of his value is tied to his bat. But if all he can muster is what he did last season, there’s enough potential for improvement up and down the lineup to hold off the Yankees.

Keep in mind that, while the Yankees added 6.9 WAR of production with Stanton, his addition does not exist in a vacuum. While he’ll be replacing the less-than inspiring production of Matt Holliday (-0.1), the Yankees still need to find suitable replacements for Chase Headley (1.9) and Starlin Castro (1.9). Right now, the Yankees new lineup is looking at a net improvement of 2 or 3 wins, perhaps slightly more with healthy seasons from Greg Bird (-0.4) and Aaron Hicks (3.3). Worrisome, sure. But hardly insurmountable.

Improved health

The Red Sox prospects for a healthier 2018 have already taken a hit with the news that Pedroia will likely miss the first two months the season. Hopefully Marco Hernandez, Brock Holt or even a resigned Eduardo Nunez can hold the fort in his absence.

But there are three key reasons for optimism for how better health can actually help this team improve in 2018. Their names are Carson Smith, Tyler Thornburg and David Price.

That trio combined to toss just 80.1 innings in 2017. If any or all can stay healthy and productive in the coming year, however, they’ll provide a significant boost to an already excellent pitching staff.

Smith was coming off an impressive rookie season (11.83 K/9 and 13 saves in 70.0 IP) when the Boston Red Sox acquired him, along with Roenis Elias, from Seattle for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro. He was expected to be a key setup man for newly acquired closer Craig Kimbrel, but Tommy John surgery derailed him for much of the past two seasons. Smith offered a glimmer of hope that, health wiling, he can return to his dominant ways with eight solid appearances to close out last season.

Thornburg, likewise, was expected to solidify the Red Sox late inning options when he arrived from Milwaukee in exchange for Travis Shaw and a pair of prospects. Surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome makes a return to his dominant form of 2016 (12.09 K/9 and 13 saves in 67.0 IP) a decidedly dicier proposition. While Matt Harvey and Phil Hughes are cautionary examples, others such as Chris Young, Jaime Garcia, Clayton Richard and Mike Foltynewicz have turned in productive big league seasons following the procedure.

Last, but not least, the return of David Price to the rotation would provide a huge boost to this team’s prospects for 2018. While perhaps no longer the player who once struck out 271 batters while walking just 38 (in 2014), Price, when healthy, remains a very good major league pitcher. In his debut Red Sox season, he was good enough to place 13th overall among pitchers with a 4.4 WAR over a beastly (and league leading) 230 IP.

A rotation featuring Sale, Pomeranz, a healthy Price, Porcello and some combination of Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright, plus a bullpen end game with righty flame throwers Smith, Thornburg, Joe Kelly and Kimbrel could mitigate the lineup’s lack of long ball prowess. However, there is one more, under-the-radar improvement that could be the key to victory in 2018.

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Fly-ball revolution

Does anyone remember former Red Sox and White Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak? Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman were among his disciples, along with Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. One of the key elements of Hriniak’s approach was, in Ted Williams’ words, to “swing down on the ball,” which Williams argued robbed hitters of their extra-base power. Obviously few would argue against Thomas’ success as a power threat. But thirty years later, the league’s approach has clearly shifted in Williams’ favor to once again embrace the fly ball.

Damian Dydyn’s post for Sons of Sam Horn does a great job of breaking down how the addition of Tim Hyers as hitting coach might impact on the Red Sox power production going forward:

"As assistant hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hyers was part of a shift in philosophy that saw the Dodgers raise their FB% from 32.6 in 2016 (26th in the majors per Fangraphs) to 37.0 in 2017 (6th in the majors). This coincided with the team setting a franchise record for HR (221), which was 11th best in the majors in 2017."

Can Hyers help the Boston Red Sox hit more taters in 2018? Dydyn suggests Bogaerts, Betts, Bradley and Devers could all benefit from generating more loft, which is another reason to suggest the current roster has yet to reach its power production ceiling.

Next: Boston Red Sox: A winter of discontent for many fans

Would J.D. Martinez help the Boston Red Sox hold off the Yankees and capture a third straight division crown? Almost certainly. But Red Sox fans can and should remain optimistic that this team, as it stands, has the talent and tools to go toe-to-toe with the Evil Empire for 2018 and beyond.