The Red Sox haven't executed the kind of shock-and-awe signings on which some in these parts might be judging their offseason. But what they've done to this point is telling.
David Ross, Jonny Gomes, the flirtation with Hiroki Kuroda, heavy interest in Mike Napoli … all potentially were targeted to get the Red Sox back on their proper paths. Hitting at home. Plate discipline. Controlling the running game. Throwing strikes.
What once was lost, the team now is attempting to find.
Read what Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said when explaining his team-building goals in an appearance on WEEI's Hot Stove Show earlier this month:
“It’s a team that gets on base more. It’s a team that’s strong up the middle. It’s a team with guys that want to be here. It’s a team with pitching that’s aggressive and attacks the strike zone. It’s a team that can do that over the course of a six-month season, and that grinds through the tough periods. All the things that made us good in the past. Our best teams I think had a lot of the qualities I mentioned. Those teams are not built overnight. If you lose 93 games, it means you’re a ways away from that team. We feel like we have some of the pieces necessary to be that kind of team. We think that we have more on the way in the farm system, so we’ve got to be protective of the guys in the farm system that we most believe in and we’ve got to be selective about the types of guys we bring in.
"When you try to do all those things, it really means that there’s no overnight fix. We don’t know exactly when that next great Red Sox team is going to crystallize. What we do know is that we’re going to work as hard as we can to put as good a team as possible on the field in 2013 and create a direction and a path towards that next great team, and I think that’s what fans in Boston right now, November looking into 2013, are looking for that. They’re looking for direction. They’re looking for a clear path to, okay, this is what we’re trying to do and this is what we’re doing to get there. I think fans in Boston are savvy enough to understand that the great Red Sox teams of the past did not happen overnight. They happened through a combination of good choices, good development, a little bit of luck and, at times, some patience."
It is understood that the Red Sox are looking primarily for short-term contracts, not wanting to get into the kind of long-term financial discomfort they recently experienced. But regardless of the terms of the contracts, prioritizing pieces that fit has clearly been a focus for these Sox judging by their actions to date.
And it's not difficult to decipher why they are taking this tact.
OPS at Fenway Park
2012: .788 (7th in majors)
2007-11: .838 (1st)
Pitches per plate appearance
2012: 3.89 (3rd)
2007-11: 3.94 (1st)
2012: .315 (22nd)
2007-11: .352 (2nd)
Opponents' stolen base percentage
2012: 83.6 (25th)
2007-11: 82.7 (29th)
Kuroda: 524 (10th-best in American League; third-best among free agent pitchers, after Kyle Lohse and Anibal Sanchez)
THE FENWAY PARK CONUNDRUM
The failure to produce at Fenway was one of the most baffling portions of a baffling '12 season. The second-best home team over the previous five seasons had the second-most losses of any team in baseball on its home field last year, winning just 34 games. While much of the problem centered around poor pitching, the Sox finished fourth in runs at home this time around, with the aforementioned drop in OPS.
Enter Gomes, and perhaps Napoli (along with the potential return of Cody Ross).
The numbers Gomes has posted in his 31 games at Fenway haven't blown anybody away, with a .262 batting average, .783 OPS and three home runs in 31 games. Those digits obviously don't approach what Napoli has delivered -- the best Fenway (1.256) OPS of any player with at least 58 plate appearances since '08.
But for what he will be asked to do -- carrying most of the workload in left field against left-handed pitching -- Gomes would seem to be a good fit. First off, he carried a .974 OPS against lefties in '12, which would be a fine complement to the Red Sox' leaders if they were to both return -- Cody Ross (1.010) and David Ortiz (.985). But it is Gomes' swing path that truly makes an intriguing solution to fixing the Sox' issues at Fenway.
According to BasseballAnalytics.org, of Gomes' 73 hits in '12, just five were placed to the right side of the field, with all 18 of his home runs going to left field. Considering the league as a whole hit a combined 1.035 on balls hit to left field at Fenway last season (better than any other placement in the park), it would seem to bode well for Gomes and his new team (pending a physical, of course).
GRINDING OUT AT-BATS
This is what John Farrell said when appearing on the Hot Stove Show last Thursday when asked about the need to get back to a lineup that worked the count:
"A high priority. … The one thing that you raise, the ongoing debate, can you teach that grinding approach? Can you instill that in hitters at the big league level? Or have they shown a track record of that throughout their minor league career and ultimately get to the big leagues? I think hitters continually evolve. Let’s say we have a young hitter who’s had very good success throughout the minor leagues. I think when they get to the big league level and meet those initial challenges, they might expand the strike zone at times but over time they usually settle back into their performance level to level throughout the minor leagues. When you’re looking at a young player and you have to continually reinforce that overall approach — working the count, understanding the strike zone, battling with two strikes, working deep counts with the idea of forcing that starting pitching not only to elevate the pitch count but ideally get to the middle relief group sometime in that sixth or seventh inning, that’s where a lot of games are won and lost."
And this was former Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan, talking on WEEI shortly after being hired by the Rangers:
"You have to adjust to the players that you have, and the guys that we had, especially the last month of the season, were very raw and maybe we didn't expect them to be with us so early in their career. These guys' skill sets probably weren't conducive to them seeing five, six, seven pitches per at-bat."
Hence, the Red Sox' recent hunt for the players with the "skill set" that seemed absent in stretches of last year.
Red Sox hitters took 3.8 pitches per plate appearance in the first six innings in '12, compared to four per plate appearance the season before. Not a dramatic change, but that mark certainly represented a trend in the wrong direction. That's where a guy like Napoli fits in.
Known for his success against the Red Sox, and prolific home run rate over the past few seasons, the catcher/first baseman represents a rarity in this day and age: a middle-of-the-order presence who can work the count with the best of them. In '12, Napoli averaged 4.41 pitches per plate appearance, which would be second only to Adam Dunn and A.J. Ellis (4.43) with the requisite number of plate appearances. For his career, he sits at 4.27 pitches per plate appearance, just shy of the longtime standard-bearer when it came to Red Sox plate discipline, Kevin Youkilis (4.30).
Gomes also typically lives around four pitches per plate appearance, but also manages to supply a much-needed above-average on-base percentage. The outfielder entered the offseason carrying the third-best OBP of any free agent hitter, finishing 2012 at .377.
LIMITING THE THEFTS
Offensively, David Ross fits the mold. He finished '12 at 4.26 pitches per plate appearance, while averaging four over his career. But that isn't his best selling point.
In the past eight seasons, Ross has thrown out 37.5 percent of attempted base-stealers, the second-best percentage in the majors over that time (only trailing Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina). Over that same time, Red Sox catchers have caught just 21.1 percent of would-be base thieves. Since '07, the Red Sox have allowed 806 stolen bases -- 76 more than the next American League team, the Angels, and 482 more than the Cardinals.
"We brought David in to improve our team. Has he had a track record of being able to throw runners out? Yes he has. But he also brings a number of things that we’re looking for,” Farrell said. “He’s got leadership capabilities and qualities that fit well behind the plate in that position. He’s shown over the course of an entire career to be a very good game caller and to get the most out of pitchers on a given night.
"But on the bigger picture, in the bigger topic that you raise here, going back the last couple of years here [including with] myself as a pitching coach, we were not very good at controlling the running game. We have to become better at that. That will be a main point of emphasis in spring training, and looking back over the last couple of years, finding ways to do just that. It will be, I’m not going to say a hot spot, but a point of emphasis in spring training. The running game has come back to being employed not just in the AL East but across baseball as home run totals have dropped, the running game has become much more a part of it, and controlling it falls much more on the pitchers and catchers to control it and do the best job capable."
The names might not be big, but the team feels the strides have already been significant, representing important steps down a familiar (and much-needed) path.