The Boston Red Sox have one of the better pitching staffs in baseball. Their rotation, headlined by Chris Sale, Rick Porcello and (at times) David Price, has been excellent, placing 3rd in the majors in fWAR at 5.6. They are also 8th in ERA (3.58) and 6th in FIP (3.53). Meanwhile, the bullpen is extremely underrated, currently owning the 3rd-best fWAR in the league at 2.4. They are also 8th in ERA (3.48) and 5th in FIP (3.34). Altogether, Red Sox pitchers have amassed the 2nd-best fWAR (7.9), 9th-best ERA (3.54) and 2nd-best FIP (3.46).
I apologize for the excessive amount of statistics in the above paragraph. It will never happen again (yes, it will), but it should have illuminated how good the Sox pitchers have been this season. They have been adept at striking batters out, ranking 4th in the MLB in K/9 at 9.89. Their dominance also reigns over the command-side of things, featuring the 5th-lowest BB/9 in baseball at 2.85. As such, it really is no surprise the group’s FIP, which accounts for all the things a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks, and homers), is as solid as it is.
While they have been outstanding in those areas, I have yet to reveal their biggest strength. Cue the obligatory drum roll and we find out the BoSox pitchers paramount asset is their ability to suppress hard contact. Putting it another way, they thrive at inducing soft contact.
Over at Fangraphs, which is where all the stats in this blog post have come from, the Red Sox have elicited the highest-percentage of soft contact (Soft%) in the big leagues at 21.6%. If you need clarification on what, exactly, Soft% is, Fangraphs does a superb job of explaining quality of contact stats in their glossary.
Quality of Contact Stats (Soft%, Med%, and Hard%) represent the percentage of a hitter or pitcher’s batted balls that have been hit with a certain amount of authority. The percentages will sum to 100%, totaling all of a player’s batted balls hit or allowed. While a lot of statistics are based on the outcome of the play (i.e. hit or not), quality of contact stats are more like pitch velocity in that they define a process that occurred en route to an outcome.
The data they have is from Baseball Info Solutions and dates back to 2002. It is early and the colder months of April and (perhaps) May have helped Boston’s pitchers arrive at this percentage, but you have to go all the way back to 2011 to find a team with a better collective pitching Soft%. Oddly, in 2011, a 21.6 Soft% would have been the 29th-worst mark in the majors, while from 2012-2018 it would have been the demonstrable best in the league. My hypothesis is that in 2012 they changed the parameters for what constituted soft contact.
Anyway, yeah, Boston’s staff has been skilled at generating soft contact, which is a decidedly good thing. This should be apparent but the softer the contact usually means easier batted ball outs. Pitchers want outs and, if they cannot do it themselves (strikeouts), eliciting soft contact is the best alternative en route of attaining them. The Red Sox pitching staff placed 20th in Soft% last season, so this is an area of evident improvement.
The fact they have jumped so much from last year to this year is worth exploring a little bit in and of itself. I mean, the staff has stayed relatively the same, with the same rotation and a majority of the bullpen staying intact (Kimbrel, Kelly, Hembree, and Barnes). So, what has changed on a team-level?
Well, in my subjective mind, I associate groundballs with soft contact. Now, this is not all-encompassing but, outside of infield fly balls, this batted ball outcome is salient relative to yielding soft contact. It is no surprise that Boston’s GB% has lifted from a lowly 41.0% in 2017 (28th in MLB) to a middle-of-the-pack 43.0% in 2018 (16th in MLB). An increase of two percent would move the needle quite a bit, considering how many batted balls there are in a given season. The next question has to deal with pitch mix. Is Boston throwing anything different in 2018 that would explain the jump in groundball percentage and, partially, soft contact percentage?
Yes, in fact, there is a conspicuous difference in the time-wide pitch mix. The Red Sox have shied away from four-seam fastballs, dropping from 42.6% in ’17 to 35.6% in ’18, and have utilized sinkers/two-seamers much more prevalently, increasing from 14.6% in ’17 to 17.6% in ’18. In addition, they have used cutters a lot more as well, ballooning last year’s 3.2% in ’17 to 7.3% in ’18. Thanks, Pitch Info!
Sinkers are regarded as perhaps the most notorious groundball pitch, as they have more vertical and horizontal movement than a four-seamer, which tends to be flatter. Whether it is by accident or not, Boston is becoming less reliant on the four-seam fastball and more on soft-contact inducing pitches. This could offer a big reason why the Red Sox have been so skilled at generating weak contact.
Another reason is that Boston has been the best American League team at extracting infield fly balls, which are almost always going to be outs. Their squad has accumulated an impressive 13.6% of IFFB (infield fly balls), which is a percentage out of total fly balls, not batted ball events. This ranks second in baseball, behind only the pesky Milwaukee Brewers, and is a leap from the 10.0 IFFB%, which was 12th in the league last season.
More ground balls and a higher percentage of infield fly balls are both beneficial to pitchers. The fact Boston’s staff is doing so is obviously a good thing and has contributed mightily to the team’s early-season success. People may get bogged down in the sexiness of the strikeout, but compiling weak batted balls can go a long way to being a successful pitcher and, more importantly, a successful team. The Red Sox have been the best team in baseball at generating soft contact this season and they deserve praise for doing so.