There are plenty of numbers that rich and renowned stat geek John Henry could look at and like as his Red Sox begin play after the All-Star break.
There’s the plus-91 run differential that’s best in the American League. There’s the 2 1/2-game lead in the AL’s East division. And, for an administration that’s traditionally vilified their rivals, there’s the six-game gap the Sox have opened between themselves and the Yankee team they welcome to Fenway Park tonight for the first time this season.
But, nice as all those are, there are two in particular that the principal owner appears to relish above all the rest: Those would be the .350 on-base percentage of Boston’s hitters, and the 4.04 pitches they’re averaging per plate appearance.
Both of those are the best in the big leagues, and, during the course of an in-studio radio interview Thursday afternoon, it was clear that Henry believes there’s a correlation between those offensive benchmarks and the fact that Boston also has the most wins in all of baseball.
He told WEEI’s “Mut and Merloni” that after the collapse of September 2011, and the Sox’ dreadful start to 2012, he came to the realization that his organization had drifted away from the core philosophy that had enabled it to win two World Series and reach the playoffs in six of his ownership’s first seven seasons.
He came to the revelation quickly, in May, as he watched hitters on what was still supposedly a star-studded team simply giving away opportunities at the plate. By the end of the year that poor approach had produced a .315 OBP that ranked 10th in the AL — and the franchise’s lowest since 1968 — and so along with finding a new manager, fixing chemistry and fishing for depth, team brass set out last offseason with a purpose of getting that number back nearer to where the organization was accustomed.
“I think Bill James termed it the ‘collapse of the center,’ which is, you start to press, things aren’t going well, there is dissension and you’re losing,” Henry said. “Everyone wants to win the game with every at-bat, so instead of having what we had here for a decade, which was grinding out at-bats and attacking the hitter if you’re a pitcher, we had people not doing that and some of the worst at-bats, consistently, that I have ever seen.”
Henry suggested the divergence he termed “a big turn away from our core philosophy” actually dated back to the end of the 2008 season. Not coincidentally, that’s the last time the Red Sox won a playoff game. And while the stats don’t support the notion it’s been wayward for quite so long — Boston was among the AL’s top three in OBP every year from 2009-11 — the fall to last place last year left the club no choice but to reevaluate its approach.
So after dealing Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers last August, and freeing themselves of two players they paid more than $20 million apiece despite plate approaches that didn’t jive with the organizational philosophy, General Manager Ben Cherington pieced together a roster that opens the second half with an OBP 33 points above the major-league average.
Additionally, the Sox offense is No. 1 in walks, with its 357 easily outdistancing the MLB average of 281. Of their 11 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify, eight of them are seeing more pitches per trip than the league average. And with an aggregate of 15,439, the Sox have to this point seen 909 more pitches than any other team.
They have the lowest rate of swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat, doing so 20 percent of the time (compared to the 25 percent average). And, speaking to the fruits harvested by working counts, Sox hitters have experienced more 2-0 counts, and more 3-1 counts, than any group of hitters in the game.
After trying to stay ahead of the curve, and reaching too far to carve out new advantages for fear that the rest of the league had caught on and would catch up, Henry sees that as evidence that his team has returned to its roots.
Still, even with the players they brought in and the philosophy they recommitted to, Henry opened Thursday’s interview by admitting that the team’s in-house simulations predicted that the Sox would finish second this season, behind Tampa Bay. So the owner was also complimentary of the leadership that has this team at the point that it needs to go only 32-33 the rest of the way to reach 90 wins.
“You have to give Ben Cherington a lot of credit for what’s going on this year,” he said of the GM from Meriden, praising him for making the team younger, deeper and built around players who thrive in this market. “He has been everything you could ask for in a manager from a teaching point, his ’man management’ so to speak, and his day-to-day approach,” he said of John Farrell.
And he also praised Jose Iglesias, the infielder who has shocked the owner by hitting .367 after struggling mightily a year ago. “I mean,” Henry said, “they have been great at-bats.”
And for one, as for all, those might just be enough to change everything.
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THE SOX held a voluntary workout Thursday to close a four-day break and prepare for the Yankees — against whom they’ll look to start the second half strong by opening with what are currently their two best starting pitchers. That’s right: Felix Doubront pitches tonight, followed by John Lackey on Saturday.
They’ll be opposed by Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda, respectively, then Sunday the Sox will send Jon Lester to the mound against C.C. Sabathia. The Boston lefty will be working on seven days rest as he looks for just his third quality start since May 15.
Meanwhile, All-Star starter Clay Buchholz will be examined again today. He hasn’t thrown since Sunday.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.