BOSTON — Six days before Christmas, the Boston Red Sox are understandably preoccupied by their protracted search for a middle-of-the-order slugger. But neither J.D. Martinez nor especially the return of Mitch Moreland is going to singlehandedly bridge the club’s 93-run drop-off in production from 2016 to 2017.
That’s where Tim Hyers comes in.
Hired last month to be the hitting coach under rookie manager Alex Cora, Hyers is rejoining the Red Sox after two years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. During his first Sox go-around, he spent three seasons as a minor-league coordinator at a time when Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Christian Vazquez were coming through the farm system and breaking into the majors, giving him firsthand knowledge of their individual plate approaches and the ins and outs of their swings.
But that’s only part of why the Red Sox rehired Hyers. The Dodgers scored 725 and 770 runs the past two seasons, an increase from 667 runs in 2015, the year before Turner Ward and Hyers took over as hitting coach and assistant hitting coach, respectively. Moreover, the Dodgers have been at the forefront of baseball’s fly-ball revolution, with third baseman Justin Turner and center fielder Chris Taylor emerging as poster boys for hitters keenly aware of their “launch angle,” the measurement of a ball’s vertical trajectory off a bat.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, just finished last in the American League in home runs for the first time since 1993. And while fans wonder what in the name of Scott Cooper is going on at Fenway Park, Hyers has been tasked with imparting the offensive philosophy that made the Dodgers so productive.
“We’ve always wanted, as hitters, to hit the ball hard and get on base and slug to drive in runs. But now, with all the technology, we can start to put a number on it,” Hyers says. “If you hit a ball 15 to 30 degrees in the air and you hit it 95 to 100 mph, it’s going to be a productive swing. That’s what they were shooting for [in Los Angeles], and it worked out really well.”
For years, teams modeled their offensive approach after the Red Sox, who taught hitters to know the strike zone, be selective and drive up the pitch count in order to force a starter from the game and get into an opponent’s bullpen. Even last season, the Sox swung at only 43.9 percent of pitches, the second-lowest rate in the majors behind the Dodgers.
But the game has changed. It’s increasingly rare that starters are permitted to face a lineup three times, and relievers are throwing harder than ever. So, while it’s still advisable to wait for a good pitch to hit, there’s such a thing as being too passive. Last season, the Red Sox swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone than any team in baseball (62.3 percent) but were middle of the pack in swinging at pitches out of the strike zone (29.5 percent). The Dodgers chased a league-low 26.2 percent of those pitches, in part because they were more aggressive earlier in counts.
“The first pitch of the World Series that they saw, it was a home run,” Cora says, referring to Taylor’s leadoff homer in Game 1 against Houston Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel. “That’s what we’re trying to do. In an era that we live in, I know it’s OK to grind out at-bats, but sometimes grinding out an at-bat is the first pitch of the at-bat and put a good swing on it.”
And when the Dodgers swung, Ward and Hyers encouraged them to put the ball in the air. Dodgers hitters ranked sixth in the majors in fly-ball rate (37 percent), up from 32.6 percent in 2016, and smashed 221 homers, fourth in the National League and up from 189 in 2016.
Hitters have long been taught to swing on top of the ball. But with technological advances that detect a pitch’s spin rate or a pitcher’s release point, coaches are teaching hitters to swing underneath pitches lower in the strike zone and lift them in the air, with a launch angle of at least 25 degrees likely to produce a fly ball. Although that approach can lead to more swings and misses, it also forces pitchers to elevate the ball more frequently, resulting in more hittable pitches.
“Our hitters understand information and they read as much as [coaches] do, so when you’re starting to understand that a ball on the ground is essentially an out, they made adjustments in their [swing] mechanics, their approach to elevate the baseball,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says. “That’s going to turn into more fly balls, more homers. Elevating the baseball seems like the best way hitters can be productive.”
The Red Sox weren’t as caught up in the craze. According to FanGraphs, they ranked 22nd in the majors in fly-ball rate at 34.4 percent, second-lowest among teams that reached the postseason (Rockies). Among players with at least 250 at-bats, left fielder Andrew Benintendi led the Sox with an average launch angle of 14.2 degrees, tied for 69th in the majors. By contrast, Turner ranked 16th at 18.4 degrees. Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo led the majors at 22.7 percent.
Hyers isn’t here to overhaul anyone’s swing. But if he’s able to get Bogaerts, for instance, to think more about elevating the ball, it might lead to better results. Last season, Bogaerts’ average launch angle was 8.2 degrees, down from 11.3 degrees in 2016. It’s hardly coincidental that Bogaerts’ homer total dropped from 21 to 10, his slugging percentage from .446 to .403.
“Every hitter has their own unique swing, and it’s my job to stay within the framework of where they’re at because they’re successful for a reason,” says Hyers, who credits Turner’s success with influencing the Dodgers’ philosophy. “But that doesn’t mean that you don’t make adjustments or you’re not trying to help them be better at what they’re doing. You’re always going to have kind of a team philosophy to score runs, but it’s individualized because each hitter has a different swing.”
After hiring him last month, the Red Sox sent Hyers video of several hitters. He has begun watching, making notes and sharing some of his observations with various players via phone calls and text messages. After the holidays, Hyers plans to visit with some players in person. Before spring training, he will have touched base with all of them.
Eventually, the Red Sox will add a hitter to the group. But regardless of whether team president Dave Dombrowski finally strikes a deal for Martinez in free agency or somehow pulls off a trade, he and Cora have both been clear that Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez and other holdovers must improve upon their performance from last season.
Helping them do so is Hyers’ responsibility.
“No matter who we bring in — or if we don’t bring anybody in — we have a really good team with talented players,” Hyers says. “Sometimes I think coaches and players can get ahead of ourselves and chase results. I’m more of a guy that says, ‘Chase the process.’ That’s the challenge for me, to get guys to focus in on the process, focus in on what they need to do individually and work as a group. If we have nine guys that are doing that, it’s going to be a really good year.”
A few more fly balls wouldn’t hurt, either.