June 18, 2010
You Could Look It Up
What's Wrong with the Red Sox?
Should the Red Sox pick up their pace by just a few games, they could find themselves in a unique place in the standings. While a handful of teams, such as the 1942 Dodgers, 1954 Yankees, and 1980 Orioles have found themselves locked out of the postseason despite winning 100 or more games, no team has ever won 100 games and finished third. The Sox, currently on a pace for 95 wins, would need to win 60 of their remaining 94 games to be the first, an unlikely but not impossible 103-win pace over a full season.
Only one third-place team has played at a pace equal to 100 wins under the current schedule. This was the 1920 Yankees, whose 95-59 record is tantamount to a 100-62 today. That team found itself looking up at Tris Speaker’s Cleveland Indians, who went on to win the World Series, and a Chicago White Sox team that might have won but was stripped of its stars by the 1919 World Series scandal just as the race was ending. This was Babe Ruth’s first Yankees team. At 13.0 WARP it can fairly be said that he carried the club, but the Yankees had yet to surround him with the supporting cast that would eventually allow them to win seven pennants during his years with the team. Though Ruth personally out-homered Cleveland 54-35, the latter still had a more productive team offense. That proved to be the difference in a race in which the Yankees’ pitching staff was actually a bit better than the Indians’. Still, having lost by only three games, it might be best to accord an outsized role to luck.
The best third-place Red Sox team of all time was the 1950 unit, which finished five games behind the pennant-winning Yankees, the eventual champions, and one game behind the second-place Tigers. This was a special team, a 1,000-run offense that holds the distinction of being the last to hit .300. The Red Sox were so deep at the plate that Billy Goodman, their utilityman, won the batting title. Three factors kept Boston out of the World Series: manager Joe McCarthy had burned out physically and emotionally and retired after a desultory third of the campaign, the pitching staff just didn’t have a lot to offer after lefty ace Mel Parnell, and most importantly, Ted Williams fractured his elbow at the All-Star game in July and was out until mid-September. Even so, as with the 1920 Yankees, there may be less to the four-game deficit than meets the eye.
The aforementioned clubs had some defects, but some of the great teams that finished third had nothing particularly wrong with them other than bad timing. In 1954, the American League was split between extremes: Three teams had all the talent and the rest were patsies. Two of them, the Orioles and the A’s, lost 100 games, and the Red Sox, Tigers, and Senators lost over 80. That division of talent allowed the Indians and their superb pitching staff to fatten up, resulting in a then-record 111 wins, and the Yankees and their league-leading offense to claim 103 wins. The White Sox, who had the AL’s second-best pitching staff and third-best offense, led by Minnie Minoso’s greatest season (.320/.411/.535; 7.8 WARP) won 94 games, which would have been competitive in almost any season but this one. They earned an 11-11 split with the Indians, the same as the second-place Yankees, but they couldn’t beat New York, going 7-15.
Eight of the 22 contests against the Yankees were one-run affairs; the Sox won only two of them. If those losses have a common theme, it’s that with Johnny Sain in the pen, Casey Stengel was able to manage his bullpen in a slightly more focused and productive way than was Paul Richards, who didn’t establish a closer. This may help explain why the White Sox underplayed their Pythagorean record by four games. Intriguingly, until a late-season slide by replacement manager Marty Marion, the White Sox had a 91-54 record. Had they continued on this pace they wouldn’t have caught the Indians or Yankees, but they would have been the best third-place team ever by two games—that’s a 102-win pace on the modern 162-game schedule.
Luck had everything to do with the 94-60 1948 Yankees finishing third behind the 97-win Indians and the 96-win Red Sox (the two teams tied and played a one-game playoff). The Indians lagged their Pythagorean record by eight games, while the Yankees, under “let ‘em play”-style manager Bucky Harris, underachieved by four. The Red Sox were one game better than their projected record. In a case like this, where the Yankees’ deficit was just two games, it isn’t necessary to search too hard for failings (though this race has been highly scrutinized over the years, and you can find fault with not just Harris but McCarthy and Lou Boudreau for several key decisions), but it’s really not worth getting granular; it is more accurate and efficient to say that but for a few lucky bounces, the race could have turned out another way.
In all, there have been 11 teams with .600 winning percentages to finish third:
The Talented Third
Eleven other teams have had records equal to or better than that of the Red Sox (between .588-.599), the most recent being the 1964 Orioles.
Many of these teams share the wrong place/time problem with the ’54 White Sox, being very good in a league that had more than its share of great teams. The 1962 Reds were a 98-win team in a league that had two 100-game winners in the Giants and Dodgers, and they played five games over their Pythagorean record. The Reds had a solid but unspectacular lineup (led by a herculean 9.0 WARP season from Frank Robinson) and though some hitters were a little below average, none could have been called replacement-level either. The pitching staff was, on the whole, probably the second-best in the league. Sure, they could have won the extra three games that would have allowed them to join the Dodgers and Giants in their best-of-three playoff, but again, in the grand scheme of things, three games isn’t anything.
Are this year’s Red Sox inadequate or merely unlucky to be a 90-something win team in a year when their division has two teams playing at a 101-win pace? As the table above suggests, the answer to that question is still up in the air. Their current record, if sustained, would give them one of the 25 best records among teams that failed to finish 1-2, but they would still be well short of the top 10. Should they step up the pace just a bit, it would be hard not to say they just picked the wrong year to win “only” 95 games.
That is not to make any excuses for the Red Sox or the plan pursued by Theo Epstein and pals over the winter, but it’s not like excuses need to be made. The Red Sox emphasized improving their defense, and they currently rank third in the AL in defensive efficiency, second in the park-adjusted variety. They signed Marco Scutaro to stabilize the shortstop position, and in a season in which the average AL player at the position is hitting .258/.314/.362, his .289/.360/.400 qualifies as a success. Adrian Beltre might be the Comeback Player of the Year if his current .337/.374/.524 holds up.
Despite several hitters getting off to slow starts, the only true problem areas have been in the outfield where, thanks to injuries, center field has been bad (.250/.316/.375) and left field an outright disaster (.224/.288/.390). Right now the Jacoby Ellsbury/Mike Cameron experiment grades out as an incomplete; the players haven’t been in the lineup long enough to falsify the organization’s judgments. As a 26-year-old who once hit .296/.369/.501, Jeremy Hermida was a worthy gamble, but continued his three-year devolution before being placed on the disabled list with fractured ribs. More production from apparent indie-league find Daniel Nava would not only be a boon to the team, it would be a feather in the organization’s cap, a mark of good scouting. As for the pitching staff, the bullpen has not been one of baseball’s best, but has not been an outright disaster either, ranking in the middle of the pack, while the starting rotation has been inconsistent due to injuries.
If the Red Sox go home in October, no doubt the Nation will be searching for scalps, but that would only be characteristically hypercritical. Then again, trailing by just three games in the loss column, they might just come back and make the postseason after all. If they don’t, though, consider the sequels to many of the teams listed in the table above. The Giants moved up to second place in 1910, then won three consecutive pennants. In 1916, the White Sox moved up to second, then won 100 games and a World Series title in 1917. After two years in second place, the 1909 Pirates won 110 games. The 1905 Cubs, 1920 Yankees, 1932 Senators, and 1948 Yankees all won pennants the following year, with the Yankees winning the World Series (and four more in a row after that). Only three of the teams (the ’12 Cubs, ’50 Red Sox, and ‘62 Reds) weren’t quickly headed for better things. In other words, winning 95 games is almost always a positive thing, no matter where you finish.