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August 24, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Can the Red Sox Make the Playoffs?

by Marc Normandin

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0:0000:00    With fewer than 40 games left on the schedule, time is running out for the Boston Red Sox in 2010. Mathematically they are still in the pennant race, and in a sport like baseball where the strangest things can and do occur, being mathematically in it is sometimes all you need—ask the 2007 Phillies how that worked out. That being said, the oddities of baseball aren't enough to rely on—can the Red Sox still make the playoffs, or are their efforts from here on out wasted given the seasons of the rival Rays and Yankees?

It was a given that one of the teams from the American League East's three-headed monster was going to be left to watch the playoffs from the comfort of their living rooms, but on paper, Boston was the least likely of the trio to do so when the season began. If you disagree, think of it this way—we're talking about a team that has lost significant playing time from Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Victor Martinez, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Cameron, in addition to having to use Kevin Cash as the starting catcher when Jason Varitek also went down. Those aren't the lone injuries—plenty of hitters and pitchers landed on the disabled list at least once besides that group—but the fact that they are a handful of games out of the wild-card possession with all of the above occurring is nigh miraculous.

The club will never be 100 percent healthy this year. Pedroia returned, which was a cause for celebration, but he's already back on the disabled list because his foot wasn't fully healed. Youkilis is out for the year, and though he believes he could be back in time for the playoffs, the Sox need to get there first. Ellsbury is in the same boat, as he is supposed to miss 4-6 weeks, and Cameron's surgery will keep him on the shelf until 2011. Martinez is back, but his thumb injury may be sapping his power production—he's hit a paltry .271/.313/.364 since returning from the DL. Varitek may be back soon, but expecting him to hit at the level he did over his first 105 plate appearances is asking a bit much, especially given his recent track record of below-average offense.

The current Red Sox lineup has Ryan Kalish in left field (he began the year in Double-A Portland), Darnell McDonald in center (a minor-league free agent who began the year in Pawtucket), Jed Lowrie at second base (missed the beginning of the year with mono), and Mike Lowell at first base (relegated to the bench because of the off-season signing of free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre and also on the DL at times because of thumb problems and post-surgery issues with his hip) at first base. Kalish has fewer than 100 major-league plate appearances and is still dealing with the growing pains associated with being a 22-year-old rookie in the AL. McDonald has hit well enough (his .277 TAv puts him as above average in any outfield spot except for right field), but he isn't a suitable replacement for the expected production of Cameron or Ellsbury. Lowell's .245 TAv is not just below the league average for hitters, it's over 40 points below the first base average—he's dragging the team down, and with Carlos Delgado hitting the minor-league disabled list this weekend, the Sox may be stuck with Lowell there at least until Varitek returns and Martinez can move from catcher to firstbase.

Boston has been able to deal with the injuries to this point because players like McDonald, Daniel Nava (.280 TAv), and a resurgent Bill Hall (a .271 TAv and nearly 300 plate appearances playing everywhere except for catcher and first) have played surprisingly well and Lowrie and Kalish have also had short bouts of effectiveness. The thing is, to compete with the other juggernauts in the East, they need better players than this—with the cavalry now out for the year, it's going to be difficult for the stand-ins to put up the kind of fight Boston requires. Adding Johnny Damon via waivers from Tigers wouldn't do much for the team's chances, as he's no better at this point than Nava. As it stands, the Red Sox have lost 7 percent on their playoff chances in the past week, and have an 18.5 percent chance at the playoffs despite a 92-win pace—that's an uphill battle even if they were completely healthy.

Things would be easier if Boston was without other flaws, but the lineup isn't the only place to be hit hard by injuries. Josh Beckett hasn't looked like himself for much of this year, and though he's been unlucky, his back injury has messed with his command and he's not using his curveball as often. John Lackey has not been the ace Boston thought when they signed him as a free agent last winter, and there are concerns he won't be that kind of pitcher in the future (though his K/BB ratio has improved in the second half and changed the short-term outlook for him). The Sox need one of these two to step it up over their remaining starts in order to help out Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The starters need to be more consistently effective because Boston's bullpen is in shambles. For much of the year, it has been Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon, and whoever hadn't failed much recently coming in as the third option. Looking at the breakdown of their WXRL tells you how things have gone: Their third-"best" reliever, Ramon Ramirez, was traded to San Francisco Giants, the next option, Dustin Richardson, is back at Triple-A Pawtucket, and Felix Doubront, in 6 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, has accumulated the next-most value. Moving Tim Wakefield and Michael Bowden to the bullpen has cost the Sox more than a half-win in 25 2/3 innings, and though placing Hideki Okajima to the disabled list was an excellent example of addition by subtraction, the Red Sox  still lack a viable third option out of the 'pen.

Taking a deeper look, you can see that outside of Bard and Papelbon, no Boston pitcher deals in high-leverage situations. Manny Delcarmen is the lone active reliever with a Leverage score over 1.0, and he's been replacement level all season. Okajima is next in line after the pair above, but he cost the Sox a full win in the standings over 32 2/3 innings. Failure to pick up a useful reliever on the waiver wire or at the trade deadline has helped to doom Boston's chances. Even if the Red Sox are still in the race mathematically, if they can't find one soon, the 'pen is going to continue to cost them games.

A lineup missing two of the most productive players in all of baseball, a defense missing four important gloves, a bullpen without depth and a rotation with a pair of struggling Texans makes this a playoff run that most likely will not have a happy ending. Every aspect of this team is now flawed due to injuries, whereas at the beginning of the season they were overflowing with so much talent that the potential problems of the bullpen almost didn't matter. As stated, Boston could make the playoffs—in the sense it hasn't been eliminated from contention yet. Saying the Red Sox will make the playoffs is a case of poor analysis as all of the evidence points to the start of an early offseason and a September with more 2011 focus than 2010 in Boston.

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Year Of The Injury

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Interesting article, but you're forgetting an important piece of information: Just how far back are the Red Sox in the standings? Their record is at 72-54, 5.5 games behind the Rays and Yankees.

Aug 24, 2010 05:17 AM
rating: -4
Matt Kory

I don't think he forgot it. In fact I'm pretty sure he mentioned that they were only mathematically in the race in the very first paragraph.

Aug 24, 2010 10:12 AM
rating: 1
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The Red Sox have had a lot of injuries this year? Who knew? Such hard-hitting 'insider' stuff here!

Kudos for taking such a bold stance...it's not every author who would be willing to put themselves out there with a "they could but I don't think they will" prediction on a possible but unlikely outcome.

It adds so much to a silly 'playoff odds report' to list all the injuries and mention how much they have hurt this team!

Aug 24, 2010 05:31 AM
rating: -32
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Relax, I'm sure they are going to analyze the Rockies chances anytime now.

Aug 24, 2010 05:33 AM
rating: -7

What else do you think he's going to say? That IS a major reason why the Red Sox are in 3rd. He could TRY to come up with another reason, but he'd be wrong, and you'd blast him for that. You're a douche.

Aug 24, 2010 10:12 AM
rating: 7
Matt Kory

While Ragnhild's comment (above, currently a -13) is worthless, I would have enjoyed seeing something like an analysis involving how much VORP (or a different metric, maybe that's the wrong one) the Sox have lost and how much they've managed to get from the guys they brought up/acquired at the last second.

Other than that, thanks for the article, Marc.

Aug 24, 2010 10:15 AM
rating: 3

The only thing I disagree with it the statement that Damon is "no better at this point than Nava". Nava has a .277/.368/.424 line, but a .377 BABIP that could cause his OBP to drop significantly quite fast (only 114 plate appearances). Also, his strikeout rate is almost 30 percent.

Damon would (could) be an OBP upgrade hitting either first or second in the Sox lineup (Scutaro's OBP is .326 and J.D. Drew has struggled big time against lefties this season).

Regardless, your point about the pitching is spot on. It's pitching that is the problem as even a depleted starting lineup has scored the six most runs in baseball over the last 30 days. It's for that reason alone I think it will be tough for the Sox to run down the Rays or Yanks.

Aug 24, 2010 06:33 AM
rating: 0
Marc Normandin

Between his line drive swing and Fenway, I can see Nava keeping his BABIP lofty (though not .377 lofty), but he's also a better defender than Damon despite the occasional odd jump on a ball off the bat.

Damon would be a nice acquisition for the same reason Billy Wagner was, as he can turn into compensation later if they offer him arbitration, but some combination of Kalish/Nava/McDonald can already do what Damon would do for the 2010 Sox. The difference between Nava and Damon is slight enough over the course of a month that he's not a significant help--even if Pedroia came back now to replace the second basemen filling in for him, that might be worth an extra win tops with so few games left.

Aug 24, 2010 11:08 AM
rating: 0

Has anyone compared the number and extent of the injury cost to the Red Sox to that of the Yankees and Rays? My gut instinct is that the Sox have been hit harder, but I'd like to see the data.

Aug 24, 2010 06:56 AM
rating: 1
Matt Kory

Well, lets see. Marc listed the following Red Sox players who have spent significant time on the DL:

Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Victor Martinez, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Mike Cameron

Of course there's more (at one point every catcher in the Red Sox organization at the major league and AAA level was injured) but this is Marc's list so we'll use that.

Translating to positions, that's losing significant time from your starting second baseman, starting first baseman, starting catcher, #3 starting pitcher, some backup bench guy, starting left fielder, and starting center fielder.

Their Yankees and Rays counter parts are as follows


Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, ???*, Brett Gardner, and Curtis Granderson

The Yankees did lose Pettitte for a long period of time and Posada for a period of time as well. Losing Cano and Teixeira would undoubtedly seriously hurt them though. Its hard to argue that losing that bunch of guys wouldn't hurt the team in the standings.

Now the Rays:

Sean Rodriguez, Carlos Pena, John Jaso, David Price (listed as the #3 starter on the Rays website), ???*, Carl Crawford, BJ Upton.

Losing Price (or Shields or Garza if you prefer) would've really hurt Tampa as would losing Crawford. The rest they probably would have been able to overcome with some minimal difficulty.

As far as I'm aware the Rays haven't had much in terms of injury problems this year. The Yankees have missed Pettitte and Posada and they've had other assorted injuries, but nowhere in the neighborhood of serious injuries that Boston has encountered.

*I'm not sure why Marc included Lowell in the list of injured Red Sox. Sure, he missed a significant portion of the year, but he was never an important part of the team (until Youkilis' injury).

Aug 24, 2010 10:35 AM
rating: 0

That's an odd accounting: because the Red Sox lost their starting 2B, the Yankees or Rays were only hit as hard if they lost their 2Bs? What if they lost their SS's instead?

In addition to Pettite and Posada, the Yanks are now without Arod, have been without Johnson all season and have now lost his replacement (Berkman), Granderson for part of the seasons, and two players who were supposed to be key to the bullpen (Aceves and Marte).

I think the Red Sox have been hurt worse by injuries, but it's not as big of a gap as you suggest (assuming Arod comes back near the minimum...)

Aug 24, 2010 20:00 PM
rating: 0

Not as big a gap as he thinks. Say, 6 games?

Aug 25, 2010 14:01 PM
rating: 0

What is interesting is that if Beckett and Lackey can come around (and they might -- Lackey's start last night was mildly encouraging), the Sox could still pull it off. Even with four of their eight position players out of action for the balance of year, in August they've gone 13-9, and scored virtually the same number of runs as the Yanks and Rays. If either the Rays or Yanks have a bad run, the Sox could take them.

Aug 24, 2010 08:13 AM
rating: 1
Marc Normandin

Couple of things make me unsure about that--Beckett's command issues stem from his back, which needs to stop bothering him before he can be effective consistently. Lackey's start last night was encouraging, but I'm not sold on a return of his strikeouts because he made the Mariners look bad. He's struck out 98 batters in 153 2/3 frames against non-Mariner teams this year (whereas he has struck out 16 M's in 16 IP). Hopefully it is the start of something for him, I'm just leery of it for now.

The Rays have the easiest schedule of the three teams the rest of the way, and six left against Boston. If they could sweep (or nearly sweep) the Rays the rest of the way, then they would be more than mathematically in it, but that's a tall order.

Aug 24, 2010 11:14 AM
rating: 0
Matt Kory

The six left against the Rays are going to be playoff-level games. I'm looking forward to that.

Aug 24, 2010 11:17 AM
rating: 0

Of course, as a Yankee fan, I won't complain if the season ends with the Red Sox on the outside looking in, but at the same time, it'll be extremely interesting (and a slight change of pace) to see the Yankees and Rays in the playoffs together for the first time in history.

Aug 24, 2010 10:29 AM
rating: 0
Matt Kory

As a Red Sox fan that doesn't excite me, but as a baseball fan I admit it is interesting.

Aug 24, 2010 10:36 AM
rating: 1

The operative word here is "slight".

Aug 25, 2010 10:23 AM
rating: 0

As both a Red Sox fan and a baseball fan, what would interest me is if the Red Sox at least closed the gap with the Rays and Yankees to make late September baseball interesting. Otherwise, both New York and Tampa will just be coasting into the playoffs.

Aug 24, 2010 10:49 AM
rating: 2
Greg Ioannou

There is one other factor in the Sox' favor: the schedule. The Rays and Yankees play each other a lot in September. If one of those teams sweeps the other or comes close to it, the Sox can gain a lot of ground on the team that gets swept.

But that's a big "if."

Aug 24, 2010 11:08 AM
rating: 0
Marc Normandin

The six games Boston has left against the Rays are either a blessing or a curse, depending on the outcome. And the Rays have the easiest schedule of all three clubs left.

Aug 24, 2010 11:15 AM
rating: 0

Not that the timing of the games should matter to their overall chances, but its particulary brutal for the Sox down the stretch. Their last 10 games include 3 @ NYY, 4 @ CHW, and 3 v NYY. TB finishes up with 3 v SEA, 3 v BAL, and 4 @ KC. Even if they manage to catch TB with 10 games to go, its going to be tough to stick with them.

Aug 24, 2010 13:21 PM
rating: 3
Matt Kory

That's probably not a good thing for Boston. Its unlikely that either Tampa or New York will beat up on the other. Its more likely they'll split or something close to that, which doesn't help Boston.

Aug 24, 2010 11:15 AM
rating: 0
Eric M. Van

Two corrections -- first, Kalish has been playing CF vs RHP with Nava, Hall, and McDonald sharing LF.

The other one, and it's a biggy, is that they've absolutely settled on Felix Doubront as the 7th inning guy they've lacked all year. He's only faced 28 batters but he's fanned 9 and walked 1, rates that are hugely better (and already statistically significant) than his rates as a starter (72 BFP, 10 K, 8 BB). He hasn't shied away from leverage, either, as he has a 3.03 Component ERA (not BABIP-driven, either, it's .313) and a WPA which translates to 1.13. He's throwing five pitches (4-seamer, very distinct 2-seamer, cutter with slider spin and break, change, and big curve) and commanding them all. He could implode tomorrow but so far he looks like the real deal.

Aug 24, 2010 11:48 AM
rating: 0
Marc Normandin

I've been saying Doubront should be in the pen and used often for much of this season--his stints as a starter in the majors were to give the Sox a chance to see him against major league hitters. His command sometimes disappeared when he was a starter, but my hope is that out of the pen, in shorter bursts, he'll be able to maintain it and give them a legitimate option from that spot. I'm a big fan of his.

Aug 24, 2010 12:12 PM
rating: 0

Absolutely no consideration of the Boy Wonder's contribution to this mess. Last year he employed broken down pithcers to fill out his staff and this year relied on a number of position players who were due to break down.

How about a look at all of those defensive metrics from Bill James that produced this underperforming (at least from a defensive standpoint) effort.

And more kudos to Beltre for taking out Ellsbury who the Red Sox, in all their wisdom, put in LF defering to Mr Cameron's old legs.

It was those same metrics that put Ellsbury in LF.

The heroic effort of the Red Sox players has been completely undermined by the off-season moves of Mr. Halloween.

For the second year in a row the Red Sox were not able to even field a team in two crucial series (last year vs the Yankees, this year vs the Rays) that left them getting swept and looking from the outside in for the rest of the year.

Aug 26, 2010 20:25 PM
rating: -3
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