January 6, 2011
Red Sox Regnant?
AIf 2010 was a season the Red Sox would rather forget, 2011 is gearing up to be the year where they'll have no excuses. Last season, they had to take their turn as post-season wallflowers in the three-way fight for the AL East division crown and the league's wild-card bid, just as the Yankees did in 2008 and the Rays endured in 2009. The competitive dynamics of baseball's toughest division has no mercy for even the slightest misstep.
With that setback behind them, Theo Epstein and his crew didn't sit still. While letting Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre depart, they have re-geared their roster by trading for Adrian Gonzalez to man first base, while shelling out top dollar to put Carl Crawford in left field. A rough first cut at projecting the results for 2011 from BP's Clay Davenport suggests that the Sox should be the easy favorites for the best record in the East and the AL, leading the field with 95 wins with current rosters.
Some of the reasons for this projection are obvious, but others reflect how much the Sox have changed things in a very short span of time. On offense, now that A-Gonz and Crawford have been added to the mix, and with a full season from Dustin Pedroia at second, and Jacoby Ellsbury or Mike Cameron in center to also look forward to, the Sox are understandably projected to lead the league in scoring—despite losing players of the caliber of Beltre and V-Mart.
Equally impressive to that projected attack, though, is that this first run at the results suggests that the Sox might also lead the league in run prevention. One major component of that progress is the expected improvement from the one area where Epstein let matters stand pat: the rotation. Cause for that optimism is to be found in the anticipated return to health of staff ace Josh Beckett, as well as better seasons from John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka. All three had seasons well below previous standards, and they should join Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to give the Sox one of baseball's most fearsome quintets—and that's counting the Phillies with Cliff Lee back as still part of this world.
But the other major elements for their improvement in run prevention are matters of design, and where Epstein and his band of henchmen deserve full credit for an outstanding offseason. By addressing both the bullpen and their defense, the Sox have not just let it ride when it comes to keeping the other team off the scoreboard.
The bullpen makeover was necessary after a season in which the Sox bullpen ranked just 22nd in the major leagues in Fair Run Average, and 25th in WXRL (Win eXpectation above Replacement, adjusted for opponents' lineups). However much of that can be laid at Jonathan Papelbon's doorstep for a bad season, last summer's decision to move Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen out of the way was the first step for making room for something better. Signing the other Sox team's closer, Bobby Jenks, might not seem like an obvious fix given that he is also coming off a disappointing campaign, but both Papelbon and Jenks pitched much better than just their ERAs reflect.
However, by using SIERA, a BP metric that takes components with the strongest consistent relationship to run prevention—like a pitcher's rates for strikeouts, walks, and grounders—and scales it to ERA, you find that while Papelbon and Jenks performed better than you might think. Papelbon's 4.57 RA/9 looks ugly, but SIERA suggests his performance, leached of park effects and bad luck, was more like 3.30; Jenks' 4.78 RA/9 was better still, with a SIERA of 2.75. As much as "regression to the mean" might be a sabermetric mantra, the Sox ought to have a pair of premium relievers manning the back end of their ballgames, above and beyond Dan Bard's blossoming into one of the game's best set-up men last year. Toss in the addition of veteran Dan Wheeler, and you have a pen that should be significantly better than last year's unit.
The other area of either improvement or not surrendering any of their recent gains is on defense. Where last winter, the Red Sox' move towards clear-cut divisional dominance owed a lot to gunning for top-shelf defenders, you might think that, by letting Beltre leave, some of their moves don't precisely hew to the by-now overplayed argument that defense is the game's latest must-have accessory. After all, changing from a multiple Gold Glove-winner like Cameron back to Ellsbury in center, as well as from the exceptional Beltre to Kevin Youkilis at third base don't really sound like defensive improvements.
However, utilizing BP's Colin Wyers' new Fielding Runs metric (or what we're calling nFRAA for now), the Red Sox aren't hurting themselves nearly as much as you might think, if you're going by reputations alone:
RAA stands for Runs Above Average, and while the numbers jump around a bit, keep in mind that low-chance totals are a lot less significant statistically in terms of what they tell us, and also remember that fielding performance, just like batting or pitching, isn't some fixed absolute. Players have good and bad years in the field, just like any other phase of the game.
Overall, you can see that the motivations for adding Beltre and Cameron for 2010 were sound—but also note that what limited recent data there is on Youkilis at the hot corner is consistently positive. Also, while as frustrating as Ellsbury's 2009 in the middle pasture was, he isn't entirely bad news, and until the Sox actually trade Cameron, it's entirely possible they might split the job in center between two useful regulars.
In short, the Sox' pursuit of excellence is as multi-dimensional as we've come to expect. As things stand now, this should be the year the Sox excuse themselves from the East's annual three-way dance, and leave the rival Yankees and Rays well in their wake.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .