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January 6, 2011

Prospectus Perspective

Red Sox Regnant?

by Christina Kahrl

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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:
 

Player
2008 Chances
2008 RAA
2009 Chances
2009 RAA
2010 Chances
2010 RAA
Beltre, 3B 3728 1.9 2924 17.7 3838 27.1
Youkilis, 3B 759 11.3 1409 5.3 39 0.4
Cameron, CF 2959 13.6 3610 24.3 1160 4.1
Ellsbury, CF 1622 20.1 3814 -5.4 309 2.2

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 Insider.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

CRP13

Are you not skeptical of the rotation at all? Beckett has only put up "ace" numbers for 2-3 seasons during his career, Lackey only once, and Buchholz's 4.29 SIERA and .265 BABIP (compared to career .292) indicate huge regression?

Somebody in this week's podcast raises those flags. Behind Lester, there's a lot of finger crossing that will be going on to make all that potential pan out, I think.

Jan 06, 2011 11:09 AM
rating: 13
 
Adam Hobson

I don't think there's any need to make up an ace in Becket when the Red Sox have a legitimate one in Lester.

I'm also not sold on the idea that their defense will be even as good as last year, let alone better. Fenway is probably the one park where Crawford's defense will have the least affect, and I still think moving a 30 something three notches to the right on the defensive spectrum could be a horrible idea, regardless of what the small sample size of defensive statistics tell us about what his ability was 2 years and an injury ago. And while Martinez wasn't the nimblest behind the plate, the Varitek/Salty combo could be worst...

That pen could be something scary, but with the high variance of relievers, it may not be.

The Red Sox certainly look to have bought a good team, but they haven't won anything yet.

Jan 06, 2011 11:33 AM
rating: 11
 
Luke in MN

"what we're calling nFRAA for now"

Let's hope not for long. Seriously, get the marketing people in on this or something. Major points subtracted for (1) being unpronouncable as a word ("en-frah"?) and (2) having both upper- and lowercase letters. Ick.

Jan 06, 2011 13:30 PM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I suggest NFR to Colin, but he's been a bit bogged down with PECOTA-related tasks for the book of late.

Jan 07, 2011 14:52 PM
 
Scooter

All things seem to point to the Red Sox doing exactly as you say. I am not sure if either Lackey or DiceK will improve but Becket will be better and despite that the Red Sox will end up in a dogfight the entire season. The Rays will shall be a factor(and better than last year), and the Yankees will get pitching from somewhere and be in it the whole way. You heard it here first the-Red Sox finish 2nd or 3rd in the division.

Jan 06, 2011 18:25 PM
rating: -2
 
Matt Kory

Oh sure, you're the first guy to suggest that.

Jan 06, 2011 20:22 PM
rating: 1
 
sbnirish77

This is a broken record ... BP picks the Red Sox to win the division ... Red Sox don't

Jan 06, 2011 20:36 PM
rating: -3
 
sbnirish77

One AL East division in the last 15 years ...

Jan 06, 2011 20:56 PM
rating: 0
 
qwik3457bb

The Sox are the clear winners of the off-season. I hereby award them the January World's Championship. Now, let's see how Tampa and the Yankees counter, and let's see how everything plays out in the realm of real games.

Jan 07, 2011 01:38 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Amen to that. It's why they do play the games, after all. ;)

Jan 07, 2011 01:59 AM
 
sbnirish77

TB counters by trading Garza ... They parlayed years and years of being absolutely terrible into a 3-year run that's over.

Jan 07, 2011 10:15 AM
rating: -2
 
roadawg

If Beckett can control his soaring BB/9 and HR/9 from this past year, and pitch ~180 innings (stay healthy) I think the Sox are in good position to win the AL East. Lester should continue to dominate, and if Bucholz doesn't come back down to earth too severely with his pending regression, I have Bos winning 98 games this year. With this lineup I have them outscoring everyone in baseball too.

It helps Boston's case that the Yankees are likely to be a below 90 win team this year, especially if Petitte retires (or doesn't have a career season if he comes back), either of which are unlikely anyway.

Jan 07, 2011 14:20 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Another reason to wonder about what's going to happen in Baltimore. Not that getting the bronze in the AL East gets you more than a virtual medal, but...

Jan 07, 2011 14:53 PM
 
FLeghorn

Red Sox aside, it does feel as though the AL East may be a bit more intriguing as a complete division, as Baltimore should, hopefully, be improved, Toronto has made some good progress, and it feels like Tampa may be drifting southward to more familiar territory. I can't imagine the Yankees just sitting on their hands, either. I do think Boston is a clear favorite, however, that staff does raise eyebrows. I don't think Lackey is worth anything, and Beckett has been injured a lot of late.
I'd like the season to start soon, please.

Jan 07, 2011 18:19 PM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

CK, can you explain the chart in this article? How did Beltre have 3800+ chances? That seems too high by a factor of more than 10; or do I not understand what fielding chances are?

Jan 08, 2011 18:38 PM
rating: 1
 
krusch

I have to admit that the Yankees look worse now than they have in a long time. No help for the rotation, and the rest of the team is a year older. (Someday, Posada, Jeter, and Rivera's deals with the devil will expire.)

Surely Teixeira will improve, but otherwise there's a _lot_ of downside risk on that team.

Jan 09, 2011 13:40 PM
rating: 1
 
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