October 31, 2013
Boston's Fast Track to Success
The Boston Red Sox were nobody’s offseason champion, which is understandable for a team that was coming off a 69-93, last-place season. Sure, they did stuff. They did a lot of stuff compared to most bad teams, because most bad teams didn’t have the expectations, the window, and the recency of success that the Red Sox had.
Their four biggest offseason moves can be written pessimistically as this:
Somewhere this addition problem got as drunk as the goggled celebrants in the home clubhouse last night, because 69 wins plus that mess doesn’t always add up to this party.
Eight months later, Victorino was smashing the biggest hit of Game 6 off the wall to cap a season that was actually a bargain for his employer. Napoli was in the cleanup spot after a nice vacation at Busch Stadium. And the bullpen problems were washed away by the much less heralded move of signing Koji Uehara and otherwise building a bullpen the way you’re supposed to.
“That part didn’t turn out the way any of us envisioned, obviously,” general manager Ben Cherington said of the bullpen. “The guys who were pitching in the games at the end of the year were not necessarily the guys we envisioned at the beginning of the year.”
Indeed, for all the reshaping in the offseason, which included hiring John Farrell and a new coaching staff, the Red Sox won in spite of a few of their own decisions, too.
Where they do deserve credit is in believing that this was a 69-93 team that could win and being right about it—unlike the Phillies and to some extent the Royals, who also went further in or failed to cash out. And also for believing that rebuilding and contending don’t have to be isolated phases—that you can trade players who don’t fit and also acquire those who do without either being some huge statement about your place in the world.
“I saw that after August, we had the capacity to rebuild,” Red Sox President Larry Lucchino said, with more emphasis on the “build” part of the rebuild. “We could redeploy some significant money—the question was: would we do it the right way, bring in the right manager, coaches and players. I think it all started on (August 25) and a lot of things flowed from that.”
Lots of times we like to look at a team that’s having success and try to learn from it. We did it with the Giants two of the last three years, telling a story about building around pitching and catching and plugging in a few veteran hitters—whether that last part was said seriously or mockingly depends on your publication, probably, but the first part was standard narrative.
If we didn’t do it anyway in defeat, we would have killed that line of conversation to death with The Cardinal Way, too—how can their success in the draft and in player development be duplicated?
With Boston, though, what exactly is the defining characteristic of how this team was built? Some of it goes to show just how fast fortunes can change even in the face of the best division in baseball. That the theory of playing to your window and how many wins away from contention you appear to be might not be a best practice.
There is probably some non-negligible difference attributable to changing managers as well, but no combination of that and the offseason moves combines to make the 28-win difference from 69-93 to 97-65 and eventual World Series champions.
So did everyone just get good together?
Well, sort of. Back on April 1, Sam Miller took a look at what would happen if the Astros all hit their 90th-percentile PECOTA projections. This wasn’t quite that level of best-case scenario for the Red Sox, but a lot of things just went right all at the same time.
Of their nine starting position players plus Daniel Nava, who played enough to be viewed as a starter, and their five pitchers, six of the 15 finished above their 90th-percentile PECOTA projection in either a rate metric (TAv or ERA) or in WARP or both.
It’s important to look at WARP because it accounts for how lucky the Red Sox got with health compared to 2012—which rate stats don’t—and also considers defense and baserunning. But it’s also important to look at the rate stats because those percentiles aren’t based on our human projections of how much they’d play. So both.
(Note in looking at this that Koji Uehara and Craig Breslow also surpassed their 90th percentiles and that Junichi Tazawa was close, but that’s too much benefit of hindsight, because Hanrahan was supposed to be the guy and he hit his yuck percentile.)
Anyway, the list:
Part of this might be a little self-selecting. If anyone were kissing the 0-9 range, they might not play enough to make any postseason recaps. Still, the Red Sox had an awful lot of things just go right, including a pseudo-new-acquisition in Lackey, whereas if they had played to their projections, their season would have been a much different story.
The lesson for the rest of baseball might just be that you don’t want to take a lot of lessons from this team.
Having 69 wins doesn’t mean you can just go do what Boston did. And don’t forget, the Red Sox didn’t just win the World Series; they did something we’ve become unaccustomed to seeing in this age of diluted playoffs. They went all the way as the best team in the better league and dominated the World Series to a greater extent than 4-2 would indicate.
Having 69 wins and having money doesn’t mean you can just go do this. And you certainly can’t do it that fast unless everything goes right.
In a culture where those on the inside love to say that only those on the inside believed, Lucchino wasn’t even saying that.
“I didn’t think we would go all this far this quickly,” Lucchino said. “I knew we’d be better, that we’d take a big step in the right direction.”
“I just didn’t know how fast it would go.”