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October 31, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

Boston's Fast Track to Success

by Zachary Levine

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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:

  • They “upgraded” their abysmal relief situation, acquiring Joel Hanrahan, who would flame and inflame in April, and sending the Pirates a package including Mark Melancon, who became an All-Star.
  • They signed Mike Napoli, who promptly failed his physical.
  • They signed Shane Victorino, a move hailed in various corners of the baseball media as the worst of the offseason given Victorino’s status as a platoon candidate and declining one at that.
  • They signed Ryan Dempster, who was okay and beaned Alex Rodriguez that one time.

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.

Remember, the Red Sox are only 14 months removed from the late-August blockbuster that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.

“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:

Player

PAs

TAv

Percentile

WARP

Percentile

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

470

0.281

90-99

3.1

90-99

Mike Napoli

578

0.287

30-39

2.4

30-39

Dustin Pedroia

724

0.281

40-49

4.1

40-49

Will Middlebrooks

374

0.234

20-29

0.7

30-39

Stephen Drew

501

0.272

60-69

2.5

70-79

Jonny Gomes

366

0.275

50-59

1.5

70-79

Jacoby Ellsbury

636

0.27

50-59

4.1

70-79

Shane Victorino

532

0.285

70-79

4.9

90-99

Daniel Nava

536

0.302

90-99

2.6

90-99

David Ortiz

600

0.324

90-99

4.4

90-99

Pitcher

IP

ERA

Percentile

WARP

Percentile

Jon Lester

213.1

3.75

40-49

2.8

20-29

John Lackey

189.1

3.52

90-99

1.9

70-79

Clay Buchholz

108.1

1.74

90-99

2

40-49

Ryan Dempster

171.1

4.57

30-39

0.7

10-19

Felix Doubront

162.1

4.32

80-89

1.5

70-79

Percentile

By TAv/ERA

By WARP

90-99

Buchholz, Lackey, Nava, Ortiz, Saltalamacchia

Nava, Ortiz, Saltalamacchia, Victorino

80-89

Doubront

70-79

Victorino

Doubront, Drew, Ellsbury, Gomes, Lackey

60-69

Drew

50-59

Ellsbury, Gomes

40-49

Pedroia, Lester

Buchholz, Pedroia

30-39

Dempster, Napoli

Middlebrooks, Napoli

20-29

Middlebrooks

Lester

10-19

Dempster

0-9

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.”

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

Related Content:  World Series,  Boston Red Sox,  Ben Cherington

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

BP Comment Quick Links

surfdent48

Back to earth and reality for Wacha.

Oct 31, 2013 07:03 AM
rating: 0
 
tballgame

If you have to take a lesson from this Red Sox team, it would be keeping your best players healthy can be worth a 25 game swing in the standings. Not sure the Sox did anything in the trainer's room worth imitating on that front, but there is real competitive value in exploring/researching/evaluating techniques to keep players healthy.

Oct 31, 2013 07:38 AM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

"and not keeping your players healthy can cost you 15-20 games in the standing" .... Brian Cashman

Oct 31, 2013 18:49 PM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

If anything was more surprising about the Red Sox run to success this year, it is reading this article here at BP.

I expected to read "How the Red Sox got smart and won a World Series" (see previous book) but to actually read how they won in spite of their decisions is a shockingly honest perspective here at BP.

To that end, thank you BP.

Oct 31, 2013 08:19 AM
rating: -1
 
BurrRutledge

I'd like to also commend the BP coverage of the entire playoffs. I felt like all the series were comprehensively previewed, including the advance scouting reports, and a major improvement from my recollection of post-seasons past.

Some readers may have complaints about any one specific article or writer's opinion, but I don't think anyone can complain that there were gaps in coverage!

I think I'm already going into off-season withdrawal. Why haven't 2014 PECOTA's been released yet?

Oct 31, 2013 12:58 PM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Thanks! I'll pass that on to the other authors.

Oct 31, 2013 15:10 PM
 
apilgrim

Is it the camera angle or were the RHB for the Red Sox standing almost on top of the plate? Is this a trend.

Oct 31, 2013 09:01 AM
rating: -1
 
BillJohnson

So how do the comparable percentile tables look for the other teams in the post season, notably St. Louis?

Oct 31, 2013 12:03 PM
rating: 0
 
carligula

The Cardinals, using only TAv/ERA:
90-99: Carpenter, Miller, Kelly
80-89: Molina
70-79: Adams
60-69: Craig, Wainwright
50-59: Lynn
40-49: Beltran, Descalso, Westbrook
30-39: Jay, Holliday, Kozma
20-29: n/a
10-19: Freese

Oct 31, 2013 15:24 PM
rating: 3
 
pft1957

Another luck factor is the Red Sox had the highest team BABIP of any team since 1930. A 329 BABIP which includes 319 on the road. That helped offset the high K rate.

Oct 31, 2013 22:50 PM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

Where is that team number here at BP?

Nov 01, 2013 10:27 AM
rating: -1
 
sbnirish77

That would make this World Series the showdown of two historical statistical outliers - the Cardinals with their BA with RISP and the Red Sox with their BABIP.

Nov 01, 2013 10:30 AM
rating: -1
 
Eric M. Van

Most of that seems to have not been skill, not luck. Compared to the rest of the league, they had 137 more hits than expected based on their LD / FB / GB breakdown. But that subdivides as follows:

0.5 extra LD singles
4.5 extra LD doubles / triples

There's not a lot of variation in hardness of line drives, by definition. Not much luck here; 4 or 5 more balls found gaps than expected.

7 extra FB singles
78.5 extra FB doubles and triples

FB singles are almost all luck, but FB XBH are mostly the product of hitting the ball really hard (and playing half your games in Fenway Park). The Sox had a .112 XBH-BIP, the rest of the league .054.

39 extra ground ball singles
7.5 extra ground ball doubles and triples

We know that GB BABIP is a function of hardness of contact, hence much or all of this would be predicted by the previous set of numbers. If you can have twice as many fly balls go for XBH, I think that 10% more ground balls going through holes seems reasonable.

But let's say that the 4 line drive XBHs and 7 fly ball singles were luck, as well as 10% each of the fly ball XBH, and the ground balls. That knocks the .329 BABIP all the way down to .325.

Nov 01, 2013 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
Eric M. Van

have been skill, not luck. Why are these the only comments on the planet that can't be edited?

Nov 01, 2013 10:45 AM
rating: 1
 
thegeneral13

Your analysis illustrates that exceeding their xBABIP could have been a function of both skill and luck, but not that it was a function entirely or even mostly of skill. Given that their BABIP was a historically high number, I think one has to believe there was quite a bit of luck even if there was also skill. Presumably other teams since 1930 have hit the ball hard as well, right?

Nov 01, 2013 12:55 PM
rating: 0
 
Eric M. Van

The 2012 team, at the time of the Dodgers trade, had a second order Pyth deficit approaching a projected 10 runs (IIRC), and that was largely due to astonishingly bad hitting in two well-defined high-leverage situations. Trailing by 1-3 runs in the 9th or later, the team went 4/7, 2 2B, 3B, 2 SF in their first two games in April, then hit .139 / .191 / .235 in 199 PA thereafter. And they were shut out in 21 extra innings at home, hitting .164 / .228 / .178. Their approach was palpably terrible; after June 15 they had 34 SO and 2 BB in those opponent save situations, including a 23 K, 0 BB stretch in 87 PA from June 16 to September 4. You have to blame all that on the manager, whose job it is to establish the team's psychological tone, and identify and fix counter-productive mind-sets and approaches.

The other thing is that almost half of the PECOTA rosy outcomes were really not that surprising, and reflect the limitations of PECOTA more than the Sox' good fortune. Victorino, Salatalamacchia, and Nava were genuine surprises. While no one expected Buchholz to be this good, some of the apparent over-performance is PECOTA's inability to recognize that he has a real and large BABIP skill, and some is its inability to factor in the impact of his 2011 back injury on 2012, where a slow start added 1.25 to his ERA.

PECOTA has been predicting Ortiz to get old now for a bunch of years, and it's yet to happen. And Lackey was actually a good bet to return to his '08-09 form after TJ surgery; I bet PECOTA doesn't accurately model a guy whose elbow shredded gradually over two full seasons. As for Doubront, I have nothing objective to support his matching my personal projection, and I'll tell you right now that he'll kill his PECOTA projection in 2014. Sometimes you just have to watch a guy play.

Nov 01, 2013 09:44 AM
rating: 0
 
mcarlin

What do the Red Sox learn from the 2013 Red Sox? Attempt to resign the guys that got them there? Or apply short term character patches like last off season? I can see a significant drop off for them next year minus Ellsbury and maybe Napoli. They could find themselves trading Lester by the deadline.

Nov 03, 2013 08:23 AM
rating: 0
 
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