October 31, 2014
Those Lucky Red Sox
We as a community tended to view our 2014 bracket champion San Francisco Giants, not to mention the Royals who finished a neck behind, as a little bit lucky. Hence, the rather dismissive language associated with the seventh and 10th best teams from the regular season, the latter being the one crowned champion. Hence, the discussion of whether the playoff structure had failed us.
We didn’t – OK, fine, I didn’t – want any runners-up winning short series and fluking their way to a title in a sport that used to be designed to reward the start-to-finish steady.
The whole playoffs had me longing for the old days when the best teams won without any of this luck on their side, like way back in 2013 when the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in a battle of the best teams from each league, just like the World Series used to be.
But like many of our pinings for the old days at times like these, that one comes with a heavy dose of, if not revisionism, then definitely selective memory. One year later, as the Red Sox watched the 2014 Fall Classic from the depths of last place, it looks a little more like we were just rewarding a different kind of luck.
One year ago this morning, the city of Boston was waking up to its third World Series hangover in a decade. This website was waking up to a chart that looked like this.
The chart, which followed some first-references to the names involved in this recap of Game 6, categorized the 2013 Red Sox in two different, but related ways. On the left, it categorized players into which decile of their preseason PECOTA projection they fell in a rate stat, and on the right, which decile in a compiling stat.
The takeaway was that the Red Sox had either four or five of their top 15 players fall into their top 10% best-case scenarios of what could have been expected at the outset of the season. They had either nine or 10 of the 15 above median. And just as importantly, they had nobody, or just Ryan Dempster, in the bottom fifth of what they were expected to do.
This meant either one of a couple of things, the first being more the premise of the article.
1. The Red Sox upgraded from the 2012 disaster to a pretty good team that got exceptionally lucky in getting career years out of several players at the same time.
2. The front office and the Red Sox scouts beat the projections, getting players who were better than they projected because of something that simply couldn’t have shown up in a past performance and comparables-based system.
Not that the 2014 team that finished 71-91 was constructed exactly the same – it was pretty close to the same, though the impact of injury wasn’t the same. But redoing the charts for the 2014 team and those who were expected to and did get playing time, shows just what can happen on the other side of the euphoria.
*Adjusted to a full season (x1.5) to account for being traded on or around July 31. A.J. Pierzynski, who was designated for assignment, was not adjusted, nor was anybody who was sent down.
Among those expected to contribute heading into the season, just one player, Jon Lester, who was shipped off midseason, hit his top decile (although Brock Holt did too). Only four or five of the 13 were above median, and the bottom fifth was littered with names rather than being empty.
The 2013 Red Sox didn’t get lucky in the way the 2014 Giants did or in any of the ways that we traditionally think of when we talk about the luck factor. They won 97 games, but they had first-order, second-order and third-order wins of 101, 100 and 99, respectively. However with the benefit of one more year of hindsight, 2013 looks even more like a year that came out of nowhere, in which everything went right that possibly could have.
It’s something that the Red Sox will freely talk about. In the immediate aftermath of Game Six, team president Larry Lucchino said that even as they were putting together the 2013 team, they never expected it to reach that peak so quickly. And in August at Saber Seminar, general manager Ben Cherington spent some of his stage time talking about how the key to winning might be more in getting players to hit the upper reaches of their projections rather than spending on those with higher medians.
So here we are at lessons again. With the lights still on at Fenway after Game Six, the absence of lessons felt stronger than any of the usual forcing of a narrative around a team and how 29 other teams should copy it. A year later, that absence might actually be the lesson. The 2013 Red Sox were a good example of a team that put together a spectacular record, a spectacular run differential and spectacular underlying statistics to defy what they were projected to be – and with corroborating evidence from the 2014 season, defy what they actually are.
Luck doesn’t have to be a team with 86 wins popping champagne or a team with an even run differential getting to 86 wins. While it doesn’t feel good to celebrate that, and the concerns about the meaninglessness of the 162-game season are legitimate, if we aren’t going to celebrate teams that got lucky, the 2013 Red Sox show we won’t be celebrating much at all, and that’s not much fun.