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June 28, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Red (Hot) Sox

by Joe Sheehan

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The thoughts and prayers of everyone in the BP family are with Peter Gammons and his wife Gloria. Gammons underwent surgery yesterday to repair an aneurysm in his brain, and is recovering today in a Boston hospital. His passion for the game has touched millions, and his generosity with his time and his talent has helped countless young writers, this one included, make their way in the world.

Please, whether you pray or meditate or just think good thoughts, take some time today to throw some positive energy his way. No one deserves it more.

A New England boy and, journalistic code be damned, a Red Sox fan at heart, Peter would have enjoyed last night's game at Fenway, which opened with a tribute to the 1986 pennant-winners and ended with the current team's 10th straight victory. Most people, myself included, have been focusing on the white-hot AL Central, but the Sox have the longest winning streak in the game now and have stretched to a four-game lead in the East over the Yankees.

The streak is no fluke. There's just one one-run win in there (Monday's wild 8-7 win in 12 over the Phillies) and they've more then doubled up the opposition in that time, 77-36. The 7.7 R/G average is almost directly attributable to the middle of the lineup; from #2 through #5, the Red Sox have been white-hot during the streak:

                   AB    AVG    OBP    SLG
Mark Loretta       44   .449   .471   .571
David Ortiz        38   .289   .449   .632
Manny Ramirez      32   .406   .525   .938
Trot Nixon         34   .382   .475   .559
Manny Ramirez's line is notable because early in the season there were concerns that he'd slipped a bit. He hit just seven homers through May 21 and was slugging under .500 at that point. Now, he's back to having a typical Manny Ramirez season. We know he's a Hall of Famer; the questions now are can he reach the inner circle and where does his signing rank among the greatest free-agent pickups of all time?

David Ortiz's game-winning hit Monday launched another round of praise for his clutchness, of course. It's not a point worth debating; clutch is a belief system, not a topic for analysis, and you don't get anywhere by questioning someone's beliefs. Suffice to say that Ortiz is an excellent hitter who has had a lot of success in high-profile, high-leverage situations. Any character traits or unique skills you care to extrapolate from that are your business. Overall, Ortiz is down a bit from his peak performance; the jump in league offense hides the decline, but a look at his EqA is revealing: .299, versus .323 and .309 the past two seasons. Because most of the decline is in his batting average, however, there's no reason to panic.

Mark Loretta and Trot Nixon aren't getting the same amount of notice, but each has been a major contributor over the last two weeks. Loretta's line has been particularly important as Kevin Youkilis goes through something vaguely resembling a cold streak (.279/.354/.442). The Sox have still had plenty of runners on base for the big two because of Loretta.

The Sox pitchers have been improved during this stretch, if not necessarily stellar. Facing the weak lineups of the Braves and Nationals helped considerably, providing fodder for quality starts. (The Sox even survived starting a pitcher dumped by the Royals, Kyle Snyder.) Jon Lester managed to survive last night against the Mets, but he seems to have some work to do on his command. Middle relief, where Rudy Seanez and Julian Tavarez continue to struggle, remains a concern. Getting Mike Timlin back helps, but this remains the area most likely to be propped up by a trade in the next five weeks.

It's not easy to separate the Sox' winning streak from the overall pattern of AL dominance in interleague play. All 10 of their wins have come against NL teams, and they're 12-1 overall against the junior circuit. They've benefited from a relatively soft interleague slate--only the Mets are above .500--but they are still 34-27 against the AL, a mark nearly identical to the Yankees' 36-25 against the home league.

(I'll write about this more after interleague play closes, but the notion of a dominant league may be overblown; the AL isn't outplaying the NL across the board, but rather, four good teams and the Mariners are destroying the senior circuit. Two pairs of Sox, the Tigers, Twins and Mariners are 58-9 against the NL. The rest of the AL is 59-61. Six of the AL's 14 teams have worse winning percentages in interleague play than they do in intraleague play. I don't know if that's strong evidence, but I do think it's not what we would see if the one entire league was superior to the other.)

We've seen this before, of course, with the Red Sox having a June lead in the division, only to slide back into the wild-card slot before the year is out. This team, though, may find a different path. For one thing, the Yankees aren't nearly as strong as they've been in the past, what with the spate of injuries and their lack of depth. These Sox have already survived some injuries, most notably to Coco Crisp, and they don't have anyone other than Jon Papelbon performing far above expectations. There are in-house options for most contingencies outside of an injury to Jason Varitek, and enough depth in the system to allow Theo Epstein to add a starting pitcher or bullpen help in July.

No team is as good as it looks while winning 10 straight, but the 2006 Red Sox certainly look like the best team in the AL East.

Just ask the NL East.

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

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