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May 15, 2007

Prospectus Today

Dissecting the Sox

by Joe Sheehan

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The Boston Red Sox have put up the best record in the game so far, and they've done so with a near-complete performance that makes it hard to consider them a fluke.

I say that because of one particular marker that stands out. As I've written before, good teams win games in a variety of ways, and as you look through the Red Sox season, you see that they've won close games (10-4 in one- and two-run decisions) and blowouts (ten wins by at least six runs). They've put teams away early, and they've had some of the season's most memorable comebacks. They've won low-scoring squeakers and slugfests. They've just won.

The Red Sox are showing terrific balance as well. They lead the majors in runs scored and have allowed the fewest tallies. They're first in the AL in Equivalent Average (second in MLB, the slackers), and feature the game's third-best rotation and third-best bullpen.

Start with that last piece of the puzzle. Heading into the season, the Sox bullpen was considered a weak spot. With Jonathan Papelbon being groomed as a starter, the Sox were set to use Mike Timlin as closer and an assortment of offseason pickups from all over the globe in front of him. When Timlin suffered an injury in spring training, however, the team moved Papelbon back to the closer role and left the rest of the relief staff untouched. Papelbon has once again pitched very well out of the pen (17 strikeouts, six walks, two runs allowed in 13 1/3 innings) and may have ended any hopes that he would return to the rotation. While it's hard to argue with the overall results, I'm still not sure that the Sox wouldn't have been better off using Papelbon as a starter. Julian Tavarez has a 6.60 ERA in six starts, and has been one of the 25 worst starters in baseball so far. It would take a brutal performance by Papelbon's substitutes in the closer role to make up the difference between Tavarez's starts and what you would have expected from Papelbon.

Those other relievers have been more than a pleasant surprise. Hideki "the other Japanese guy" Okajima has joined Papelbon among the top ten relievers in baseball, with a 22/4 K/BB in 18 2/3 innings. While he's owned lefties (2-for-25), he's been so good against righties that he's been used as more than a specialist. Since allowing a home run to the first batter he faced in the majors, John Buck, Okajima has not given up a run or an extra-base hit.

Papelbon and Okajima have covered most of the high-leverage situations for the Sox, with Brendan Donnelly the only other Sox reliever with a Leverage above 1.0. Donnelly has been effective in an odd role for a right-hander, throwing just 9 2/3 innings across 14 appearances. He has generally been used to get out of an inning, but not across a Red Sox trip to the plate. His effectiveness against left-handed batters has been a valuable asset. J.C. Romero has a good ERA and the third-highest WXRL on the team, although his peripherals are just this side of awful. In fact, other than Papelbon and Okajima, Sox relievers appear to be doing it with smoke and mirrors: 27 walks and 34 strikeouts in 64 innings. The back end of the bullpen is going to have to improve, or be improved, as the year goes on.

Of course, a rotation that turns games over to the good relievers helps the situation considerably. Not only do the Red Sox have a front four that has been effective, but it's gone deep into games, averaging more than six innings a start in 31 outings. (Tavarez is the outlier at five innings per start.) As I talked about with the Brewers last week, these Red Sox aren't walking people and they aren't allowing home runs, which makes it hard to score off of them. The Sox lead the AL in fewest home runs allowed with 24, and are fourth in walks with 108. It's the former stat that is driving the run prevention, as is evident when you look at the year-over-year performances of the three carryover starters:

                      2007                            2006
Pitcher     HR  HR/9   FB   FB/9  HR/FB     HR  HR/9   FB   FB/9  HR/FB
Schilling    5   .87   58   10.0    .08     28  1.21  190    8.4    .15
Beckett      2   .36   35    6.2    .06     36  1.58  197    8.7    .18
Wakefield    2   .40   45    8.9    .04     19  1.22  148    9.5    .14

Josh Beckett has pushed his groundball rate to new highs, which, combined with a regression from an unusually high HR/FB rate last year, leaves him with an extremely low home-run rate. Look for this number to rise slightly, but as long as he can stay in the rotation, he's an excellent number-two starter with this kind of performance. Schilling and Wakefield also have notably low HR/FB rates, and because both are generally flyball pitchers, you can expect them to allow a few more homers as the season wears on. Both may have benefitted from the unusually cold weather that hampered offenses in the early part of 2007.

I'm about a thousand words in and I haven't mentioned Daisuke Matsuzaka yet. The highly-regarded, well-hyped righthander, who I pegged as one of the top ten starters in baseball this year, hasn't quite lived up to that. He had a couple of difficult starts against the Yankees, and lost his command for back-to-back starts in which he allowed half his season total of 18 walks. Outside of that stretch, including last night's complete-game gem against the Tigers, he's been as advertised, a power pitcher with good command who throws a wide variety of pitches well. When not pitching against the best offense in the league-which he's done in a quarter of his starts--Matsuzaka has a 3.29 ERA and a 3/1 K/BB. That seems like a reasonable approximation of his skill level, and what his stats will look like going forward. It would not surprise me to see him post the lowest ERA of the Sox starters this year.

The Sox offense leads the AL in everything, it seems, including the big three of BA, OBP and SLG. It's unusual only in that two of the team's top three hitters are well below expectations, as neither Manny Ramirez nor J.D. Drew is anywhere near their established level. Coco Crisp and Julio Lugo have been anchors as well. On the good side, David Ortiz has been, well, David Ortiz, veterans Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell are off to good starts, and Kevin Youkilis has put up a .428 OBP in the #2 slot.

There's a lesson here about the power of a good walk rate and OBP. Even though a number of Sox aren't hitting for average or power, almost every single one is drawing walks and getting on base. Drew, Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia all have OBPs of .348 or higher despite low BAs, and only Crisp is making outs at a notably terrible rate (.283 OBP). The Sox lead the AL with 170 walks, and because of that, they've been able to suffer the underperformances in other areas. Throw in a 24-for-28 performance on the bases, and you have the best offense in the league.

As you look at the Red Sox through 37 games, what stands out is just how little stands out. There's the performance of Okajima, the low home-run rates allowed by the rotation, and perhaps some over-their-heads work by Varitek and Lowell. There are more disappointments here-Drew, Ramirez, Crisp, Julio Lugo, Matsuzaka to some people-than surprises. That bodes well, because you can say that this is a 26-11 team that, unlike most, hasn't had everything break right in the season's first quarter. While you can't project any team to keep playing .700 ball, it is fair to say that these Red Sox have established themselves as the favorite in the AL East, with very little reason to believe they can't continue to be the best team in the division.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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