October 29, 2007
Hope and Faith
How the Boston Red Sox Can Win the World Series
Ed. Note: Before the 2007 season, we ran the Hope and Faith series to explore each team's shot at winning it all. Obviously, there can be only one, but here's the argument as to how the Red Sox could do it that we published back in February.
Despite success in 2004, Red Sox Nation has typically been full of "hope" but little "faith." For any team that is regularly in the playoffs, possesses a smart management team, and can afford the second-highest payroll in baseball, a shot at winning the World Series is rarely a ridiculous proposition. But with characteristic Red Sox fan fatalism, let's start by enumerating some of the causes for concern in each area of the ballclub in 2007, before turning it around and discussing the upside.
The Red Sox fortunes boil down to one word: health. The lack of it doomed their 2006 pennant aspirations, and landed the team in third place in the AL East for the first time since 1997, breaking a string of eight straight second-place divisional finishes. The team is surprisingly old: two-thirds of their starting lineup is 31 or older, including a pair of 35-year-olds in Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek. The starting rotation sports Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, both 40. The bullpen features Mike Timlin (41), Brendan Donnelly (35), and Julian Tavarez (34).
If Schilling and Wakefield combine for 48 starts, it will be the fourth-highest total any team has gotten from a pair of 40+ year olds since 1960; Charlie Hough and Nolan Ryan combined for 62 and 61 starts in 1989-90. The highest total was set by the 2003 Yankees, who had Roger Clemens and David Wells combining for 63 starts. Oddly, the current fourth-highest total was also accomplished by the Yankees two years later, but with a different pair of quadragenarians--Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown combined to make 47 starts in 2005. For the next-best total, you have to go back to 1981, when Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro were teammates, starting 45 games for the Braves. All the other instances of two starting pitchers aged 40 or more also occurred in the 1980s, with various combinations of the Niekro brothers, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Tommy John, Tom Seaver, and Jerry Koosman.
Returning to the present, if Schilling and Wakefield can combine for 64 starts, it would be an historic accomplishment for baseball's AARP. But even after you get past the senior citizens, the rotation has questions. Jonathan Papelbon was superlative closing last year, but is being moved to the rotation to prevent another injury flare-up like the one that cost him the last few weeks of 2006. Josh Beckett needs to rebound from a season of maddening mediocrity. And, of course, Daisuke Matsuzaka has to live up to the hype.
The positive projection? If each pitcher is healthy and performs close to his 75th percentile, the quintet should be good for about 138 starts, 900 innings, and 225 VORP. Figure the balance to be close to replacement level for the remaining 24 starts; VORP being equal to zero by definition, that gives us a total contribution of 225 VORP from the starting rotation.
Of course, when the starters are done, the relievers take over.
The bullpen is perhaps Boston's biggest weak spot heading into the season. With Papelbon moving to the rotation, there's no established closer. Joel Pineiro is switching from starting to relieving, with some hope of closing, but his ineffectiveness the past two seasons makes him far from a sure thing. Mike Timlin has been worked hard his four years in Boston, appearing in at least 68 games each season, and dropped off dramatically in the second half last year. Oh yeah--he's also 41 years old. Though Julian Tavarez remains a solid groundball pitcher, he's gone from allowing two home runs over 148 innings in 2003-2004 to 16 in 164 innings the past two years, and his walk rate jumped by over 50 percent last year as his strikeout rate tumbled 20 percent. Brendan Donnelly has slipped from dominant in 2002-2004 to merely respectable in 2005-2006. Youngsters Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen haven't proven they are major league-ready yet. Lastly, the Sox have brought in a less-heralded import, Hideki Okajima, a set-up man most of his career in Japan, to face left-handers.
With no sure things in the pen, the best-case scenario is that no one collapses and one or two positive surprises emerge from the collection of arms. That would put the pen slightly above average--perhaps at the 67th percentile of major league bullpens.
In 2006, the 10th-best pen was worth almost exactly 10 WXRL (wins above replacement level, taking into account game context and closer-usage patterns), which in turn is roughly 100 VORP in value. We're up to a total pitching contribution of about 325 VORP, or 32.5 games above replacement level for our "Hope and Faith" case. Even with a replacement-level offense, that would be enough to bring them back to a .500 club.
Although Boston is traditionally thought of as a slugging ballclub, they ranked only sixth in runs per game in the 2006 AL, and ninth in scoring on the road, where they don't get the Fenway Park boost. Heading into 2007, they will be adding to that lineup with three new regulars: a rookie second baseman (Dustin Pedroia) without much scouting buzz; Julio Lugo, their fourth attempt at replacing Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop since 2004, and a 31-year-old free agent arguably coming off one of his best seasons; and a big-money right fielder in J.D. Drew, who is as fragile as a Middle East cease-fire.
The core of the returning players are two 35-year-olds (Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek) coming off seasons where they posted their lowest games-played totals in five years or more due to injuries, and a center fielder (Coco Crisp) coming off of an injury-plagued year that was his worst as a regular.
There are reasons to be optimistic, and again it revolves around health. A healthy Crisp should return to an above-average starter in center, and Drew should easily outhit departed fan-favorite Trot Nixon when he's able to play. Even when Drew is unable to play, the Red Sox may have the best fourth outfielder in baseball in Wily Mo Pena. The team needs to count on a rebound from Varitek, as the catching options behind him are downright frightening (the even older Doug Mirabelli, and promising but not major-league-ready George Kottaras). Pedroia is well-known to be a PECOTA favorite, replacing Mark Loretta's below-average bat with a solid package of average, patience, and defense. Lugo should be a dramatic upgrade offensively from Alex Gonzalez, even if he declines from his 2006 numbers. Only David Ortiz had what would be termed a career year last year, so none of the other players should be expected to slide significantly.
(A side note: if he reaches 30 homers in 2007, Manny Ramirez joins the 500 home run club. Interestingly, of the 20 current members of that club, his career high of 45 bombs is tied for the fourth-lowest: Eddie Murray (33), Mel Ott (42), Ted Williams (43), and Willie McCovey (45).)
The Red Sox scored 820 runs last year. Add 15 runs for Pedroia over Loretta, 30 runs for Lugo over Gonzalez, and 20 runs for a return to form by Varitek. Pencil in 25 more runs for a reasonably healthy Drew over Nixon. Crisp's return offsets Ortiz's regression to his established level of play, and everyone else maintains their 2006 level of production, on average. That yields a net increase of 90 runs, or 910 runs scored, or about 235 VORP.
Combined, the offense and pitching in our rosy scenario post a 560 VORP. That would lead to a projected record of 104-58, and while any 100-win team has a legitimate shot at the World Series, those with three dominating starting pitchers do better than those with equivalent-but-deeper total talent. If Schilling, Beckett, and Matsuzaka are humming along, the wait for the next Red Sox World Championship won't be anywhere near as long as the last one.