Another Red Sox Update
A couple of weeks ago, I tried to detail what was wrong with the Boston Red Sox as best I could. It was pretty straightforward. The Red Sox could not pitch, they could not field, they could not hit. Since April 21st, the Red Sox are 10-6 but with the Yankees and Rays still playing terrific baseball, Boston does not have much to show for their improved play.
The fact remains, however, that the Red Sox have been settling in. Another Yankees blowout last night when the Red Sox seemingly had the starting pitching advantage hurts. So did last weekend's sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles, who had just four wins coming into the set. With their stiff competition and regular lackluster efforts, this 10-6 stretch hasn't felt quite as good as it otherwise might. The doubters sure haven't seemed to quiet down at all.
Coming into the season, those who questioned Boston's chances did so on the grounds that letting Jason Bay walk without replacing his formidable bat with a comparable hitter amounted to an exceedingly large step backwards for the offense. It would be too much to fill with pitching and defense, no matter how highly one might think of Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre and John Lackey. But let's just take a quick look at how that rationale plays out.
Last year, according to Fangraphs' WAR, Mike Lowell, Bay and David Ortiz contributed a combined 7.0 Wins Above Replacement. Lowell, slowed by mounting injuries, could no longer field his position at 3rd and David Ortiz hit like Neifi Perez for half the year. This season, they would need to replace Bay, find a legitimate everyday 3rd Baseman and, one way or another, get more from the DH position. The rest of the lineup would remain stable, with the one exception that Victor Martinez would be the everyday catcher for a full season.
If you average their 2008 and 2009 seasons, Beltre and Cameron combined for 7.5 wins per year between them. The plan to replace Bay and Lowell with Beltre and Cameron, while giving Ortiz, Lowell, and maybe Jeremy Hermida a chance to offer more production from the Designated Hitter position, was to amount to a better collection of position players.
And guess what? It has! Boston's 114 OPS+ is 2nd in Major League Baseball and 9 points better than the 105 figure they posted in 2009 when Bay was in the mix. Their .355 wOBA would be their best total as a team since the 2004 team managed a .358 total. Just like 2009, they're 3rd in the American League in runs scored. By any measure, this offense has been phenomenal.
Defensively, they've just been middle of the road but that's attributable more to injuries than anything. As any Red Sox fan can attest, whether he is at left field, center field or heavens, shortstop, Bill Hall does not belong on a Major League Baseball field. The 168 combined innings Hall, Jonathan Van Every and Darnell McDonald "contributed" in center field to date have been a complete joke. With either Jacoby Ellsbury or Cameron playing everyday, those 168 innings would never have come to pass. I still believe this is a top-notch defensive team.
That brings me to the starting pitching. You want to have a look at the difference between this year's team and last year's? See below:
K/9 BB/9 K/BB ERA xFIP 2009 7.43 3.00 2.48 4.63 4.17 2010 6.95 3.65 1.90 5.10 4.39
Those numbers are just for Boston's starters, but keep in mind what we are really looking at there. This season, Daisuke Matsuzaka's delayed return notwithstanding, Boston's ducks were in a row. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Lackey, and Clay Buchholz were healthy and ready to go, and Tim Wakefield would tend to Dice-K's spot until he returned. Last year, that top line that looks so much better than the 2010 numbers, well that's filled with Brad Penny and John Smoltz and Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden and Paul Byrd. The 2009 unit that so badly outperformed Boston's starting pitching to date in 2010 was not exactly the 1995 Atlanta Braves (well, except for Smoltz).
The consistent excellence of Lester and Beckett anchored the Red Sox rotation in 2009. Respectively, they ranked 5th and 7th in the AL in WAR among starters. This season, Boston's top two starters have been Lester and Buchholz, who rank 18th and 20th in the AL thus far. Beckett has been one of the very worst pitchers in baseball to date, sporting a 59 ERA+.
Beckett's awful start has been mystifying. Digging into his Pitch Type data on Fangraphs, he is throwing fewer fastballs and curve balls than ever, and replacing them with more cutters and change ups. The result has been a big drop in strikeouts, a big hike in walks and much harder contact according to his Line Drive percentage allowed.
There is some hope. Beckett's 56.9% LOB rate is absurdly low. That will improve. Likewise, his .365 BABIP allowed is bound to normalize as well. Better luck will make Beckett a decent option for the Red Sox, but they obviously are counting on him for much, much more. John Farrell is a highly regarded pitching coach in Major League circles, and what he can do to get Beckett right will go a long way in determining whether or not the Red Sox can climb back into this race.
On May 8th, the Red Sox sit in fourth place, at .500, and six games out of a playoff spot. I hope that I have managed to demonstrate that their poor play to date has been attributable to terrible starting pitching and little more. So, if you're a pundit who thought the Red Sox might struggle because their rotation would not cut it, take a bow. You've nailed it thus far. Otherwise, Red Sox doubters, quiet down please.