Change-UpApril 21, 2010
What's Wrong With the Red Sox?
By Patrick Sullivan

Baseball's simplicity can be frustrating sometimes. Teams score runs by avoiding outs and efficiently advancing runners by mixing in power. Preventing runs means amassing outs without allowing too many base-runners or extra base hits. If you consistently score runs better than you prevent them, you win. AND THAT'S IT. As a Manager or General Manager, your job is to assemble personnel positioned to consistently score more runs than they allow. At the beginning of the season, it appeared that the Red Sox had such a team. 13 games into the 2010 season, it still appears the Red Sox have such a team.

So what about baseball's simplicity? Why is it frustrating? The 2010 Boston Red Sox serve as a great example in that as much as we want to stretch for an explanation for why they are off to such an awful start, the answer is much simpler than we'd like to think. It's because a bunch of really good baseball players are playing really poorly. That doesn't make for very good copy or talk radio, though.

Here's Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe:

All one has to do is look at the team that demolished the Sox this Patriots Day weekend, the Rays, who went 11-16 to start last season and never recovered. In the AL East, you just can’t be 4-9 after 13 games, 6 games behind the Rays and 5 1/2 in back of the Yankees, and think it’s going to be easy to come back.

That’s why it wasn’t too early to be concerned about David Ortiz after only two games of the season. It wasn’t too early to question whether Mike Cameron was a suitable replacement for Jason Bay. It wasn’t too early to wonder whether Victor Martinez could be the full-time catcher and still maintain his hitting.

Cafardo even floats the prospect of Jon Lester being sent to the Minors to fix his problems. Here's Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald, gleefully stomping on the Red Sox' grave 13 games in.

Everything is going wrong right now.

And that means everyone was right.

By everyone, that means if you were worried that the “run prevention” philosophy was a bunch of bunk, the 4-9 Red Sox and their 10 errors and their nowhere-near-as-advertised defense have proved your point.

If you were worried that the offense was looking thin, the 4-9 Red Sox, now 0-for-their-last-32 with runners in scoring position, have proved your point.

If you were worried that David Ortiz [stats] was going to get off to a poor start, the 4-9 Red Sox and their designated hitter with the two RBI, .289 slugging percentage and .158 average have proved your point.

If you were worried about catchers Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek [stats] not being able to throw out base-stealers, the 4-9 Red Sox and the 22 stolen bases they have allowed - while throwing out just one runner - have proved your point.

If you were worried about the Yankees or the Rays, the 4-9 Red Sox, who are now a combined 1-6 against the twin towers of the AL East, have proved your point.

Here you have two attempts to diagnose structural problems with the way the Red Sox approached this past off-season. And what is the evidence that Boston faltered in putting together this roster? Why it's their first 13 games of course. If only the Red Sox had retained Jason Bay instead of Mike Cameron, then everything would be better (don't tell Cafardo and Silverman that Bay is off to a .245/.351/.327 start with the Mets).

Boston won 95 games last year, lost Bay, added a top-20 pitcher in John Lackey, an upgraded shortstop in Marco Scutaro and two veteran top-notch defenders in Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre. You could argue whether or not those moves amounted to an improved team or not, but even if you come down on the side that they did not improve, nobody thought they would play .300 baseball and hit, pitch and field like some of the very worst teams in baseball. The team's composition is not the issue. They're just playing terribly. Just consider the following:

  • Victor Martinez, a career .298/.370/.464 hitter, is currently at .212/.241/.346.

  • Kevin Youkilis, a career .291/.390/.487 hitter who put up a line of .309/.401/.559 in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, is hitting .217/.339/.451.

  • Adrian Beltre is hitting .295/.304/.364 as compared to a career line of .271/.325/.453.

  • J.D. Drew, a career .282/.391/.502 hitter has posted a line of .146/.255/.244 in 2010.

  • David Ortiz, no doubt not the player he once was for some time now, still managed to hit .238/.332/.462 in 2009. This year he is at .158/.238/.289.

  • Jacoby Ellsbury has now missed 7 consecutive games and will head to the Disabled List. Without Ellsbury, the Red Sox are 1-6. Jeremy Hermida, effectively his replacement, has notched a .242 on-base to date while playing some suspect defense.

  • Mike Cameron has slugged .447 over his career. He's slugging .333 in 2010 while battling an abdominal injury. He is now on the Disabled List as well.

  • The Red Sox team ERA+ of 95 is 4th worst in the American League. Last year, without Lackey and with an inferior defense backing them, that number was 108.

  • Marco Scutaro is on pace for 37 errors. He had 18 in 2008 and 2009 combined.

  • Boston's starting pitching WHIP is 1.59, 29th in Major League Baseball. Better than Washington, worse than Pittsburgh and every other team.

  • Opposing batters have OPS'd .829 against Boston's starters.

  • The Red Sox are hitting .162/.241/.283 in 116 plate appearances with runners in scoring position thus far in 2010.

    At the outset of the season, if you knew that even two or three of those 12 bullets would unfold, you would have known the Red Sox would struggle to start the year. It's the combination, THAT EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG, that has made it so disastrous. I listed those bullets out to evidence that the Red Sox are simply playing really badly, and that their first 13 games are not an indictment on how this roster was constructed.

    None of this to say that their start might not portend some problems. Martinez has looked disastrous behind home plate, his ineptitude tossing runners out turning Red Sox games into veritable track meets for opposing teams. Age could be a factor too, as Cameron (37) is already out for an extended period of time while players like Ortiz (34), Drew (34), Scutaro (34) and Beltre (31) all struggle. Finally, injuries of any sort can threaten a team's hopes. Ellsbury missed his 8th straight game last night and who knows how Daisuke Matsuzaka will hold up? All of these are legitimate concerns, albeit ones that applied to last year's roster too. They couldn't throw out anyone on the base paths in 2009 either, still had an oldish team and battled injuries all season long. Again, back to my point. It's hard to fault structural problems with the way this roster was assembled for Boston's slow start.

    In the midst of a 4-10 stretch in 2004, Globe scribe Tony Massarotti, then at the Herald, thought he knew what was wrong with the Red Sox. He titled his article "Moneyball is going bankrupt" and wrote at length about how the Red Sox had a philosophical problem. They didn't understand what it took to play winning baseball consistently. Just like Michael Silverman thinks that "run prevention" is a bad thing as it relates to the 2010 Red Sox, Mazz disliked how Boston eschewed small ball, a style of play he favored.

    In the meantime, while the Red Sox just stand around and wait, the Yankees try to create. New York stole three more bases last night, bringing its series total to seven, and had attempted nine steals in the series; the Red Sox have attempted none. New York has a sacrifice bunt; the Red Sox have none. The Yankees have struck out six times; the Red Sox have struck out 19.

    But the Red Sox have four home runs and the Yankees have one, so at least the slugging percentage and OPS will be up to snuff.

    The victories? They come by chance in this system. They come on the nights where the Red Sox get good pitching and hit a few homers, and they actually manage to catch the ball. They come on the nights where everything lines up perfectly, and we all know that those occasions in life come along all too infrequently.

    These are the sorts of things that sportswriters come up with, accountability free, when things are going badly. Boston was playing its worst baseball of the year when Mazz wrote that piece. As far as Mazz was concerned, it was not because they were simply playing like crap, but because they were not bunting enough. At best, it's terrible analysis. At its worst it's rabble-rousing. Whatever the case, things would "line up perfectly" enough for the Red Sox to win 98 games and their first World Series since 1918 in 2004.

    In 2008, the Yankees won 87 games and finished in 3rd place in the AL East. Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter struggled, Hideki Matsui was not himself and Melky Cabrera was a disaster. Andy Pettitte did not perform like he typically would. It was no indictment necessarily of the roster but rather a team that exemplified the greatest truth when it comes to sports front office management: that projecting human performance, inherently, is subject to all sorts of pitfalls.

    Maybe the Red Sox will bounce back, maybe they won't. As I see it, the most likely scenario is that they start to play like they can but this hole proves too much to overcome. I would say the next likeliest outcome is that the Red Sox are firing on all cylinders at some point when the Rays or Yanks falter over a two-week stretch, allowing Boston to climb back into the race. Finally, and this really is entirely possible, maybe this year too many guys have off years. If that's the case, the Red Sox might not win 80 games. And you know why that will be? Simple, of course: because a bunch of good players will have failed to play well.

  • Comments

    I'd say the 1998 Yankees had quite a bit more than 87 victories..

    GAH! I meant 2008.

    It's way too early to write off the Red Sox. Thirteen games is hardly a long enough time to establish a season-long base of expectations. The Pirates are now over .500. Does that mean they are a playoff contender?

    I'll bet just about every team that makes the postseason goes through a similar stinko stretch or has a five or six-game losing streak somewhere. Didn't last season's 59-103 Nationals have an eight-game winning streak? It's way too early for Red Sox fans to contemplate suicide.

    The 1998 Yankees started the season 1-4. I'm sure that there was, at the least, some hand-wringing in the local papers.

    Also, the 2008 Yankees won 89 games, not 87. I will dismiss this article because of that.

    You make a good point that the terrible play that produced the Sox's 4-9 start does not logically constitute an indictment of their roster construction. However, nor does their poor play in any way refute the charge their roster construction is flawed.

    In theory, good baseball is comprised of three things: good hitting, good pitching, and good defense. But hitting is worth approximately as much as good pitching and defense COMBINED, since these are both components of run prevention. It's hard for me to see how Boston is going to win out over NY and TB, among others, with a lineup that is noticeably lacking more than 2-3 significant offensive threats. Their starting pitching can be very good, but it's not likely to be so good as to obviate the need to score 5-6 runs a night in order to win 95+ games. (Besides, starting pitching per se is probably somewhat overrated. Bullpens account for something like 35% of all innings pitched. I don't see where Boston's supposed pitching dominance really extends to the relief corps.)

    Speaking as someone who tends not to pay much attention to baseball until late May, what exactly is the difference between going 4-13 in April and going 4-13 in late June? Don't even good teams normally go through a few slumps like this during the season? The only difference with the April games is probably that, coming in relatively bad weather and right after spring training, they are probably more unrepresentative of how the rest of the season turns out than in other peiods.

    "the greatest truth when it comes to sports front office management: that projecting human performance, inherently, is subject to all sorts of pitfalls."

    Yes and no. Like Red Sox manager Francona recently said himself, these are human players, not chess pieces. I can name a dozen bullet points regarding the human element that show either Epstein's amateurism or a locker-by-locker implosion in the clubhouse.

    I need you to define "significant offensive threats", BD, before I respond.

    I don't want to pour a lot of time into trying to define SOT statistically. I would generally put Youkilis, Pedroia, and Martinez into the category of SOT. Probably Drew also now that I think about it, although his value is mitigated by concerns over playing time. I would not put Ortiz, Scutaro, Beltre, Cameron, or Ellsbury into the SOT group.

    By way of comparison to the Yankees, I consider Youkilis to be on par with Teixeira and Pedroia on par with Cano. The RS don't have a player that corresponds offensively to ARod, and their other SOTs (VMart and Drew) are no match for the group of Yankees that includes Granderson, Jeter, Posada, Johnson, and Swisher.

    I don't disagree. I think you shortchange Ellsbury (70 SB's at a ridic success clip adds A LOT of value) but other than that, no need to split hairs.

    I thought the Yanks were a bit better than Boston this year - say 2 or 3 wins - because their offense was better than Boston's by a larger margin than Boston's pitching/defense was better than New York's.

    An excellent piece of work. Sentences 2 through 4 of this article ought to be laser-engraved on 30 stainless-steel plaques with one sent to every GM in the game.

    Fair enough, but it's not exactly a given he'll repeat 70 steals in 82 attempts.

    The irony is that the starting pitching has been abysmal. It's the one area before the season started where you thought you'd get some consistency and reliability. Overall the BB rate conceded coupled with whatever is affecting Lester has been painful to watch.
    Unfortunately I do agree with your conclusion. I reckon the squad will end up posting around 90 wins...unfortunately it'll be 3-4 wins short of where they really need to be.

    You are prefectly correct, of course. But I think it's safe to say that those who read this kind of website dismissed those writers already, and those who listen to those writers wouldn't read this website.

    Point taken, Dan.

    But we see enough incoming links from mainstream sites and hear enough direct feedback from mainstream writers that I still think it's worthwhile to go after faulty conventional wisdom from time to time.

    Sully, I agree, but at the same time it's like bringing a machine gun to practice shooting fish in a barrell.

    Last year the Yankees opened 15-17 and were 6.5 back of the Sox. As late as June 23 they were still five back, just six games over .500.

    They played .707 ball over the last 92 games of the year.

    2007 was worse - they were 21-29, and buried in the press. They finished with 94 wins, which is a .651 clip over the last 112 games of the year, and made the Wild Card.

    The 2005 team was nine back on May 6 after Mo Rivera blew a game in Oakland... they were 11-19. Then they played out the year at 84-48.

    Really, Boston Media? You want to flip out about this? Heck, just imagine if they were 9-4, but still not in first! Would the storyline then be, "Well, everything's working but they're still not good enough, ALL IS LOST!"

    The 2009 Yankees were 15-17 with Alex Rodriguez having played a grand total of 3 games. Is a player of A-Rod's caliber going to join the Red Sox?

    The 2005 Yankees needed ridiculous contributions from Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon (17-3 record with a 140 OPS+!!!), as well as rookie call-ups Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang. In other words, they were lucky as hell.

    This season is far from over and certain players on the Red Sox are almost guaranteed to improve over their production so far. However, I don't think it's crazy for mediots to question whether David Ortiz will get better, how much of a problem the throwing of V-Mart and Varitek is, or the offensive contributions of Beltre and Cameron. However, worrying about the standings at this point is ridiculous.