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2012 Preview: Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

 What They Did:      90-72, 3rd Place AL East

      Actual Runs:      Scored 875 runs, Allowed 737.

                                  Expected wins based on RS and RA:  93.6 (3.6 above actual)

             Restated:     Scored 895 runs, Allowed 696.

                                  Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  99.4 (9.4 above actual)


The Red Sox were, and I say this with a great degree of certainty, the unluckiest team in all of Major League Baseball last year.  Not because Boston lost its last game of the season – and its grip on what was previously an all-but-certain post-season bid – with a one-run lead, two outs, no one on base and their standout closer on the mound.  Not because they went 3-9 in their last dozen games giving Tampa Bay just enough of a crack to slip through as the Rays went 8-4 over the same stretch.  Based on the starting pitchers Boston relied on in September of last year, and the injuries that were talking its toll on the starting nine, the results may not have even been that improbable, let alone unlucky.  No, the Red Sox were unlucky that they were even in a position to get bumped from the playoffs. 

Consider the selected hitting stats of two different teams from the 2011 season:

                        Batting Avg.   On-Base %      Slugging %      Isolated Power

Team A              .280                 .349                 .461                   .181

Team B               .263                 .343                 .444                   .181

(Quick definition:  Isolated Power, or ISO, is a measure of total extra base hits per at bat.  Essentially it strips out the effect singles contribute to slugging percentage.  Algebraically, it’s simply slugging percentage minus batting average.  It’s a great measure of a team’s home-run hitting ability, the most important factor in slugging percentage.)

Team A, is superior to Team B is every manner of offensive performance.  Its batters get more hits, but, as evidenced by the higher on-base percentage, they didn’t sacrifice a patient approach at the plate to do so.  Thanks to a materially better slugging percentage, it’s also clear Team A is not a collection of slap hitters, in the mold of, say, Ichiro.  In fact, Team A’s ranks across all of baseball in those categories were 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 1st (tied). 

So, knowing all that, you’d expect Team A to have scored not just more, but a lot more runs than Team B.  In fact, a regression analysis, based on a decade of results, predicts Team A should have outscored Team B by 62 runs.  62 runs is a ton of runs.  In 2011, it would be enough to boost an average scoring team up to the 6th highest scoring team in baseball if 62 more runs were added to its production.

Team A, the Boston Red Sox, actually scored just 8 more runs than Team B, the New York Yankees.  But as bad as that result is, when you dig a little deeper it’s even worse.  That’s because scoring runs is a counting stat, as opposed to a rate stat, which means the more opportunities a team gets to bat, the more runs it will generate.  When you then factor in that Boston had 104 more plate appearances (nearly three games worth) the Red Sox actually underscored the Yankees on a rate basis despite performing better than them, by all the above measures, at the plate.

Now, let’s also take a look at the other side of the ledger, run prevention, because runs allowed and runs scored are a zero-sum game.  For every team whose run scoring can be explained through the factors above, there is a corresponding pitching staff whose runs allowed can be explained the same way.

                        Batting Avg.   On-Base %      Slugging %      Isolated Power

Red Sox             .247                 .322                 .392                   .145

Yankees             .256                 .322                 .399                   .143

Here the teams performed at a very similar level.  The same regression analysis confirms this and predicts Boston would have allowed just 8 more runs than the Yankees.  Instead, despite getting less hits vs. Boston’s pitchers than New York’s, with a lower slugging percentage – offset with more home runs, however – Boston’s opponents scored 41 more runs!  (Boston faced just 26 more batters, or less than a game’s worth.)

You put those factors together and it’s the Yankees that should have been the team Tampa had a mathematical chance to catch the last couple weeks of the season, not Boston.  Based on the relationship that exists between a teams’ runs scored and runs allowed differential, a team that scores 895 runs and allows 696 – which is the level the Red Sox players performed to – will normally win 99 games, not the 90 that Boston actually won.  (You can see these numbers in the box at the top of the page.  That’s what restated runs are in all of these previews.)

So how did this possibly happen?  Boston, when hitting and in the field, was the victim of what I call “cluster luck.”  You can say the Red Sox were the victims of out-of-control cluster luck in 2010.  (It’s an awfully fun expression to use.)  Essentially the sequencing of both their hits and their opponents’ occurred in such an improbable manner that it resulted in an unlucky outcome.  There are always some teams that under/out perform their expected runs due to a normal distribution but the degree to which it occurred – on both sides of the ledger – to Boston was enough to turn Boston from a team whose performance should have resulted in a nearly 100-win season into a team that watched the playoffs on TV.  No to put too fine a point on it, but this isn’t referring to potential; this is evaluating actual on-field performance.

Absent injuries in the one area its vulnerable, starting pitching, that shouldn’t happen this year.  Even though the Red Sox offense doesn’t project to be quite as powerful as last year’s league-leading mashers, they are still a threat to score 800 runs.  Cody Ross will replace J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick in the outfield while some sort of platoon, featuring Mike Aviles and Nick Punto, will man the shortstop position.  Those changes, as well as a better defensive performance from LF Carl Crawford should make the Red Sox a little better defensively in 2012, helping to offset some of the decrease in offensive firepower which will come from regression (Jacoby Ellsbury) and the aging curve (David Ortiz).

It appears that the performance of the starting pitchers represents the biggest threat to the optimistic expectations on these pages because the rotation will most likely be responsible for any variance from the projected team performance.  Absent a rash of injuries, it’s really hard to see how the Red Sox won’t give up less runs this year than last year, however.  The Red Sox got 75 starts in 2011 from pitchers with an ERA above 5.00. To state that another way, in 45% of their games, as a whole, the Red Sox received below replacement level, not below-average, but below replacement level starting pitching.

As a result, despite strong seasons from Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, Boston’s starting pitching ranked 10th in the American League in runs allowed.  The assumption is that this year Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves will come out of the pen to provide slightly above and below league-average support to the staff anchors, Beckett and Lester.  Add in a healthy Clay Buchholz, or at least a version that can give the Red Sox something like 7 to 10 more starts than the 14 he provided last year, and Boston will be fine.  Normally, three league average starters wouldn’t be the cause for such optimism, but that would represent such a huge upgrade over last year’s staff, that Boston would instantly go from well below-average to a bit above-average, which in turn will have a material, positive effect on their runs allowed this year.

From an expectation standpoint, Boston is in an enviable position entering the 2012 season.  Its batters could perform worse overall than last year – in fact they probably will – and the Red Sox still project to win more games this year than they did last year.  When they do, the narrative will almost certainly be that they played better in 2012 due to improved clubhouse chemistry and the no-nonsense approach from Bobby Valentine, who commands the respect of the entire squad.  That won’t be the case, however.  The Red Sox performed like a 99-win club in 2011 and will regress the equivalent of 50 to 60 runs this year.  However, with neutral luck this year, that will be good enough for 93 wins, a division title, and a return to the post-season for the first time in three seasons.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  I’ve seen the Red Sox quoted anywhere from 87 ½ to 89 ½ wins on their over/under markets.  My model favors the over, similar to the degree it liked the upside chances of the Indians and White Sox.  The real value for Boston backers, though, is in the division markets.  Almost everywhere, the Red Sox pay at least 2-1 on winning the AL East, implying they have no more than a 33% chance of finishing as division champs.  I see them winning the division, albeit in a very close race.  Still, that means you’re getting great odds on what is essentially a toss-up.  It’s rare to find value in division markets because the “juice,” or oddsmakers’ spread, is so wide.   


2012 Outlook:

93-69 – First in AL East

795 Runs Scored       674 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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