Tuesday, April 3, 2012

2012 Red Sox optimism

I am very excited about the upcoming season for the Red Sox.  Even more so than last year, and I think I may be in the minority.  (Although, not alone, as you can see from the responses of the other bloggers to share their opinions on the upcoming season at the Cardinal70 at bat blog.)

The main things fans seemed to be concerned about in the offseason were the change in management with the associated lack of making a big splash in the free agent market which has led to perceived shortcomings at starting pitching,  shortstop, corner outfielders and closer positions.  Let me address each of these and demonstrate why I don't believe any of these are legitimate concerns.

Fans clamored their disappointment that we ran "THE GREATEST GM IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD" and the "MOST BELOVED MANAGER EVAH" out of town.  No argument from me here.  However, let's not overestimate the impact that these positions have on the results on the field.  Theo Epstein was the genius wonderboy who made all the right moves to bring a championship to Boston after 86 long years.  But if Dave Roberts doesn't beat the throw to second, Theo becomes the man who traded Nomar for
some spare parts and would probably need to wear a bullet proof vest the rest of his life, lest he run into some angry members of Red Sox Nation.  He did made some great acquisitions - picking up Bill Mueller, David Ortiz and Bronson Arroyo from the scrap heap, signing Foulke and Schilling, but he also spent a lot of money and/or traded some good prospects for the likes of Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Eric Gagne, Wily Mo Pena, and many others who weren't large contributors.  And let's not forget Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria or the panic re-acquisition of Doug Mirabelli.  I'm giving him a pass on Lackey and Crawford for at least few more years.   Anyhow, Dan Duquette brought us Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek, and he doesn't get much credit because the team didn't win under his watch.  In summary, I think Theo was (is?) a good GM, but Ben Cherington learned under his watch, and the impact of the GM change is negligible.

Regarding Tito, I do agree with the masses who believe Terry Francona was a great manager, and had the perfect personality to manage with the media and expectations in this town.  And he has two more rings than any manager who's been in the Red Sox dugout since WWI, so there's that too.  And the way there was a smear campaign after he was let go was a bit revolting and fans have the right to be upset with the way ownership treated him.   But again, the impact of a manager is often overestimated as expertly articulated by Tango Tiger in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball The difference between playing an optimal lineup and a random one isn't likely to have an observable impact in a team's won/loss record over 162 games.  Everyone believes (rightly so!) that Grady Little was a bumbling idiot.  And nobody can forget his indefensible decision to leave Pedro in to pitch in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.  But if Jorge Posada isn't badly fooled on a pitch that he barely gets a bat on and bloops for a double, Little and not Francona may have been the manager at the helm when the curse was broken.  If such a patehtic baseball manager could almost lead his team to a title, then I don't believe they can have much impact in a team's overall success.

Starting Pitching
With only the first 3 spots in the starting rotation set during the offseason, we picked up the likes of Vincent Padilla, Aaron Cook, Brandon Duckworth and Ross Ohlendorf.  And as the season approaches, the back end of our rotation is going to be Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront.  More notably, it is NOT going to be any of Roy Oswalt, Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Yu Darvish, John Danks or Mark Buehrle who the Red Sox were all rumoured (or maybe that was just wishful thinking) to be trying to acquire at some point and many pundits said we needed to assemble a good pitching rotation.

BUT!  This is a huge improvement from 2011. Our # 3 starter, Clay Buchholz, was injured from mid June on and only started 14 games, which was twice as many as #5 Matsuzaka.  Dice-K's injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as despite pitching two gems (2 hits in 15 innings in consecutive starts), he still ended up with an ERA of 5.30.  With the injuries to Clay and Dice, who filled the gap?  Tim Wakefield started 23 games while sporting a 5.31 ERA,  Andrew Miller had 12 stars with a 5.55 ERA and fortunately Kyle Weiland and his 8.72 ERA were limited to 5 starts.   Meanwhile Lackey pitched all season with a 6.41 ERA.
In total we had 75 games started by Lackey, DiceK, Wake, Miller and Weiland with a cumulative ERA of close to 6.

If we replace those 75 games with pitchers with combined ERA of 5 (well below league average!), that by itself should give us about 7 more wins.   This should not be hard.  If healthy, Clay Buchholz should start about 30 games, which is 16 additional games from last year being filled  by, conservatively, a 4.00 ERA caliber pitcher instead of the 6.00 he was replaced with last season.

If either of Felix Doubront or Daniel Bard can't keep their ERA below 6 they will be back in the pen sometime in May and someone else will replace them in the starting rotation. Maybe Alfredo Aceves  who shined in a swing starter / long relief role last year and ended up with a sparkling 2.61 ERA.

In short, the Red Sox weren't more aggressive in their pursuit of a starting pitcher because they didn't need to be.

Last year we had a lot of shortsop options, with Scutaro and Lowrie getting most of the starts, while defensive phenom Jose Iglesias who is waiting in the wings got to enjoy a couple of cups of coffee in the show.  A lot of people questioned why we signed journeyman Nick Punto.  But then we traded away BOTH Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro.  Did our GM figure he overspent on a backup middle infielder, but it would be a great bargain for a starting shortstop?  No.  Simply put, Jed Lowrie proved that he could not hit right handed pitchers and therefore would never be an everyday starter, and Marco Scutaro isn't getting any younger.  Mike Aviles showed he could hit well enough for a regular, and if infield defense ever becomes an issue, we still have Jose Iglesias who can be called up at any time.  Nick Punto is a cheap insurance policy.

Corner Outfield
Let's start at left field.  Once Carl Crawford is off the DL, 2012 Carl Crawford will replace 2011 Carl Crawford.  That has to be an improvement.  Do not underestimate how much bad luck he had last year. After posting consecutive .342 BABIP years, last year it was sub 300.  If he repeated his 342 BABIP, he'd have batted .282.  Slightly below is career average, but not as bad as his results showed.
In right field we had a combination of JD Drew, Josh Reddick and others, who combined to hit .233.  Remember that we had the league's best offense last year, in spite of one of the typical high offense positions being so anemic.  This year that position will be manned by a combination of Darnell McDonald, Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross.  And Ryan Kalish is waiting for his opportunity.  A .233 batting average is not a high bar and I'm confident we will get more production from our corner outfielders this season.

The single most overrated position in baseball.  Yes, it's a downgrade from Papelbon to, well, anybody else really.  But this isn't 2003 where we were relying on Chad Fox, Rudy Seanez, Bob Howry and Brandon Lyon taking turns trying to close out games (and one poor managerial decision / fluke hit from being in the World Series in spite of that!).  We traded for 2 guys who have closer experience in Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon, and we have the aforementioned Aceves available too.  Matt Albers, Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller and others contribute to a deep bullpen that will limit the workload on our closers.

In spite of all the injuries, a 2-10 start, and an impossible to repeat 7-20 September, this team still won 90 games in 2011.  Their Pythagorean record was 94-68.   I would estimate that their true talent level, assuming an average number of expected injuries was probably 98-100 wins.  The extra injuries knocked them down to 94, and bad luck / poor management / too much beer had them end up at 90. The 2012 team is better than what the 2011 team ended up fielding.   I said above that if we got below league average pitching to replace the WAY below league average pitching we had from our #3,4,5 last year, that alone should be enough for 7 extra wins.  I do believe our corner outfield production will improve a bit, Youkilis was injured at the end of last season, and when he did play, only managed to hit .190 the last 2 months, so third base should produce more as well.  These improvements will likely be offset by a regression from Ellsbury and Ortiz.  I expect the rest of the team to perform similarly to last year.  Taking all of these into consideration, I am predicting 96 wins for the Olde Towne Team.  A bit of luck and a relatively injury free year could potentially get them to 100 win territory, but I wouldn't count on that.  If several of their starters are out for extended periods of time, maybe they only win 92.  It would take a series of injuries and bad luck similar to last year for them to end up below 90 and out of the playoff picture.

It's been too long.  LET'S PLAY!!!!

1 comment:

  1. Note that I wrote the above before hearing about the extent of Bailey's thumb injury. But that does not change my prognosis. I am not expecting an injury free season from the starting 25. As long as we don't end up with Lester, Beckett, Pedroia, AGon, Ellsbury and Youkilis all out of action for an extended period of time, I still think we're fine.