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— BTF's Preseason Previews

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Looking Forward to 2007 - Boston Red Sox

Patching the Hot-Air Balloon

Don Malcolm
Special to BTF



Squandering A Natural Advantage

Clearly the Boston Red Sox won fewer games than they were “supposed to” in 2006, no matter which perspective is applied (one can think of at least a half-dozen, but that’s another essay). As usual, let’s look at the one that’s not yet surfaced elsewhere.

The 2006 Red Sox were the thirty-ninth team since 1901 to have two hitters in their lineup whose league-adjusted OPS was 160 or higher (Manny Ramirez 168, David Ortiz 164). Yes, of course, there are “better” measures—but that’s another essay, too.

Those thirty-nine teams have won pennants or gone to the post-season fifteen times, a bit better than 40% of the time. Their aggregate winning percentage is .585 (3550-2516).

Since 1960, the success rate for teams with such “terrible twosomes” in their lineup has been elevated (in part due to the expansion of post-season opportunities). Eight of the fourteen teams with two “big boppers” have gone to the post-season, while the aggregate winning percentage for those teams has dipped slightly to .581.

Still, a team with a combination like Ramirez-Ortiz averages 94-95 wins over a 162-game season, all else being equal.

Of course, “all else” isn’t always equal. For example, there’s playing time: Sox fans will quickly note that Ramirez missed 32 games in ‘06. But a breakout of the season data shows that in the month that the Red Sox fell from grace in 2006 (August: 9-21), Ramirez played in 22 games and hit .384 (OPS: 1.149). (The Sox went 7-15 in those games.) September was the month where Manny was mostly absent, playing in only six of 27 games. (In the 21 games that Manny missed, the Red Sox went 11-10.)

So there are clearly other reasons why the Red Sox came in eight or nine games below what would be “expected” with two historically dominant hitters at the center of their lineup…


An Un-set Table

The Red Sox run scoring machine started to jam right after the All-Star Break, and broke down in mid-August, right after the “second Boston massacre” (a five-game Yankee sweep in Fenway from August 18-21). Over a stretch of 19 games from August 19th through September 6th, Boston scored six or more runs in a game only once, something completely unheard of in the “Epstein-James Era” (or the EJE, as I dubbed it—before being forcibly enrolled in “Acronyms Anonymous”).

Another way to dramatize this difference is to note that this caesura in run scoring resulted in the Red Sox posting 12 fewer games with six or more runs scored than in 2005.

And, as the chart indicates, the result was that the Sox won 12 fewer such games in 2006. Their run-scoring profile looked more like the 2002 team (the “disappointing” squad that underperformed its Pythagorean, won “only” 93 games, thus ushering in the EJE).

So what caused this? Two things: first, the Sox had an ever-widening hole in the middle of the their lineup, the #5 slot, which wound up with the lowest OPS in the entire Boston batting order (.683). In August, opposing teams had gotten wise to this sinkhole, and dispensed 14 of the 39 intentional walks given in ’06 to the #3-#4 slots. As a result, these slots’ RBI count was cut nearly in half from the previous month (36 in August, as opposed to 64 in July).

When Trot Nixon was injured, the only positive offensive element extant in the #5 slot (OBP) disappeared. The walk rate in the #5 slot through the All-Star Break was 14.7%; this was cut almost exactly in half in the second half of the year (7.3%), resulting in a woeful .277 OBP over that period.

Here is the OPS for the #5 slot during the EJE:

2003-.922; 2004-.855; 2005-.803; 2006-.683

There was a bigger problem than this, however. The Red Sox brain trust appeared to have a good idea in the spring, when they moved Kevin Youkilis into the #1 slot. At the All-Star break, the OBP in the #1 slot was right at the levels of the previous two seasons. Additionally, they were getting a serviceable performance from Mark Loretta in the #2 slot, who was posting a modest gain over what the Sox had gotten from Edgar Renteria the year before.

This didn’t last, however. The second half performances of these lineup slots were pivotal in slashing the RBI production of the #3-#4 slots. The OBP for the #1 slot in the first half of ’06 was .373; in the second half, it was .318. A similar decline occurred in the #2 slot: .363 OBP first half, .302 OBP second half.

No wonder, then, that the RBI/G averages for the #3-#4 slots fell off so much (from 1.02 per game in the first half to .71 per game in the second half for the #3 slot; from .87 RBI/G in the first half to .63 in the second half for the #4 slot).

Simply put, the Red Sox stopped setting the table in August, and their run scoring just evaporated. Youkilis, whose OBP in the #1 slot was over .400 at the end of June, had a fairly slow July, and the Sox decided to try Coco Crisp in the #1 slot again, with disastrous results. (Odd fact: Crisp has never hit well in the #1 slot: his overall OBP there is only .308. He seems much more suited to batting #2, though the Sox never put him there in ’06, and has also performed quite well in the #7-#8 slots.)

Loretta was actually not too bad in August (.384 OBP), but simply fell off the table in September (.502 OPS).

Taking away RBI chances for such a terrific offensive combo as Ortiz/Ramirez is simply not a wise idea, but that’s what the Red Sox management did in the second half of ’06.


Handedness and the Power Vacuum

In 2003, the “beginner’s luck” year for the EJE, the Red Sox gave 3039 plate appearances to right-handed hitters. That was the lowest such percentage in baseball, and was cited as a key element in their run scoring prowess.

In 2006, however, the EJE inaugurated a “new mini-era”, casting aside this precept. They gave 4036 plate appearances to right-handed hitters, and their offense took a serious nosedive.

Part of the reason for this was that these right-handed hitters were, in the main, mediocre. They also weren’t able to exploit what should have been their natural advantage against left-handed pitching. In 2003, Red Sox RHB’s hit .312 and slugged .498 against opposing lefties; in 2006, with 400 more PAs invested in these matchups, they hit just .262 and slugged only .406.

In a word, ouch. It appears that some kind of “rotisserie-itis” befell the Boston brain trust, resulting in a phenomenon that, if repeated, will have to be termed “Epstein-James syndrome.” The domino in all this was Josh Beckett: the Sox’ zeal to acquire the 2003 World Series hero pushed them to invert their investment in lefty hitters. Little did they know that two of the RHBs they acquired (Mike Lowell and Wily Mo Pena) would post pronounced reverse platoon differentials in ’06, each slugging less than .400 against southpaws.

The other key component of the “Epstein-James syndrome” is located in one simple stat: the team’s home run totals. In 2003, the Red Sox hit 238 HR, 61 more than in 2002 (177); since then, there has been a slow but inexorable decline back toward pre-EJE levels. In the year of the miracle World Series, the total was 222; in 2005, it dipped below 200 (199); last year, even with Ortiz’ club-record 54, it dropped to 192.

And it wasn’t just the number of HRs, it was the distribution of them. In 2003, the Sox had seven batting order slots with 20 or more homers; in 2006, they had only two. Those slots (#3-#4, mostly Ortiz/Ramirez), produced 94 HRs, while the rest of the team had 98. In 2003, the top two slots (#4-#5) produced 77 HRs, while the rest of the team had 139.

That pretty much brings us full circle, of course. By allowing the performance of the hitters around Ortiz and Ramirez in the Boston lineup to decay, Epstein-James fell into an age-old trap—one with significant repercussions in terms of the Red Sox’ ability to score runs.

It was the type of blunder that someone would have made had they never read Bill James…


What About The Pitching, Anyway?

Oh, yes.

One of the consistent features of the EJE is its virtually total confusion about how to develop a pitching staff. As a result, the Beantown brain trust has recanted from all of its so-called “sabermetric” ideas about pitching.

It became clear within three years that the theories of Voros McCracken were mostly irrelevant to the practical considerations involved in assembling and evaluating a pitching staff. The Sox’ acquisitions that can be seen in the light of those theories (Ryan Rupe, Wade Miller, Matt Clement) did not demonstrate any analytical “seam” with which to gain a strategic advantage over the competition. Accordingly, the Red Sox have abandoned them, and have retrenched into conventional thinking.

And (ultimately) that might just be the best thing they could do for themselves.


To their credit, Epstein-James appear to have recognized much of what went awry in 2006, and moved to correct it—though, as usual, their approach to pitching still resembles the love-making technique of a 40-year-old virgin.

There are three new faces in the Red Sox lineup in 2007: J. D. Drew, Julio Lugo, and Dustin Pedroia. The net result here will be some uptick in offensive performance, so long as Drew remains healthy.

As always, lineup construction becomes a thorny (but inconclusive) issue. Some favor a lineup with Drew #2, Youkilis #5, which would look something like this:

Lugo, Drew, Ortiz, Ramirez, Youkilis, Varitek, Lowell, Crisp, Pedroia

The problem there, methinks, is that there’s still a chance for opposing pitchers to work around Ramirez. The argument propounded by Baseball Prospectus, “masquerading” as mainstream dolts over at SI, is that “Drew at #2” will prevent double plays due to J. D.’s speed. Since we don’t know how many times Drew was involved in DPs as a baserunner as opposed to a hitter, it’s hard to evaluate this, but if baserunner speed is really that important a factor, then one suspects Youkilis (who hit into 12 DPs last year) would be a bad match with either Ortiz or Ramirez on first ahead of him.

If you want to avoid DPs with a slow runner, data indicates that you’d best keep him out of the middle of the order:

Again, absent any detailed data on the effect of the lead runner on DP frequency, it appears that Drew’s ability to avoid GIDPs would be better utilized in the #5 slot.

So what the Sox are struggling with in lineup construction is this:

#1 slot: proven OBP in Youkilis vs. “best historical performance” in the slot from Lugo

#2 slot: power and possible DP avoidance from Drew vs. “best historical performance” in the slot from Crisp

#3, #4 slots: no issues, save age: Manny is 35—and health: Ortiz is not a fanatic about conditioning

#5 slot: making sure that whatever/whoever bats here doesn’t tank as was the case in ‘06

#6-#9 slots: platoon according to opposing pitcher, leave some speed at the bottom of the order

When one looks at the available personnel, it makes sense to opt for a complex alignment based on the handedness of the opposing pitcher:

Most of these handedness adjustments are based on historical data; for example, Julio Lugo has hit .306 batting #9 over his career, while he’s hit only .241 batting #8. Crisp has performed best in the slots chosen for him here.

Youkilis’ OBP is too valuable to be pushed down in the batting order. Drew’s power potential is better suited for the #5 slot.

It’s clear from this, though, that the Sox are still too invested in RHB, and that their power is only going to marginally increase as a result of their off-season offensive moves. The off-season attempt to peddle Lowell for Todd Helton was a recognition of this, but Epstein could not seal the deal, leaving the team unbalanced offensively as 2007 begins.

The Boston bench will be serviceable at best: Pena, Eric Hinske, Alex Cora and Doug Mirabelli, with an outside shot that the Sox will go trad and keep Joe McEwing, aka “the poor man’s Charlie Hustle,” who is as versatile as he is mediocre (or is that vice-versa?).

If they follow such a lineup approach and avoid catastrophic injury, the Sox should put back 50 runs into their scoring this season without breaking a sweat. Since Pythagoras had them as a .500 team in ’06, however, we’ll need to see a similar drop in runs allowed in order to get this team back into the playoff hunt.

And that means pitching. Having finally abandoned the “divining rod” method of pitching staff development, Epstein-James are now fully invested in the idea of replacing Pedro Martinez. This is evidenced by the $103 million shelled out to Japanese sensation Daisuke Matsuzaka—whose chances of being the next Pedro are not great, but who will create frantic media interest as he bobs and weaves through the AL in ’07. It’s quite possible that Dice-K, as he is being called—by those who will doubtless follow my path to “Acronyms Anonymous”—will prove to be a good bit wilder than what was the case in Japan for the past several years, and might be affected by one fewer day of rest than what he’s been used to.

Even with that, however, he will still be the Red Sox ace—which says more about the rest of the rotation than a bushel of epithets.

—Curt Schilling is losing his heat, dipping below 40% in his K/Kop ratio over the last two months of ’06, and being hit at nearly a .440 clip in non-two strike PAs during that same stretch (big-league average for ’06 in those situations: .337).

—Josh Beckett is still looking for the right mental framework to complement his natural talent (leading some to question whether Beckett actually has a mental framework).

—Tim Wakefield remains the epitome of the inscrutable (read: unreliable) knuckleballer.

—Veteran flake Julian Tavarez is the #5 guy as the season starts, though he’ll likely transition back to the pen if Jon Lester shows signs of recovery or if Matt Clement ever escapes long-toss.

The Sox have returned to orthodoxy by reassigning Jon Papelbon to the closer’s role, where he excelled in ’06, combining with Big Papi and Manny to create a four-month simulation of a championship team. It’s also becoming clear that the EJE is cornering the market on flip-flopping— but hey, let’s call it “flexibility” instead of “indecision,” shall we?

However, given the realistic alternatives, this particular change seems completely justified.

Papelbon will have many new companions in the bullpen, including righties Joel Pineiro and Brendan Donnelly, lefties J.C. Romero and Hideki Okajima, plus holdover Mike Timlin.

Now, given that their predecessors in ’06 assembled a combined 5.72 RA/9 average in innings 7-8 (the worst record in the AL East—worse, even, than the Devil Rays!!), these guys don’t exactly have a tough target for improvement. This is one of the key areas to track in ’07, because it’s one of the places where teams can steal a few wins from Pythagoras.

Bottom line: 50 more runs scored and sixty fewer allowed gets the Sox to 91 wins. To steal a few extra wins and get to the playoffs, they’ll need to regain their “Fenway swagger” that evaporated during the second half of ’06 (just 21-23 there after July 1).

And if they don’t make it—Lord of Mercy, could this be the end of the EJE??





Don Malcolm Posted: April 03, 2007 at 04:53 PM | 18 comment(s)
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   1. Honkie Kong Posted: April 03, 2007 at 05:32 PM (#2323594)
I say, I liked this write up. Not that it was particularly helpful as a preview, but just as a good read
   2. Paul D(uda) Posted: April 03, 2007 at 06:35 PM (#2323637)
I want to echo Black Swan's comments. I know you've taked some heat for Red Sox previews before, but I thought that this one was well done. Although I'm not a Red Sox fan.
   3. Mister High Standards Posted: April 03, 2007 at 08:14 PM (#2323733)
Better than my preview. Then again I like Don's stuff.
   4. TH Posted: April 03, 2007 at 08:38 PM (#2323754)
I enjoyed the preview. I don't think the format could work with a lesser-known team, but for a team with the media coverage of the Red Sox, we don't need a rundown of who exactly is on the roster.

The only thing I can take issue with is describing the bench as "serviceable at best." To me that looks like a very good bench, perhaps one of the better ones in baseball. Hinske is a good lefty platoon partner for the corner infielders; Pena has to be one of the best hitting 4th OFers, although his defense is another story; and Cora is a good glove at the two middle infield positions and he wouldn't embarass himself in a starting role. Mirabelli hits like a backup catcher, but he can catch the knuckleball, so they are stuck with him. The only thing it seems they are missing is a good or at least passable outfield defender, someone who could be a late game defensive replacement at any of the three positions.
   5. 185/456(GGC) Posted: April 03, 2007 at 08:55 PM (#2323771)
I was hoping for a mention of Glenn Ford or Raymond Chandler, but I liked the preview in toto.
   6. Famous Original Joe C Posted: April 03, 2007 at 09:15 PM (#2323794)
Agreed on #3 - I think I disliked Don's 2004 preview so much I wrote one myself and posted it at ST. This one was excellent. Thanks, Don.
   7. Darren Posted: April 03, 2007 at 09:38 PM (#2323811)
The first part of the article is by far the most interesting and informative. It's clear that the Red Sox did squander a pair of excellent hitting performances, but I think Don has overlooked a couple important factor that separates Manny Ortez from those tandems in his study: defense.

Neither Manny nor Papi makes a positive defensive contribution to their team. Manny's is most certainly negative and Papi's is arguably so. Take a look at that list in Don's article. Each one of those tandems has at least one good defensive player. Combine that with the fact that Manny and Papi's 168/164 is among the lowest scores in the study, and we see that this is likely the worst 160/160 tandem since 1960. Is it any surprise that they are among the 42 percent of such tandems that didn't make the playoffs in that period?

The rest of the article also manages to completely ignore defense. There are several other problems as well, including:

--calling Wakefield unreliable despite all evidence pointing to the contrary
--the assumption that lineup spots affect player performance without showing that they do
--asserting that these lineup changes+health will add 50 runs, when it's more likely to be the personnel differences that do most of the work in this direction.
--Using Ryan Rupe, Wade Miller, and Matt Clement as examples of why DIPS doesn't work. Rupe was a minor league guy, Miller was a rehab project, and Clement's failing was because of injury.
   8. More Indecisive than Lonnie Smith on 2nd... Posted: April 03, 2007 at 11:09 PM (#2323861)
Data. Lots of DATA--OBP's and SLG by month, etc. That, coupled with a departure from the inscrutable (read: inscrutable) past previews, provided an enjoyable and insightful read. The latter point is especially noteworthy, given the coverage the Sox receive annually.

I would happen to agree on the bench; if used correctly--and they'll have to be, as Manny will not play but 135-140 games, and Drew is on an "off" year (look at his past 5-6 years' games played to see what I mean)--they'll keep the offense productive even with the big names sitting.

I am curious as to the likelihood of Lester making an appearance by June; I'm shocked at how quickly he's regained his strength, and only hope he isn't rushed along (for his sake, not mine; I'm a Braves fan and still bitter we couldn't pry him off E/J) before his shoulder/elbow have caught up with his musculature.

As many have stated, nicely done. Now if only we had the other 20 previews...
   9. Biff, highly-regarded young guy Posted: April 04, 2007 at 07:28 PM (#2324749)
I hadn't realized just how good the offense had been in 2003-2005. Scoring 6 runs or more in half your games is amazing.
   10. Gold Star - just Gold Star Posted: April 05, 2007 at 04:22 AM (#2325651)
The 160 OPS+ graphic, does it say the '85 Yankees had two guys at 159?
   11. SoSHially Unacceptable Posted: April 05, 2007 at 05:09 AM (#2325667)
The 160 OPS+ graphic, does it say the '85 Yankees had two guys at 159?

Yes, and it looks to be close to accurate (BB Ref has them both a little under 159).
   12. IronChef Chris Wok Posted: April 05, 2007 at 06:01 AM (#2325672)
Clement's failing was because of injury.

Undecended testis are a congenital issue.
   13. villageidiom Posted: April 09, 2007 at 01:47 PM (#2329731)
The Abridged Don Malcolm 2007 Red Sox Preview

I claimed in the past that the Red Sox front office had certain philosophies. With recent evidence running counter to my claims, it's proof that they have no idea what they're doing.

The team fell apart in August 2006 for two reasons, first by removing OBP machine Youkilis from the top of the order, and second by creating an OBP hole in the #5 slot by putting Youkilis there.

91 wins.
   14. ptodd Posted: April 10, 2007 at 01:21 AM (#2330716)
Good stuff here. James has always undervalued the HR in my opinion. OBP rules as table setters for the Sluggers, but when you get to the 7, 8 and 9 spots in the lineup, OBP and SLG are pretty much equal in importance. The Red Sox downfall will be the below average power in these spots, combined with simply average OBP there. Having a SB threat in one of these spots such as Lugo or Crisp helps somewhat, but in a close low scoring game, when putting together a string of hits and walks is difficult, the HR rules. Give me # 7 or # 8 hitter who may give you a crappy OBP of 300, but who can give you 25 HR's over a guy who gives you a 340 OBP and who may hit 10 HR in a good year anytime.

The Sox should use WMP as their CFer and use Coco as a defensive replacement, late inning base running specialist, with an occasional start when it gives the team a platoon advantage (eg against good finesse pitchers who are likely to give WMP fits)
   15. IronChef Chris Wok Posted: April 11, 2007 at 02:56 PM (#2332162)
The Sox should use WMP as their CFer and use Coco as a defensive replacement, late inning base running specialist, with an occasional start when it gives the team a platoon advantage (eg against good finesse pitchers who are likely to give WMP fits)

I was thinking Drew in CF and WMP in RF on the road, but THANK YOU.
   16. The Interdimensional Council of Rickey!'s Posted: April 12, 2007 at 12:58 PM (#2333218)
It became clear within three years that the theories of Voros McCracken were mostly irrelevant to the practical considerations involved in assembling and evaluating a pitching staff.

Dude, I could have told you Voros was on crack 10 years ago.

Oh wait. I did.


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