Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A 2010 Retrospective — where did the Sox go wrong?

Hi all — Matt has been kind enough to let me start posting some baseball- and Red Sox-related ruminations here on DW.com, so here’s to hoping it’s worth all our time. This may be the beginning of a Reverse Nate Silver for me (political blogging to baseball talk, rather than the other way around) but who knows.

I’m a lifelong Sox fan — some of my earliest memories are of the ‘86 playoffs, I leapt off the couch and over my dad’s head when Tom Brunansky slid into the corner to make the catch and clinch a playoff berth, and I laughed out loud and really hard in the middle of The Town when one of the characters threw away a joke about Jack Clark rolling over on the Sox. However, I live in the Twin Cities now, and no one else in the theater got the joke, so I looked like kind of a jackass. These things happen.

So where have the 2010 Red Sox gone wrong? As I write this, there are six games remaining in the season, and the Sox’ elimination number stands at one. Conceivably, the Sox could win out and the Yankees could lose the rest….all right, fine, I can admit it: it’s pretty much over, so let’s start in on the post-mortems. Starting with the current division standings:

W L RS RA X W-L
Tampa Bay 93 63 788 635 93-63
New York 93 64 833 664 94-63
Boston 87 69 790 710 86-70

The first thing of note: These three teams are pretty much exactly where their runs-scored and runs-allowed numbers say they should be. Personally I think it’s pretty amazing that the Sox have made it as far as they have given that they’ve lost the best half of their starting lineup to injuries for considerable portions of the season.

But note that to date, the Sox have scored *more* runs than the Rays have, and a pretty comparable number to the Yankees. The difference is in the Sox’ runs allowed — giving up 710 runs in 156 games just isn’t going to get it done.

For fear of being called a complete Sox homer (all right, I am, but stick with it) let’s compare the Sox’ 2010 staff to that of the current division leaders, the Tampa Bay Rays. First, the rotations, with strong contributors at the top and the rest in the second group (ranked by VORP):

SVORP = Staff VORP.

I was surprised to find that on the balance, Boston’s rotation this year came out just a tad *ahead* of Tampa’s, albeit having used one more pitcher for the majority of their starts thanks to injuries to Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz. Nevertheless, Lester’s and Buchholz’s general filthiness outweighed season-long suckitude from Beckett and (sad to say) Tim Wakefield, and mediocrity from Dice-K and Lackey.

The big takeaway question here is whether it’s better to have two aces who can take the ball in 35-40% of your team’s game and then a bunch of slightly warm corpses populating the rest of your rotation, or one ace and several other guys who provide solid contributions and give your team a chance to win the other four nights through the rotation? In a playoff series, I’ll take the two aces, but you have to get to the playoffs first. Discuss at will; the 2001 Diamondbacks await your opinions.

Rebound years in 2011 from Lackey and Beckett would go a long way toward justifying the Red Sox’ huge investment in its rotation relative to the the insanely great value Tampa Bay has gotten for its limited dollars. In any case, the rotations added about the same amount of value to each team in 2010 — so has there been a significant difference in the bullpens?

Let’s see:

Ouch. We shift over to Baseball Prospectus’s WXRL metric for short-innings guys, and here we see a dramatic difference between the two teams. Daniel Bard was a gasp of fresh air for the Sox’ bullpen, but a big regression from Jon Papelbon has not helped the ‘pen’s situation. Indeed, the Rays’ third-best reliever generated more expected wins than Papelbon did for the Sox, and after that no other Sox reliever turned in more than 0.479 WXRL (the since-traded Ramon Ramirez). Okajima looks like toast, and has pitched like it for 43.2 somewhat inexplicable innings. Declining rate stats led to Manny Delcarmen’s departure to Colorado, and while Felix Doubront has provided some welcome relief in limited duty, Scott Atchison simply isn’t a great option for high- or low-leverage pitching in the AL East.

Oh, and Rafael Soriano has been absolutely filthy.

Bottom line: for about the same investment, the Red Sox bullpen lagged the Rays’ by about five wins (SWXRL: Staff WXRL. Try to keep up), and that’s the story of the season right now.

The Sox’ front office is nothing if not good at divining where the team’s needs stand and addressing them aggressively. Last off-season they built an offense that, if it had held together against the injury bug, might have been strong enough to score the down-the-stretch runs necessary to overcome the weak pitching staff. And it certainly seems like a lot of punditry is going to focus on those injuries and lingering questions over the “bridge season” mini-scandal and whether more power was the way to go instead of starting pitching and defense.

As it stands right now, it looks like the truly important question for this winter will be finding relievers who can get the job done and build an effective bridge to Bard in the late innings.

posted by Joe at 10:49 am  

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