Are the Boston Red Sox Any Good?

Posted: 05/13/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Look at the question posed in the title. Now look at it again. The obvious answer would be: “yes”. This is a team who has won three of the last 10 World Series’, more than even the mighty Yankees, including last season. This is a team who has the fourth highest payroll in baseball according to Deadspin, at close to $163 million. This is also the team that was predicted to win the AL Central by some and make the playoffs by many. And yet, the Boston Red Sox are a team who, at a time where the sample size is getting dangerously close to relevant, have a 19-18 record and a -4 run differential. That is not the profile of a top-five payroll team or a World Series winning team. But is it indicative of their true talent? Or will the Red Sox bounce back from this less than impressive start and make the playoffs again?

In order to fairly evaluate this team, the first thing you need to know is that last year’s season was probably not repeatable. Someone (I forget who) wrote an article at the beginning of the year about teams who have a huge swing from bad to good over the course of two seasons. Basically, the point being made is that teams who are really bad one year and good the next are probably not going to continue that trend going into the third year. In fact, these teams usually have large regression in the third year. Sure enough, this year’s examples are the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cleveland Indians, and the Red Sox. The Red Sox have the most resources and are the most talented of the three teams, but check this out:

 2013 Win %  2014 Win %
 Pittsburgh Pirates  .580 .432
 Cleveland Indians  .568 .474
 Boston Red Sox  .599 .514

Looks like there is something there, which means that the Red Sox probably shouldn’t expect to be any more than, say, an 89 win team.

The personnel on this year’s team is similar to last season’s, but the Red Sox have lost some key players. Jacoby Ellsbury in particular stands out. Not only was Ellsbury a good hitter, but he was a tremendous base stealer and runner. The Red Sox have replaced him in center with Jackie Bradley Jr., a top prospect who so far has been a terrible hitter and a below average baserunner. And that’s a problem, obviously. It’s even more of a problem because the Red Sox, the fifth best baserunning team in baseball last season, are dead last this year. That goes a long way towards explaining the regression.

The Red Sox are also missing Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew, two other key parts of the lineup this year. Instead of having Salty at catcher and Drew at short, thus moving Xander Bogaerts to third, A.J. Pierzynsky is behind the plate and Will Middlebrooks is at catcher. Even though Drew remains unsigned, the Salty-Drew combo has already been worth half a win more than Middlebrooks-A.J., thanks fully to Salty’s great start to the season for the Marlins. Given that Drew will likely sign eventually, this could end up being a three win or so loss.

Of course, some bad luck is involved. From stars like Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz to young starters like Bogaerts, Bradley Jr., and Middlebrooks, this team has underperformed. Pedroia and Ortiz are definitely going to get better, while the three youngsters are definitely not this bad. You can count on at least one or two of them to bounce back. Expect the hitting to improve as Ortiz and Pedroia in particular start hitting more. And then there is Grady Sizemore. We are all really rooting for Grady Sizemore. Once “Mike Trout before Mike Trout”, Sizemore’s career was derailed by injuries. He made a heroic return, and we all hoped that he would conjure up at least some of his lost talent this season en route to becoming a solid player with the Red Sox. It hasn’t happened that way. He has one homer since the opener, and the guy we thought would go 40-40 has lost much of his speed. Sizemore’s hit just .227/.296/.361 with 79 wRC+, and when you add his now-poor defense to that, you get a player with a -.3 WAR. It might be time to pull the plug on Sizemore and go back to Daniel Nava, who was horrid in April before being sent down but was a great hitter last season.

As for pitching, the rotation is unchanged from the end of last season, when Felix Doubront replaced a now-retired Ryan Dempster in the rotation. And the pitching, for the most part, has been good. Jon Lester, in a contract year, has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. John Lackey and Jake Peavy, both established veterans, have also largely been good. Clay Buchholtz, who was terrific last year, has been terrible this year. His ERA is nearly four times worse than it was last year. In the end, I think Buchholtz is not the pitcher he was last year but also way better than he’s pitching now. Improvement should come. Doubront is probably not going to hold a rotation spot for long, because the Red Sox have a bunch of prospects pitching in the high minors who seem close to a debut or a second chance. Allen Webster could be the first one up, but Henry Owens, currently in AA, looks like a good long term prospect. Doubront is just a placeholder. The bullpen, led again by the amazing Koji Uehara (just how unbelievable is he? Just check his numbers), has been worth 2.5 WAR, tops in baseball, and have the seventh best ERA and second best FIP in baseball. So yeah, the bullpen isn’t the problem.

In the end, the team as currently constructed looks like, say, an 86 win team. That probably wouldn’t be enough to make the playoffs, although in this year’s wide-open AL East, you never know. But I don’t think this is going to be a squad that Red Sox ownership is going to be comfortable with rolling with into September. I think it’s safe to expect some trades as we get closer to the deadline, as this is a win-now team who have some prospects to move. A rental starter is a need, and the Sox could also use a corner outfielder. Depending on how Middlebrooks and Bradley Jr. play, third base and center field could also be needs. This is a solid team right now, but one that should be better come August. So the bottom line is that yes, they are kind of good, but they are nowhere near as good as they were last season. The loss of Jacoby Ellsbury and two other productive starters, to go along with the rapid decrease in baserunning proficiency and the general laws of regression to the mean, probably mean that the Red Sox won’t sniff 97 wins again. With some moves, 90 is possible, although I’d predict an 88-74 win season. That might just be enough to win the AL East, even though it would be a nine win decrease from last season.

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