It’s easy to forget that for the first three months of 2009 the Red Sox looked unbeatable. Through the end of June they’d posted a 47-30 record, and entered the All-Star break three games up on the Yankees, built in part on taking the first eight games against the Bombers in their regular season series.
The numbers show that this was a good team, but the Angels swept them out of the playoffs. Looking at this series serves as a metaphor for the entire Sox season. In the first two games in Anaheim the Red Sox managed only one run on 8 hits. Their bats came alive in Game 3, but it was too little too late as their bullpen blew the game.
Watching every game the Yankees played against the Red Sox this season, it became clear that the Sox were streaky. Their performance reflects this. Unlike the Yankees, who took off once Alex Rodriguez returned from surgery, the Sox had an uneven season. They were unbeatable in April and June, with respective winning percentages of .636 and .692, but were a .552 ballclub every other month in 2009.
These flaws make it easier to understand why the Sox burnt out so quickly. They would either produce runs in spades, or not at all, and were not an elite team outside Fenway. The Yankees and Angels went 46-35 and 48-33 on the road respectively, and the Yankees played .703 ball after the break.
What follows below is a closer examination of the players on the Red Sox at the end of the season, their performance in 2009, and what can be expected from them in 2010.
Victor Martinez is good. VORP is adjusted to reflect a player’s playing time. Extrapolating Martinez’s offensive production for the Red Sox across an entire season would make him one of their top run producers with a VORP above 40. He’s a switch hitter. He’s young. He can play multiple positions on the field. Martinez will add power and versatility to the Red Sox in 2010.
Kevin Youkilis .305/.413/.548 VORP: 53.5
For me, it’s two elements to his game. First, Alex Rodriguez gets plunked all the time. So does Derek Jeter. I’ve only ever seen them take it, perhaps talk to the ump, and then angrily walk over to 1st. Not ol’ Youk. He takes every HBP personally, thrashing around, or charging the mound (sound alert). Hasn’t anyone told him that he’s the best hitter on his team and therefore the natural target for retaliation? He does get that this is a part of the game, right? Is he unaware that his head is so big it will naturally obstruct the path of most pitches?
Secondly, he has the ugliest swing I have ever seen.
All that aside, the only knock on Youk’s game is that he didn’t become a regular until the age of 27, so we won’t have to put up with him for too long, relatively speaking. He followed his 143 OPS+ in 2008 with a 145 OPS+ in 2009. He’s also good defensively, posting a 5.7 UZR in 2009. Expect him to contribute and still be ugly next year.
Dustin Pedroia .296/.371/.447 VORP: 39.2
Much was made about Pedroia’s decline in 2009 from his MVP campaign in 2008. The evidence doesn’t back this up. Pedroia won the MVP in 2008 mostly because there wasn’t a suitable traditional candidate, and he led the league in hits and doubles. His 2009 hit totals fell, probably due to bad luck, but his OBP, doubles and homers were down insignificantly from ’08 to ’09. He continues to give the Sox solid production from a position that is weak offensively for most teams. Pedroia is also an excellent defender (in case he wasn’t annoying enough already). His 2009 UZR was 9.8.
Pedroia’s real problem is that he is a slightly below-average player on the road and against lefthanded pitching. He gets on base well enough wherever
he goes, but he’s only a plus power threat in Fenway, against righthanded pitching. His home and away splits were .318/.388/.514 and .273/.355/.381, respectively. That’s a substantial drop off, particularly in slugging. It implies that Pedroia is smart enough to pull the ball where it needs to go in Fenway, and just about nowhere else.
His production has similar declines in its righty-lefty splits. He hit .302/.373/.466 against righties, but only .277/.366/.399 against lefties. He doesn’t decline as much when he faces a lefty as he does on the road, but the impact remains. The Sox in general hit much better at home, and Pedroia is an excellent example of why that is the case.
Mike Lowell .290/.337/.474 VORP: 22.9
Throughout the season announcers and analysts alike commented that Lowell’s strong performance at third helped ease the Sox’s loss from not signing Mark Teixeira. Lowell put up a better-than-average season at third, but his 106 OPS+ was nowhere near Tex’s 149, and post-surgery his UZR fell from 11.1 in 2008 to -10.4 in 2009.
Lowell turns 36 next year but it’s difficult to project his performance in 2010. Throughout his career he has been consistent offensively, only posting a sub 100 OPS+ season once since 2000. He also benefits from hitting in Fenway more than almost all the Red Sox. He is a bad road hitter, putting up .276/.331/.382, but a significant homer threat at Fenway, with .307/.344/.588.
Nomar Garciapara hasn’t been a good player in years, but it’s still funny to think that the Sox have not had a reliable shortstop since they traded him away in 2004 (Note from Larry: I’m still a bit baffled that they didn’t bother re-signing Orlando “Almost as annoying as Chone Figgins” Cabrera after winning it all with him in 2004. I imagine he was probably looking for too much money for a career 86 OPS+ player, but he still seems to get a big hit against the Yankees in every single at-bat and has also outproduced every Boston shortstop since his departure except for Edgar Renteria in 2005). I believe Boston actually had the worst offensive production from short of any team in the majors.
They don’t appear to be ready to resign Alex Gonzalez, and Julio Lugo is gone. It was never clear why they were so excited to get Gonzalez and .635 OPS anyway. The Sox may begin the season platooning Nick Green (.669 OPS) and Jed Lowrie (.476 OPS) at the position, and let’s hope they do. Short will remain an automatic out in the Sox lineup in an AL where the best teams don’t give outs away.
Jason Bay .267/.384/.537 VORP: 47.4
The Red Sox need to keep Jason Bay. If they don’t, expect them to make a crazy offer to Matt Holliday, or not compete next season. Bay was Boston’s biggest bat in 2009. He also put up a .937/.904 home/away OPS split and actually hit more homers on the road for a team that had problems away from its friendly confines. He’s not a good defender (UZR -13), and the Red Sox aren’t a good defensive team, but he plays a position where good defense can be overlooked. The Red Sox need his bat.
Jacoby Ellsbury .301/.355/.415 VORP: 41.4
Ellsbury makes up for his complete lack of power with incredible speed, leeding the AL in SBs each of the past two seasons. Adding his 70 steals from 2009 to his total bases makes his slugging shoot up to .527. Although a risky strategy for improving his value, Ellsbury is getting away with it, with a stolen base success rate of 85%.
Ellsbury must be bad at reading flyballs, because he is stunningly poor defensively for a fast center fielder. He has only recorded a positive UZR once, and put up an eye-opening (or eye-closing, if you prefer) -18.6 in 2009 in center.
The combination of weak hitting and bad defense draw Ellsbury’s true value into question. VORP is a flawed statistic that ignores defense and artificially inflates the value of a center fielder. WARP1 doesn’t. Ellsbury’s bad defense reduces his overall value to only 1.7 wins above a replacement player. Johnny Damon, for example, netted the Yankees 4.4 wins in 2009.
Ellsbury is a decent leadoff hitter, but that’s about it. Fangraphs reports that he is a much better defender in left or right but not center. He can’t hit for power. He won’t be able to produce a lot of runs if he loses a step. At least his splits are decent. He’s only 25, so he can be a placeholder for Boston for now, but don’t be surprised if he becomes a liability in a few years time.
JD Drew .279/.392/.522 VORP: 34.3
Perhaps the most difficult player on the Sox to analyze, Drew seems less productive than he is. On the one hand, his worst season as a BoSock was his first, 2007, when he put up an OPS+ of 105. On the other hand, despite OPS+ seasons above 130 each of the last two years he has never knocked 70 runs in for Boston, which speaks volumes given how much this team gets on base.
Having earned $14 million in 2009, Drew is Boston’s most expensive player. According to Fangraphs, he’s underpaid. He was worth over $18 million in 2008 and over $21 million in 2009. He’s young, as well, so he will continue to be productive, if not enigmatic, over the next couple of seasons.
Drew, apparently, is also a good fielder. His 2009 UZR was 10.5 in right and 6.4 overall in the outfield. As with his offense, instinct says he’s not that good but the numbers say the contrary and numbers don’t lie.
Aside from being another player who performs much better in Fenway than on the road (.991 OPS versus .844), Drew’s other weakness is that he is injury prone. He has played only 246 games the last two seasons. None of this matters, though. Drew’s price tag makes him virtually untradeable. He should once again give the Sox solid, if not confusing, production next season, when he’s healthy.
David Ortiz .238/.332/.462 VORP: 14.5
How the mighty have fallen. Once the most feared hitter in baseball, Ortiz’s production has declined in each of the last three seasons. He put up a 171 OPS+ in 2007, a 123 in 2008, and a 101 in 2009. Although not the liability so many make him out to be, Ortiz is a drain on Boston resources (he’ll make $13 million next year) at a position that should either be a plus offensively or inexpensiv
e. He’s neither.
Ortiz is a microcosm for all of Boston’s offensive troubles. Even if he really is only 33 years old, his production is declining as though he’s much older. He’s expensive and untradeable. He cannot hit outside of Fenway. He had a respectable home OPS of .880, but a woeful .703 in opposing ballparks. He’s also streaky. Each of the past two seasons he has slumped badly out of the gate, requiring a late season surge to bring his numbers to something resembling respectability. He was on fire in June and September, but failed to record an OPS above .900 in any other month.
Expect Ortiz to be on the Red Sox for at least one more season. He’s as expensive a DH option as Hideki Matsui was in 2009, only he won’t be a free agent for at least one more year. Boston would certainly have to pay some of his salary to trade him, only it’s not clear other teams would want him given his questionable value outside of Fenway. Unless he can turn around his early season struggles — there’s no reason to expect anything a significant improvement in 2010 — he’s probably seen his final days in a Red Sox uniform and possibly in MLB. He may go the way of Jason Giambi in 2011.
Josh Beckett ERA: 3.86 WHIP: 1.19 VORP: 43.4
Although a proven big-game performer, Beckett can be maddeningly erratic. For example, here are his ERA+ totals over the last four seasons: 95, 145, 115, 122. Furthermore, he was streaky month to month (admittedly an arbitrary but easy to document cut point) in 2009. His April ERA was over 7 but his ERA in June was under 2. When he’s on, he’s as good as any pitcher in the majors, with three plus pitches and five in total. When he’s off, he gets killed.
All things considered, Beckett reminds me of A.J. Burnett, only with better stuff (right down to the movement on his fastball). Expect big things from the big Texan next year. He’s young and its a walk year. If he produces on par with his almost Cy Young 2007 season he’ll be in the market for CC Sabathia money (Note from Larry: He won’t get that much, as 2011 will be his age 31 season, but he should be in line for a pretty nice payday. If I’m the Yankees I maybe consider offering A.J. Burnett money to Beckett, but that’s only if I can’t sign Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee).
Jon Lester ERA: 3.41 WHIP: 1.23 VORP: 55.5
Young, affordable, unbeatable at home and solid on the road, Lester has been Boston’s real ace the past two seasons, posting ERA+’s of 144 and 138. He’s continuing to improve, as well. His SO/9 jumped from 6.5 in 2008 to 10 in 2009. He’s given the Sox 200+ IP the last two seasons as well.
Daisuke Matsuzaka ERA: 5.76 WHIP: 1.87 VORP: 2.1
Before analyzing Dice-K’s 2009 performance, note that he is better than a VORP of 2.1. VORP is adjusted to reflect how much a player is used. Dice-K was hardly a great pitcher in 2009, but his VORP is artificially low due to his injury.
Bill James projects Dice-K will put up an ERA of 4.02 in 2010 while recording 195 innings of work for Boston. Although noted for his impartiality when it comes to the Red Sox, Bill James’ performance projection is hard to believe. It would make Matsuzaka a better than average pitcher, which he has only been in one season with Boston. In particular, it is difficult to see him pitching for 195 innings when he only managed more than that once and barely put up 160 innings in his best season.
Clay Buchholz ERA: 4.21 WHIP: 1.38 VORP: 17.7
Buchholz joined the Red Sox rotation in July last season and pitched well down the stretch. He recorded an ERA of 2.87 in September, showing flashes of the pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 2007.
The big questions surrounding Buchholz are whether he can pitch at an elite level consistently and for how long. He’s never pitched more than 92 innings in a season in the Bigs. Bill James is predicting big things, including an ERA of 3.91 and 161 innings. That would amount to a breakout season for the young starter. It would also give the Sox three starters who are projected to have ERAs below 4. This seems unlikely speaking purely in terms of probabilities, but also given Buchholz’s history to date. For a workload of nearly twice his Major League max to date I would expect an ERA above 2009′s 4.21. (Note from Larry: I agree we really haven’t seen enough of Buchholz to know what to expect, but for whatever reason, I’m a believer, and I’m more inclined to go with the James projection).
Tim Wakefield ERA: 4.58 WHIP: 1.442 VORP: 20.1
Much was made of the start Wakefield got to his season. Chalk this one up as another reason why the Wins stat needs to be stricken from the record book forever. Wakefield’s early season praise, which resulted in an All-Star appearance no less, resulted from his 10-3 record through June. That was luck, probably due to the fact that as the team’s fifth starter it was easy for the Sox to give Wakefield run support. He was excellent in April, abysmal in May, solid in June, and then hurt. He only won one more game the rest of the season.
(Note from Larry: I have to disagree here. I think the perpetuity contract was genius — Wakefield’s only been below-average in three of his 15 seasons in a Red Sox uniform, and as a knuckleballer, his age is basically irrelevant as long as he can continue getting it over the plate. With an annual option, the Sox got to decide every year whether they felt it was worth another $4 million for a very reliable back-of-the-rotation starter. Considering Wake has been more valuable than his contract every year going back to 2002, it’s really been a no-brainer for Epstein. With Wake near the end of the line, signing him to a two-year extension is perfect, as it essentially guarantees that the Sox will get whatever productivity remains in Wakefield’s right arm and that he’ll also rightly retire in a Boston uniform.)
Jonathan Papelbon ERA: 1.85 WHIP: 1.15 VORP: 30.
I am not going to bother analyzing the bullpen in depth given the annual volatility of relievers. Closers, however, tend to keep their jobs for a while. Papelbon is insane, has an attitude problem, refuses to throw anything but his fastball even though he has an excellent split-fingered fastball, and intonated that he wanted to pitch for the Yankees. None of this went over well in Boston.
Despite his off-the-field issues, Papelbon remains an excellent pitcher. His numbers speak for themselves. Compared to his 2008 performance, he did walk more batters in 2009, causing his WHIP to jump from 0.95 to 1.15, but his ERA fell so he was able to pitch out of those jams without much of a problem.
Papelbon did blow gGme 3 of the ALDS, but that was the first blown save in the playoffs of his short career. Unless a trend of poor pitching emerges next season, its nothing to get excited about. Furthermore, Pap is only making $6.5 million in 2009 and is eligible for arbitration in 2010 and 2011. The incentives for him to pitch well are certainly there. If he struggles, however, expect Daniel Bard to audition further for the closer spot.
The Red Sox desperately need to keep Jason Bay or replace his production in the lineup. They will remain an elite team if they do. It is unlikely, however, that they will re-emerge as the class of the AL East. The Yankees have fewer question marks regarding their roster and there is little reason to believe their players will underperform in 2010.
The Red Sox’s inability to play plus-.500 ball on the road is a fatal flaw for a playoff team. Pedroia, Ortiz, Lowell and Drew all play worse away from Fenway. Add Boston’s lack of a shortstop into the equation and the team suddenly has a number of dead spots in its lineup when it leaves Fenway. As currently constructed, the Sox would have to have home field advantage throughout the playoffs to contend deep into October. Barring a sudden improvement on the road, this won’t happen. Boston can’t play much better at home, but the Yankees can keep pace with them and outplay them on the road. Boston’s poor away performance is a handicap that prevents the team from having the best record in the AL and serves as a double handicap in the postseason where road wins are essential and good road teams will enter Fenway.
The Red Sox are also bad defensively, ranking second-to-last in the AL in Deffensive Efficiency. In late August New York Magazine asked Baseball Prospectus to predict the World Series winner (they chose the Yankees). To do so BP analyzed the characteristics of winning teams since the Wild Card. They came up with three factors: 1) Starters who strike a lot of guys out. 2) An excellent closer. 3) Good defense. The Bombers were three-for-three. Not the Sox, who gave away outs in 2009 and can be expected to do so again in 2010.
The Sox have a number of roster concerns that will grow in time. As mentioned here again and again, the team is in real trouble if Bay leaves. They also have a chronic issue at shortstop, an aging third basemen whose defense is regressing, and a growing hole in their lineup at DH. Analyzing their lineup from afar, it becomes clear Boston only has two potential deadspots in 2010 (SS and DH). But that’s two more than what we can expect from the Yankees and, unlike the Yanks, there are not viable options on the market for Boston to address those weaknesses.
Boston should still contend for the Wild Card in 2010 (and most certainly 1st in the AL East if the Yankees struggle), largely due to solid offensive output from at least seven of their hitters, and a complete (if injury-prone) rotation.
Winning in the regular season won’t be Boston’s problem. Instead, they’ve come to resemble what the Yankees were from 2004-2008: Old, expensive, defensively porous, and one Tommy John surgery away from needing a pitcher. Hopefully Brian Cashman sees that, and goes for the jugular this winter.
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