Today we arrive at the American League preview that many of you are probably the most eager for: the 2011 Boston Red Sox.
Despite a series of injuries so vast many considered the team dead in the water when the news finally broke in August that Kevin Youkilis would miss the rest of the season, the 2010 Red Sox still put up a rather valiant fight. Though they ultimately finished 3rd in the AL East, their 89-73 record was the fifth-best in the American League. The team only spent one day in first place — and that was Sunday, April 4, after beating the Yankees in the season opener — but hung tough in the most treacherous division in baseball for much of the season. After a torrid June, Boston got within 1/2 a game of first place on July 3, but a subsequent four-game losing streak put the team in too deep a hole to climb out of, and the closest they would get to first was 4.5 back after beating Tampa Bay on Friday, August 27.
The Sox and Yankees, as per usual, battled each other to the death in 2010, splitting the season series 9-9 for the second year in a row (since 2003, the year in which the famed rivalry finally found both teams evenly matched, the Yankees hold the smallest of edges, 76-72). The Yankees ensured 2010 would not mimic 2009′s inglorious 0-8 start vs. Boston, making an early statement by taking two out of three at Fenway to open the season — marking the first time the Yankees won a series at Fenway Park in April since 1975. The Sox hosted the Yankees again in early May and again lost two of three, as Phil Hughes outpitched what initially appeared to be perfect-game stuff by Josh Beckett, CC Sabathia dominated in the Fox Saturday Afternoon Game of Death and A.J. Burnett threw the first of what would be many stinkers in the ESPN Sunday Night Marathon Heartbreaker.
A week later at Yankee Stadium on May 17 the Bombers staked Phil Hughes to an early 5-0 lead against Daisuke Matsuzaka only to see Hughes falter and ultimately give up five of his own, and Chan Ho Park subsequently give up three runs in the eighth that enabled the Sox to take the lead 9-7. The Yankees were ultimately bailed out by two of the Yankees’ top six WPA swings of the entire season, as Alex Rodriguez hit the game-tying two-run home run off Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom of the ninth, and three batters later Marcus Thames clubbed a two-run walkoff to secure the win. The following evening began in similar fashion, as a shaky Josh Beckett staked the Yankees to a 5-0 lead after five innings, and with Sabathia on the mound most everyone expected the game to be in the bag. The big man did his part, hurling seven innings of one-run ball, but Boston fought back against the Yankee ‘pen, singling and doubling Joba Chamberlain to death for four runs to tie the game, and touching Mariano Rivera up in the top of the ninth for two more runs to take the lead. The Yanks managed a run against Papelbon in the bottom half of the frame, but there would be no second straight walkoff win in the Bronx that night.
The Yanks and Sox didn’t square off again until the beginning of August, in a four-game set with extenuating circumstances that slightly mirrored the four-game set the two teams had played on a long weekend in the Bronx the year prior, though not overwhelmingly so, as the Sox were both further out of first and without their best player this time. Like 2009, the Yankees once again had an opportunity to put Boston decidedly in their rearview mirror with a decisive four-game sweep; however this time Boston had other ideas, and the teams wound up splitting the set, with the Yankees receiving an out-of-nowhere solid performance from Dustin Moseley in the Sunday night game while Jon Lester continued to own the Yankees in the Monday afternoon matinee (Lester carried a no-no into the fifth), despite a valiant effort from Phil Hughes.
The rivals played six of their final 10 games against each other, and as the Sox descended upon Yankee Stadium the weekend of Friday, September 24, what many had anticipated being a yawn of a series quickly built to a fever pitch in Yankeeland after the bumbling Bombers dropped the first two games. This prompted Joe Girardi to dump Dustin Moseley and start Phil Hughes, despite the fact that the team had hoped to give Hughes extra rest prior to the postseason. Hughes responded in kind, throwing what may have been his most important (though not necessarily prettiest) game of the season against a rejuvenated Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was every bit as good as Hughes was if not better. The Yankee win effectively ended any remaining hopes the Sox may have had of sneaking into the playoffs, and the season’s last three-game set between the two teams was essentially a formality, though had the Yankees bothered to come play that weekend they may have been able to grab the AL East crown from Tampa Bay.
Had the Sox not been beset by injuries to what seemed like half the roster, they may have been able to knock either the Yankees or the Rays out in September, given how poorly those two teams played in the season’s final month, and it’s a testament to Terry Francona that he kept his depleted team in the mix down to the final week of the season. Not content to maintain the status quo and assume the team would bounce back simply by virtue of returning a fully healthy lineup in 2011, Boston’s management went out and made two of the biggest splashes in the offseason in trading for Adrian Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford to a $142 million deal. Of course, these deals were made necessary due in part to the lineup slots vacated by offensive powerhouse free agents Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. Combined with the Yankees not only missing out on their primary objective in Cliff Lee but also losing rotation stalwart Andy Pettitte to retirement, the Bombers have been dumped on for much of the winter as they have attempted to patch the back end of their rotation while many have already crowned the Red Sox 2011 World Champions.
However, the coronation is probably a wee bit premature. Let’s take a look at the numbers, shall we? The below charts contain key offensive numbers for what I expect the Red Sox’s Opening Day lineup to look like, along with the players that will be in the mix for bench spots. On the pitching side of the ledger I have Boston’s projected rotation, along with the cast of seemingly thousands vying for spots in Boston’s revamped bullpen. I’m using 2010 actual numbers, along with each player’s 2011 CAIRO and PECOTA projections, due to the fact that they are both park-adjusted, enabling a more apples-to-apples comparison, and I opted for two projection systems instead of one because relying on only one really doesn’t tell you anything. One important thing to keep in mind in reviewing the CAIRO projections is that SG doesn’t factor baserunning into his wOBA calculation, which means for a speedier player like Carl Crawford, Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury you can probably add somewhere on the order of .010 to .015 points of wOBA to scale it to Fangraphs’ version. Unfortunately Baseball Prospectus doesn’t use wOBA or FIP, so in the wOBA section the column on the far right is True Average, which is basically BP’s version of wOBA but scaled to batting average instead of on-base percentage; and in the FIP section I have WHIP in the far right — WHIP obviously doesn’t correlate with FIP at all, but I wanted to at least put something in that column for the PECOTA projection. I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the team leader in yellow in each statistical category for each data set for quick reference.
I’d also like to take a moment to thank Ben Buchanan from Over the Monster for his time, expertise and graciousness in helping me ensure I covered more or less every player in contention for Boston’s 25-man roster.
And the pitching staff. The starters are in their expected rotation order, while the bullpen candidates are sorted by their CAIRO-projected FIPs.
The first thing that jumped out at me upon compiling these numbers — which took well over an hour — is that Adrian Gonzalez is going to be a beast in Fenway Park. Not that we didn’t already know that, but his CAIRO-projected .409 wOBA is the second-highest in all of baseball after Albert Pujols. Also, Kevin Youkilis‘ .396 CAIRO wOBA is the fifth-best projection in baseball. That’s some absurd production right there from your three and four hitters. For comparison’s sake, CAIRO has Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez each putting up .384 wOBAs, the eighth-best projected mark in MLB.
As for the rest of Boston’s lineup, CAIRO sees a bit of a SLG falloff (.478) for Crawford from 2010 (.495), while PECOTA really doesn’t like Carl, busting him down to a .435 SLG. In good news for the Sox, CAIRO more or less expects another Dustin Pedroia-esque season out of Pedroia and another David Ortiz-style season out of Big Papi. CAIRO loves J.D. Drew and sees him gaining nearly .020 points of wOBA on his 2010 mark. Neither system is all that high on the relatively untested Jarrod Saltalamacchia, while Marco Scutaro projects right around where one would expect (.333 wOBA) and Ellsbury at a fairly disappointing .319. In the initial iteration of the lineup I sent to Ben I had Jed Lowrie as the starting shortstop, given that he appears to be a pretty clearly superior option to Scutaro, but Ben informed me that Francona views Lowrie as more of a super-utility player, which leads me to believe Francona’s selection of Scutaro as the starter is one of those frustrating irrational loves of a less serviceable player that drives informed fans crazy.
On the pitching side of the ledger, we have a rotation fronted by ace lefthander Jon Lester, who has quickly established himself as one of the best pitchers in the game, although CAIRO sees both his ERA and FIP rising by about half a run (PECOTA only has an ERA jump of a quarter of a run); followed by Josh Beckett, who, like A.J. Burnett, basically can’t have anywhere near as bad a season as he did in 2010, though CAIRO only sees him improving to a 4.59 ERA (4.13 FIP), while PECOTA remains more optimistic about a significant bounceback, projecting Beckett to shave nearly two runs off his 2010 ERA with a 3.95 mark. Neither system thinks Clay Buchholz can pull a repeat of 2010, understandably so given that he had arguably the luckiest season in baseball, leading all of MLB with a -1.28 delta between his ERA and FIP. That’s not to say that Buchholz won’t still be a very good pitcher, but it’s difficult to envision him posting the second-best ERA in the AL if he doesn’t improve on his K rate (6.2 per nine) or walk rate (3.5 per nine), not to mention be aided by the third-lowest BABIP in the AL and the highest strand rate. With luck like that on one’s side, I think it’s fairly safe to say that some of those balls in play are going to find holes this year they didn’t find last year. As for John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, CAIRO basically sees a repeat of 2010 for both pitchers, while PECOTA likes both players a good deal more, projecting lower ERAs and higher K/9 and BB/9 rates.
And finally we have the bullpen, which will almost certainly be the most significantly improved component of the 2011 Red Sox team. After finishing dead last in FIP, Theo Epstein and Co. have almost completely revamped their relief corps, adding Bobby Jenks — who many of us had hoped the Yankees would sign — Dan Wheeler, former Yankee Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers as the players who probably have the greatest likelihood of breaking camp with the team, while also bringing Dennys Reyes, Rich Hill, Junichi Tazawa and Andrew Miller in to compete. The Sox already have two elite relief pitchers in closer Jonathan Papelbon and set-up man Daniel Bard, and adding Jenks — who CAIRO projects to have the best FIP and highest groundball rate in the entire bullpen — Wheeler (best CAIRO-projected BB/9) and a healthy Aceves (best PECOTA-projected BB/9) to the Boston ‘pen should do wonders for a unit that led the league in arson last season.
So this brings us back to the eternal question — are the Red Sox better than the Yankees in 2011, and clear favorites to win the American League pennant? For as heralded as many of Boston’s offseason moves have been, I think a lot of people forgot that, while the Yankees may have missed out on some excellent pitching targets, it’s not as if the Bombers became horrible overnight. For one, the Yankees still project to be one of, if not the best offense in baseball again. If we take a look at our handy Lineup Analysis tool and plug in the 2011 CAIRO-projected numbers for each team’s starting nine, we have a Yankee starting nine that averages 5.584 runs per game (that number rises to 5.609 with Jesus Montero), and a Red Sox starting lineup that averages a beastly 5.694 runs per game. So while the Sox have a slight advantage on offense, the two teams will likely once again be neck-and-neck in the run-scoring department.
However, starting pitching is where the two teams’ fortunes primarily diverge. The Yankees, as everyone knows, have CC Sabathia; followed by Phil Hughes, who the team hopes can improve upon his solid first full season in the rotation; A.J. Burnett, who has no choice but to be better than he was in 2011, although how much better is anyone’s guess; and two question marks in the #4 and #5 slots. Boston’s current rotation is a clear upgrade over what the Yankees have penciled in at the moment. As far as the bullpen goes, for as strong as the Red Sox’s moves were — and let’s not kid ourselves, their bullpen is going to be significantly better in 2011 — the Yankees took an already-elite relief unit and signed one of the top closers in the game to pitch the eighth inning, so if the Yankees have any one advantage over Boston right now, it likely lies in the ‘pen. Although the two teams are certainly very closely matched in this department as well.
I asked Ben from Over the Monster about his thoughts on the Sox heading into the 2011 season, and here’s what he had to say:
“Although Theo Epstein has tried to lower expectations some, it’s pretty hard not to be excited after the offseason they’ve had. While the 100-win mark that’s being thrown around a lot may be high, so long as the rotation don’t all perform at their worst, and we don’t have the same ridiculous injury problems as last year, the Red Sox should be counted amongst the World Series favorites.”
Patrick Sullivan of Red Sox Beacon was also kind enough to chime in with his two cents:
“This is as good a roster as Theo Epstein has assembled, but as Red Sox fans learned last year, there are any number of things that can derail even the best laid plans. Specifically for the Red Sox, while they may have fewer question marks than just about any other team, they are still there. The trio of John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka didn’t exactly sparkle in 2010, and they’re all a year older. The bullpen tinkering looks promising but we all know about the unpredictability of relief pitching, and Carl Crawford is a nagging hamstring away from being a $20M mediocrity. The Red Sox look great, but nothing is a given in the AL East.”
I think those are both fair assessments. Provided the team the front office has assembled can stay healthy, the Red Sox definitely seem like the surest bet on paper to get to the World Series. However, the Rays aren’t going anywhere, the Orioles have significantly upgraded their offense, the Blue Jays will likely remain a thorn in everyone’s sides, and for whatever the Yankees’ rotation woes might be, they’ve certainly headed into battle with worse, and you’d be a fool to expect the AL East — featuring some of the best young starting pitching on the planet – to be anything but perhaps the fiercest dogfight the division has ever seen.
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