The 1986 Boston Red Sox won 95 times, and ultimately took the American League East crown by 5.5 games. They then beat the California Angels in dramatic fashion for the American League pennant, and lost to the New York Mets in even more dramatic fashion to lose the World Series. They were a great team.
Great players filled the roster, including Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans. There were also some horrific players. One of them was Bill Buckner. This is in no way meant to demonize Buckner – he seems like a really nice man and made an untimely error. Stuff happens, as they say. But because he managed 102 RBI that season, there’s a belief that the Red Sox could never have been in that position anyway – that he was a key factor in their success.
He hit .267/.311/.421 that season, which came out to a 97 OPS+. For sparkling defenders like Doug Mientkiewicz or J.T. Snow, that might work but as you may recall, Buckner could barely move and was a terrible fielder. His .311 on-base percentage in 1986 ranked 16th out of 19 qualified first basemen. Baseball Reference has him at -.1 Wins Above Replacement, which is to say that he actually detracted from Boston’s winning efforts. He didn’t help at all.
There were others, too. After coming over from Seattle in the middle of the season, Spike Owen and Dave Henderson hit .183/.283/.238 and .196/.226/.314 respectively. Sammy Stewart, a bullpen arm they actually depended on, walked 48 batters in just under 64 innings pitched. Despite having one of the best Red Sox seasons ever, there were bad players up and down the roster.
Almost all of the good Red Sox teams of my lifetime have been this way, too. The Red Sox won another AL East in 1988, and five DH’s had enough PA’s to qualify for the batting title that season. Jim Rice had the worst OPS of all of them. That same year, Rich Gedman had a .279 on-base percentage. Dana Kiecker made 25 starts for the AL East winning Red Sox in 1990, and that team was so thin that only three bench players managed over 100 plate appearances, and none more than 200.
The 1995 team didn’t have too many awful players, but I would say that Vaughn Eshelman and Zane Smith taking rotation turns is less than ideal. Mark Whiten played for that team and in 117 plate appearances hit .185/.239/.241. The next two seasons they qualified for the postseason, 1998 and 1999, the teams were laughably top-heavy. In ’98, nobody in the Red Sox starting outfield managed an OPS+ above 100. Steve Avery had a .89 K/BB when he was healthy enough to pitch. Mike Benjamin was the shortstop. In ’99, Darren Lewis was the everyday center fielder and hit .240/.311/.309. He had 22 extra-base hits in 538 times to the plate. Mark Portugal and Pat Rapp combined for 53 starts.
With Theo Epstein at the helm, the Red Sox won 95 games in 2003. But still, sprinkled throughout the roster were Jeremy Giambi and Damian Jackson and Casey Fossum. Remember the Jeff Suppan trade? In 2004, Pokey Reese had a 46 OPS+. Gabe Kapler’s was 77 in 310 plate appearances. Derek Lowe gave up 11 hits per nine innings, and didn’t really strike anyone out either.
The list goes on throughout the decade. Think of the shortstops. Remember Jay Payton? What about Wade Miller? Even in 2007, Julio Lugo managed just a .294 on-base. Coco Crisp was only a little better. Julian Tavarez made 23 starts that year.
What’s the point of all of this? Bad baseball players, or at least players having awful seasons, are very much a part of good baseball teams. I think more than any GM in baseball, Epstein tries to prepare for the worst. They may not work every season, but the Red Sox always seem to have contingency plans in place. But this year, this roster, is just an amazing collection of baseball talent from 1 to 25. Ok, maybe that’s charitable to Dennys Reyes and Matt Albers, but they’re the last two guys out of the bullpen. 1 to 23, call it.
It’s beyond exciting to have Adrian Gonzalez in the mix and I can’t wait to watch Carl Crawford every day. Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia and Clay Buchholz are back. Elite talents like Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Marco Scutaro, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler are playing support roles, it seems. Mike Cameron has a fringy Hall of Fame case and is their fourth outfielder. Jed Lowrie outhit Troy Tulowitzki in 2010 and is their fifth infielder. Jason Varitek, an all-time great Red Sox, still can pound left handed pitching. Anyone can bomb or get injured, but I can’t remember seeing a roster that was so complete. That’s what I marvel at when I look at this club. Where are the bad baseball players?
Offensively, the Red Sox trailed only the Yankees in runs per game in 2010. With Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez no longer part of the mix, a significant chunk of that output is gone. But with Gonzalez and Crawford coming over, they should be able to make up for it just fine. We’ve been over Gonzalez’s makeup here. By any measure he is an elite hitter, probably the best offensive player the Red Sox have had since Manny Ramirez’s and David Ortiz’s go-go years. Crawford has a different game, a speed game, but with plenty of pop, too. As Tom Tippett would be quick to remind you, his 32 combined triples and home runs last year means he can clear the bases with the best of them.
Kevin Youkilis returns healthy, and in case you forgot how good he was, since 2008 only Albert Pujols has a better OPS among players who have managed 1,500 plate appearances. He had an awful Spring Training, though, and it remains to be seen if there are lingering issues with his thumb or if his move to third negatively impacts him somehow. The other superstar returning from injury is Dustin Pedroia, and I want to give him his due since the great Joe Posnanski failed to in his 32-best players in baseball for 2011 article he published yesterday. I’ll even employ the “italicized tangent” device Poz uses so well.
I went over to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, and I bet this will come off like I was cherry picking, but I honestly ran the search not knowing what it would produce. Pedroia is about to play in his 27-year old season, so I decided to set the age max at through the 26-year old season. He has 2,470 career plate appearances, so I set the minimum at 2,000. I went back to 1960, 50 years of data. Nice, round number. And then I sorted by OPS. Well do you know who has the highest OPS of any second baseman with 2,000 plate appearances through their 26-year old season since 1960? Dustin Pedroia.
Now over to Fangraphs so that we can incorporate some fielding in our analysis as well, because Dustin Pedroia is awfully good with the glove. According to their Wins Above Replacement metric, in 2008 and 2009 combined, Pedroia ranked as the seventh best position player in baseball with 11.6 WAR, right behind Evan Longoria, right in front of Kevin Youkilis. In those two seasons, he averaged 720 plate appearances. In 2010, he managed just 351 plate appearances, right about half of his ’08-’09 average. He notched a 3.3 WAR figure, which had him on pace for his best season of his career.
Robinson Cano is a year older than Pedroia and has a career .356 wOBA. In 3,736 career plate appearances, he has amassed a career fWAR total of 18.6. Cano shows up 9th on Poz’s list. Pedroia, a year younger you’ll recall, boasts a career wOBA of .366 and in 2,470 career plate appearances, his fWAR total is 17.9. Pedroia does not show up on the list.
Now, it’s conceivable that Poz is placing a lot of stock in Pedroia’s injury from 2010. Maybe it will hold him back in 2011. But it strikes me that we’ve reached a point where Pedroia’s “scrappy” reputation may be clouding what a special player he is. Crawford and Gonzalez are exciting additions and star caliber players, nobody loves Youk more than I do, but I’m not sure that Pedroia isn’t the best position player on the Red Sox.
As for the rest of the lineup, J.D. Drew trails just Jayson Werth, Ichiro Suzuki and Shin-Soo Choo among right fielders in Wins Above Replacement since 2008. His offense dipped in 2010, but he remains a solidly above average option out there for Boston. Jacoby Ellsbury raked all Spring and now that he is into his arbitration years, he has everything in the world to play for. Marco Scutaro’s glove is his meal ticket but it’s easy to forget (1) how poorly shortstops tend to hit and (2) where he ranks among them. His numbers might not jump off the page, but he is comfortably among the best shortstops that you wouldn’t consider elite. Think Jhonny Peralta, Yunel Escobar or even Derek Jeter in the American League.
Behind the dish is anyone’s guess but if Spring is any indication (it tends not to be), Saltalamacchia looks poised to begin to fulfill his potential. And if he doesn’t, consider the following. AL catchers hit .245/.312/.374 in 2010, while Salty’s career triple slash is .248/.315/.386. Even if you don’t buy the Salty breakout story, the Red Sox appear to be average at catcher. Deployed properly, they should be even better. Varitek is still useful, particularly against right handers. He slugged .593 against them last year.
That brings me to another point. All offseason, there have been questions as to whether or not the Red Sox are “too lefthanded.” Will they be too vulnerable against quality lefthanders? It’s a reasonable point. The whole outfield is lefthanded, their Designated Hitter is lefthanded, Adrian Gonzalez is lefthanded. But take a look at the Red Sox bench. For years now, Mike Cameron has been among the very best hitters in baseball against lefties. It’s while he’ll play for Drew today against C.J. Wilson. Jed Lowrie has hit southpaws at a .324/.403/.541 clip for his career, and had a 1.025 OPS against them in 2010. Darnell McDonald was .294/.357/.464 last year against them. The entire bench has a track record of productivity against lefties and by the looks of today’s lineup, I don’t think Terry Francona will be afraid to use his reserves.
Defensively, it’s the same story. They’re very good. Crawford’s one of the better left fielders in recent memory. Drew has been good in right his whole career. Ellsbury has the athleticism to be a good center fielder. Although he is now 38, Cameron is a center fielder of historical significance with the glove. In the infield Pedroia and Scutaro form an excellent middle, and Adrian Gonzalez has a great reputation at first. Youkilis’s move to third could be a bit of a question and the catchers probably won’t be very good, but I can’t even remember the last time the Red Sox had good catching defense.
If there’s a question on the Red Sox, it’s the starting pitching. Not Jon Lester, of course. No, Lester has established himself as one of the elite pitchers in baseball and one of the finest in Red Sox history. 2010 luck and all, it would be false to label Clay Buchholz as a question, too. He’s a top-notch starter, and should continue to thrive in front of Boston’s defense. Given his strikeout numbers in the Minors, I wouldn’t rule out a big peripheral improvement for Buchholz either. I bet he pitches better in 2011 than he did in 2010, but winds up with a much worse ERA. Maybe even as bad as 3.50 or something!
The questions lie in the remainder of the rotation. Josh Beckett had a catastrophic 2010 and was actually worse this Spring. He looked decent in Houston the other night, but it’s hard to know what to count on from him. There’s less concern with John Lackey, who improved bigtime in the second half of 2010 and battled personal problems all year, but it’s still difficult to count on year-over-year improvement from a pitcher into his 30′s. And Daisuke Matsuzaka is Daisuke Matsuzaka. Your guess is as good as mine. The good news is that every team has questions and relatively speaking, you want your questions to have track records like these guys. For depth, the addition of Alfredo Aceves is key. He’s an injury risk, but looked great all Spring and has a track record of success thanks to his strike-throwing. That’s a great skill to have in front of this Red Sox defense. He is likely the team’s 6th starter, and will start the season in Pawtucket.
The bullpen’s revamped. Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks should form a rock-solid setup duo, with Dennys Reyes filling your LOOGY role. Tim Wakefield‘s the long man, while Dan Wheeler and Matt Albers are there for depth. That leaves Jonathan Papelbon coming off the worst season of his career. That’s the bad news. The good news is that he will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2011 season, and he’s never been bashful about the importance of money to him. It won’t be coming from the Red Sox, but go get that money, Pap. Go get it.
Put simply, this is the best Red Sox roster Theo Epstein has ever assembled. That’s part of the battle. You need talent to win. But as we learned in 2010, you also need health, some luck, and you need your talent to actually perform. Maybe Crawford struggles in an environment like Boston. Maybe the caliber of play in the AL East will offset any gains we expected from getting Gonzalez out of Petco. Youk, Pedroia and Ellsbury could all go down again. You just never know.
A great remedy to counteract the harmful effects of a baseball season’s ups and downs is to simply appreciate the spectacle. The Red Sox have players all over the roster that you’ll probably never forget. Josh Beckett was carried out of Yankee Stadium one October for goodness sake, and he takes the ball FOURTH for the Red Sox. Pat Rapp and Dana Kiecker need not apply.
The title hopes are awesome. I can’t wait to go head to head with the Yankees. And boy oh boy, do we ever owe the Rays. Not sure how you feel, but I’m a little tired of their act. Two AL East titles since 2008, and the Mark Kotsay ALCS 7-game heartbreaker. But just as much as I look forward to the wins, I look forward to the performance and the art of it all. We love baseball, remember, and it looks like we’re going to be treated to an extraordinarily high level of it. That alone is awesome. This is a special team, so don’t forget to enjoy it.