2012 Season Preview

by Sully on April 5, 2012

in Red Sox

“..it is very probable that, by the time any view becomes a majority view, it is no longer the best view.”
-Friedrich Hayek

On Tuesday, CBS Sports released their outlook for the 2012 baseball season. Eight analysts and reporters predicted each division’s order of finish and when it came to the AL East, five picked the Red Sox to finish in third place. Reasonable enough, considering that’s exactly where they have finished in the preceding two seasons, and personnel changes for both the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays appear to have improved both clubs. Surprisingly, though, the other three analysts predicted the Red Sox to finish fourth. Not one of the eight thinks the Red Sox have what it takes to muster a runner-up finish in the AL East, much less a division title.

It amounts to a fascinating departure from just one year ago at this time. Heading into the 2011 season, seven of the eight members of the CBS baseball coverage team tabbed the Red Sox for first place, with one predicting them to finish in second. Nobody predicted third or fourth. At ESPN, 45 analysts had the Red Sox winning the AL East in 2011, 33 winning the World Series. This year? 2 and 1 respectively. Check out Hardball Talk. And Yahoo. And MLB Trade Rumors. The Red Sox are afterthoughts.

In the time between 2011 and 2012 predictions were due, the following took place: the Red Sox finished in third place, starting the 2011 season 2-10, ending it 7-20, and squeezing in a dominant 123-game stretch where they went 81-42. They were leading the AL East on September 1, 2011. Thanks in large part to Boston’s collapse, the Yankees cruised to a division title, and then in this past offseason added the services of Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, bolstering what was once a thin rotation. The Rays finished a game ahead of Boston, and then proceeded to tinker by adding bats like Luke Scott and Carlos Pena. In 2012 the Rays get to enjoy full seasons from the likes of Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore, too. Finally, to account for the scattered fourth place calls, the Toronto Blue Jays appear poised to contend one of these years. Some have them fast-tracked for 2012.

On its face, it’s a simple narrative. The third place team in the AL East for two years running endured considerable offseason chaos, thanks to a manufactured clubhouse controversy and the departure of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. Boston hasn’t made splashy acquisitions like Kuroda or Pineda, and they don’t have youngsters joining the fray fulltime who are as good as Jennings, Moore, or Toronto’s Brett Lawrie. So, a prognosticator whose process entails factoring preceding seasons and a look at the offseason transaction log might understandably land on third or fourth place for the Red Sox.

Does an accurate forecast for the Red Sox necessitate a closer look at what did them in last season, though? After all, minus Jonathan Papelbon, they return the same core that compelled so many professional baseball media personnel to tab them as division and World Series favorites in 2011. And as of September 1st, they had met those expectations. They did go 81-42 for 123 games. That team, or at least its very best players, all return. Does a horrific 27-game stretch undo all of that?

That core consists of Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, who ranked second, fourth and fifth respectively among American League position players according to Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement in 2011. David Ortiz had a .953 OPS; the next closest DH who qualified for a batting title was over a 100 points behind Big Papi. It also consists of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz. Among American League starting pitchers with at least 300 innings since 2009, Buchholz trails only Felix Hernandez in ERA+. Lester and Beckett rank 5th and 15th over that same time period for AL pitchers in B-Ref’s Wins Above Replacement. Firing on all cylinders, it’s the best trio this side of Halladay-Lee-Hamels. To sum it all up, there isn’t a better team in baseball when it comes to elite talent.

The 2011 Red Sox tripped up because they were top heavy; because players tasked with complementing Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Lester, Beckett and Buchholz faltered. Including Buchholz in that list is even a stretch, as he managed just 14 starts and under 83 innings pitched. But at least his work amounted to contributions. John Lackey and Tim Wakefield couldn’t say the same.

Lackey’s 6.41 ERA was ninth worst over the last ten seasons for starting pitchers with at least 25 starts. Despite finishing 98th in Major League Baseball in innings pitched, Lackey led MLB in earned runs allowed. In Wakefield’s 23 starts he yielded a 5.31 ERA. 72 Big League pitchers qualified for the ERA title in 2011 and not one of them had an ERA as bad as Wakefield’s was as a starter. Needless to say, Wakefield and Lackey inflicted lots of damage on the Red Sox’ hopes in 2011. And more to the point for how they impact Boston’s 2012 hopes, well, they won’t at all. Both Lackey and Wakefield have no chance of pitching even an inning for the Red Sox in 2012.

The staggering starting pitching woes didn’t end with Buchholz’s injury problems, Lackey’s batting practice sessions or Wakefield’s soft toss, either. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland combined for 117.1 innings and a 6.07 ERA over 24 starts. Erik Bedard fell short of expectations after coming over at the trade deadline. And Lester, after three consecutive seasons of 200+ innings and an ERA+ of 139, fell short of the 200-inning mark and posted his worst season on a rate basis since 2007, a 123 ERA+. It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which Boston’s starting pitching fell short of what they needed, and were expected, to do. Did I mention the Red Sox won 90 games last season?

Offensively it would be too rosy to project a lot of improvement for Boston, since Ellsbury and Ortiz are prime regression candidates. Ellsbury’s breakout came out of nowhere while Ortiz isn’t getting any younger. Besides, Boston did have the best attack in the league. Offense was never the problem. Still, in left field, right field and at third base, the Red Sox can reasonably anticipate marked improvement. While Carl Crawford remains a question mark thanks to his wrist injury and concerning drop-off in 2011, some healthy variant of Crawford in 2012 combined with Cody Ross, Darnell McDonald, Ryan Sweeney and company are a near shoo-in to better Boston’s left field from last season. That same combo should also improve significantly on Boston’s right field from last year, a unit that was better only than the Seattle Mariners for production out of right. Remember now, J.D. Drew hit .222/.315/.302 and Mike Cameron hit .149/.212/.266 last year. Finally, at third, Kevin Youkilis may never again be the monster he was from 2009 to 2011, but he’s a great bet to improve upon his .258/.373/.459 line from 2011. Collectively, it’s an offense whose bear case has them right at the top of the league for productivity. The bull case could have them among the great offenses in team history.

It’s easy to fall into a trap of too slavishly quoting Wins Above Replacement and using it as an analytical catch-all or crutch. It’s happened in this space in the past. In this instance, though, the metric helps tell an important story. Let’s look at every player who played for the 2011 Red Sox but is either guaranteed or likely not to factor in 2012.

Player B-WAR
Scutaro 1.6
Drew -0.5
Lowrie 0.3
Reddick 1.4
Varitek 0
Cameron -1.1
Sutton 0.2
Navarro -0.1
Jackson -0.1
Papelbon 2
Bedard 0.4
Wheeler 0.3
Okajima 0
Matsuzaka -0.1
Miller -0.2
Jenks -0.4
Weiland -0.6
Lackey -1.2
Wakefield -1.2
Total 0.7

19 players, less than one “Win” combined. So the questions become: Can Ross, Sweeney, Mike Aviles, Nick Punto and Kelly Shoppach help with that 0.7 WAR they lost? Can Daniel Bard add more value tossing 140+ innings? Can Kevin Youkilis bounce back? What about Carl Crawford? Can Felix Doubront, Bard, Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla help to improve upon the -2.4 WAR Wakefield and Lackey contributed over 51 starts? Think Clay Buchholz is a good bet to improve upon his 2011 output? Will Lester come in closer to 2008-2010, or did he take a permanent step back last season? The Red Sox have an elite, championship core; the very best in baseball. In addition to getting more out of key players like Youkilis, Crawford, Lester and Buchholz, Boston’s key to 2012 is solve for a complementary group that fell flat on its face in 2011. It appears they’ve done just that.

Questions remain, of course. If Ellsbury is a merely good player and not a perennial MVP candidate, that will hurt. If David Ortiz falls back a bit, would that surprise anyone? Aviles’s glove is a question mark. “Nick Punto, fulltime player,” is both terrifying and one injury away from a reality. Pedroia had career-best numbers in 2011, and Gonzalez’s productivity got a boost last season from an unsustainably high balls-in-play average. And of course, Papelbon is now a Phillie and Andrew Bailey won’t be available to pitch until after the All-Star Break. It’s not all good for the Red Sox.

But here’s what we know. The Red Sox return a team that fell one win short of the playoffs in a clownshow season where just about everything that could have gone wrong, did. They had liabilities up and down the roster that won’t factor at all in 2012. They’ve added players who are almost certain to offer contributions in excess of those their predecessors’ were able to muster in their respective roles. The Red Sox sleepwalked their way to 90 wins in 2011. With renewed focus on organizational depth, with the avoidance of gaping black holes sucking up playing time, and with added attention to supporting parts, the Red Sox should have no problem at all cruising to their first postseason appearance since 2009. If the Red Sox were a stock, it would be time to dust off the Behavioral Finance books and get as long as possible. The crowd might not love them but the fundamentals remain the same.

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