The Search For an Explanation

by Sully on August 7, 2012

in Red Sox

Lately fans and media alike have been assigning blame for the Red Sox struggles this season. John Tomase thinks Bobby Valentine should be held accountable, Peter Abraham thinks it runs deeper throughout the organization. There are calls for John Henry’s ownership group to sell the team.

It’s normal when things don’t go as planned to want to assign blame. After all, these are all professionals we’re talking about, and when professionals are working towards a common goal, there needs to be individual accountability. John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino own the PR nightmare that ensued after last year’s historic September collapse. Ben Cherington and his staff own the crummy returns on the Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie deals.

But lost in all of this is the notion that the players themselves ought to be accountable. Sure you’ll hear rumblings about Josh Beckett’s attitude or off-the-field activities, and you may come across the occasional rumor that Jon Lester just isn’t happy in Boston, but nobody actually talks about how if Boston’s “stars” simply played the way they were capable of, the Red Sox would be one of baseball’s best teams.

Let’s get all the caveats out of the way here. WAR is imperfect. Boiling any one player’s impact down to a single number is probably too imprecise, but for our purposes it’s instructive. We’re just going to take five players: Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. Never mind Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Clay Buchholz, Dan Bard, Mark Melancon, Andrew Bailey or other disappointments.

In 2011, as Baseball Reference’s version of the metric goes, the five players in question combined for 32.1 Wins Above Replacement. Since we’re comparing 2011 to 2012, let’s cut that by the percentage of games that have been played (67.9%) and we get to 21.8 Wins Above Replacement. So, if the five players had performed exactly the way they did in 2011, they would have contributed 21.8 WAR combined to date, through 110 games, in 2012. In actuality, that figure is 4.4, a 17.4 “win” difference. Really dumbing this analysis down, add those 17 wins to the 2012 total and that would give the Red Sox a record of 72-38, well clear of the next best MLB team.

“That’s ridiculous,” you say. “Expecting those five players to perform the way they did collectively in 2011 would be silly.” Point taken, they were awesome last year. So what were their projections coming into the season? What did ZIPS have them doing in 2012? Let’s just use OPS+ and ERA+. For the three position players, they were all projected to have more or less a full season’s worth of at bats. For the two starters, both were to make at least 25 starts.

Gonzalez: 138 ZIPS OPS+, 113 2012 actual, -25 difference
Pedroia: 118 ZIPS OPS+, 94 2012 actual (in diminished playing time due to injury), -24 difference
Ellsbury: 110 ZIPS OPS+, 89 2012 actual (in way diminished playing time due to injury), -21 difference
Lester: 127 ZIPS ERA+, 81 2012 actual, -46 difference
Beckett: 116 ZIPS ERA+, 96 2012 actual, -20 difference

So, there’s a comparison of actual output to a baseline expectation of what the five 2011 stars might have contributed in 2012. I am not sure how that translates into WAR, and I doubt it’s 17 wins, but want to call it 10? Because if it’s 10 wins, they’re 65-45 and up two games in the AL East.


Every MLB team encounters injuries and superstar underperformance, but usually when you take a team’s five best, you can probably estimate with some degree of accuracy what they will in aggregate contribute. Some will fall short of expectations, some will exceed them but the total output will in all likelihood be roughly there. For the Red Sox, their five best players from 2011 have all fallen so far short of expectations that only Gonzalez and Pedroia even bump up against “league average.”

This is why I find the desperate search for some root cause of the organization’s failures so curious. I haven’t really seen anyone just say “their best players stink this year.” Because as you can see from the admittedly oversimplified analysis above, if the Red Sox had received simply disappointing output from Gonzalez, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Lester and Beckett, they’re probably right in the mix of the Wild Card and Division leaders. And if the Red Sox were in that position, are we calling for Valentine’s head, discussing cultural problems, demanding that John Henry sell the team? I doubt it.

Simple explanations are often at once unsatisfactory and accurate.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark R August 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

As you write, simple explanations are usually unsatisfactory. Here “superstar underperformance” feels like a bit of a catch-all for a number of different problems.

In any case, thanks for continuing to provide measured, non-apocalyptic analysis.


Sully August 7, 2012 at 9:40 am

I’m interested to know what you think some of those problems might be. I lean “shit happens” but do you think there is something bigger going on that precipitated the superstar under-performance?


Mark R. August 15, 2012 at 12:15 pm

My apologies for failing to respond sooner. I think it’s worth noting that under further scrutiny (Marc Normandin’s various pieces, for example), there’s not much of a common thread apart from underperformance. The causes of each player’s underperformance are probably unique in each case, with the exception of Pedroia and Ellsbury, both beset by essentially unpreventable injuries.

I think you’re correct: if all five of these players were giving the sorts of performances of which we know they are capable, the season would look very different. In the end though, it looks like an awful confluence of unfortunate circumstances: shit happens.


Jim Lindsey August 8, 2012 at 3:55 am

Yes, the question to me seems to be, WHY are they underperforming? On any given night, these guys can bust loose, bust the fences and cruise. But mostly they aren’t doing it. They’re capable, but they’re not doing it. Why? What’s going on that the fans can’t see?


J. August 15, 2012 at 6:41 am

I know it’s a bold statement coming oh of a 17 year old like me, and most will call it irrational, but I can restore the Red Sox to glory. I know what needs to be done I just need some support. Please back me.


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