If the Red Sox want to win another World Series, they'll have to reach a number of important goals this season
The time for speculation, projection and over-analysis is nearly over.
The Boston Red Sox are now a mere eight days away from opening up their 2012 season against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers, and in doing do officially beginning a new chapter in the franchise’s history.
It will be the first season for the GM-manager duo of Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine, who contrary to earlier reports are on the same page and looking forward to this upcoming season. Several everyday players will also be making their debut, as both holdovers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Aviles) and newcomers (Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross) will be called upon to contribute from the very start.
The organization will be glad, no doubt, that the seemingly endless debate and discussion over 2011’s collapse will finally give way to talk of this year’s team. Although the public backlash the Sox endured after last season (particularly around Boston) has lessened, given the success of other local teams, the pressure to perform has only heightened.
The city of Boston has a lot of choices when it comes to which team to support: the Patriots just won their fifth AFC Championship since 2001, the Celtics have been a contender for five years in a row and the upstart Bruins are gearing up for the playoffs and a run at consecutive Stanley Cup titles.
If the Sox want to maintain their stranglehold on the title of “Favorite Boston Sports Team,” they’re going to need to reach several important goals over the course of the season. These goals are specific and represent benchmarks that winning Red Sox teams have reached in the past.
In a sport like baseball that privileges individual accomplishments, to achieve these goals the Red Sox will need significant contributions from all their key contributors. While the target numbers are team-related, whether the Sox reach them will depend entirely on the performance of the individual players.
Here are the 10 goals that the Sox must achieve to have a successful 2012 season.
If the Sox want to celebrate another Wild Card berth, they'll need to win at least 91 games in 2012
The most obvious goal for this team is to make the playoffs, which they have not done since the 2009 season.
Due to this year’s new Wild Card rules, recent history dictates that the Sox must win at least 91 games to get there.
In the last 10 seasons, the team that finished second in the AL Wild Card race has averaged a mere 90.3 wins.
The most games a team won and missed out on the Wild Card was 93 (which happened in 2002, 2003 and 2005), but no team has exceeded 90 wins since.
While the Red Sox would certainly prefer to win the division and avoid a one-game playoff, they will have a difficult time competing with the pitching of the Rays and the balanced attack of the Yankees.
However, even in a division as tough as the AL East, winning 91 games should be a very reasonable expectation.
John Lackey, who will not pitch in 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, contributed to the Red Sox' sub-par WHIP last season
In 2004 and 2007, when the Sox won World Series titles, the pitching staff WHIPs were 1.29 and 1.27, respectively.
The last three times the Sox have missed the playoffs (2006, 2010 and 2011), their staff WHIPs were 1.44, 1.36 and 1.31, respectively.
While some of these gaps are small, when projecting them out we see the potential damage even the slightest difference can cause.
Just .01 added onto the team’s WHIP translates to about 15 extra baserunners per season.
As any pitcher can tell you, baserunners have an impact on the game beyond their ability to run and score. They force the pitcher to think about them at all times, potentially causing him to lose focus on the hitter, which in turn can lead to more baserunners, more runs allowed and more losses.
With the division and Wild Card races being as competitive as they are in the AL, the slimmest of margins can make all the difference.
Josh Beckett will be called upon to lead the starting staff in 2012
The downfall of the Sox last year was their starting pitching.
When they needed them the most, they faltered—in September, Red Sox starting pitchers posted a bloated 7.08 ERA to go with a 4-13 record.
Over the last 10 seasons, Red Sox starters have averaged 82 Quality Starts per season (a Quality Start is defined as a starter going six or more innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs).
When they have met or exceeded their average number over this time frame, the Sox have made the playoffs five of seven times and won two World Series championships.
The benefit of Quality Starts lies not just in that it reflects how the starters are performing, but also it means that the bullpen is being preserved and the offense does not have to do as much for the team to win games.
Strong performances from the Sox rotation will help balance a team that fell terribly out of sync in the stretch run last season.
A bullpen horse last season, Alfredo Aceves will hopefully be relied upon less this year
It stands to reason that, when a team taxes their bullpen, they are not building a sustainable model for success.
Last season, the Red Sox called on their relievers for 517.1 innings of work, their highest total since 2001’s dismal 82-79 campaign.
The Sox have averaged 470.0 bullpen innings over the last 10 seasons, finishing well below that number in their two World Series-winning seasons.
Those teams were so successful because when the starting pitching faltered (which was rare), the relief pitchers were well-rested and capable of giving the struggling starter a lift.
With a relief corps this year that already looks a bit thin on paper, limiting the bullpen innings will be instrumental in keeping the team on the winning track.
The Sox will need a healthy year from Kevin Youkilis to compete in 2012
Staying injury-free is impossible in baseball.
A game that has so many starts and stops can occasionally cause a muscle pull in even the most fit athlete, and over a 162-game season, these little nicks can pile up.
For the Red Sox’s eight everyday players (catchers are not included, as they tend to be more “platoon” players), staying healthy will be paramount to the team’s success.
Over the last 10 years, the Sox have struggled most in seasons where these eight players have participated in fewer than 1,100 games combined (an average of 138 per player). They have failed to reach this mark in all four of the years they did not make the playoffs.
Players such as Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury, who have struggled with injuries in the past, will need to stay in the lineup every day for the Sox to have a chance in 2012.
Not only do they produce big numbers, but they also provide protection in the lineup that allows their teammates to shine.
The Red Sox cannot afford to get off to a slow start in April like they did in 2011
April has been a cruel month to the Red Sox the last two years.
In both 2010 and 2011, they managed to only win 11 April games en route to missing out on the playoffs, and they need to reverse this trend if they are to compete in 2012.
Generally speaking, the more April games the Sox have won, the better they’ve finished.
Based on their past performance, 14 wins will guarantee a playoff spot, and 15 should get them to the ALCS or World Series.
This team also needs a good start for more obvious reasons. After all the negative press from the end of last year, there would be no better way for the Sox to put the 2011 collapse behind them than by coming out and eviscerating the competition.
Fans would be happy to forget the missteps of last season—all they need is a nudge in the right direction.
A strong start out of the gate will go a long way toward restoring the optimism and enthusiasm of the Fenway Faithful.
Jacoby Ellsbury is the team's top young player, and the Sox should lock him up long term
Jacoby Ellsbury put together one of the most complete offensive seasons we’ve seen from a Red Sox player in a long time.
After only playing 18 games in 2010, Ellsbury came back to finish in the top five in the AL in WAR, batting average, OPS, home runs, at-bats, runs scored and a host of other categories in 2011.
He also got it done defensively, playing an outstanding center field as he won his first career Gold Glove.
At 28 years old, Ellsbury is just now entering the prime of his young career. He has developed power to go with his breathtaking speed, and he has become the dynamic, game-changing force the Sox envisioned when they drafted him out of Oregon State in the first round of the 2005 draft.
Ellsbury will be arbitration-eligible and under team control for one more season before he can become a free agent, but the Sox would be wise to lock up their young star now.
It is worth noting, too, that he is represented by über-agent Scott Boras, so any kind of negotiation will not be easy. The Sox would be wise, though, to get a deal done with Ellsbury now and in doing so secure their long-term success.
Adrian Gonzalez will need to set the tone for team batting average again in 2012
Although batting average has become somewhat of an antiquated statistic in modern baseball analysis, it has also been a strong indicator of past Red Sox performances.
Over the last 10 years, the Sox have had a team batting average of .280 or less every time they have missed the playoffs.
While it is certainly true that excellent pitching can make up for a weaker batting average (the 2007 Sox hit .279 and won the World Series), a team that cranks out more hits is still likely to win more games.
Especially because the Sox do not have great pitching depth this season, it will be particularly important that they get players on base whenever possible.
After down years from Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis, the team should see a rise in their batting average if those two can simply produce at their normal levels. If they can, then the Sox should find the offensive consistency that sometimes eluded them last season.
David Ortiz will need to reach base just like he did in 2011
A much more popular stat, OPS tells about both a player’s ability to get on base and his power.
The Red Sox, who have had excellent offensive teams over the last 10 years, typically are near the top of MLB in this category.
Like with their batting average, in the last 10 years, a poor team OPS has strongly correlated with the Sox missing the playoffs.
Three of their four playoff-absent teams had an OPS of .790 or less (last year’s OPS was a surprisingly high .810, but that number was skewed by a ridiculous .874 mark in July).
In 2011, the Sox were led in OPS by Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz, who should all come close to repeating their performances.
They should also receive a boost from whoever ends up in right field, as JD Drew (.617) was a complete black hole in that spot last season.
Due to a combination of quality play on the field and excellent marketing off it, the Red Sox and Fenway Park hold the MLB record for consecutive sellouts at 631 (and counting).
After a rough end to 2011, though, the streak is in its most tenuous position in years.
Fans were justifiably upset last year after the stories emerged about bad player behavior during the September collapse, and patience is going to be in short supply this year.
If the team struggles or if the players continue to alienate the fanbase, the team will lose many of its casual fans and the streak could come to an end.
While diehard fans might be happy to lose some of the “Pink Hat” crowd, these people (and the money they spend at the park and on merchandise) are also partly the reason the team has been able to afford marquee players.
The Sox, then, must start and finish strong in order to sustain everyone’s interest and to keep the team competitive going forward.