The WAR Chronicles: How Boston Can Make the 2013 Playoffs

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The WAR Chronicles: How Boston Can Make the 2013 Playoffs
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The Boston Red Sox finished with a 69-93 record last year, the third worst mark in the American League. However, their Pythagorean record, which is a measure of a team’s expected win total based on run differential, was 74-88.

Boston scored 72 runs less than its opponents, which compares favorably to Cleveland. The Indians were one game worse than Boston in the standings but scored 178 less runs than their opponents. (Good luck, Terry Francona.)

Boston’s total Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is more closely related to its Pythagorean record. The Sox were 19th in pitching WAR (measured by FanGraphs) at 13.7 and 17th in hitting WAR at 20.8. Their combined total of 34.5 ranked 17th in the league; their run differential was 23rd.

During a Baseball Today podcast in December, ESPN Stats and Information writer Mark Simon discussed the process of counting up WAR to project whether a team may be playoff bound. He later wrote up a piece about the Mets, which you can read here.

I’ll use Simon’s framework to determine whether Boston has a realistic shot to make the postseason in 2013. The average playoff team last year had a total of 46.3 WAR. Out of the teams in the top 10, only the Angels, Brewers and Diamondbacks failed to make the playoffs.

If Boston can improve upon its 2012 WAR total of 34 by about 12, it will likely make the postseason for the first time since 2009.

 

Starting Pitching

As any Sox fan will tell you, their problems started last year with the pitching staff. A rotation featuring three potential aces in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz was supposed to lead the Sox into the playoffs, but instead turned out to be a disaster. 

Lester finished with a 4.83 ERA, Beckett pitched so terribly the Sox traded him in a salary dump and Buchholz—while he later recovered—set a MLB record by giving up five or more runs in his first six starts of the season.

Lester, Buchholz, Beckett, and Felix Doubront, Boston's top four starters in 2012, combined for 9.1 WAR in 2012. That leaves a lot to be improved upon in 2013.

Lester averaged 5.3 WAR from 2008-11 before recording 3.3 in 2012. Assuming he can regain some of his productivity from those earlier seasons, let’s give him 4.5 WAR for 2013.

In his first full season as a starter, Doubront showed he belonged at the major league level. Only 25, he should continue to improve, and the Bill James Projection Model predicts he’ll have a 3.70 ERA in 2013, down from 4.86 in 2012. While he might not reach that mark, he should certainly improve on his 2.1 WAR. Let’s give him 2.5 WAR next year.

Buchholz, after starting the season with a 9.09 ERA in his first six starts, posted a 2.93 ERA from the end of May through September. After recording a 1.9 WAR last year, he’ll likely bounce back to around a 3.5 mark as he hits his prime. Buchholz had a 3.8 WAR during the 2010 season when he recorded a 2.33 ERA and 3.61 FIP. (FanGraphs’ WAR calculation leans more heavily on FIP than ERA.)

Ryan Dempster, the Sox's new acquisition, has averaged 3.2 WAR the past four years. Since he’s getting older and will be pitching in a tougher ballpark, we’ll give him 2.5 WAR for 2013.

As for the fifth spot in the rotation, there will be plenty of players contending for those starts. We’ll give the rest of them 2 WAR, though if someone such as Rubby De La Rosa has a breakout year or John Lackey returns to form, that may prove to be an underestimation.

Adding those figures up gives the Sox starting rotation 15 WAR, which is already better than the entire staff’s 13.7 mark in 2012.

 

Bullpen

There is still disagreement among the statistical community when it comes to measuring how much relievers are worth. Their low innings count makes it hard for relievers to record an all-star level WAR of 5 or above.

The entire Sox bullpen combined for 4 WAR last season. So how might that differ in 2013?

First, Alfredo Aceves won’t be the closer, thanks to the addition of Joel Hanrahan and the likely health of Andrew Bailey. Aceves was dreadful in 2012, when he recorded a .4 WAR and 5.36 ERA. Back in his setup and long innings role in 2013, he should return to being a 1 WAR pitcher.

Bailey and Hanrahan, who put up a combined 0 WAR for the Sox last year, should both improve the overall reliever total. In his only full season, Bailey recorded 2.4 WAR, and Hanrahan has averaged over 1 his past three seasons. If those two can put up solid numbers, we’ll improve the bullpen WAR from 4 to 5.5.

That would give the Red Sox 20.5 pitching WAR, which would have ranked fifth in the league last year.

 

Catcher

While Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a breakout year in terms of power with a career-high 25 home runs, he also hit only .222 and posted a .288 OBP. For that reason, he only recorded a mere 2 WAR.

The Sox also used Ryan Lavarnway for an extended amount of time, with the catcher recording 166 plate appearances. However, his frightful .157/.211/.248 line helped him compile a -1.3 WAR.

It is safe to say Lavarnway, who hit .295/.390/.612 over a half season in Triple-A during 2011, won’t hit that poorly again. And Mike Napoli, who we’ll touch on more in the first base section, may see some action at catcher during the season.

Assuming Salty regresses a bit from his career-high home run output, Lavarnway improves and Napoli matches his marks from the past few years, let’s give the Sox catchers a solid 2 WAR for the 2013 season.

 

First Base

At the midway point of the 2011 season, Boston’s acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez looked to be one of its best in recent memory. A-Gon was at .354/.414/.591 with 17 home runs and 77 RBI. He did cool off a bit towards the end of the season but still finished with 6.5 WAR.

Unfortunately, he could not duplicate those results in 2012, and at the age of 30, he may be entering the downswing of his career. Of course, the Sox won’t have to worry about that, as they’ll be playing Mike Napoli at first base after signing him this offseason to replace Gonzalez.

Napoli has had a solid career, putting up an average of 3.2 WAR from 2008-2012, while averaging 24 home runs in only 361 at-bats per season. Playing most of his time at first base, Napoli will likely exceed the 500 plate appearance barrier if his hip stays healthy.

Factoring in a bit of decline from his average numbers as he’s 31, and adding in the WAR from players who will back him up, put the first base position down for 3 WAR in 2013.

 

Second Base 

One of the biggest reasons why Boston finished with their worst record since 1965 last year was the struggles of Dustin Pedroia. Multiple injuries caused him to miss a number of games, and his play suffered as a result.

Once the injuries were healed, Pedroia returned to form, hitting .330/.392/.519 from August 1 on. Those numbers are right in line with his .307/.377/.469 line from 2007-11, when he accumulated 26.6 WAR—good for seventh in all of baseball.

Those seasons include totals of 7.9 and 6.7 WAR. We haven’t been too bullish on any player yet, but if there’s one in which we should, it’s Pedroia. After his worst year since his rookie season, there is no doubt the intense gamer will be motivated to have a killer 2013.

Let’s mark him down for 6 WAR next season.


Shortstop

At this time it looks like the Sox will be going with Stephen Drew at shortstop, who produced 0 WAR in 2012. He did, though, put up 7 in the two years before that, so let’s project him for 1.5 in 2013.

There is an argument that Jose Iglesias should be starting. The fact his defense was good enough to produce a .3 WAR while he batted .118/.200/.191 is mind boggling. His 7.2 fielding runs above average ranked 12th in the majors, even though he played only 25 games. The highest in the league was Brendan Ryan, who had 470 plate appearances; Iglesias had 77.

If Iglesias can improve his hitting to even a .230/.320/.350 line, he may have a better WAR than Drew thanks to his extraordinary fielding. Ryan, who led MLB with 14.7 Fielding Runs Saved above average, produced 1.7 WAR while hitting .194/.277/.278 in 2012.

 

Third Base

The lone bright spot of the 2012 season was the emergence of rookie Will Middlebrooks. In 75 games he produced 2.1 WAR by hitting 15 home runs coupled with a .288 BA and .325 OBP. He’ll likely improve in his sophomore season, though pitchers may be able to adjust to him after a half season worth of tape.

Let’s go with 3.5 WAR for Middlebrooks in his second year.

 

Center Field

Jacoby Ellsbury has had quite the interesting career. He led MLB in WAR (9.4) in 2011 when he hit 32 home runs, stole 39 bases and hit .321 with numerous walk-off hits. Besides that campaign he’s only had one other season above 4 WAR, as he rarely manages to stay healthy.

Ellsbury has played great defense in the past, though that may be in decline if he takes fewer risks in an effort to stay healthier. Given his injury history but premier potential, let’s give him and whoever else plays center field this season a combined total of 4 WAR.

 

Left and Right Field 

Two new free-agent signees will man these spots in 2013: Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes.

Victorino is coming off one of his worst season in 2012, when he hit .255/.321/.383. Yet he still produced 3.3 WAR thanks to his stellar defense and base running. He’s averaged 4.1 WAR from 2008-2012. Put him down for 3.5 in 2013, as he should rebound from an off year in 2012 after he produced 5.9 WAR in 2011.

Next is Jonny Gomes. His career has been all over the place, and he’s had one season over 500 plate appearances, in which he totaled 0.1 WAR thanks to some atrocious defense. However, we have seen with Manny Ramirez that poor defense can be covered up in left field thanks to the Green Monster. Let’s give Gomes 1.5 WAR.


Designated Hitter

David Ortiz has been the one constant from the 2004 and 2007 championship teams. Over the past three years, he’s averaged 3.2 WAR, while hitting .296/.391/.558. Ortiz loses a lot of potential WAR from his below-average base running and the fact he rarely plays the field. A 3 WAR seems like a reasonable prediction for Big Papi in 2013.


Total WAR

That gives the Sox a total of 28 hitting WAR, which would have placed eighth in the MLB in 2012. Their combined total of 48.5 would have ranked sixth.

While there’s no guarantee these projections are even remotely close, you can get a sense of how some players need to perform for the Sox to makes the playoffs in 2013.

If Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia can stay healthy, if Lester and Buchholz become co-aces and if Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino prove to be solid free-agent additions, the Sox may find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.

There is reason for optimism in Red Sox Nation for 2013.

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