Predicting Boom or Bust for Each Boston Red Sox Hitter in 2013
Coming off a 69-93 season in 2012, it's hard not to see the optimism in Boston for the upcoming Red Sox season.
The stench of Bobby Valentine, underachieving high-priced veterans and disastrous last place finish have been replaced by the optimism of John Farrell, free-agent acquisitions with something to prove and an AL East that looks wide open.
If a return to greatness is in order, offense must be a major part of the winning in Fenway Park. During the five-year run of excellence from 2003-2007, Boston's bats averaged over 901 runs per season. Last season, that number fell to 734, the franchise's lowest output since the strike-shortened season of 1994.
The two World Series banners hanging in Fenway were built on the back of relentless bats.
How will the additions of under-the-radar free-agent contributors add to the current mix for the 2013 Red Sox?
Here are boom or bust predictions for each Boston Red Sox hitter in 2013.
Bust: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
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The 25 home run campaign by Salty in 2012 was seen as a breakout season by some around the game.
A quick look at the counting stats—home runs, RBI, at-bats—shows a young catcher that made the most of an opportunity with extended playing time.
Further research shows a hitter that hasn't matured enough at the plate to be anything more than a power threat.
Despite very good power numbers for a catcher, Saltalamacchia isn't a great bet to improve further in 2013. In fact, the holes in his offensive game are enough to allow for regression with more playing time.
Among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, Saltalamacchia's wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) was just 95, ranking 30th. His on-base plus slugging improved minimally from 2011 to 2012 (.737 to .742) despite nine more home runs.
Until Saltalamacchia learns to lay off pitches out of the strike zone, his at-bats will fail to be consistently productive. Swinging at over 33 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone simply makes it too easy for opposing pitchers to get him out with their pitch.
That free-swinging mentality led to a 30.1 percent strikeout rate in 2012. Salty gives away too many at-bats to have consistent success as a hitter.
Expect regression to a normal HR/FB rate—over 20 percent of fly balls hit by the Red Sox catcher cleared the fence for a home run last year—that will bring down the raw numbers.
Bust: Mike Napoli, 1B
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As recently as 2011, Mike Napoli was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. While not a household name until a torrid October, the then Rangers DH/C/1B destroyed American League pitching to the tune of a 1.046 OPS.
To put that in perspective, only eight hitters in history have a career OPS over 1.000. For a single season, Napoli was as dangerous as you can be.
At that point, it would have been silly to project Napoli's post-2012 free agency landing him anything less than a long-term, lucrative contract. Despite defensive issues and aging concerns—31 isn't an ideal age to hit FA—any hitter with that kind of production will get paid.
Unfortunately for Napoli, his production fell in 2012—in a big way. The batting average slipped over 90 points (.320 to .227) and slugging nearly 200 points (.631 to .469). A quick look at Napoli's career makes it look like 2011 was the exception, not the rule.
Factor in the revelation of avascular necrosis in his hips and 2013 has become a question mark for one of the newest Red Sox hitters.
While a bounce-back campaign for Napoli is possible, especially hitting off the Green Monster all summer, it's not likely.
John Farrell should be able to maneuver playing time at 1B and DH to keep Napoli on the field often enough to be a positive for his club, but expecting big production is fool's gold.
Boom: Dustin Pedroia, 2B
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Through last season (when he was 28), Pedroia was in select company among second baseman in the history of the game. His 117 OPS+ through this juncture of his career ranks 14th all-time for his position.
As far as consistency goes, Boston has it with Pedroia.
Barring injuries, Pedroia usually hits at an above-average clip for his position, plays stellar defense and remains the heartbeat of this Red Sox group.
Expect more of the same in 2013. Dan Szymborski, master of the ZiPS projection system, has Pedroia pegged for a .289/.361/.456/.817 line this season.
Last year, only three second baseman—Robinson Cano, Ben Zobrist and Aaron Hill—topped that number.
If Jacoby Ellsbury can stay healthy and be productive ahead of him the order, Pedroia can consistently hit with a man on base. Good production is ahead in 2013 for Boston's best player.
Bust: Will Middlebrooks, 3B
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There are many ways to evaluate hitters. Regardless of the era, strikeout-to-walk ratio is a time-tested, sound philosophy to uncover the patience and strike/ball recognition of a young player.
Will Middlebrooks rates very poorly when looking at these numbers, clouding his future as a consistent slugger in the Red Sox lineup.
Last season, Middlebrooks burst on the scene, casting aside Kevin Youkilis as the team's everyday third baseman. His youth and immense power instantly brought promise to the fanbase.
What was ignored: a 70-13 K/BB ratio. Obviously, some of that was due to the learning curve in facing major league pitching. On the other hand, Middlebrooks has always been an impatient, strikeout-prone hitter throughout his minor league career.
Of course, there is power. Immense power. In just 286 at-bats for Boston, Middlebrooks slugged 15 home runs. His .221 ISO (SLG-AVG, measuring isolated power) ranked seventh among third baseman with 200 or more plate appearances.
He'll have to hit 30 or more home runs this season to offset what will likely be a poor on-base percentage.
Pitchers will adjust quickly in the American League. If Middlebrooks continues to expand the zone, he won't see enough pitches to hit those 30+ home runs.
Bust: Stephen Drew, SS
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Stephen Drew has gone from a 25-year-old with a .500 slugging percentage and 20+ home run power to oft-injured and fragile as his prime years have come and gone.
That makes the nearly $10 million dollars he received from Boston this winter very, very puzzling.
If Drew can recapture his 2008, pre-injury form, the Red Sox lineup could have a steal, and Drew can reposition himself as a free agent again next winter.
In some ways, Drew's plight is similar to his brother, J.D., who signed in 2007 with Boston amid concern and constrain from the fan base.
Although the ankle that hobbled him for the past two seasons is healed, concussion issues have sprung up this month.
Considering that Ben Cherington traded Marco Scutaro last year, partially due to a $6 million salary, it's hard to understand paying a lesser player more for 2013.
Drew has ability, but unless he turns back the clock, it's likely this will be a one-year marriage between player and franchise.
Boom: Jonny Gomes, LF
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The value of Jonny Gomes will be decided by how manager John Farrell chooses to use him. Per MLBDepthCharts, Gomes is slated to be the everyday left fielder in Boston this season.
That would be a colossal mistake.
When used as part of a platoon, Gomes can be one of the most consistent and prolific sluggers on an at-bat by at-bat basis.
In 1,100 career plate appearances against left-handed pitching, Gomes has an .894 OPS. In 1,712 plate appearances against right-handed pitching, his OPS is just .732.
To put that into perspective: when facing a left-handed pitcher, Gomes' at-bats are the equivalent of having Mark Teixeira in the batter's box.
On the other, when facing a right-handed pitcher, penciling Gomes' name on the lineup card is the equivalent of having Jim Fregosi in the everyday lineup. In short, it's not very good.
If Farrell knows the limitations of his roster, Gomes can be very productive in a limited role.
Boom: Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Perhaps no player will have a greater say on the success or failure of the Boston Red Sox than Jacoby Ellsbury.
As Kirk Minihane aptly put it for WEEI.com: "He's exactly one great year away from a $150 million contract and enters the 2013 season as the player on the Red Sox roster most capable of carrying the team to the postseason."
With that in mind, expect Ellsbury to have a monster season in 2013.
As baseball fans have come to learn, superstars have a tendency to enhance their play during a contract year. The specter of a long-term contract can drive athletes to greater heights.
Since 2007, 10 of the 13 players to sign a free-agent contract in excess of $100 million posted an OPS or ERA that surpassed their career mark in their respective walk years.
Ellsbury posted a .928 OPS in 2011 on his way to finishing second in the AL MVP voting.
If he surpasses that number in 2013, Boston will score runs in bunches.
Boom: Shane Victorino, RF
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Unlike the superstars that enhanced their value in walk years, Boston signed Shane Victorino off a down 2012.
The Flyin' Hawaiian was poised to cash in on a gigantic free-agent contract last winter until his OPS dropped to a pedestrian .704 between stops in Philadelphia and Los Angeles last season.
Boston added him to bring on-base skills, switch-hitting ability, defense in a corner position and leadership to a franchise lacking in all of those areas.
If Victorino's strikeout and walk numbers are an indication of the batter he still can be, 2012 should be an aberration.
The .847 OPS of 2011 may be too much to ask again, but the .704 mark of 2012 won't be hard to surpass this time around.
Boom: David Ortiz, DH
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When David Ortiz chooses to retire, it'll be easy to imagine most of the stories written about his potential Hall of Fame career will be based around the career turnaround he made when landing in Boston in 2003.
Yet, his renaissance in Boston, after years of success and becoming a household name, is almost more amazing.
In 2009, at the age of 33, Ortiz slipped below a slugging percentage of .500 for the first time in seven seasons. During those seven years that proceeded '09, Ortiz became one of the most feared and clutch hitters in the history of the game.
His 149 OPS+ over that span tied for fourth among all hitters, bested only by Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Pujols.
On the heels of a poor 2009, Ortiz began 2010 by hitting .143 in April. He was 34 and seemingly done. Rumors swirled of his impending release.
Heading into 2013, Ortiz has seemingly found the fountain of youth. Since the start of May 2010, the Red Sox slugger is back. His 160 OPS+ over the last two seasons is better than the mark of his prime years.
Despite a lingering heel injury that is of major concern in Boston, Ortiz has proven that he'll hit when in the lineup.
A few years ago, the DH looked finished. Heading into 2013, he's far from it.
Boom: Bench Depth
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Depth is one of the most overlooked aspects of a successful baseball team. Unlike the days of the steroid era, players don't play 150+ games with ease in 2013.
The ability to mix and match, platoon and fill in with depth from the bench and minor league system can be the difference between a top team and borderline contender.
In 2012, injuries forced Bobby Valentine to allow the likes of Nick Punto, Marlon Byrd and Darnell McDonald to receive a combined 353 plate appearances.
Heading into 2013, the depth looks much more sufficient in Boston.
Between David Ross, Mike Carp, Daniel Nava and Pedro Ciriaco, the big league bench is diverse and professional.
There's also a chance that minor league system is ready to produce big contributors such as Jackie Bradley Jr.
Despite some bust potential among Red Sox starters, the organizational depth is good enough now to keep them far away from another 90+ loss season.