Boston Red Sox and 10 Numbers That Encapsulate Their Season
Even in recent seasons of disappointment, the numbers have always been kind to the Boston Red Sox. A year ago, the Red Sox were 59-65 and 13 games out of the AL East lead, and yet their plus-28 run differential signified a playoff-caliber team.
In 2013, the numbers have dovetailed with tangible success, and the Red Sox have sustained one of the best records in baseball nearly the entire season. Indeed, the numbers will almost always depict a better representation of a team's ability than the standings. For those who looked past last year's grisly 69-93 shell, Boston's renaissance is not particularly surprising.
But with the Red Sox currently slumping into the season's final month, the narrative will have to change once again. The question is now whether this year's team is simply a reincarnation of previous letdowns, or one that can transcend another September catastrophe.
Once again, digging into the numbers may help determine what lies ahead. With that in mind, here are 10 numbers that best encompass the Red Sox's season to date and what they might mean down the stretch.
*All stats courtesy Fangraphs.com.
That's the percentage chance the Red Sox currently stand of making it into the five-man postseason dance. For all the panic over the team's three consecutive series losses to the Royals, Blue Jays and Yankees, the needle still has not shifted much in this regard.
The Sox do face a difficult September schedule, as excluding a five-game respite against Toronto and Colorado, every other team Boston faces sits above .500. But for now, the Red Sox are 5.5 games clear of the Orioles, who are the first team out of the playoffs at the moment.
At least for now, Boston is healthy going into September, a stark difference from its 2011 collapse. Health alone does not ensure October baseball in Fenway, but especially with Clay Buchholz's return supposedly imminent (for real this time!), it looks like the Sox will have their biggest guns down the stretch.
That's Boston's weighted on-base average against right-handed pitchers, easily the best in the league. Indeed, with a lefty-leaning lineup, the Red Sox have absolutely mashed right-handed pitching throughout the season.
As you might expect, David Ortiz leads the Sox in most batting categories against righties. His .467 wOBA and 1.130 OPS are both second-highest in baseball, trailing only Chris Davis. Even on a park-adjusted basis, Big Papi still ranks second, with a 197 wRC+, which means his production is a staggering 97 percent above the league average. All three of those numbers are significantly above his career averages versus righties, illustrating how well the 37-year-old slugger has aged.
While Papi is expected to mash, bench bat Mike Carp has been invaluable as a platoon partner this season. The Sox essentially brought in Carp as a spring training body, and they have received a .400 wOBA and 151 wRC+ against righties, both of which only trail Ortiz on the Sox. With the ability to play both first base and left field, Carp is exactly the type of cheap and versatile talent the Sox were targeting in their wallet-conscious offseason.
On the other hand, the Red Sox have not fared nearly as well against lefties, with a wRC+ that suggests slightly below-average production, albeit one that ranks 12th. But where Boston has really suffered is in the power department, as its .144 isolated power is well below its overall team mark of .163.
The main culprits have been Mike Napoli and Will Middlebrooks, two of the few Sox to experience prolonged slumps this season. Napoli has hit just .195 in the second half, getting dropped as low as seventh in the Red Sox lineup. The first baseman is really the only Sox everyday right-handed position player who has above-average power, and his slump has paralyzed the Boston offense against lefties.
Of course, Napoli wouldn't be alone if it weren't for Will Middlebrooks' horrific early-season struggles. Middlebrooks was the Red Sox's second-worst player in the first half, essentially submarining his season with poor plate discipline. The third baseman swung at 47.2 percent of pitches, tied with Jarrod Saltalamacchia for highest rate among Sox players with at least 100 plate appearances.
But in the 11 games since his return, Middlebrooks has reversed those trends. He's walked as many times as he's struck out, and his 41.8 swing percentage is among the lowest on the team. If he maintains his newly disciplined approach, Middlebrooks could be the right-handed power source the team has lacked all year.
For a big-market team, the Red Sox were extremely adept at playing Moneyball this past offseason. For the bargain-bin price of $4.5 million, the Sox have an unexpected closer in Koji Uehara, who has not allowed a run in 53 days and ranks as MLB's second-most valuable reliever.
By all accounts, the Red Sox's bullpen should be a total disaster this season. The pen lost three late-inning pitchers to season-ending injuries, and the long relief has been between below-average to calamitous all season. But Uehara has soldiered on as one of the few pillars of stability, effectively saving the Sox with his consistency in spite of a huge workload.
The key has been a virtually unhittable split-fingered fastball, which has been an astounding 11 runs above average. Consequently, opposing hitters are generating poor contact off Uehara, as the 38-year-old has slashed his line-drive rate while raising his ground-ball rate.
On pace to shatter his career innings high, there is question whether or not Uehara will hold up the rest of this season. Even if he does, his arm may fall off before spring training in 2014. But for what he has done this season, Uehara ranks as one of the better signings in recent Red Sox history.
That goose egg reflects the number of managerial controversies the Red Sox have experienced this season. No spring training castigations, no soul-crushing pinch-hitting decisions and no radio show-host attacks. No, John Farrell has been refreshingly quiet after last season's Bobby V experience.
No, Farrell is not yet among the elite schemers in the game, though in just his third season managing that would be an absurd expectation. But what he has done is create a comfortable clubhouse environment, an invaluable trait that contrasts with Valentine's caustic personality.
Words like "harmony" and "chemistry" are often thrown around without any real meaning, as there is no proof that a happy club translates into a successful one. However, considering fatal toxicity levels in Fenway last season, it was uncomfortable to merely watch a Sox game, let alone participate in one.
So while players need not hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," the stability and professionalism Farrell has brought is arguably biggest upgrade of the Red Sox's 2013 season.
The Red Sox have generated 4.5 wins from the duo of Jarrod Salatalamacchia and Stephen Drew, two of Boston's more unheralded performers this season. The two rank as the fifth- and sixth-most valuable position players respectively, though neither has gotten much recognition, even from Sox followers.
When David Ross went on the 60-day DL June 18, the Sox were left with essentially one reliable catcher. Saltalamacchia caught both games of a doubleheader that day and has sustained an equally brutal workload since. Catching 21 out of 25 possible games in July, Saltalamacchia kept the Sox afloat at the position with a .268/.346/.408 slash line for the month.
If the Sox have relied heavily on "Salty," they've been seemingly trying to rely less on Drew. Jose Iglesias earned national recognition for his blistering pace in May and June, but he's since been traded away. Uber-prospect Xander Bogaerts was just called up, and Sox nation is salivating to see the team's best prospect since Hanley Ramirez.
Meanwhile, the veteran Drew keeps plugging alone at his steady, if unspectacular, pace. Among shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances, Drew's .328 wOBA ranks eighth. He's also been one of Boston's best defenders, saving the team about two runs this season.
Barring postseason heroics, neither Drew nor Saltalamacchia will get significant fame or credit for the Red Sox's success this season. But both have been more valuable than one might suspect, providing the kind of secondary production vital to a true contender.
The number 2.06 captures the cavernous difference between first-half Jon Lester and second-half Jon Lester. Since carrying a 4.58 ERA into the All-Star Break, Lester has pitched brilliantly, with a sparkling 2.52 ERA and .248 batting average against.
The key has been increased command and a change in approach. After walking 3.22 batters per nine innings in the first half, Lester has not walked more than two batters in six starts since the break, allowing him to pitch into the seventh inning in all but one start.
Moreover, Lester has placed an increased emphasis on his changeup and curveball rather than his diminished cutter. Opponents have made roughly the same amount of contact since the break, so it's not as if Lester is trying to blow people away.
But his ability to effectively pitch to contact indicates an understanding that he is no longer the strikeout artist of 2009-11. Lester still has top-of-the-rotation stuff, and it appears he is harnessing his arsenal at the best possible time. If the southpaw can continue peaking into September, he could be the type of pitcher that carries Boston into the postseason.
It's been 75 days since early Cy Young candidate Clay Buchholz last took the mound for the Red Sox. His absence has drawn the ire of Sox fans, and the constant false promises have mostly disillusioned fans to his one-step-forward-two-steps-back progress.
But the past few weeks have seen a constant linear progression, and it appears Buchholz is almost ready to start a rehab assignment. If Boston's absentee ace can rejoin the rotation for the last month, that would be a huge boost to a starting staff full of inconsistencies.
Overall, the Sox rotation has been able to tread water without Buchholz. Actually, one could argue that the team has fared better than that, as the Red Sox were a top-five staff in July. But the team has had various slumps by different pitchers (the latest being Felix Doubront) and could really use the reliability Buchholz provided the first two months.
There's no guarantee he recaptures his form, and Sox fans should probably expect some drop-off. Nevertheless, unless his performance plummets precipitously, Buchholz will probably be the Red Sox's best starter. And if he does recapture his ace form, he is the best weapon Boston possesses to counter the juggernaut staffs of the Rays and Tigers.
Since David Ortiz returned from his Achilles injury on April 20, the Red Sox's dynamic trio of Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury has missed just 16 games combined. After a 2012 in which the three missed 181 games total, their presence and production have made the biggest difference in 2013.
Ortiz is mashing as usual, and Pedroia is providing his usual combination of plate production, excellent fielding and dirty uniforms, but Ellsbury is the fulcrum of the Boston offense. His role as a leadoff hitter coincides with that notion, but his ability to perform like an MVP bolsters the Sox from a very good offense to an elite outfit.
Ellsbury's .127 isolated power is nowhere near his .230 mark from 2011, but by all accounts, 2013 has been the second-best season of the center fielder's career. His .343 wOBA places him in the top 25 of all outfielders, and his exemplary defense places him in the top 10 of defensive runs saved.
Pedroia's power is down in 2013, but his on-base percentage is up, a trait that would make him among the game's most valuable No. 2 hitters if the Red Sox had a viable No. 3 hitter. Nevertheless, his excellent production makes him one of the few valuable second basemen, and his seven-year extension ensures years of endearing hustle and scratchy facial hair at Fenway.
In this seemingly providential season, perhaps nothing better encompasses the 2013 Red Sox than the 11 walk-offs they have compiled. That number leads the majors and is eight more than they had all of 2012. If any Sox fan needs a quick pick-me-up, five minutes of watching this should make his or her day.
And those walk-offs are not flukes either. In actuality, the Red Sox have been a fairly clutch team throughout the season, as their .315 wOBA in high-leverage situations is tied for eighth in the majors.
In particular, Jonny Gomes has been off the charts in these situations, with a jaw-dropping .522 wOBA that ranks third among players with at least 30 high-leverage plate appearances. His 1.340 OPS trails only Robinson Cano, a by-product of his four pinch-hit home runs. Indeed, Gomes' infectious charisma and helmet-punting heroics have made him one of the most lovable characters in recent seasons.
And yet, after the plethora of advanced stats, sometimes it simply boils down to gut instinct. On paper, these Red Sox are not as talented as past squads, though they are certainly capable. But in seeing their unwavering confidence and response to various periods of turmoil, it seems hard to fathom that the 2013 Red Sox will go gently into the night.
One way or another, expect the numbers to lie in Boston's favor at season's end, including in the standings.