The Boston Red Sox enter Tuesday with a 12-14 record and a -15 run differential, tied for second worst in the American League. It’s a far cry from where the defending World Series champions expected to be at the end of April.
What can the Red Sox do to get back in first place instead of battling to stay out of the cellar?
While the answer may not be satisfying to many, it’s a fairly simple answer: Stay patient.
After decades of following, learning and writing baseball, two key takeaways this writer can assure nervous Red Sox fans of is: April is far too early to make drastic changes, and regression to the mean will, nine times out of 10, solve the problem.
Let’s look at three key areas in which the Red Sox have struggled, and how patience will end up being the single biggest solution to alleviating these problems.
Lack of Power
While the meat of the order in David Ortiz and Mike Napoli are driving the ball with authority, the Red Sox lack the power throughout the lineup that the 2013 group enjoyed. A lot of that can be traced back to the underperforming power numbers of A.J. Pierzynski and Xander Bogaerts.
Signed to fill the void left by departing catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, A.J. Pierzynski's calling card on offense is his power.
The 37-year-old reached double digits in home runs in nine of his 13 seasons with at least 100 games played—and two of these seasons with single-digit homers were his first two seasons of full-time play.
Unfortunately, Pierzynski has yet to deliver on those grounds. Entering 2014, Pierzynski’s career slugging percentage (SLG) was .428 with an isolated power (ISO) of .145. Isolated Power, as Baseball Prospectus explains, “is a measure of a hitter's raw power, in terms of extra bases per [at-bat].” \
So far with the Red Sox, his SLG is .377 with an ISO of .116 (see table below).
|C A.J. Pierzynski (2014)||.377/.116|
|C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (2013)||.466/.193|
|SS Xander Bogaerts (2014)||.391/.103|
|SS Stephen Drew (2013)||.443/.190|
Before the weekend series, in which Pierzynski collected a home run on Saturday and double on Friday, his SLG was .355. The fact that his slugging percentage increased .22 points after only three games is indicative of how early it is.
When it comes to sample such as these, one needs a much longer timeframe before anything of substance can be derived from them. In the early going, a slump can skew numbers dramatically, while just one good series good game—like Pierzynski’s weekend output—can make a significant difference. Come August, a good or bad game will barely register in season statistics.
Beware of small sample sizes, as they can cause one to jump to inaccurate conclusions.
It’s more likely than not that by the end of the year Pierzynski’s power production will mirror that of his career. This is where regression (or "trending back") to the mean comes into play. Far more often than not, skewed numbers that look out of place for a player are simply outliers—a random variation that a regression to the mean will fix. Pierzynski’s poor power numbers to start the year will likely regress to his career power figures.
The same can be said of rookie shortstop Xander Bogaerts. While the 21-year-old won’t smash 30 home runs like it appears he can do one day, per the Telegram & Gazette, expecting him to stay under a .400 SLG the entire season is unlikely. Bogaerts’ minor-league SLG is .489.
For an exercise in small sample sizes, consider Bogaerts’ SLG in 2013, when he played 18 regular-season games with the Sox. That figure came in at .364, while his postseason mark in 12 games played was .481.
Similarly, his sample of 24 games played so far in 2014 is far too small to tell us anything about Bogaerts’ true expected power production over the 2014 season. Like Pierzynski, we can see that just one game can make a big difference early on. Before Sunday, Bogaerts’ SLG was .373. After a two-hit game against the Blue Jays in which he rapped a double, it’s all the way up to .391.
Beware of small sample sizes.
The Sox can count on more than the expected improvement of Pierzynski and Bogaerts’ power. On Friday, the Red Sox welcomed back Will Middlebrooks, the Sox’s power-hitting third baseman who played just four games before going on the disabled list. With a career slugging percentage of .469, that will be a dramatic improvement over the punchless Jonathan Herrera and Brock Holt.
Boston has also struggled when it comes to defense. In 2013, the club enjoyed the fruits of Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Shane Victorino in right to track down many a fly ball. Stephen Drew was steady at shortstop while Mike Napoli looked like a Gold Glove candidate at first base.
Fast-forward a year later and the fielding has been so poor it’s fast becoming a storyline.
But again, small sample sizes and regression to the mean come into play here.
Take Bogaerts, for example. He ranks as one of the worst shortstops when it comes to defense, as Fangraphs’ leaderboard shows, with a -1.8 “Defense” mark. Last year, in just as small a sample size as 2014, Bogaerts turned in an +0.2 mark. The takeaway is that it’s yet to be determined just how good or bad Bogaerts’ defense will be. Relying on April’s games to draw conclusions is inadvisable.
Napoli, as mentioned, was a Gold Glove candidate last season. His Ultimate Zone Rating over 150 games was 13.3, the best in baseball. This year, it’s at 0.3. What’s the better bet: Napoli suddenly being barely above average at first base, or small sample size flaring up?
We can bet on Napoli regressing back to the mean and being an above-average first baseman before the year is out. It doesn't mean it is a lock to happen, but it's more of a lock than expecting Napoli's April numbers to continue.
The last poor fielder to discuss is Grady Sizemore.
Sizemore’s center field defense is disastrous, as his fielding numbers bear out. While he was once a strong defender, age and injuries have robbed him of the ability to play center. It has been apparent just how poor of a defender Sizemore has become just by watching the games.
Sizemore won’t be asked to handle center field anymore, as that job has been turned over to Jackie Bradley, Jr. for good. That relegates Sizemore to left field, where his poor defense can be hidden, especially with the Green Monster looming at Fenway Park. That move alone should boost the Red Sox’s defense dramatically.
The last segment of the Red Sox’s performance is pitching. While the team has been enjoying Jon Lester’s starts, the same can’t be said of Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront.
Buchholz looked to be a Cy Young contender last season before getting injured. This year, he’s one of the worst pitchers in the game with a 6.66 ERA.
Felix Doubront struggled through parts of 2013 but flashed dominance at times. He has yet to do so in 2014 with a 6.00 ERA.
As I've tried to hammer home throughout this piece, regression to the mean is likely with both pitchers. Fortunately, there's a metric that can help us figure out what to expect moving forward.
Buchholz and Doubront will be hard-pressed to finish the season with ERAs above 6.00. Even if they aren’t the pitchers they once were, their talent is too great for that.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a figure scaled to ERA that adjusts for park factors and luck, according to Fangraphs. While Buchholz has been far from elite this year, his FIP mark is 4.45. Once you adjust for luck on home runs, that number dips to a 3.97 xFIP.
The takeaway here is that Buchholz has been dramatically unlucky to post a 6.66 figure; Account for elements beyond Buchholz’s control, and he should have a 3.97 ERA on the season. One should feel much better about the right-hander’s odds to emerge again as a front-of-the-rotation starter after seeing these figures.
Doubront has a similar tale to tell. His FIP is 4.88 with an xFIP of 4.90. So while Doubront still hasn’t pitched well according to FIP, his 6.00 is just over a full run higher than it should be.
These numbers show what one can expect from the two pitchers assuming normal regression to the mean. Over time, these numbers should trend back to what FIP and xFIP suggest, and what their true talent level suggests.
How about the bullpen? Two major FIP outliers are Edward Mujica and Craig Breslow. Last season, Mujica saved 37 games while Breslow’s career ERA is 2.89. So far this year, their ERAs are abnormally high. Over time, the performances of these relievers will trend back to normalcy. Besides, the bullpen is the biggest component of a team that is subject to variation and luck, and Boston has the entire season in which to hit upon the right combination.
Take 2013, for example. Brandon Workman ended up being one of the most important relievers in October for Boston … he didn’t make his season debut until July 10.
So, What’s the Takeaway?
Small sample sizes. Regression to the mean. These are two of the overarching themes throughout this piece that we’ve discussed. From power to defense to pitching, we find elements that suggest performances to date can be expected to improve, all by simply waiting things out.
Patience is the key to fixing the Red Sox’s biggest problems early in 2014. It may not be an answer you want to hear. Due to the fact the Red Sox’s record sat at 0-0 entering the year, their 12-14 record sticks out like a sore thumb.
But all teams, even elite ones, go through these ebbs and flows. If the Red Sox were 52-37 in July and then went on a 12-14 streak, it would be overlooked. But since the 12-14 record comes at the start of the year, the record sticks out like a sore thumb.
If the Red Sox want to get back to October baseball, its best bet is simply stay the course. Some players will start playing better. Others will play worse. Once the team has a few months to evaluate how well players are performing, then more drastic measures can be taken.
Until then, Boston needs to stay patient.
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