2009 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox
2008: 95-67 (2nd AL East, 2 games back)

By my take, the Boston Red Sox were the best team in the American League, but were beaten by the darlings of destiny in Tampa Bay within their own division and in the playoffs.  Anaheim played over their head in the weakest division in baseball.  The White Sox and Twins were good, but the Red Sox were truly a great team that just missed winning back to back World Series.

Scoring 845 runs, only Texas had a stronger offense.  Allowing just 694 runs, the Red Sox were third defensively.  The combination was the best ratio of runs scored to runs allowed in the league.  Boston just had a couple of hiccoughs – the Manny Ramirez saga, Mike Lowell’s hip injury, and an off-season from David Ortiz – which kept them from operating on all cylinders.

Looking Back on 2008

Looking month-to-month, the Red Sox won between 16 and 18 games every month but July, when they went 11 – 13 and fell behind Tampa Bay.  Oddly, looking at their monthly offensive numbers, July was the only month where Boston couldn’t hit homers (just 18 and usually in the high 20s or 30s) , and the only month where they weren’t successful stealing bases (8 of 16, where every other month was better than 15 of 22).

The pitching was sort of a bell curve – league average in April, getting better through the summer, and then drifting back over 4.00 for August and September.

Despite areas of consistency, the team was surprisingly streaky for about sixty games.  Off to a slow start, the Red Sox won ten of eleven to take charge of the division at the end of April.  Then, they lost five in a row to Anaheim and Tampa Bay, who swept the Sox.  After trading a couple of games, the Sox went on another tear for a week.  It was win seven, lose four, win six of seven, lose five of six – very streaky for a team this good.  June was relatively even, winning two of three most of the month, until another hitting another losing streak as the month turned into July.  In July, they would lose at least back to back games once or twice a week, never putting together a winning streak until August hit – and then they went on another tear.  Down the stretch, Boston played well, but lost four of six in two series to the Rays and finished the division in second place.

Tell me about that offense

For the last couple of years, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez got all the press.  In 2008, the big bats were Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

I know – Pedroia is the little guy with the big bat and Youkilis is rather odd looking, with that shaved head and big goatee (shaved for 2009), plus that huge waggle when he stands in the plate.  But, the MVP award should have gone to Youkilis.  Youkilis generated about five fewer runs than Pedroia (122 to 117), but he did so making fewer outs.  Youk’ created 8.2 runs every 27 outs, while Pedroia was a full run behind that (7.2).  Defensively, Pedroia was a steady second baseman – but he had slightly below average range and was solid turning two and avoiding errors.  Youkilis was well above average playing first base, was solid playing third – and even when forced into right field for a game, turned in a solid game.  Pedroia plays a tougher position, but Youkilis plays his far better – and more of them.

Anyway – the two were both great.  Mike Lowell was good until his hip failed him.  The only weak spot was Julio Lugo.  Even Jed Lowrie and Alex Cora were better hitters – but none were better than average.  Cora should have been the starter.  Jeff Bailey backed up Youkilis and Lowell and was a solid hitter.  He’s Kevin Millar without the job.  Sean Casey was decent in a backup role, too.

In the outfield, Ramirez was still solid – .299 with 20 homers and nearly 70 RBI for four months.  His replacement, Jason Bay, hit just as well when he arrived.  In center, both Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp were good, though not great.  Ellsbury has room to improve and hasn’t lost a step defensively and will keep his job for 2009.  In right, J. D. Drew remains productive, but can’t keep his back healthy – he’ll never be much for 120 games anymore (not that he played 120 every year before).  The other outfielders didn’t really produce.

David Ortiz had an off year but was productive, some power, still walks, still fierce with the game on the line.  Catcher Jason Varitek had a well-publicized off year, hitting .220 with a little power, but it was his homer that nearly turned the AL Championship Series into Boston’s party.  Kevin Cash didn’t hit well either.  Maybe he got tired chasing knucklers.

On the whole, though, with at least three amazing performers and four other positive offensive contributions in the lineup, the Red Sox had a fantastic offense.

Defensively:

Like the offense, the defensive lineup was a collection of remarkably good performers, surrounded by a number of players who didn’t quite make the expected contributions.

Around the horn, both Lowell and Youkilis were impressive – Youkilis, as mentioned before, was really good at both first and third, saving the Sox about 24 runs with his glove.  Pedroia is a good, but not great second baseman (101 DPs and only 7 errors, but -2.8 range factor – meaning he made about three fewer plays per 800 balls in play than the average second sacker).  The shortstops were a mixed bag.  Cora, who had the best offensive numbers, also was the only above average shortstop in the field.  Lugo and Lowrie struggled – Lowrie was especially immobile when playing shortstop, making just 3.39 plays per nine innings (Lugo was below average at 3.71, while Cora was well above average at 4.63 plays per nine).  The net was positive, but shortstop was an obvious hole.

In the outfield, Ellsbury was awesome – he played all three outfield positions well and saved the Red Sox about 25 runs.  Unfortunately, Crisp, Ramirez, and Drew (and even Bay, who had to learn to play the Green Monster), negated Ellsbury’s value.  Mark Kotsay was imported from Atlanta to help out, and his back doesn’t allow him to be very mobile anymore either.
Behind the plate, Varitek remains solid, and Cash is actually very good despite having to deal with catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball.  Neither were very good stopping base stealers, but the way Boston scores runs in bunches, it doesn’t really matter.

David Ortiz doesn’t play the field anymore.

Now Pitching…

Jon Lester was Cy Young worthy last year – leading his team in innings and saving his team about 33 runs more than the average pitcher.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was equally baffling; despite walking way too many batters, nobody hit him.  He was 30 runs better than average, too.  Josh Beckett alternated between solid performances and injury recovery – missing a few starts but still pitching enough like an ace to rank near the top of the league in strikeouts despite missing at least six starts.  Tim Wakefield is still an above average pitcher, eating innings while tossing butterfly balls.

The fifth spot was less steady, shared by either Clay Buchholtz, who was lousy (6.75 ERA), or Justin Masterson, who looks like another ace in the making.

One day, I have to write this up but I happened to notice this.  Every once in a while, Josh Beckett doesn’t have it – gets whacked around right from the get go.  Terry Francona, though, knows that (a) it’s early in the game and (b) Beckett is one of those guys who won’t be happy getting yanked in the first inning.  However, every time Beckett threw 30 or more pitches in the first inning, he would get a tight elbow and then miss a start or two.  I had this theory that I have been using for about, oh, twenty years now that says that we need to stop looking at the total number of pitches thrown (managers start looking to the bullpen as the pitcher reaches 100 pitches) and start looking at pitches thrown in an inning.

I’m going to watch this again this year.  It makes no sense to let any pitcher throw 30 pitches in an inning.  If 100 is bad over six innings, what is 30 pitches in ten minutes?  In a perfect world, I think the max number of pitches someone should throw starts at 28 – and once a pitcher reaches 15, the catcher should go out there and let the pitcher catch his breath.  Then, each inning, I’d drop that number by one, unless he threw 20 pitches in that inning.  So, let’s say Beckett throws 24 pitches in the first, the new max number would drop from 28 to 26 in the second inning.  If he gets to 28, though, get him out of there.  If the pitcher has two innings where he clears 20 pitches, give him an extra day of rest.

My second theory has to do with the amount of time between pitches.  The way most of these guys throw – whipping everything they have into a pitch to get 95 MPH on the gun – they shouldn’t be resting for 30 seconds between pitches.  I think that gets in the way of keeping an arm loose.  As a weightlifter, you don’t do a heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one.  You’d blow out a tendon.  You want smooth, steady movement, without letting momentum force you out of bad mechanics.  I understand that in throwing, momentum is part of getting speed on the ball, but you don’t want to overexert yourself such that it wrecks your momentum.  I would think you want the pitchers to work more quickly – not letting muscles and tendons get cold with every pitch – using a controlled momentum so as not to overwork any one tendon that either provides the thrust or the braking of the movement.

Part of that isn’t the pitcher’s fault.  Some of it is the batter.  If I were pitching to Youkilis, for example, I’d remind the umpire that I don’t want him stepping out and moving all over while I was working.  I’d just get the ball, get my sign (without shaking off the catcher), and fire away.  He can dance after the game, but not while I’m pitching.  And if he complains that I’m working too quickly, he can duck out of the way of my next pitch.  I’ve got a job to do, and that’s to work smoothly, and not sit around while he scares small children with his gyrations.

But I digress.

The bullpen was great – only Mike Timlin was a weak link.  Jonathon Papelbon is a legitimate ace, Hideki Okajima was even more effective in terms of runs allowed, and Manny Delcarmen is solid.  All three were 10 runs better than average.  The long relievers, when Masterson was being used as a starter, were weak but fortunately rarely used.

Again, four solid starters, a solid swing man, and three killers in the bullpen, and you can see why the Red Sox, despite playing in Fenway, was third in runs allowed.

Forecasting 2008:

When you are the best team in baseball, you can’t really move up – but the Red Sox might actually be better in 2009.

Offensively, Big Papi could improve by ten runs.  If Ellsbury improves, and he seemed to be making steps in the right direction by season’s end, that would be another ten runs.  I don’t see Pedroia or Youkilis getting worse, though one or the other could take a little step back.  The key will be getting production out of Lowell when his hip heals.  If not, Youkilis at third and Jeff Bailey at first isn’t a step down.  The other outfielders, Bay and Drew, won’t be better than last year, but Bay might be a bit better defensively.  It would be great if Varitek bounced back, but he’s been declining regularly for years and it’s probably not going to happen.  Still – the offense could be ten to fifteen runs better, and that’s not bad.

Defensively, a full year from Beckett might be worth ten runs.  If newcomer Brad Penny comes back strong, the fifth spot suddenly is very productive.  If not, Justin Masterson is a great option.  Or John Smoltz, who will get to pitch sometime this summer after getting his shoulder rehab done successfully.  I don’t know if Lester and Matsuzaka will stay 30 runs better than average, but they will stay productive if they stay healthy.  Adding Takashi Saito and not throwing Mike Timlin will help, as will adding Ramon Ramirez to the pen.  On paper, this is the best bullpen in baseball.  The net change is going to be slim, but probably a slight improvement over last year.  Say ten runs.  If so, the Red Sox will be in line to win 98 games, outpacing everyone by at least six or seven games, and cruising into the playoffs.

Down on the Farm…

If Boston has a prospect at AAA Pawtuckett, I don’t see it.  The best players, like Bailey and Buchholz and Masterson are already on the major league roster, and the others (Devern Hansack, Charlie Zink) are pushing 30 and still haven’t made it.

The Portland (AA) Sea Dogs features Lars Anderson and Zach Daeges, who both hit a little like Youkilis – decent average, great eye, some power.  Michael Bowden went 9 – 4 with great strikeout and control numbers before moving to AAA.  There’s not a lot of room on the major league roster right now, but if he has one more solid season in AAA, they’ll have to make space for the 22 year old from Winfield, Illinois.

A couple of A ball catchers might make a splash in a couple of years.  At Salem you have Koby Clemens (his father is rather famous in Boston), and Luis Exposito hit pretty well at Greenville.  Expo has the better average and power, but Clemens has a better eye at the plate and, well, he has connections.  Kyle Weiland dominated while pitching for Lowell (low A), good strikeout numbers and few walks.  The rookie from Notre Dame has good tools and should be in either Salem or Portland in 2009.

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