I’m not really back; I really don’t see myself doing any serious blogging this season. But I have been working on this for a while, and now that it is done I thought I’d post it.
There is a great debate in Boston this year about Ben Cherington/Larry Luchino: they finished last in 2012, unloaded all of their bad contracts onto the Dodgers, signed a bunch of guys to short-term deals, and won the World Series, then finished last again in 2014 and seem headed there in 2015. So how do we evaluate them overall – are they geniuses who have been unlucky, or blind squirrels who found a golden acorn? My own view, colored by being a Yankee fan I suppose, tends towards the latter: that is, that they did NOT actually do well in 2013 in terms of talent evaluation, but in fact got really lucky. This post is an attempt to take a semi-objective look at the question (are we ever truly objective; I doubt it) and see what falls out. I confess above that I DO have preconceived notions on the topic, but I will try to keep them from coloring the data – they ALWAYS color (at least somewhat) the conclusions.
An old Sesame Street sketch is my starting point: which of these things is not like the others? On each line, pick out the number that doesn’t seem to match:
1) 0.1 1.6 1.9 3.6 1.3 -0.2
2) 2.0 3.9 2.4 0.5
3) 4.5 5.2 4.2
4) 1.6 -0.2 3.4 -1.0 0.0
5) -0.2 1.0 1.8
6) 1.2 5.7 3.9 1.5
7) 3.0 6.0 0.1 0.5
2.5 3.7 3.0 3.4 2.3 1.2
What these lines represent is the fWAR of 8 of the Red Sox starting position players, skipping 3rd base in which no one had even 400 AB. Exactly TWO of these eight lines have no real “not like the others” number: line 3 – Dustin Pedroia – second base: his 5.2 was a bit higher than the year before and after, but he was MVP in 2011 at 7.8, and very good in the surrounding years. He did a bit better than expected, perhaps, but not lightning in a bottle. And line 8 – David Ortiz – DH: the 2013 number is 3.4 which is near a high for the recent years, but right in context with what you would have expected – he is falling off this year, but was clearly not lightning in a bottle in 2013.
A couple of other clarifications: I was definitely cherry-picking a little for effect, but not TOO much. Napoli at 1B is line 2 and HE was better in 2011 as well, which I left off.
Still, think of things this way: I was able, with little effort, to show the surrounding seasons of the 8 Red Sox with the most playing time (excluding pitchers) such that if you average the seasons shown WITHOUT the 2013 season, you get this:
C Saltalamacchia Other 1.5 2013 3.6
1B Napoli Other 1.6 2013 3.9
2B Pedroia Other 4.4 2013 5.2
3B Middlebrooks et al 2013 0.3
SS Drew Other 0.1 2013 3.4
LF Nava Other 0.3 2013 1.8 (here, too, I cheated in that 2014 was even better. But there was NO history to suggest he was a 2 win player)
CF Ellsbury Other 2.2 2013 5.7 (Ellsbury had great seasons earlier, but also a spotty health record, so I think this is fair, actually)
RF Victorino Other 1.2 2013 6.0
DH Ortiz Other 2.9 2013 3.4 (here I did NOT average in this year’s projected 1.2 – Ortiz was a bit above his own average in 2013, but not much)
The point here is this: you always EXPECT that some players will perform above projections, or above their true talent levels. But you expect that others will perform below them. But in the case of the 2013 Red Sox position players, several players had out-of-context seasons (Saltalamacchia, Drew, Victorino), several others had above-expectations seasons (Napoli, Nava) and the count-on-em-every-year guys (Pedroia, Ellsbury, Ortiz) all were on top of their game.
Adding up the above chart you get: Other 11.3 2013 33.0. The Red Sox of 2013, arguably, played TWENTY WINS better than their true talent level! And remember, it was NOT breakout seasons: the years I show include before AND after years – this is not Jose Bautista “finding himself” or Bryce Harper “coming into his own”. What appears to have happened, on the position player side of the ball at least, is that the Red Sox took a chance on a bunch of guys who were great but injury prone (Pedroia/Ellsbury), aging but solid (Ortiz), once great but struggling (Napoli, Victorino) or good defensively but never a hitter (Saltalamacchia/Drew) and caught lightning in a bottle: they hit on EVERY ONE of them for one year, and won a World Series.
I’m not sure I even have to do the pitchers – if the Sox had won 20 fewer games (21 actually) they would have had a losing record. But let’s see what the pitching shows us.
Here I choose to do only the lead-in years: 2010, 2011 and 2012. No cheating, I’ll just give the fWAR for the three previous years, and figure the expected WAR as 2010 + 2 x 2011 + 3 x 2012 / 6
Columns listed are 2010 WAR, 2011 WAR, 2012 WAR, expected WAR (based on above formula), 2013 WAR, gain/loss over expected
First, the qualified starters:
Lester 4.8 2.8 2.6 3.0 3.5 +0.5
Lackey 3.3 1.0 0.0 0.9 2.5 +1.6
Doubront 0.2 -0.1 1.4 0.7 2.3 +1.6
Dempster 2.8 2.7 2.9 2.8 0.6 -2.2
Net gain/loss (sum of the 4) +1.5
Even though Dempster was a bust, though reasonably projected to be near 3 wins, overall these four were sparks in a bottle, with the top three nearly 4 wins above expected
The fifth starter was Buchholz who was only able to start 16 games, but in those games was Boston’s best pitcher (same columns):
Buchholz 3.0 0.8 0.9 1.2 2.7 +1.5 So even though they only got a half-season, by himself Buchholz was worth another win and a half
Jake Peavey was brought in from the White Sox and made 10 starts, earning 1.1 WAR with Boston in 10 starts, after 0.9 with Chicago in 13 starts. In other words, better than could have been expected.
So the starting staff contributed about 4 wins over expectations.
Here we have to stop and ask the obvious question: was the Sox management just smarter than everyone else? If that were the case, then the players who exceeded expectations would mostly have continued to do so, or the management would have traded or dumped them anticipating the decline. On the position players, they clearly did not do this: they kept Napoli, Victorino, Nava and Middlebrooks, tried to keep Saltalamacchia, and even resigned Drew because they didn’t see Bogarts as a viable Major League option in 2014. All of these players tanked, and the Sox management that had been so smart to pick them up, was not so smart to keep them around. They did the same with the pitchers, as the 2014 staff started out being the same as 2013. Eventually, of course, they dumped Peavey for sucking, and Lester and Lackey because the TEAM was sucking.
One claimed brilliant move was to pick up Koji Uehara. His fWAR line:
Uehara 1.4 1.2 0.8 1.0 3.1 +2.1 This, too, sort of looks light lightning in a bottle ANOTHER two plus wins, and in fact his 2014 was 1.1 and YTD he is 1.3. So there, too, they got a career year out of their roster move.
The rest of the bullpen was good, but not overwhelming, and many teams have bullpens that look like that.
My conclusion is that my instinct was right: the Sox management was EXTREMELY lucky in 2013, and not particularly clever. They were a last-place club in 2012, 2014 and apparently 2015, and seem to have played 20-25 games OVER TRUE TALENT in 2013. If you take 25 wins away they are 72-90 and in last place. Even taking 20 wins away making them 77-85 they might well be in last place, because those wins have to go somewhere, and the actual last place team was 74-88.
I think the current Red Sox management have a decent ability to develop players (Bogarts, Hold, Swihart, Bradley?) and essentially NO ability to project the future of MLB players. And they are likely to remain near the bottom of the AL East until that either changes, or they once again manage to catch lightning in a bottle.