I have a theory that the 2017 Red Sox are not going to be as good as everyone thinks that they are. Full disclosure: as a Yankee fan, I truly WANT this to be true, so it is altogether possible that I am just whistling in the wind. Still, I have my reasons, and I wanted to get them down before the Red Sox play too many games.
My thinking is this: the Red Sox have too much left-handed pitching. Yes, I know that it is mostly REALLY GOOD left-handed pitching: David Price and Christ Sale are two of the best. But Fenway Park is not a good place for left-handed pitchers to ply their craft.
How to quantify this? Well, it isn’t easy, at least from the sources available to me. Fenway is a hitter’s paradise, especially for right-handed power hitters and left-handed high-average hitters. The Green Monster is unique, so Fenway is unique. Most teams play better at home than on the road, as the home team wins 55% of all MLB games. The Red Sox through their history tend to do better than that, at least the good teams do (I didn’t look up the Home-Road splits of 70 win teams).
So the home-field advantage (most teams hit AND pitch better at home than away) is mostly off-set, for pitchers, by the ballpark. Looking at a number of Home/Road pitching splits for the Red Sox, the ERA tends to be up-and-down – I think it is on average about the same. But, of course, the HITTING stats go off the charts at home, and the Sox win at Fenway A LOT.
What I DON’T have is Home/Road stats for left-handed pitchers separately. I can get them for individual pitchers, but adding that all up for multiple seasons is just too much work. What I devised is a VERY skimpy short cut – I will give you the NUMBER of starts by left-handed pitchers and the home/road splits in record and ERA for those seasons. This may give us some idea of whether or not it hurts you to have a lot of left-handed starting pitchers when you are the Red Sox. The seasons I chose were those in the past 50 years in which the Red Sox won 95 games. As mentioned above, I am not wondering whether a mediocre Sox team with mediocre pitching should avoid lefties (though I think they should!) but rather a team that aspires to greatness might be held back by too many games started by lefties.
Here is the list, columns are year, number of starts by lefties, W-L at home, ERA at home, W-L on the road, ERA on the road (source: Baseball-Reference.com
2016 74 47-34 4.30 46-36 3.69
2013 61 53-28 3.57 44-37 4.03
2009 32 56-25 4.07 39-42 4.64
2008 33 56-25 3.78 39-42 4.26
2007 19 51-30 4.13 45-36 3.59
2005 32 54-27 4.46 41-40 5.04
2004 1 55-26 4.09 43-38 4.30
2003 16 53-28 4.29 42-39 4.70
1986 26 51-30 3.98 44-36 3.89
1978 28 59-23 3.49 40-41 3.80
1975 59 47-34 4.52 48-31 3.44
1967 22 49-32 3.86 43-38 2.87
What does this chart tell me? Well, first, that the recent Sox with a lot of left-handed starting pitching is very unusual for them. Their good teams in somewhat recent history just haven’t had that many games started by lefties. The 1975 team that got to the seventh game of the WS had a bunch, though not as much as recent teams. And NO good Red Sox team ever had 3 lefties in a 5-man rotation. And, though it is a small sample size, the seasons with the most left-handed pitching are also the seasons with the smallest home-field advantage.
Perhaps this just means that the Red Sox will win more on the road – I can’t say it doesn’t. What I DO say is that the Sox lefties will likely be less-effective at home that and equally talented righty, and that perhaps they would have been better off to target right-handed starters.
One other exercise which I thought I might try is to identify (by bWAR) the best pitcher in each of the years since 2000 for the Red Sox, and see if he was a lefty or a righty. From 2010-2014 the Sox had a superb left-handed starter in Jon Lester, and an up-and-down righty in Clay Buchholz. Buchholz earned more bWAR than Lester 4 times, and Lester was the top pitcher only once. He was the top in 2008-2009. But back to 2000 NO OTHER LEFTY WAS THE SOX BEST PITCHER. This, of course, was by design: the management knew that lefties struggle in Fenway. To complete this exercise I did the same for 1990, 1980, 1970 and 1960. Righties all. As far as I can tell, the last truly great lefty to pitch for Boston was Lefty Grove, and before that Babe Ruth. Ouch.
So my optimistic prediction is that pitching so much in Fenway Park, Price, Sale, Rodriguez and Pomeranz will struggle, the Sox will win fewer games than they are predicted to win, and there will be a pennant race in the AL East. My optimistic HOPE is that the Yankees are a part of that race.
If the over-under for the Red Sox (as reported in Las Vegas) is 94.5 games, I’m taking the UNDER.