Monday, March 8, 2010

Are The Red Sox Getting Too Cute?

The Yankees have a reputation for consistently having big offense. Part of this is their history, with the great players that have been a part of the organization and the offenses they’ve been a part of. The other part of this is their present. They’ve lead the majors in runs in three of the last four seasons, and in the last decade had another first place finish, two second place finishes, and were top 10 the other four seasons not covered. There’s no question that they have been the best offensive team of the last 10 years.

If you narrow it down slightly to the last 8 years, however, Boston’s going to make it pretty close. They don’t overtake the Yankees, but have definitely been at least the second best offense in baseball over that period. Including the 2002 season, they lead the majors in runs scored three times, have another second place finish, and in the other four seasons not covered were always top 10, with two top 3 and another top 4 finish.

The Red Sox have made the playoffs in 6 of those 8 years, reaching the ALCS in 4 of those 6 Octobers and winning the World Series twice. It’s phenomenal success. And while there is a lot more that goes into that than having a great offense, I think we can all agree that the Red Sox offense has been a huge part of it. In fact, their General Manager admits they were a team looking to outscore you, not out-pitch you, for most of this period. The numbers bear that out. In the same 8 year time frame, the Red Sox finished 7th, 17th, 11th, 24th, 26th, 2nd, 9th, and 16th in team ERA. Great once, decent three times, average twice, and pathetic twice. Part of this is due to the inflated nature of the AL East. But that aside, it’s pretty clear that the Red Sox have leaned on their offense more than anything else. Which is kind of funny given their reputation as a team with great pitching. But those numbers are anything but great.

The offensive numbers, by contrast, are great. In fact they are elite, amongst the two best in the sport over the last eight seasons. So my simple question is: why move away from that recipe?

Which is what the Red Sox have clearly done. They have publicly become a run prevention team, not just by stockpiling pitching, but more importantly by emphasizing defense. On the pitching side, I personally feel the Red Sox have tremendous pitching. But I also feel like every year we hear about how good the Red Sox pitching is. It’s like a hype machine. Check out those team ERA’s for the last five years. We heard more about it than ever last year, both the rotation and the bullpen, and they were in the bottom half of the league at season’s end. That means nothing for this year, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that even the pitching is questionable. On the defense, we know for sure that is controversial. Defense definitely matters, but can you build your team around it, to the point where you are sacrificing offense?

And that is where the Red Sox maybe getting to cute comes into play. The Yankees and the Red Sox have basically had success with the same approach recently. Have a huge offense, a few dominant starters at the top, and a really good closer. Why go away from that? I understand rebuilding or transitioning or whatever. The Yankees do that too. But does it mean you need to change your entire philosophy? Now, if you are temporarily changing the philosophy during this period, only to return to what works, that changes things. It also changes things if they aren’t actually sacrificing offense for defense, and end up getting both – which is better – despite how it looks on paper? Further, maybe it works even if they do sacrifice offense, and they just win on pitching and defense? I’m certainly not saying it won’t. I think the Red Sox are one of the five best teams in the game easily, maybe better than that. My point in writing this is not to bash their decision. It all remains to be seen.

I’m just wondering, when you have a formula that clearly works, why experiment with a new one, even if that one works too? Is it possible the Red Sox have become so entrenched on being on the frontline of these new age ways of thinking that they are overcomplicating it? Teams like Oakland have to do so. Boston does not. They are closer to the Yankees than they are to anyone else. Seeing as they’ve won just like the Yankees have won the last 8 years, with as standard an approach as you can possibly take, it is a bit curious as to why they would move away from this. I’m certainly interested to watch and find out.


the gm said...

They do have huge offense. The second-highest OPS of all AL outfielders is hitting eighth in the lineup.

the gm said...

In all seriousness, though, this is a very good post. Undoubtedly several of the following factors are coming into play:

-Value: It's pretty obvious that the Red Sox are pinching pennies unlike any $170 million team has ever done before. This is largely because they suck at negotiations, overpay terrible players, are willing to eat contracts, and pay JD Drew to complain about his back when Clay Buchholz is used as a pinch runner. But the Red Sox probably think players who can hit the baseball are "overvalued," so they are looking for better ROI instead of better players. Some people eat this up. The readers of HYD Baseball don't, as they have all stated that they would overpay for elite hitting talent.

>Arrogance: The Boy Wonder wants his name in history books almost as much as Barack Obama does for revolutionizing the game. He is at least entertaining the notion of "run prevention," while it has been a resounding failure in Oakland several consecutive years, could be successful in Boston.

>Punting: You knew I was going to write this, Pat. The Red Sox, I think have made a calculated decision that they would not have the resources to win the World Series in 2010 or 2011, largely because of mistakes they have made in the past, like the mistakes they made on December 6, 2006. So they are blowing smoke up our collective rear ends by talking about value and run prevention and all this stuff you consider "cute," while they're actually waiting for terrible contracts to expire, turn over their roster, pay the guys they need to pay, wait for guys to mature, and THEN go out on the free agent market and overspend on the premium talent. THIS is what makes the most sense. And if this "run prevention" crap actually works in the meantime, it's a bonus.

Sometimes I wish I didn't have a job so that I could actually provide insight like this more frequently.

Anonymous said...


I agree with DV---I think the pitching and defense thing is a lot of spin. The Sox know they screwed up with guys like Drew and Lugo and by not getting Teixeira. So, with no real dominant bats on the horizon this winter (depending on how you feel about Matt Holliday) the Sox decided to throw money at another angle and pretend that it's an organizational shift in philosophy when it's really just a ploy to keep fans thinking that they know what they are doing.

That being said, this team could still be very good. I wouldn't be surprised if they were. And in all fairness, I think that throwing money at Lackey & Co. was a better move than signing the Pat Burrell's and Matt Holliday's of the world these past two years. But, that doesn't change the fact that this was not the direction the Sox wanted to go, but rather the direction they had to go.

--the Gunn

Ross Kaplan said...

Doesn't everyone know that defense wins championships? Oh wait that only works in basketball.

TimC said...

I agree with what has been posted and the comments (including Kaplan, if he changes "basketball" to "football". I think the general formula for winning a basketball championship is the ability to exploit opponent's weaknesses). The Red Sox have both gotten away from and stuck to their principles since the '02 season. In terms of seeking value, they have gone from signing OBP guys at value prices to defense and pitching guys at value prices. What I refer to in getting away from their principles is filling their lineup with bats, like has been mentioned.

My biggest concern is that the type of team the Red Sox are constructing is one that I feel is less likely to have playoff success than those of the past. Decent hitters, I would bet, pad their stats against average to poor pitchers while good hitters should be more likely to hit against quality pitching. Since playoff teams have more quality pitching, the offense should suffer in October. Also, playoff teams have dominant starters and a strong closer, fitting the formula PF mentioned. The Sox look more like they want as many good starters as possible backed by a reliable but not dominant bullpen. When you throw in the focus on defense, the Sox look like a team that has strengths that show up over a large sample size. Are there plans to expand the season to 324 games, with no playoffs and daily doubleheaders? If so, I like the Red Sox team to run away with the championship. But in MLB, the eleven playoff wins are what counts and the Sox seem just content to be involved without making any real strides toward winning those games.

Patrick said...

i think it will be interesting to watch. i agree there is a great chance it is window dressing, but i also think there is a chance that they may really be travelling this road from a philosophical standpoint. we'll have to see how it plays out. agree with gunn that either way i think the sox are going to have an excellent baseball tea this year. also agree with timc that the way the sox are built is more on the macro level than micro level, and that is more helpful in the regular season than post season. as the yankees and red sox have recently proven - and as i alluded to in my post - the postseason is all about having an offense that can score with a few alpha dog bats in the middle of the order, a few alpha dog starters up top, and an alpha dog closer. it isn't a whole lot more complicated than that. the 2010 red sox may show us that you can win a different way in the postseason, but it's just curious that they are moving away from that considering how simple the equation is, and how effectively they've employed it. as gunn said though, i guess they may just not have liked their prospects to build that kind of team this past offseason.

gm - you're best comment in a while. well done.

ross - don't let timc get you down, i agree defense is huge in hoops as well as football (although i also agree with timc's nba analysis in addition to playing D).

jason said...

kudos to pat for the good post

Anonymous said...

Did the Johnnies beat Uconn in the big east tournament tonight?