Expectations are low in Red Sox Nation. Last season Boston stumbled to a 69-win season, the team’s lowest win total in a non-strike-shortened season since finishing 62-100 in 1965. Actually, “stumbled” doesn’t even begin to describe the utter nightmare that 2012 was. Flubbed? Blundered? Imploded? All of those more accurately convey the complete failure of a season the Red Sox had.
In the wake of a third straight year without Fenway opening for game number 82 on a crisp October evening, the Red Sox made some serious club-wide changes. Bobby Valentine is gone, John Farrell is in. The team’s medical staff is undergoing a complete face-lift after years of injury mismanagement, most notable of which surrounds the immensely talented, yet always ailing, Jacoby Ellsbury. David Ortiz is back after signing the two-year contract he’s been waiting years for, and the team has decided to forego any free agent whose contract demands extend past 2015.
After all the team has done (and not done) this offseason, the opinion of almost every Sox fan in the city inevitably falls into one of two categories:
- “We had all that free money after the Dodgers bailed us out, and we were too afraid to spend it. Shane Victorino and Ryan Dempster? Those guys are washed up! Looks like we’re in for another October miss.”
- “Man, we really got a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card when the Dodgers agreed to take almost a quarter-billion dollars off our hands. The team is taking the right approach this offseason. They just have to sit back and spend wisely. I mean, yeah, that’ll mean a few more disappointing seasons, but in three years our prospects should be ready and we can contend again.”
Well, what if I told you that the often criticized, shrewd moves made this offseason by Red Sox GM Ben Cherington have actually put the team in position to make the playoffs in 2013? Seriously, it’s not that far-fetched.
How many wins will it take to make the playoffs?
With the two-Wild Card format, the bar for postseason qualification has been lowered. Last year the Orioles and Rangers were the American League’s two wild card teams, and each won 93 games. In 2011 the Rays won the wild card with 91 wins, and had there been two wild card teams that year the Angels would have gotten in with 86. In 2010 the White Sox were the AL’s fifth-best team with 88 wins. Obviously playoff races would have changed if the rules during those seasons were the same as 2012’s, but would the 86-win Angels and the 88-win White Sox have all of a sudden transformed into 95-win juggernauts? Doubtful.
And what about 2013’s projected playoff contenders? Sorry Orioles fans, but your team was way too lucky in one-run games and didn’t add any substantial pieces this offseason. You’re out.
The White Sox won 85 games last year on the backs of a surprising career year from A.J. Pierzynski and great pitching performances by Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. Pierzynski’s in Texas now, and Tyler Flowers isn’t replicating those numbers. And will the rotation be able to improve upon its overall performance last year? I don’t think so, and without any big additions to the offense I think they’ll max out at 88-90 wins. Sorry, Southsiders.
Kansas City, I applaud your efforts to make a push when you traded for James Shields, but barring breakout years from just about everyone up and down your lineup you’re probably going to fall short.
How about the contenders? The Blue Jays are immediately one of the front-runners in the American League after their stunning offseason, so let’s add them to the shortlist of candidates that already includes the Rangers, Angels, Athletics, Tigers, Yankees, Rays, and Indians (if you’re buying them as a sleeper). Not including the Red Sox, that’s eight candidates for five spots, all of whom are capable of winning 93 games or more.
So like last year, we’ll once again set the threshold at 93 wins for an invitation to the postseason.
How good are the 2013 Red Sox?
Sports fans and media personalities are wrong if they say this team has no chance in 2013. This year is not a lost year.
Ah, now this is the fun part.
I went through Boston’s roster and projected each player’s plate appearances/innings pitched for the 2013 season. Because there are plenty of players not currently on the roster that will play games, those players have been included as “Other Bench Bats,” “Other Starting Pitchers,” and “Other Relievers.” Their plate appearance or innings pitched totals were calculated by finding the entire team’s projected totals and subtracting the amounts already allocated to players on the roster. The team’s projected totals were estimated using 2012’s season numbers.
Along with each player’s playing time, I also projected their Wins Above Replacement (WAR). These numbers are my own personal, raw estimates. They were arrived at with much research and reasoning, but obviously they are my subjective projections and therefore completely open to debate. What isn’t open to debate is each player’s average WAR for the last three seasons, prorated over the amount of plate appearances or innings I projected them for. That’s included as well.
Note: WAR is highly dependent on usage for each player, so in my projections I have done my best to account for each batter’s projected lineup slot, each pitcher’s projected rotation spot or bullpen role, and adjusted for age and injury risk. The numbers in the “Last 3 Years” columns obviously do not account for these factors, but I included them to show my projections are not overly optimistic. They are, in fact, quite fair.
* WAR/PA and WAR/IP are each player’s average WAR over the last three years prorated over the amount of plate appearances or innings I’ve projected them for in the column to the right of their name.
First, I find it interesting that my projections for both batters and pitchers were lower than the three-year averages for each group. For batters I projected Jarrod Saltalamacchia to lose some playing time to David Ross, and my projections for both players were lower than their three-year averages. First base was left as “TBD” in light of the team’s issues signing Mike Napoli. With their insistence on adding a bat to play first, I projected the position at two wins, which Fangraphs.com defines as a role player-slash-solid starter. I also projected Will Middlebrooks to regress from his ridiculous per-game pace last year by a full win, and Dustin Pedroia and Ellsbury were projected as 5+ win players. “Other Bench Bats” was projected for two wins over 876 plate appearances, and the “Last 3 Years” values are those for Daniel Nava, Boston’s primary bench bat.
According to Fangraphs.com, a 4-5 win player is considered an All-Star, a 5-6 win player is considered a superstar, and a 6-7 win player is considered an MVP. Using these definitions, I projected the Red Sox’s offense to have two borderline All-Stars (Ortiz and Victorino) and two true All-Stars (Pedroia and Ellsbury), one of whom (Pedroia) is a superstar but a notch below an MVP candidate. I think all of that is more than fair.
In the rotation, I projected small resurgences from Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz that coincide with the return of John Farrell, but neither player is projected for their respective “Last 3 Year” averages. Dempster is projected for 3.5 wins, half a win more than his “Last 3 Year” average, so if you want to dock me a half win there I suppose you have an argument. However, I happen to like Dempster. John Lackey is projected at 1.5 wins, which means he falls into that “role player” designation, but even if he fails in his projected 160 innings it shouldn’t be hard to find someone else who can at least approach 1.5 wins. Felix Doubront at 2.3 wins over 180 innings is just 0.2 more than he did last year in 161 innings.
Personally, I love Boston’s bullpen. I think Joel Hanrahan was a great addition, and Andrew Bailey (if he can stay healthy), Koji Uehara (quietly dominant), Junichi Tazawa (underrated), and Craig Breslow (not bad) have the makings of a deep, impactful bullpen.
Oh, and I projected “Other Starting Pitchers” and “Other Relief Pitchers” at replacement level, i.e. zero wins.
Sum all of that up, and I projected the Boston Red Sox as a team to total 52.3 WAR. If you like the “Last 3 Year” averages better, they’re projected for a 57.0 WAR, but let’s stick with my lower estimate. Now, what the heck does that mean?
How are WAR and Team Win% related?
Projecting a team for a 52.3 WAR is abstract to say the least, so how many games does that mean they’ll win? For quick estimates, it’s said that a team with all replacement level players (cumulative team WAR of 0.0) would win about 40 games. Add Boston’s projected 52.3 WAR to that and you get a projected 92.3 wins. I don’t like just relying on quick estimates, though.
To find the correlation between WAR and team win percentage (Win%), I found the cumulative WAR and Win% for all 30 teams over the last five years. Then I plotted each team’s average WAR for each season (their cumulative WAR divided by five) versus their Win% to see if there’s any correlation. As it turns out, there’s a very strong one.
With an r-squared value of 0.896, there’s a very clear correlation between a team’s WAR and their win percentage. And thanks to Microsoft Excel, we have an equation to help quantify it (displayed on the chart).
So let’s plug our replacement level team’s 0.0 WAR into the equation to test our “a team with all replacement level players (cumulative team WAR of 0.0) would win about 40 games” statement from before.
According to the equation above, a 0.0 WAR team would have a winning percentage of .287. That’s 46.5 wins, so we were pretty close.
Now, what about the 2013 Boston Red Sox and their projected 52.3 team WAR? Well, if the chart above isn’t lying, they have a projected Win% of .585. That’s 94.7 wins! If we were to take the “Last 3 Year” WAR of 57.0, they’d have a projected Win% of .612. That’s 99.1 wins!
And going with our more conservative 94.7-win estimate, that should be enough to make the playoffs given our previously established 93-win requirement.
The take-home message
I think the Red Sox are a 92-99 win team as currently comprised…
With all the change, all the upheaval, and all the uncertainty, a 26-game improvement from last year would be rather monumental. Will they do it? Yes, I think they will. I think the Red Sox are a 92-99 win team as currently comprised, though significant injuries to major members of the lineup or rotation will obviously hurt their chances of reaching that level of success.
Sports fans and media personalities are wrong if they say this team has no chance in 2013. This year is not a lost year. The Red Sox are fielding a competitive team, and they did it with smart offseason additions, wise subtractions, and an overall goal to be more balanced after last year’s debacle.
Texas looks more vulnerable than they have in recent seasons, and the AL Central is probably sending just one team to the postseason, so can Boston beat out three of Toronto, New York, Tampa Bay, and Oakland? Yeah, I think they can, and I think it will be the Angels, Tigers, Rangers, Yankees, and Red Sox that will be battling this October. (I would have chosen the Rays over the Angels, and it was very close, but the AL East is wicked deep. And yes, I used “wicked” on purpose.)
That might be an unpopular opinion given America’s love for Canada’s team right now, but through all these numbers and all my forced objectivity, I’ll let my Boston homerism shine through a little. Just know that I have the numbers to back it up.
Response to reader comments
First, thanks to everyone who has read thoroughly and commented intelligently. I realize my opinion here is an extremely unpopular one, especially since it argues on the behalf of a team that’s rather unpopular around the country.
I have given a lot of thought to what many of you have said, and a lot of good points have been made. As far as the overall methodology goes (using team WAR to project Win%), I don’t think there’s much to argue there. The correlation is strong. What we can argue about is what Boston’s 2013 projected team WAR should be.
Concerns over whether or not I have factored in the team’s potential injuries are legitimate. I stand by my offensive projection in terms of how healthy the hitters will be, and I think estimating 1,150 plate appearances for Ross, Nava, Pedro Ciriaco, [insert whomever else] is accurate. Obviously a major injury to someone like Pedroia, Ortiz, Ellsbury, or Middlebrooks (or moderate-but-lengthy injuries to a few of them) will hurt the overall team’s WAR noticeably, so I will admit that there is an element of best-case-scenario present in the lineup’s WAR projections.
I also stand by my projected bullpen WAR of 6.3. That mark in last year’s MLB would have ranked T-6th with the Cincinnati Reds, and Boston’s team WAR in 2012 was 10th-best at 4.6. Their bullpen is better this year, and I think it’s 1.7 wins better.
What I would go back and edit is my projection for the rotation. While I stand by the individual projections for Lester, Dempster, Buchholz, Doubront, and Lackey, the chance that all of them live up to my expectations isn’t great. It would have been prudent to project the unit as a whole to factor in their cumulative injury risk. I projected Boston’s 2013 starting rotation for 13.3 wins, which would have been 14th-best in last year’s MLB. Factoring in potential injuries for 2013, Boston’s rotation probably belongs somewhere around 20th. Last season that would have been about 10 wins. To play things safe, let’s subtract 3.3 wins from my original estimate above.
That decreases the team’s projected total WAR from 52.3 to 49.0. Plug that into the equation we’ve been using, and Boston’s new projected Win% is .566, or 91.7 wins. You can play it safe and stick with this revised projection if you’d like.
Now, to those who think the Red Sox as presently constituted are a .500 team at best (and apparently there are more of you than I expected), keep in mind that the team had a roster that quit on the manager and a manager who quit on ownership. They deserved each and every one of their 93 losses, but they were more talented than your typical 93-loss team. They underachieved.
Last year Boston’s team WAR was 34.5. That’s not good, but using our formula from above it equates to a .483 Win% and 78.3 wins. That means as constituted last year, Boston was a 78-win team, not a 69-win team. (And if this team WAR-to-Win% conversion is too abstract for you, Boston’s Pythagorean Win Expectation based on runs scored and allowed last year was 74 wins.)
Yes, that counts play they had with Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Co., but on the whole they should have won more than 69 games. Had they finished last year with 74-78 wins and then added Dempster, Victorino, and Hanrahan, not to mention the returns of Ortiz and Ellsbury (who played just 164 games last year combined), would you still be saying that they’ll be lucky to be a .500 team? I sure hope not.
You can disagree with my conclusion and call me crazy for declaring the Red Sox a playoff team, let alone a postseason contender, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It’s not even wildly crazy. Like every non-great team that makes the playoff, some things are going to have to break right, but there are a lot of reasons to think Boston could be a playoff team. Don’t count them out.