How About Them Red Sox?

The Boston Red Sox have been killing it. By almost any metric, the Red Sox have been the best team in the American League and one of the best in the MLB. Judging by Wins Above Average By Position, the Red Sox lead the way at 7.4 wins above average. For reference, the Chicago White Sox are in second place at 5.6. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider that Boston also leads its conference in point differential (+59) and SRS (1.1), which measures both point differential and strength of schedule. Clearly the Red Sox aren’t just beating up on bad teams or barely passing by.

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So here’s the question that everyone’s asking: how did a team that finished at the bottom of its division turn it around so far in a year?

David Ortiz is going out with a bang. 

It shouldn’t surprise too many of us, but the Red Sox designated hitter is a legend. And this just might be his finest season yet. Judging by traditional statistics, his 10 home runs, 33 RBIs and .320 batting average put him as one of the league’s best batters. Even that might be underselling how phenomenal he has been there.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians
David Ortiz hitting a home run against the Cleveland Indians in 2016. Photo is per Ken Blaze/USA TODAY

“Moneyball” statistics like on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS (which combines the two) put Big Papi as either the best or one of baseball’s premier hitters. He’s third in the MLB in OBP (.405), while leading the league in SLG (.695), OPS (1.101) and isolated power (.375). This is a rare breed of a player: someone simultaneously fantastic at getting on base and hitting for power. Ortiz is literally so good that his hitting value alone practically nullifies any kind of baserunning flaws he might have. Hell, he’s had his moments there anyway.

Perhaps he’ll keep up his fantastic production – or he’ll slow down as the grind of a season brings him closer to expectations heading into the season. Given that he plans to retire after this year, it’s easier to be skeptical about Ortiz keeping up his incredible production. But it’s not as if the Red Sox are entirely dependent on him.

Boston’s pitching has been just fine.

Ask any Red Sox fan about what they have to complain about: chances are they’ll mention how frustrated they are with the team’s pitching. I talked to my dad about his thoughts on Boston’s starting pitchers and he rolled his eyes in response. Given that the Red Sox’s offense basically grading as “terror on wheels” this season, it’s natural to assume pitching as the team’s Achilles heel – especially given last week’s embarrassing 6-5 loss against the Houston Astros after they opened up with a 5-1 lead early in the game.

Yet look beyond Boston’s deceptive 4.21 ERA. The team plays half of its games in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly ballparks. Qualitatively speaking, it’s easier for batters to score there, thus inflating opposing team’s offensive production. You could bring up Boston’s question marks at the end of their starting rotation in terms of talent, but having amazing No. 4 or 5 starting pitchers isn’t exactly a necessity.

Per Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures a pitcher’s ability to prevent home runs, avoid walks and cause strikeouts, the Red Sox have actually been above MLB average, ranking tenth (3.82 FIP) out of all 30 teams. While the criteria sounds arbitrary – being easy to dismiss as overly complex math that has little bearing to do with a pitcher trying to give up hits – remember that there’s been tons of statistical research put into the metric’s merits, showing that pitchers actually don’t have much agency over the outcome of balls put into play.

David Price
Red Sox pitcher David Price playing against the Minnesota Twins during the beginning of a spring training game on March 10, 2016. Photo used per the Boston Herald, which used an AP Photo from Patrick Semansky.

In particular, the performance of David Price, who is perhaps the league’s most “unlucky” pitcher, has been of notable critique from Red Sox fans. But while his 6.00 ERA may initially depict a bust of an pitching ace, FIP actually has him as the second best starter in the AL (2.53), just behind the White Sox’s Jose Quintana. That’s drastically different and more worthy of a $30 million price tag.

If you don’t believe the predictive value of FIP for future success, here’s an example that Red Sox fans may not want to remember: Daisuke Matsuzaka. In 2008, the Japanese pitcher’s 18-3 and sub-3.00 ERA told the story of a foreign pitcher that turned into one of the league’s premier aces, but his 4.03 FIP and high walk-rate showed a pitcher with an unsustainable process – and you can ask Bostonians how he turned out for them over the future, when he never reached that level of production again. It’s sometimes hard to believe, but even a full season of individual production in the MLB can be reliant on factors outside a player’s control.

Though it’s naive to expect Price suddenly ending the season as a Cy Young candidate, it’s just as silly to dismiss him as a failed star pitcher. Most likely he will “regain” form through the year as the outcome of balls put into play slowly moves back towards league average. His improvement alone, ignoring the development of the Red Sox’s backend pitchers, will go a long way towards Boston’s future success.

The Young Guns are Blazing

Guys like David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia have been stars before, so it’s not unexpected to see them succeed. While it’s easy to attribute Boston’s monstrous, world-breaking and  6.03 runs per game to these veterans, what’s more promising is the development of Boston’s young guns – and I don’t mean in a Laremy Tunsil way.

Already one of the league’s best fielders at his position, 26 year-old center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. went from being an offensive albatross (.241 BA/.335 OBP) and weak link in a stacked lineup to being one of the league’s best contact hitters (.331 BA/.374 OBP) and one of the Red Sox’s safest bets to getting on base. If Bradley Jr. turned his former weakness to just being “okay,” his work would have already done wonders for his player value. Becoming one of the league’s best hitters, while somewhat implausible over the long-term, is simply an added bonus for Boston if he keeps it up.

Moreover, the 23 year-old Xander Bogaerts continued his breakout year from 2015 and has even (.338 BA/.390 OBP) improved as a batter. While Bogaerts still has questions about his fielding, watching him play shows that he’s clearly improved from the year before. Quantitatively, Bogaerts went from a negative (-10) in Zone Fielding Runs Above Average per 1,200 innings to grading decently (7). The +17 difference doesn’t sound like that much over the course of a year, but consider how innately low-scoring baseball can be in comparison to sports like football or basketball.  Those runs matter a lot more over the course of a season.

However, the biggest surprise for Boston is the guy they replaced their now disgruntled, hurt and possibly eating problem-ridden Pablo Sandoval with. In fact, Travis Shaw (.317 BA/.391 OBP) hasn’t just outplayed Sandoval for the job – he’s played like the best third baseman in the AL, while being paid this season just under three percent of Sandoval’s $17 million salary. Even if Shaw doesn’t keep his level of performance up, he’s already vastly exceeded expectations.

Ultimately, if you’re a Red Sox fan, there’s plenty to be excited about. The team has the best offense in baseball by a good margin due to both veteran and rising stars, while the starting pitching is due for a turnaround. I wouldn’t expect Boston to make the crazy 11-1 scores routine over the course of a season, but for Bostonians who have suffered the last two years of uninspiring play, this year so far rightfully got them talking again.

All statistics are as of May 17, 2016.

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