Can We Blame the Injuries Now?

The events of the last few days have me thinking about 2006 — the last time the Sox finished out of the playoff picture (the only time, for that matter, since 2003). It was the nadir of recent Red Sox history, all the more frustrating because it occurred during a season in which David Ortiz set the club record for home runs in one campaign and the team won 12 games in a row for the first time since I was a 13-year-old kid cutting out articles from the Globe, Herald and Courant and gluing them onto looseleaf paper (and that was before the scrapbooking craze! A trendsetter am I).

The discussions on this site then hewed closely to the discussions on this site after the Yanks' similar third-place finish in 2008. The fans of the non-playoff team point out the role injuries played in torpedoing their season. The rival fans poo-poo this as "making excuses" for a poorly constructed team. I've wondered for the past three years whether '06 was really a year that coulda-been or simply a year that never was, so with some free time this Christmas week, I decided to take a look.

Unlike the 2008 Yanks, who started dreadfully and picked up the pace toward the end of the season, the 2006 Sox started well, struggled through May, then played lights-out baseball through June, winning the aforementioned 12 straight games to build a healthy four-game lead over the Yankees. But they played .500 ball in July, allowing the Yanks to creep back in, then beginning with a five-game sweep at Fenway at the hands of the Bombers, the Sox' season crumbled in August.

Coinciding with that fall were a slew of injuries: Three Opening Day starters — David Wells, Matt Clement and Tim Wakefield — went down. Jason Varitek went down. Trot Nixon went down. Alex Gonzalez spent a two-week spell on the DL. Manny Ramirez sat out most of September. David Ortiz went to the hospital with heart palpitations. And finally Jon Lester, on the DL with a sore back, was diagnosed with cancer.

On top of that, Coco Crisp never seemed to recover from the broken thumb he suffered in April, nor Wily Mo Pena from the broken hamate bone he suffered in May.

That's three starting pitchers, one of their replacements, all three starting outfielders, the starting catcher and the starting shortstop all either shelved or hobbled with injuries — and we were pretty nervous about the all-world DH in late August.

Not all of this was particularly bad news. Losing Clement, who had been awful since roughly the time he was hit in the head with a line drive (but more likely because his shoulder looked more like spaghetti than human muscle once doctors finally opened him up), was not really a problem. Losing the light-hitting and defensively overrated Gonzalez was Ok, too. But the tandem losses of Wakefield (July 22) and Varitek (Aug. 2) proved incredibly difficult to bear, forcing the Sox to start the likes of Kevin Jarvis and Jason Johnson, who threw to the corpses of Doug Mirabelli and Javy Lopez.

It's hard to deny some sort of causation. When Wakefield went on the DL, joining Keith Foulke, Wells and Clement, the Sox had a winning percentage of .621. By August, when Varitek and Nixon were shelved on consecutive days, the Sox were at .604. By Sept. 4, when Varitek and Nixon returned — but after Ramirez, Ortiz and Lester were out — the Sox were down to .537, and it was .531 when Wakefield came back Sept. 13. The Sox finished the season right there, at .531.

But were injuries the reason the Sox missed the playoffs and finished in third place? Not necessarily.

06 injuries 

That's a graph of the season from April 15 on (in an effort to get past the huge variations in winning percentage we see at the beginning of the year). Pink is winning percentage, with the axis on the left-hand side. Blue is run differential, with its axis on the right. I've tried to line the axes as close as possible to where a run differential of zero is even with a winning percentage of .500. It's fairly close. If one assumes that a win equals 10 runs, then a good team looking to win 95 games should want a run differential of +150 or so (15 wins over .500; the '08 Sox won 95 games with an AL-leading +149 differential). That's a winning percentage of just under .600, and that's somewhat close to where the lines match up, as well.

Obviously, early in the season there is no way to build up run differentials of 150, but differential should come closer to matching winning percentage as the season progresses. But you can see that never happened for the Sox. In 2006, they finished five games over .500 with a negative differential. Pythagoras said the Sox should have finished 81-81, and it shouldn't be any surprise that the Sox were an impressively lucky 29-20 in one-run games.

In fact, the Sox were never first in their division in the stat most predictive of the team's true level of performance; the Yankees led in run differential all season long. The teams were closest after the Sox' 12-game sprint through interleague play June 29, but even then, Boston was at +64, while New York was +70.

So this wasn't the best-constructed club to begin with. A perusal even through the healthy lineup should have borne this out: Five starters finished with an OPS+ below 100: Varitek (83), Mark Loretta (80), Gonzalez (75), Crisp (77), Nixon (96). The rest of the lineup simply wasn't good enough to overcome that: Youkilis (106) and Lowell (104) providing poor backup to the powerhouses of Ortiz (161) and Ramirez (165). And the bench was pathetic: Pena (110) and Hinske (97) were decent, but Cora (56), Mirabelli (52) and Kapler (77) provided little relief when the starters began to go down.

The pitching wasn't much better. Curt Schilling was good (120 ERA+), but Josh Beckett (95) was not. Wakefield (103) was himself, and Lester (100) was an admirable fill-in, but Clement (72) was a disaster and Wells was simply average (95).

Still, it would be foolish to say injuries didn't play a role. Wells started eight games before his September trade, Clement was gone after 12, and only Beckett and Schilling managed even 24 starts. That left the likes of Kyle Snyder (79), Johnson (64) and Lenny DiNardo (60, and himself injured much of the year) combining for 22 starts.

It's more than simply correlation that the Sox' slide began July 22, when Wakefield became the third Red Sox starter on the disabled list, and deepened when Nixon and Varitek went down soon after. Even with a good bench, the Sox would have been hard-pressed to withstand that storm, and Boston did not have a good bench.

What I hope the above chart shows is the ebb and flow of a season and how injuries may (or may not) have played a role. There seem to have been three key moments in 2006:

  1. Late May. The Sox get Crisp and Wells back from early injuries (Wells suffered a knee strain in spring training but was expected to be healthy after the first couple weeks). Almost immediately, however, they lose Mike Timlin and Pena, and then in his first start back, Wells takes a line drive off the injured knee. From May 28 to June 15, the Sox go 6-10.
  2. Mid June. The Sox lose a pair of pitchers — Foulke and Clement — who were clearly struggling and injured well before they stopped playing. No big loss, apparently, as the Sox win 12 straight beginning June 16.

  3. Mid July. The Sox even out after the hot streak, but have still gone 23-8 in the month between June 17 and July 21. Wakefield is placed on the DL July 22. The Red Sox' rotation is now, in order, Beckett, Schilling, Snyder, Kason Gabbard and Lester. In a week, Snyder will be replaced with Johnson. The Sox go 4-6 until Aug. 2, when Varitek goes down. The Sox then go 11-22 through Sept. 4 — including losing two of three to Tampa, a three-game sweep to Kansas City, the five-game sweep to the Yankees and a 2-7 West Coast trip to close out August – and the season is lost.

It's a study in snowball effects. The Red Sox were not as good a team as they appeared in June and July; they were winning close games, losing blowouts and generally playing over their heads. They did not deserve to finish ahead of the Yankees in the AL East that season and probably should have missed the playoffs. But they were not a bad team; the utter collapse they experienced in August was clearly not just a case of returning to earth. The 2006 Sox imploded, and the injuries to their pitching staff, outfield and catching stand out too brightly to ignore. They did not have the depth to withstand them, though it's not clear they ever could have had the depth to withstand such an onslaught. Sometimes these things just happen. Just ask the 2008 Yankees.

I'll see if I can't take a look at them in the near future.

4 comments… add one

  • Great work as usual, Paul! Your conclusion is very similar to what I remember about those Sox. I knew they were playing over their heads in the first half, but I also knew that injury helped their total collapse.

    Nick-YF December 27, 2008, 5:26 pm
  • nice analysis paul, but i think we all said this previously…neither team was THAT bad, but likewise neither was prepared for the onslaught of injuries that exacerbated the problems of inexperience and thin benches…

    dc December 27, 2008, 9:22 pm
  • Very interesting piece. Thanks for the thoughts.
    Three seasons is an eternity in baseball terms and we can look back much more clearly and see a team for what it was based on what happened to the players afterward.
    For the 2006 Sox, that meant relying on guys like Gonzalez, Loretta, Varitek, Crisp, Nixon, and Wells. Since that time, all of those guys have continued to decline and some have fallen completely out of baseball (or are about to). Basically half the lineup was has-been’s or never-were’s. As it is, it’s amazing they scored 800 runs but a huge chunk of that was from Papi and Manny.
    For me, that’s a fascinating way to look at roster construction. The Yankees, that same season, actually had a pretty decent team – apart from Andy Phillips and Miguel Cairo – and even the pitching was pretty good. They were simply eliminated by hot pitching that hasn’t been nearly as good since (especially Bonderman and Rogers, even Verlander).
    As to the comparison with the 2008 Yankees, looking back three seasons from now, the most glaring weakness will be the lack of planning for the injuries and age – especially at shortstop and catcher – and of course the pitching. In 2011, we’ll be saying: “I can’t believe Cashman continued to expect Posada and Jeter to play 120-140 games every year without a strong bench behind them.” That might include the 2009 team as well. Worse: “I can’t believe the 2008 Yankees got 42 starts from Rasner, Ponson, and Pavano”. The real mistake was expecting Hughes and Kennedy to pick up 50-60 starts between them. By contrast, the back steps from Cano and Melky hurt significantly, but I’m not sure they could have been predicted.

    Rob December 28, 2008, 8:41 am
  • Sorry I know it’s not relevant but…2008 AFC East Champion Miami Dolphins!!! What a turnaround…unbelievable!!!

    krueg December 28, 2008, 8:26 pm

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