The Boston Red Sox, thanks to their season-opening tour of Japan, have reached 81 games faster than any other team in baseball. The first half of the season is technically over. In a happy coincidence, today is also an off-day, giving us a little time to reflect on how the Sox have done, and how they’re likely to do.
With 49 wins, the Sox are tied for most in the majors, and sport baseball’s third-best record. Since the start of the 162-game season in 1961, this is the Red Sox’ seventh-best first-half record. Of the six Sox teams that had finished the first 81 games with 50 or more wins, none reached 100. For the record, those teams were: 1978, 1979, 1986, 2002, 2006 and 2007. Some pretty significant disappointments in that group. Only one other Boston team since 1961 has won 49 of their first games: the 1998 club, which finished with 92 wins and the wild card. So the odds that the Sox will match their first-half success are slim. In fact, in the expansion era, it would be a first.
All year, I’ve had a feeling that this ballclub is not playing as well as last year’s. Turns out, this isn’t true. The Sox’ +70 run differential is surprisingly close to last season’s +83. That’s 13 runs, or 1.3 wins. Not coincidentally, the 2007 Red Sox were one game better at this stage. The big difference, of course, is their situation in the standings. After 81 games, the ’07 Sox were 10.5 games up on Toronto, which had a 40-42 record, and New York, which was 39-41. This year, the Sox are 1 game up on Tampa Bay, which is 46-31. The problem hasn’t been the Sox’ getting worse; it’s been everyone else getting better.
The other fun part about being exactly halfway through the season is being able to simply double the counting stats to reach the players’ projected totals. Also, we can look at last season’s final 81 games to find a player’s total over their "hidden season" of 162 games that spans two years. Of course, we could do that anytime, but it seems more appropriate to use two 81-game halves.
Let’s go through it, starter by starter, with their projected year-end stats, and their previous 162-game lines. Obviously rate stats are simply the current numbers.
C: Jason Varitek
- Projected: .231/.306/.392, 14 HR, 50 RBI, 26 2B, 40 BB, 114 K, 98 H, 54 R, 83 OPS+
- Last 162: .237/.340/.391, 16 HR, 60 RBI, 20 2B, 63 BB, 132 K, 105 H, 45 R, 94 OPS+
Clearly, Varitek was better in the second half last season. His slump over the last month (OPS+ of 19) has really hurt. Were Tek to put up those numbers, it would continue a pattern of steady decline that would arguably leave him with a season even worse than his hideous 2006. The 14 home runs would be his second-lowest (two more than 2006, despite a projected 50 more at-bats), the walks would be a career low, as would the 50 RBI (hello, .214/.323/.286 line with RISP). The season represented by his last 162 games would in fact be the exact middle of the season he put up last year and the one he’s having this season.
The sad fact remains that Varitek as a switch hitter is simply splitting in the worst possible way. He has no power from the right side (1 HR in 44 AB), and can’t make contact from the left (more Ks than hits). I’m not optimistic for the second half.
1B: Kevin Youkilis
- Projected: .303/.374/.539, 26 HR, 94 RBI, 40 2B, 54 BB, 108 K, 162 H, 94 R, 138 OPS+
- Last 162: .273/.369/.470, 21 HR, 92 RBI, 34 2B, 70 BB, 122 K, 143 H, 87 R, 122 OPS+
Funny thing about the Jewish-Romanian God of Walks. He’s not walking. Perhaps a more aggressive approach is suiting him; while his on-base percentage is below his career average of .382 and well below last year’s .390, his slugging is up an astronomical 80 points. On his current pace, he’ll obviously shatter his career high in home runs, but he’ll also collect more hits than ever before — without any appreciable gain in strikeouts. It’s the new, more aggressive Youk. Let’s see if he can avoid the dropoff. His career second-half line results in a 77 OPS+.
2B: Dustin Pedroia
- Projected: .289/.334/.422, 14 HR, 68 RBI, 44 2B, 40 BB, 58 K, 188 H, 96 R, 98 OPS+
- Last 162: .302/.352/.429, 12 HR, 61 RBI, 45 BB, 45 BB, 54 K, 196 H, 104 R, 107 OPS+
Pedroia is so new, it’s hard to tell what his baseline is. He’s prone to extreme cold spells, it seems — April 2007 and May 2008 fitting that bill. This year, Pedroia’s month-by-month OPS+ looks like a roller coaster: 109-82-129. His rate stats are still recovering from May, but his counting stats are robust indeed (certainly not hurt by being on pace for 158 games played and nearly 700 plate apperances). He’s one away from matching his home run total from last season, easily on pace to set a career high in RBI, hits, runs and doubles. For that matter, 200 hits and 100 runs is not out of the question — not bad for a No. 2 hitter, as long as he brings his on-base percentage back above .350, which seems likely based on the results of seven of his nine months in the major leagues. Oh, and there’s this ridiculous projection: 16 stolen bases, 0 caught stealing.
SS: Julio Lugo
- Projected: .274/.366/.347, 2 HR, 36 RBI, 26 2B, 60 BB, 84 K, 120 H, 42 R, 90 OPS+
- Last 162: .277/.347/.383, 5 HR, 57 RBI, 37 2B, 53 BB, 84 K, 142 H, 59 R, 95 OPS+
Wait, wasn’t it last year that Lugo had the supposedly offense-sapping stomach bug? Yet this year, his power has vanished? Two home runs, easily a career low. Twenty-six doubles, for a player with Lugo’s speed, is just terrible. To be fair, the Sox over the last 162 games have gotten a good deal of production from their shortstop position, but Lugo is essentially hitting nothing but singles now. While his BABIP isn’t extraordinarily high (his .328 is closer to his career average than last year’s .262), it’s a worrisome development — as are the projected career-high 32 errors and career-low range factor from a usually average-to-above-average defender.
3B: Mike Lowell
- Projected: .287/.353/.500, 22 HR, 82 RBI, 32 2B, 44 BB, 60 K, 132 H, 70 R, 122 OPS+
- Last 162: .322/.380/.495, 20 HR, 109 RBI, 33 2B, 52 BB, 73 K, 181 H, 81 R, 131 OPS+
Don’t look now, but Mike Lowell at age 34 is putting up a higher OPS+ this year than last, and we all pretty well assumed last year was his final hurrah as a 120 OPS+ guy. Despite missing nearly 20 games with an injury this year, Lowell is still on pace to hit more home runs than any year since 2004. His AB/HR has dropped from 28 to 20, and while his average has dipped with his BABIP returning to his career norm, nothing else really has. The absurd 68.5 percent singles rate Lowell compiled last year, particularly in the second half (note how mugh higher Lowell’s 162-game batting average is, despite a lower slugging percentage), has fallen to 62 percent, very close to his career norm. We may see his power regress in the second half (his home runs-per-fly ball is higher than normal), but Lowell is quietly having another remarkable season.
LF: Manny Ramirez
- Projected: .291/.379/.516, 30 HR, 98 RBI, 30 2B, 70 BB, 130 K, 160 H, 90 R, 134 OPS+
- Last 162: .293/.380/.509, 24 HR, 95 RBI, 32 2B, 63 BB, 110 K, 144 H, 90 R, 134 OPS+
Manny seems to have found a new level of consistency, as his first half this season and second half last season are nearly identical. It’s not the monster first-ballot HOF consistency he established for 10 years, but it’s still a fearsome presence in the cleanup spot. Although it’s an odd consistency. The results are the same, but how Ramirez gets there is through a series of hot-and-cold stretches. So far in 2008, Manny has had the following stretches (games/OPS): 19/1.127, 29/.670, 15/1.259, 11/.532. If, in the end, it all adds up to 30 home runs and 100 RBI, it’ll be hard to complain. It’ll be just as hard not to pick up that $20 million option.
CF: Coco Crisp
- Projected: .271/.311/.438, 10 HR, 44 RBI, 26 2B, 22 BB, 62 K, 104 H, 44 R, 95 OPS+
- Last 162: .275/.333/.418, 7 HR, 61 RBI, 31 2B, 42 BB, 80 K, 127 H, 69 R, 99 OPS+
God bless Coco’s defense. Without it, he’d be fairly easily the worst player on the Red Sox. As much as Lugo is derided around these parts, I remain amazed how Crisp’s worse offense is allowed to pass. Is it solely because of his amazing play in center? Maybe so, and maybe that’s enough. But the man is a black hole at the plate, and while his OPS+ is higher, thanks to an uptick in home runs, his on-base percentage continues to plummet. Most alarming: The paltry 11 walks he’s drawn in 209 plate appearances this season, tied for eighth-worst in Major League Baseball (min., 200 PA). If he finishes with 22, that’ll be the lowest by any qualifying member of the Red Sox since Dave Stapleton in 1981 and the third-worst in post-war Sox history.
Crisp is on pace, thanks to his quasi-platoon with Jacoby Ellsbury, for fewer than 400 at bats, which doesn’t help his projected counting numbers and does make his home run total that much more impressive. But the lack of plate discipline is erasing much of that power advantage. His GPA (OPS adjusted for the greater importance of OBP and scaled to read like batting average) is up from .235 to just .240. By contrast, Lugo’s has jumped from .211 to .242. Yes, that means both players are roughly equivalent at the plate right now, but the problem is league-average GPA for shortstops is below .260. For center fielders, it’s above .280. The question remains, as it has with Crisp since his arrival, do his excellent defense and good speed (on pace for 24 steals) outweigh his negatives at the plate?
RF: J.D. Drew
- Projected: .308/.414/.573, 28 HR, 90 RBI, 28 2B, 82 BB, 100 K, 140 H, 108 R, 157 OPS+
- Last 162: .298/.402/.512, 19 HR, 77 RBI, 34 2B, 85 BB, 105 K, 141 H, 97 R, 142 OPS+
He’s cooled down over the last few games, but Drew — thanks in large part to his monstrous June — is on pace for his best season since his best season: 2004 with the Braves. He’s on pace for roughly 135 games for the third straight season, He’s doing it with a high BABIP, but he sustained higher rates throughout his two best seasons, 2001 and 2004. The question will be sustainability through the next three months — August in particular, as Drew has never had an above-average month of August. It’s important to note, however, that J.D. has put together a 251 OPS+ this month with a BABIP that’s actually slightly below his career average. It was May that was his "lucky" month. What is most likely to come down is his home runs. He’s currently hitting a home run once for every five fly balls (fewer than five, actually). He’s done that before (2004, again), but that’s an astronomical rate.
OF: Jacoby Ellsbury
- Projected: .275/.352/.388, 10 HR, 46 RBI, 16 2B, 58 BB, 76 K, 140 H, 106 R, 95 OPS+
- Last 162: .299/.365/.426, 8 HR, 41 RBI, 15 2B, 37 BB, 53 K, 111 H, 73 R, 110 OPS+
Ellsbury is thought of as a center fielder, but he’s started far fewer games there than Crisp, and has essentially been turned this year into a utility outfielder — 251 innings in center, 212 in left, 102 in right. He’s appeared in 72 of the Sox’ 81 games this way, and considering Crisp’s value as a defender, the Sox are arguably running one of the best defensive outfields in the game on a consistent basis when Ellsbury is spelling Manny in left.
Ellsbury’s offense has slipped since his torrid start to the year, but he’s been a pleasant surprise in two aspects — his plate discipline nets him 80 additional on-base points, and he’s on pace to reach double digits in home runs, something no one anticipated he’d do. June’s been rough on Ellsbury, and his month-by-month splits this season point out a trend that makes me nervous: 129-111-62 in OPS+. His BABIP was higher in June than in either of the other two months, as well. Are pitchers figuring him out? Perhaps. The drop is almost entirely attributable to Ellsbury’s collapse in patience. He’s drawn two walks this month after no fewer than 13 each of the previous two. His hits and extra-base hits are comparable, his average is only down 20 points, but his OBP in June was 100 points below what he posted in May. It’s likely simply the growing pains of learning to play in the big leagues, but a return to patience would suit Ellsbury well.
DH: David Ortiz
- Projection: .282/.354/.486, 26 HR, 86 RBI, 20 2B, 66 BB, 74 K, 106 H, 72 R, 119 OPS+
- Last 162: .305/.414/.585, 35 HR, 113 RBI, 35 2B, 94 BB, 93 K, 155 H, 104 R, 162 OPS+
Obviously, there are some problems inherent with this projection, as it must assume Ortiz misses another month of action (not unreasonable) and that he puts up a month as bad as the April he had (not sure how reasonable). Both those scenarios could actually be true if Ortiz returns and his healing wrist inhibits his swing in some way. In which case, the numbers we have would be accurate — not bad for the off year. I would expect, since Ortiz did not need surgery, that if he is healthy enough to play in a month, he will not have a problem re-finding the groove that had led him to a 176 OPS+ in May. Until then, we’ll have to keep hoping Drew keeps taking up the slack.
In case there’s any doubt that Fenway is a doubles park, the Sox are on pace to field nine players with 20 or more doubles, the fifth time in their history they would pull that off (2005 was the last time), and eight players with 25 or more (also the fifth time for a Red Sox club, and the second year in a row). Most strange is that the Sox have five players on pace for 20 home runs, one short of their record six in 2002, but none on pace for 100 RBI, which would be the first time since 1997 that happened. If Youkilis, Lowell, Drew, Ramirez and Ortiz match their projections of 20 home runs, they would break the club’s 67-year-old record for most players with that many home runs and fewer than 100 RBI.
SP1: Josh Beckett
- Projection:14-10, 3.73/1.11/.241, 188 IP, 194 K, 38 BB, 170 H, 11 HR, 115 ERA+
- Last 162: 16-11, 3.58/1.16/.245, 203.2 IP, 212 K, 39 BB, 198 H, 23 HR
Baseball-Reference doesn’t do ERA+ for splits, which is slightly annoying, but we can see for a while now that Beckett’s been a bit unlucky, both in wins and ERA. Overall, he has allowed few baserunners, struck out better than a batter per inning and collected more than five Ks for every walk. Yet his ERA is in the mid 3s, and he continues to lose games at a double-digit pace that is unlucky even for a pitcher with his ERA, never mind his peripheral stats. A lot of that may have to do with his home run rate — at roughly 1.02 per nine innings over the past 12 months, and up to 1.05 this season, after sitting at 0.53 in the first half of ’07. Beckett’s career average is 0.97, so he remains above normal.
Another part of the problem is Beckett’s performance this season with men on base — a .783 OPS allowed with runners on, versus a .599 OPS with the bases empty. Last year, Beckett was better with runners on base (.640) than with the bases empty (.676). Jason Varitek is on record as thinking Beckett will have a tremendous second half, after struggling to regain the feel for his pitches immediately following his spring training back injury. I’d guess he’s right. The numbers seem to point toward better results as the season goes on.
SP2: Daisuke Matsuzaka
- Projection: 16-2, 3.46/1.42/.218, 130 IP, 112 K, 82 BB, 102 H, 10 HR, 125 ERA+
- Last 162: 14-8, 4.26/1.37/.225, 171 IP, 155 K, 86 BB, 149 H, 21 HR
When did someone replace Matsuzaka with Jon Lester? Daisuke this year has had no problems racking up strikeouts (7.8 per nine), nor preventing hits (a Pedro-esque 7.1 per nine). But he’s walked close to six batters per nine innings, leading to the ugly WHIP we’ve seen this season. It’s a problem that dates back to the second half of last year, and while Matsuzaka has managed to keep his ERA low and win total high by keeping his hits and home runs down, the pitches required to work around four or five walks a game have obviously taken their toll.
Something obviously has to change going forward. Look at it this way: It’s been 17 years since any full-time starting pitcher managed 5.5 walks per game while posting an ERA below 3.50, and 47 years since anyone did so while pitching for the Red Sox. There’s a reason for that.
SP3: Jon Lester
- Projection: 12-6, 3.13/1.33/.253, 207.1 IP, 130 K, 78 BB, 198 H, 14 HR, 138 ERA+
- Last 162: 10-3, 3.67/1.38/.242, 166.2 IP, 115 K, 70 BB, 160 H, 17 HR
Lester’s turned things around in recent starts, and the difference this season is clearly the reduction in walks. Lester’s K/9 has dropped from 7.1 to 5.6, but his K/BB ratio has improved thanks to a drastic drop in his walks — roughly one per nine innings. All the numbers are trending in the right direction for the youngster: His WHIP has dropped from 1.46 to 1.33, his FIP (fielding-independent pitching) from 5.24 to 3.79, his ground-to-fly ball ratio has swung dramatically toward the ground, allowing him to cut his home run rate by better than half. There’s plenty of room for improvement — it’s hard to see a pitcher with Lester’s peripherals maintaining a 138 ERA+ — but this season has been a monumental step so far.
SP4: Tim Wakefield
- Projection: 10-10, 3.88/1.26/.230, 204 IP, 138 K, 84 BB, 172 H, 28 HR, 111 ERA+
- Last 162: 15-9, 4.42/1.32/.244, 197.1 IP, 123 K, 70 BB, 191 H, 24 HR
Throw away the book when discussing Wakefield. The 84 walks? Those are good. Well, they’re at least not as bad as you’d think. In Wake’s best season in Boston, 1995, he walked 68 and struck out 119. In his worst, 2000, he walked 65 and struck out 102. So far at least, the knuckleball has been dancing. Wake’s on pace for his most strikeouts and lowest WHIP since 2005, highest ERA+ since 2003 and lowest ERA since 2002. The 172 hits would be his fewest allowed in a full (25 starts or more) season since 1995.
In an unusual season for Wakefield, he’s providing some consistency. Yes, he has the two clunkers (game scores below 20), but 13 of his other 14 starts are considered quality by either game score (50 or above) or the traditional method (6IP/3ER). If only he could get some luck to go with the pitching; the Sox have twice been shut out during his starts and scored three runs or fewer three other times. In all five of Wakefield’s losses, the Sox either scored three runs or fewer, or they lost by one run.
SP5: Justin Masterson/Bartolo Colon
- Projection: 16-6, 3.72/1.28/.227, 150 IP, 116 K, 60 BB, 132 H, 22 HR, 116 ERA+
- Last 162: N/A
The fifth spot in the rotation has been more than capably handled by these two — Masterson while Colon was rehabbing, then Colon while Masterson was essentially covering for Matsuzaka, now Masterson again now that Colon is back on the DL. Their contribution essentially means that every starting spot for the Red Sox has put up an ERA+ of at least 110. It’s an impressive output, especially here, from a rookie called up straight from AA, and a veteran with so little left in the tank, the Red Sox were the only team interested in signing him. Both have come up big.
Each has his foibles. Masterson, like most young pitchers, walks too many, but his stuff has been good enough to limit the damage, as his hits rate is minuscule. Colon has exhibited pinpoint control and a great fastball, but he’s been tagged a little bit, especially in a couple more recent starts. It’ll be interesting to see how Francona manages these two later in the season; at the moment, I have more trust in Masterson, who has yet to pitch a dog of a game in seven big-league starts.
This has been a strange season for Boston. The Sox are essentially on the same pace as they were in 2007, but it feels like they’re struggling more — in part because they’ve never been as hot as they were in April and May ’07 (and they’ve not struggled like they did last June, either). No one hitter has dominated the league like Ortiz or Ramirez used to do. Instead, those two and J.D. Drew (with significant support from Kevin Youkilis) have seemingly taken turns putting together hot months to carry the offense.
Likewise, the pitchers all have good numbers, but no one has been dominant on that side either. In one of the more maddening coincidences, both the starters and relievers have put together long stretches of dominance, but they have yet to do so at the same time. As a result, the starters have lower win totals than they deserve, even though the Sox’ five most used relievers all have ERAs below 3.50.
This club looks and feels like a better team than last year’s World Series winners, but it seems to have yet to put things together. A little more consistency in July and August could give us the first 100-win Red Sox team since 1946. A little less could leave them out of the playoffs altogether. Eighty-one games down. Eighty-one to go.