The Boston Red Sox sit atop the American League East at the All-Star break, a welcome but not unfamiliar position: The Sox have been in first place at the break six times since 2003, yet actually finished the season there once.
Here are those seasons, with their first-half record, winning percentage and games ahead, followed by their second-half record and games ahead/behind)
- 2011, 55-35 (.611), 1.0 // ?
- 2009, 54-34 (.614), 3.0 // 41-33 (.554), 8.0
- 2008, 57-40 (.588), 0.5 // 38-27 (.585), 2.0
- 2007, 53-34 (.609), 9.5 // 43-32 (.573), up 2.0
- 2006, 53-33 (.616), 3.0 // 33-43 (.434), 11.0
- 2005, 49-38 (.563), 2.0 // 46-29 (.613), 0.0
For five straight seasons, the Sox led the division at the All-Star break, but lost it in the second half. The "chokers" explanation is an easy one to raise, but it's also not particularly true. The 2005 Red Sox did better in the second half — much better, in — but the Yankees that year had an insane second half, winning 49 games, a 104-win pace, and even so the clubs finished tied in the standings with the Yankees taking the division through the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Likewise, the 2008 entry is misleading, given the Sox won their final game of the half to return them to first place after a two-week hiatus, then lost their first game of the second half to return to second place, where they stayed the rest of the season. They weren't really a first-place team at the break; their last decent-sized lead (two games or more) was in the middle of June.
Which leaves us with 2006 and 2009, the genuine collapses of the bunch, good seasons gone bad. The '06 club rode a 12-game winning streak, mostly against National League clubs, to a stellar first-half record and 100-win pace. Then injuries struck, players regressed to their means, and the team ended up in third place. The 2009 club, meanwhile, had the feel of an old club stumbling to the finish. They won their first game after the break, then lost five straight while the Yankees won their first seven in the second half. The lead was gone just like that, and though the Sox closed to within a half-game in early August, they promptly lost six straight to the Rays and Yankees, and that was that.
Are there clues in the 2006 and '09 clubs that would give us an idea of whether the 2011 Sox will follow their example or that of their more successful colleagues in 2005 and 2007?
Starting with the most recent example, the 2009 Sox had scored 5.3 runs per game in the first half, posting a slash line of .265/.352/.448, while giving up 4.0 runs per game with a 3.2 walk rate and 7.7 strikeout rate and 1.37 WHIP. The Sox were third in the league in runs scored and second in runs allowed, but they were outperforming their peripherals by two games.
In he second half, the Sox' Pythagorean percentage went down from .591 to .561, not nearly as big a drop as the .614-.554 slide in their winning percentage. In one sense, the Sox stopped getting lucky. And while their offense remained third in the league, their pitching slid to ninth, as the Brad Penny/John Smoltz/Paul Byrd experiment imploded. Penny, Smoltz, Byrd and Tim Wakefield combined for 23 post-break appearances, of which four were quality starts. The Sox went into the season hoping at least one of Smoltz or Penny would pan out; neither did, and when injuries struck Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Sox were in big trouble.
The 2006 club has been hashed and rehashed, and that link explains it about as well as it can be explained. The Sox were a good-not-great club in 2006 who got very lucky in the first half, beating up especially on NL teams. After winning their 12th straight game on June 29, the Sox were on a 102-win pace with a Pythagorean record putting them on a 93-win pace. The Sox played .500 ball for the next couple of weeks, but they still were on a 100-win pace at the break, and Pythagoras still had them as a 93-win team. Despite a three-game lead, the Sox were actually a percentage point behind the Yankees' Pythag record. Regression was inevitable; injuries just made it much worse than it probably otherwise would have been.
So where do the 2011 Sox stack up? Well, they don't have nearly the difference between their actual record and Pythagorean record. They have a .611 winning percentage, good for 99 wins over a full season, while Pthagoras says they should actually have a .618 percentage, a 100-win pace. On the other hand, Pythagoras says the Yankees should be even better (.638, 103). On the other other hand, BP's third-order wins, which look at the components of run scoring and strength of schedule, say both teams should have better records, but that the Sox' should be four games better than the Yankees' (59 wins vs. 55). I can't say what the adjusted standings looked like at the break in 2006 and 2009, but since this is the only year of the three in which the Sox show an unlucky split on first-order wins, it appears there's a significant difference in that respect alone.
The other element of the 2006 and '09 collapses is simply impossible to judge. Both teams collapsed in part because they exhausted their pitching depth. Could the same happen in 2011? Absolutely. The Sox are pretty much on fumes as it is, with 60 percent of their opening-week rotation on the DL and this season's ace nursing a knee injury through the break. They've received terrific performances from the likes of Alfredo Aceves, Andrew Miller and Tim Wakefield. Those may or may not continue, and they still have players like Kevin Weiland and Felix Doubront in the minors. To Theo Epstein's credit, he has constructed a team better suited to withstand these injuries than the 2006 and 2009 clubs in two ways.
First, the offense is the strongest we've seen since the heydays of the Manny and Papi Show, allowing the Sox leeway to receive subpar performances from spot starters like Weiland. And second, the pitching depth is better than in either of those seasons, when the Sox were scouring the waiver wire for Jason Johnson, Paul Byrd, etc. Any further injuries, and the club will likely be back there, but those previous iterations would have been there already — and likely not still be in first place.
Anything can happen; the Red Sox could do perfectly fine in the second half only to see the Yankees perform even better. Or an unforeseen injury or slump could pull the Sox down into second place. Or Terry Francona could play strategically down the stretch if a wild card spot seems locked up. With only one game separating the Sox and Yanks, the second half begins almost in a tie (Cool Standings, working off the Pythagorean model, gives the Yankees a slight edge to win the division in their odds while projecting a one-win difference at the end of the season).
But knowing what we do, with the team as it stands presently, it appears to be better constructed and better positioned for the second half than some past Boston clubs, who teased us with a spot on top of the standings at the All-Star Break only to let the flag slip through their fingers in the hot months of summer.