Let the Race Begin

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.

11 comments… add one

  • Of course, one has the benefit of hindsight when looking back on 2006 and 2009. Sure, we can now say the Sox didn’t have the depth necessary to compete back then, because that’s how it played out. Do we know for sure that Wakefield, Aceves and Miller will perform well down the stretch? One could conceivably argue that it’s more likely they don’t, especially considering that Aceves has never performed well as a starter (5.14 ERA this year, with a 1.514 WHIP…his role is and forever should be middle relief), Miller has a similar problem (his acceptable 3.57 ERA this year masks his horrific peripherals), and Wakefield is one of the oldest active players in the game.
    However, those are the Sox’s depth options, and they’re honestly not any worse than pretty much any team’s in the game. It’s also rather likely that Lester, Beckett and Buccholz come back with a vengeance and clobber all competition, rendering whoever’s pitching 4th and 5th rather meaningless, especially with that relentless offense (left field notwithstanding) behind them.

    AndrewYF July 14, 2011, 4:18 pm
  • http://espn.go.com/new-york/mlb/story/_/id/6770218/new-york-yankees-derek-jeter-explains-decision-skip-all-star-game-festivities
    After the controversy grew legs, Selig defended Jeter.
    “Let’s put the Derek Jeter question to bed,” Selig said Tuesday. “There isn’t a player that I’m more proud of in the last 15 years than Derek Jeter,” Selig said. “He has played the game like it should be played. He’s even been a better human being off the field as great as he is on the field. So any concerns that I keep hearing about Derek Jeter, I know why Derek Jeter isn’t here. I respect that. And I must tell you I think I would have made the same decision that Derek Jeter did.
    “Derek Jeter has brought to this sport great pride. He’s become a role model. Earned it. Still earning it. And so any suggestion that I, or anybody else, is unhappy with him about not being here is just false.”
    the silence around here about jeter is deafening…at least bpud got one right…what’s up with the mods?…and no love for 3000…if it was pedroia, there would be fanfare and parades for weeks on end…this is why i’ve always called this a sox-centric site…this proves it…but it’s ok…good for the sox fans…boo on us yankee fans

    dc July 14, 2011, 11:40 pm
  • “this is why i’ve always called this a sox-centric site…this proves it”
    Yep. No love for Jeter or Cano. If it were reversed, there would be several articles from Paul and SF for sure.
    I understand everyone has lives and jobs but christ, if we can’t have anything on something like Jeter’s 3000 or Robbie winning the Derby, how are YF’s represented here again?
    (It does seem kinda dickish to bitch about OTHER people not doing the work to write the articles but yeah, we should pretty much take the YF off of the web address)

    krueg July 15, 2011, 9:44 am
  • gerbil will be back after these brief recorded announcements.

    attackgerbil July 15, 2011, 10:24 am
  • “Kinda”? Lest you forget, there are four YF mods to two SF mods. That said, I know two of them are based or frequently travel internationally, another has a successful and quite busy book-writing career going on, and the others, like me, have kids and other responsibilities that make this a “post here when you get a chance” situation.
    I’ve had about 10 different ideas for posts over the past two weeks, and posted exactly one of them because life just isn’t giving me that kind of time right now. One of those posts included a congratulations to Jeter for reaching 3,000, another included a question about why Ortiz chose Cano over Granderson or Teixeira for the derby and a third was to note how the rest of baseball can’t get away from the Red Sox and Yankees, even in the home run derby. None of them happened. I’m sorry.
    In the end, this is a blog run by guys who have very busy lives and post when they can. When it started, the founders’ lives were less busy, and when each mod was brought in, we were all far more consistent in our participation. I’m pretty sure I’d need two hands to count the number of children born to the moderators since I began participating here in 2005, and I can say first hand that having a child (or two, or three) is easily the most time-consuming thing a person can do and immediately drops blog posting to a much lower priority, as it should.
    I understand the frustration; I wish we could do the Fangraphs thing or the River Ave Blues thing and have a group blog of 15 highly committed members who combine to do three or four posts a day about all sorts of things in a clever, intelligent, statistically savvy manner about the rivalry. But that’s an incredibly difficult feat to pull off, and it’s not possible given the pressures all of us have on our time from other sources that are frankly a lot more important. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can only commit to posting when I can, commenting when I can and hoping it’s interesting enough to make people glad they waited.

    Paul SF July 15, 2011, 10:33 am
  • Ditto what Paul said. YF and I started this as a hobby, an outlet, which it still is. Between the time we started it and now I’ve had two kids, been through a historically bad recession, all while trying to run, save, and now re-grow a small business. I know that YF is in the midst of an amazing and difficult project, Paul is working like the dickens in TX, IH lives often out of a suitcase, and Nick is on the wrong side of the Earth and disconnected. Which leaves Gerb. WTF, Gerb?
    ;-)
    I wanted to put up a post congratulating Jeter, but I felt it inappropriate: a SF should not be the one to celebrate that accomplishment. But I also understand if the YF mods haven’t had the space to do it themselves – this is a fun thing, this site, and it takes a backseat to real life. I am sure with both our teams battling it will pick up, but the slowdowns are the slowdowns. All we can ask is that everyone bear with them, and come back often enough to participate when things do pick up.

    SF July 15, 2011, 11:00 am
  • I love the YF mods and totally understand the site takes a backseat to real life…I just don’t know any YF’s here besides the wife so you guys are my brethren. I just would have liked to celebrate these things with my boys. But I understand.

    krueg July 15, 2011, 11:05 am
  • sorry paul and sf…my frustration is more with the lack of anything about jeter’s accomplishment, from anybody…i don’t give a dang about cano winning some stupid homerun derby…i just hope it doesn’t screw up his swing…you guys say that this blog is to celebrate our love of the game, and not just show our homerish sides, so i see it as a bit of a copout that you think an sf shouldn’t be the one to start a discussion about the yankees…and i get the whole “i don’t have time” thing…but paul did have time to write this post, and shove a foam finger in our faces, and so on…but nobody has time for a rather historic event, only accomplished a couple dozen times in mlb history…look, i know paul doesn’t appreciate it, partly because it’s a counting stat and partly because it’s jeter, so i can give him a pass…and i didn’t really expect gerb to post anything because we all know he’s not a real yankee fan ;)
    …hey, i know i’m only one whiney voice, so who cares, but this site just took a punch in the credibility gut in my mind…and drives home even harder my point that despite being out-numbered in the mod count [another meaningless counting stat], this is a sox fan site…

    dc July 15, 2011, 11:23 am
  • I think 3,000 is a terrific accomplishment, but yes, insofar as it’s not any more indicative of a player’s value than 2,999 hits or 2,995 or 2,982, I guess I don’t see it the same as a lot of more casual fans or even ballplayers or writers.
    If Jeter had gotten injured and retired with 2,999 hits, he still would be a well-deserved first-ballot Hall of Famer.
    But it *is* an accomplishment, and there’s some cachet there because it’s a round number few others have achieved, and it’s worth recognizing. Props to him.
    The big debate will be if/when Johnny Damon gets 3,000 hits…

    Paul SF July 15, 2011, 11:38 am
  • As Paul and SF have said, a lot of us are just busy these days. I am pretty disconnected from the general spirit of the Yanks fan experience while in Indonesia, so even when I have time, it’s hard to get inspired.
    At this moment, I happen to be visiting NYC, but that means I am constantly seeing friends, family, etc, pulled away from the computer. I wanted to do a post on Jeter’s 3000 because it was very special and his career should be celebrated. I’m not drawn to writing fanboyish stuff about baseball players, but let’s face it, Jeter’s career has been especially meaningful for a Yanks fan my age. He is the greatest Yank I have rooted for in my lifetime. He deserves a post. Alas, I need to go out again.

    Nick-YF July 15, 2011, 11:48 am
  • zzzzzzzzzzzzz

    dc July 15, 2011, 11:50 am

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