The 95-Win ‘Mediocrity’

Why do I bother?

The Orioles have not been the Sox' only punching bag. The Sox are 11-4 against Toronto (another doormat) and went 11-7 against the inferior National League. That leaves the Sox at 46-45 against everyone else. All of this suggests the Sox are far closer to being a mediocre team than they are an elite one.

Tony Massarotti earlier in the week ran this column, saying the Sox are not actually a good team because, despite their record, the way they achieved it leaves something to be desired. This is reminiscent of the J.D. Drew debates a week or so ago in which Drew's detractors seemed more fixated on the way Drew achieved his excellent production, as opposed to focusing on his actual production.

One key difference is that the Red Sox in the postseason would be playing only the good teams. No Baltimores or Torontos to beat up. Only the Yankees, Tigers and Angels, if the season ended today. Teams against whom the Sox have posted a .607 winning percentage. Add in the Phillies, whom they could face in the World Series, and the winning percentage is .613, a 19-12 record.


Ok, so maybe the Sox have actually played better against their potential playoff opponents than the rest of the league. Massarotti's point is that they're mediocre because they can't beat good pitching:

Let's get to the math: At the moment, the Sox currently rank seventh in the league in ERA. Since June 11, against the six teams in front of them in ERA, the Sox are 12-21 while batting .243 and averaging 4.7 runs per game. Against the seven teams behind them, the Sox are 30-12 while batting .277 and averaging 5.6 runs per contest. The Sox take from the poor and give to the rich, which is the truest definition of mediocrity.

Funny, I always thought the truest definition of mediocrity in baseball was an 81-81 record, which the Sox will achieve should they go 0-23 in their remaining games. Last I checked, 95 wins, which the Sox are on pace to achieve, is not actually mediocre. Since June 11, the Sox are 43-33, a 92-win pace. Also not mediocre.

Should you believe that every team in baseball follows this pattern, think again. The New York Yankees currently rank sixth in the AL in pitching, though their ERA (4.31) is essentially identical to that of the Sox. Including the head-to-head meetings with the Red Sox, the Yankees are 24-9 against the top pitching teams in the league since June 11. In those games, they have batted .298 while averaging 6.1 runs per contest. The obvious point is that the Yankees have demonstrated an ability to beat everyone, which suggests a far more balanced and potent roster than the one currently occupying the home clubhouse at Fenway Park.

So since June 11, the Red Sox (43-33) have not been as good as the Yankees (57-24). You got me.

The problem, of course, is the way we're selecting our dates. June 11 was the high point of the season for the Sox and the low point of the season for the Yankees. The Sox then went through a hideous team-wide slump in July, culminating with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Yanks and a six-game losing streak. Since Aug. 9, the Sox' low point, they are 19-10, a .655 winning percentage. Why aren't we using that data set?

I'm also not sure why we're randomly selecting pitching staffs better than Boston's, when, for example Tampa — from whom the Sox just took to of three on the road — is a whopping .03 of a run worse than the Sox, or those same Blue Jays against whom the Sox are 14-4 have an ERA of 4.40, better than league average and just .09 of a run worse than Boston's.

So, using Massarotti's methods, the previous excerpt could be written this way:

Since Aug. 9, against teams with an ERA better than league average, the Sox are 17-10, averaging 5.85 runs per game, batting .279 and posting an OPS of .854. All but the last two games against Baltimore have been against teams with better than average pitching staffs.

What's especially strange is Massarotti's suggestion that the Sox are unique in their alleged inability to play better than .500 ball against good pitching staffs (even though, as we've shown, the Sox actually in 2009 have a better winning percentage against their potential playoff opponents than they do against everyone else). But the only example he provides is the best team in baseball, whom you would expect to perform better in most situations than the Red Sox.

So let's look at the American League's five most likely playoff teams using their season-long records and runs per game against the Top 7 staffs (Seattle, Chicago, Texas, Detroit, New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, Toronto [where necessary]). In parentheses, I've included the team's total 2009 runs per game:

  • Yankees: 51-29, 5.41 (5.7)
  • Angels: 31-29, 5.37 (5.6)
  • Red Sox: 40-35, 4.93 (5.3)
  • Rangers: 35-27, 4.50 (5.0)
  • Tigers: 27-27, 4.24 (4.6)

So among the five playoff contenders in 2009, the Sox are smack in the middle — they have the third-best scoring against the top pitching staffs (behind New York and the Angels), the third-best record (behind New York and Texas) against those staffs, and the third-lowest drop from their seasonal RPG (behind Detroit and the Angels) against those staffs.

Not surprisingly, of the six teams thus far in 2009, they also have overall… the third-best record and the third-most runs scored per game. Imagine that. Not bad for such mediocrity.

31 comments… add one

  • Dude…you are an animal. You should send this to him!

    krueg reincarnate September 11, 2009, 10:54 am
  • I keep on reading the same type of thing about the Yanks schedule too – that they beat up on “certain” teams, and not so well against other certain teams. And unsurprising, the teams they beat up on are awful (which accounts, at least partially, for their awful records).
    I don’t know what it all means, but we all know the post season is a crapshoot (to some degree) so ah well..

    Lar September 11, 2009, 11:22 am
  • The funny thing is I read this column this morning just after I had been thinking that the Sox, assuming Beckett is getting back to normal, were poised to be a better team in the postseason than they are in the regular seasons because the postseason highlights their strengths (three potential aces, rock-solid bullpen) while minimizing their weaknesses (depth, weakness in the gap between the stars and the bench).

    Paul SF September 11, 2009, 11:40 am
  • i read the same mazz column paul, and he is wrong…i agree with you…if the definition of “mediocre” is that you beat the stuffing out of bad teams, and respectably tread water [or better] against the rest, then gimme more…that’s the way it’s supposed to be, no?…the sox don’t have a mediocre record at all, which you accurately point out…they lead the darn wild card for crying out loud…the yankees have an unbelievable record by comparison at this point, so it creates an incorrect perception of the sox that mazz jumped all over…so what, the yankees got hot later in the season…timing is everything…the sox absolutely owned the yankees in the first half of the season, and the yankees have owned the sox in the second half…most of the games were hard fought if i remember right, and the sox still lead the season series…not unreasonable to expect another reversal of fortunes, which worries me greatly…apparently mazz didn’t read my comment ;) from the other day about how you can pretty much throw out the regular season once the post season starts…you’re the stat guy, so how many times has the team with the best record actually gone on to win the ws?…you know, in addition to the drew argument, mazz’s logic is a lot like the gang who want to diminish what jeter does, all the while saying he’s a sure hall of famer…reaching lou freaking gehrig for most yankee hits?, no biggy…

    dc September 11, 2009, 11:55 am
  • Paul who is the sox “3rd potential ace” after Beckett and Lester?

    sam-YF September 11, 2009, 12:17 pm
  • uh oh

    dc September 11, 2009, 12:27 pm
  • its not meant as a dig, im curious as to what passes as a potential ace…it seems to me all of the playoff bound teams have potential aces using the definition that would include clay or wakefield.

    sam-YF September 11, 2009, 12:32 pm
  • dice-k would have been thought of as a “potential” ace at one point, but he’s more of a question mark now…we’ll have to see if/how he comes back, which is soon, i think i heard somewhere…

    dc September 11, 2009, 12:51 pm
  • I was including Clay Buchholz and his 3.00 ERA in his last seven starts, Sam. Though the shorthand was probably not accurate, as I wouldn’t be comfortable if he were the Sox’ top pitcher heading into the postseason like I would with Lester or Beckett. I should have said three top-flight starters, or something like that. At any rate, Buchholz looks like the real deal, and that’s very encouraging for the Sox’ postseason chances.

    Paul SF September 11, 2009, 12:59 pm
  • It’s obviously Buchholz. “Potential ace” might be strong, but that’s what Lester was for a long time. Boy, was I ever wrong about that guy.
    Two of Buchholz’s three losses this year were to Detroit and NYY (facing Verlander and Sabathia, I think).
    In 11 starts, he has had two horrific starts (BAL, CWS), one bad (TEX), one okay (TB), four good (TOR, OAK, NYY, TOR), and three excellent (DET, TOR, BAL).
    He is certainly the #3 right now, and is trending up. In his last seven starts, he has had one horrific, one okay, two good, and three excellent starts.

    Devine September 11, 2009, 1:03 pm
  • Thats fine Paul, I just think that all of the playoff teams have a very strong front 3 and dont see the Sox 3 SPs as an obvious advantage over the other teams.

    sam-YF September 11, 2009, 1:25 pm
  • Jesus Paul, I don’t know how I would get through lazy Fridays in the lab without your posts to read. It’s nice to see criticism of sports writers since FJM has been gone.

    Atheose September 11, 2009, 1:29 pm
  • Tigers:
    1. Verlander (141 ERA+)
    2. Jackson (147)
    3. Washburn (122, 68 with DET)
    Yankees:
    1. Sabathia (131)
    2. Burnett (106)
    3. Pettitte (109)
    Angels:
    1. John Lackey (129)
    2. Jered Weaver (121)
    3. Joe Saunders (92)
    Red Sox:
    1. Jon Lester (138)
    2. Josh Beckett (122)
    3. Clay Buchholz (121)
    Rangers:
    1. Feldman (130)
    2. Millwood (120)
    3. Hunter (130)
    So right now the Tigers clearly have the best 3, with the Red Sox and Rangers after that.

    Atheose September 11, 2009, 1:39 pm
  • There should be the caveat with Buccholz numbers is that they are for about 1/3 of a season.

    sam-YF September 11, 2009, 2:09 pm
  • Man, looking at those pitchers it makes me think of all the times we’ve gone into the playoffs with the whole “murder’s row” offense only to be shut down by quality pitching. Here’s to this year being different!!! Hopefully??? Please???
    Burnett scares the hell out of me…

    krueg reincarnate September 11, 2009, 2:10 pm
  • Most of your points make sense, and this was a rather silly claim to make for Massarotti.
    But I’m not sure his use of the June 11-now period is a problem, especially compared to the August 11-now period. It’s not entirely unreasonable to go for the longer period when you’re comparing stats like this, especially since this wasn’t some arbitrary date choice–he went back exactly 3 months. The fact that Boston was in a huge slump for some of that 2 months isn’t enough to criticize picking a larger period for comparison.
    Of course, it’s ridiculous to argue that Boston’s mediocre just because, for much of the season, they were better against bad teams than against good teams. But I don’t think date-selectivity is the problem.

    Rex Manning Day September 11, 2009, 2:30 pm
  • I would argue with the fact that Detroit’s is “clearly” the best, given Washburn has been atrocious since his acquisition, and that Verlander and Lester have basically the same ERA. That leaves Edwin Jackson versus Josh Beckett, and while Beckett’s had a yucky run of starts lately, Jackson has been pedestrian since mid July.
    Neither can hold a candle to Texas’ top three though, just based on ERA+ — though we can question whether Kevin Millwood is that good, given his ERA is driven by the lowest hits-allowed rate in five years despite higher walk and homer rates and lower strikeouts than at any other time of his career. He also has a 5.65 ERA since mid July. Feldman, OTOH, has his lowest ERA of the season, and Hunter’s been good all year long — in just three more starts than Buchholz has had, by the way.

    Paul SF September 11, 2009, 2:38 pm
  • The problem, RMD, is that Massarotti tells us he chose June 11 because it was the day the Sox swept the Yankees to go 8-0 in the season series. In other words the selective endpoint he chose intentionally correlates with the period of time that would make the Sox look as bad as possible. My selective endpoint (slightly more than a month of data) correlates with the period of time that would make them look as good as possible. The main difference is that I don’t pretend that mine is anything else. He pretends like the last two months have featured no variations in the trend he’s alleging, when in fact there is a stark difference between the first 30 days the next 30 days.
    Neither approach is particularly helpful, obviously, but only one of us is being paid to provide such shoddy commentary.

    Paul SF September 11, 2009, 2:50 pm
  • Yeah, the thing about Hunter is that he’s new and about as uncertain as Buchholz. He’s good though. I’ve been saying it for a month, but I think Texas will catch the Angels. It’s weird that Texas has a good pitching staff for once.
    Verlander is a lot better than his numbers suggest: he had two horrible starts in April, and since then has posted a 2.57 ERA. I may be a little biased (he went to my alma mater), but he scares me the most out of all the Aces.

    Atheose September 11, 2009, 2:53 pm
  • ERA+ accounts for park effects, which gives the Red Sox’s starters a very big boost (since Fenway Park boosts offense). I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, since Sox starters reliably pitch much better at home than on the road for whatever reason.
    Consider that the Sox will likely be pitching in the 7-day series, and will not have HFA. Beckett will start on the road both of his games, unless he starts Game 4 on three days rest, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, letting Lester pitch a possible Game 5 on the road, which hasn’t seemed to affect him much (this also avoids a near-guaranteed craptacular start by Wakefield or a likely sub-par start by whomever).
    The playoffs seem to play to every contending teams’ strengths this year except for the Angels.

    AndrewYF September 11, 2009, 3:08 pm
  • Since June 1:
    Justin Verlander: 133.2 IP, 3.03 ERA, 140 K, 37 BB
    Jon Lester: 115.1 IP, 2.18 ERA, 130 K, 33 BB
    That’s not really fair to Verlander, who has been terrific and had a few non-amazing starts in August, but it’s impressive nonetheless exactly how good for how long Lester has been.

    Paul SF September 11, 2009, 3:11 pm
  • I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, since Sox starters reliably pitch much better at home than on the road for whatever reason.
    While this is true, it does not immunize them from park effects. It just makes their raw stats all the more impressive, given the ballpark where they’re putting those stats up.

    Paul SF September 11, 2009, 3:19 pm
  • I don’t think that’s true, Paul. I think it’s because the Red Sox starters have figured out how to pitch at home, just like the Yankee pitchers have figured out how to pitch in Yankee Stadium. Otherwise, why would their road ERA be so bad, if they were actually so impressive?
    In any case, not having HFA in the playoffs plays severely to the Sox’s disadvantage, who benefit more from their home park than any club in baseball.

    AndrewYF September 11, 2009, 3:23 pm
  • Andrew, you’re assuming that Beckett would be our #1 starter! Right now I think you have to give it to Lester.
    I agree with you about the Angels though. I really don’t see them going anywhere, and I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs at all.
    Those are good numbers Paul, and I think it speaks more to how great Lester has been than to how un-great Verlander has. To be honest all the teams’ aces scare me, with the exception of Lackey.

    Atheose September 11, 2009, 3:43 pm
  • I think it’s because the Red Sox starters have figured out how to pitch at home,
    No disagreement here, but it doesn’t change the inherent offense-boosting characteristics of the park. I could be looking at it the wrong way, but I see park effects as being immutable. If a pitcher has “figured out” how to pitch in Fenway and puts up better stats there, those stats will always be higher than they would be if Fenway were an offense-neutral park.
    At any rate, the Sox won the ALDS and ALCS without home field advantage in 2004, should have won the ALCS without it in 2003, and lost last year’s ALCS despite “reclaiming” home-field advantage by winning two of four against Tampa.
    Since 2003, the Sox are 18-11 on the road in the postseason. In the two ALCS series they lost (2003 and 2008), they did so because they failed to win a three-game series at home despite splitting a four-game series on the road.
    So, needless to say, I’m skeptical at this point about how much of a disadvantage playing on the road really presents the Sox should they make the postseason.

    Paul SF September 11, 2009, 3:44 pm
  • I could be looking at it the wrong way, but I see park effects as being immutable. If a pitcher has “figured out” how to pitch in Fenway and puts up better stats there, those stats will always be higher than they would be if Fenway were an offense-neutral park.
    But that’s the thing, there are unique characteristics of Fenway that make it a very big hitters’ park. The Green Monster, for example, and the CF triangle. But those same characteristics mean that other parts of the park are offense-killers, otherwise the park affect would be astronomical. Fenway Park is one of the most quirky parks in the sport, and the Red Sox have tweaked their game to take advantage.

    AndrewYF September 11, 2009, 3:57 pm
  • the Red Sox have tweaked their game to take advantage
    What does this mean? Honest question.

    SF September 11, 2009, 4:05 pm
  • I meant that in general, the hitters aim for the monster, and the pitchers do something I don’t know to make guys hit balls to the cavern in right field.
    Or something. I would think most major league teams play according to their ballpark. Since Fenway is one of the quirkiest ballparks, the Red Sox get much more of a home field advantage than most other teams.
    Other ballclubs don’t tailor their game to Fenway because you don’t/shouldn’t/can’t completely change the way you approach a start or an at bat for just one series.

    AndrewYF September 11, 2009, 6:09 pm
  • I’ve heard Lester and Farrell talk about pitching outside to righties (and inside to lefties) to keep them from hitting the ball towards the monster.

    Atheose September 11, 2009, 8:18 pm
  • Actually one of the things that makes Fenway a hitters park is the lack of foul ball territory. Many of the two-row deep foul balls would be outs in other ball parks. Brad Penny actually alluded to this recently as well.

    dw (sf) September 14, 2009, 11:25 am
  • You’ve nailed it Andrew. And any one who watches a Sox game can see it. They all pitch to the right-center area (away to righties, in to lefties). At home, it’s about hitting very specific spots.
    Good to see ESPN has made it’s allegiance known.

    Rob September 14, 2009, 12:44 pm

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