The Big Three, Pt. 1

With the Rangers falling 4.5 games behind the Sox last night, Boston's position in the postseason is looking more secure by the day. Assuming they make it — we take nothing for granted — the Sox would have the following three starters opening the series:

  • Josh Beckett, 15-6, 124 ERA+, 8.4 K/9, 3.5 K/BB, 1.15 WHIP
  • Jon Lester, 13-7, 144 ERA+, 10.1 K/9, 3.5 K/BB, 1.20 WHIP
  • Clay Buchholz, 5-3, 129 ERA+, 6.2 K/9, 1.6 K/BB, 1.37 WHIP

The best part is that all three of these pitchers may be better than their season-long numbers indicate. Beckett's numbers are depressed by four lousy starts that appear to be behind him (before that, he had posted a 1.89 ERA in 15 starts between May 23 and Aug. 12). Buchholz is obviously the least known commodity, but his past eight starts (2.77 ERA, .577 OPS allowed) have shown an improvement from good-but-lucky to dominant. Lester, of course, has been insane for a really long time: 10-2, 2.02 ERA, 149 Ks in 19 starts since May 31. Give him a full season with those numbers, and Lester would strike out 267 in 231 innings. He's also held batters to a .198/.259/.275 line in that span.

Even without the various caveats, those full-season numbers are very good, and it led me to wonder: What's the best 1-2-3 combo the Sox have ever had entering a postseason, and how has that worked out?

The Sox have reached the postseason an even 20 times. Well, technically 19, thanks to John McGraw's decision to forego the World Series in 1904 when he thought the New York Highlanders were a lock to win the AL pennant. Oops.

We'll focus on the early dynasty first, then address the oh-so-close World Series/ALCS teams from 1946-90 in Part 2, then look at the Sox staffs from the division-series era (1995-present) in Part 3.

Especially during the dead-ball era, we'll stick with ERA+ as our first line of measurement, and dig down from there.

1903

  • Cy Young, 145 ERA+
  • Bill Dinneen, 134
  • Tom Hughes, 117

1904

  • Cy Young, 136
  • Jesse Tannehill, 131
  • Bill Dinneen, 122
  • Norwood Gibson, 121

The first Red Sox "dynasty" of the early 1900s featured deep pitching staffs led by Cy Young and Big Bill Dinneen. The inclusion of Jesse Tannehill in 1904 made the starting rotation fearsome indeed. George Winter was also well above average that year, but, alas, no World Series for the defending champs, who in 1903 started Young, Dinneen and Hughes in the first three games of the first World Series.

In fact, those three were the only starters in the eight-game World Series. Heck, they were the only Sox pitchers, period! Young made the only relief appearance for the Americans — relieving Hughes who gave up two runs in two innings in his lone start. Dinneen posted a 2.06 ERA in four starts, below his season average, and Young held the Pirates to the tune of a 1.85 ERA in three starts and that relief stint.

1912

  • Joe Wood, 178
  • Ray Collins, 135
  • Buck O'Brien, 132

We need to mention that all these postseason discussions should be remembered in light of the pervasive gambling that occurred during the era. The 1919 Black Sox scandal is memorable because the ChiSox got caught, but they were not the only team to throw games during the World Series — the Americans/Red Sox and their opponents did, as well, usually in a kind of trade-off to keep it "fair." When you see players like Cy Young in Gmae 1 of 1903 and Joe Wood in Game 7 of the 1912 Series turn in wretched performances while they dominate every other time on the mound, well… judge for yourself.

This was the best Red Sox team of all time, with the best season of all time from one of their best pitchers of all time. Wood was phenomenal, and Collins and O'Brien were no slouches either. In fact, all five Sox starters finished in the Top 20 in ERA (with these three in the top 6). Yet the Sox were handily outpitched by the Christy Mathewson/Rube Marquard-led New York Giants. The Red Sox won every game by one or two runs, while the Giants won every game but one by at least three runs, plus there was the Game 2 tie, the only contest in which the Sox managed more than four runs. 

In the end, it came down to Wood vs. Mathewson, reminiscent of the regular season's Wood vs. Johnson duel that enraptured Boston. The game was tied 1-1 through nine, and the Red Sox came from behind to win Game 8 — and the Series – 3-2 in the 10th. Both starters turned in complete games.

1915

  • Joe Wood, 187
  • Ernie Shore, 170
  • Rube Foster, 132

1916

  • Babe Ruth, 158
  • Dutch Leonard, 117
  • Carl Mays, 116

1918

  • Joe Bush, 127
  • Carl Mays, 122
  • Babe Ruth, 121
  • Sam Jones, 119

Joe Wood would blow out his shoulder after the 1912 season but rallied for one last dominant campaign in 1915. He was ably replaced by Babe Ruth and a cast of starters who would later be Yankees together — Carl Mays, lter famous for killing a batter with a pitch, and Ernie Shore, famous for completing a no-hitter after Ruth was ejected arguing balls and strikes on the first batter. Foster was no slouch either, and Dutch Leonard will hold probably forever the modern single-season ERA record, which he set in 1914. In 1918, Joe Bush and Sad Sam Jones provided the depth that made the Sox' last Series-winning staff for a while solid if not spectacular.

The '15 staff joins the '12 staff in the race for best Red Sox starters of all time. Leonard and Ruth posted a 118 and 114 ERA+ respectively, and Mays added a few starts, as well. It was that depth that proved so overwhelming to the Phillies in the World Series. Shore was outpitched by Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander in Game 1, but Alexander lost to Leonard in Game 3, the middle of a three-game stretch in which the Sox starter (Foster, Leonard and Shore) pitched a complete game and allowed just one run. The three were the only pitchers the Red Sox would need, and they combined for a 1.84 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in the five games. Yes, that's good, even for the dead-ball era.

The same held true in 1916, as the Sox' staff — Foster didn't start, but Ruth and Mays did — put up a scanty 1.65 ERA in five games against the Brooklyn Robins. Only Mays ran into trouble, turning in a subpar relief effort in a Game 1 win and a subpar start in a Game 3 loss.

Ditto 1918, as Bush, Jones, Ruth and Mays pitched all six games of the Sox' 4-2 win over the Cubs — a win that featured four one-run games and in which no team ever scored more than three runs in a game. The Sox were outpitched again — their 1.70 staff ERA looks enormous next to Chicago's 1.04 — but one-run wins gave them their last title for a while.

17 comments… add one

  • Great read, Paul. Can’t wait for Part 2, where from a quick look we’ll see Clemens, Boyd and Hurst top the list.

    AndrewYF September 16, 2009, 9:07 am
  • Interesting post Paul. Thanks.
    I do find it funny that its OK for you to pick random dates too look at stats when it makes a sox player look good but not bad. (Im talking about Beckett and Drew here)

    sam-YF September 16, 2009, 9:16 am
  • I do find it funny that its OK for you to pick random dates too look at stats when it makes a sox player look good but not bad.
    If the dates correspond with changes in performance, they are by definition not random.
    My objection is principally with randomly splitting seasons into chunks to assess a player’s value, when seasons are usually a series of ebbs and flows. Presumably, as one heads toward the postseason, you would hope that the player in question would be streaking, as opposed to slumping. It’s not entirely predictive — we’ve all seen a player who looked like crap turn it on in the postseason and vice versa — but it’s better than the alternative.
    I’ve also criticized slective endpoints such as I’m using here, but that’s when people have compared two players over a period of time selected to correspond to one player’s best data (provided there’s no other, objective reason for the cutoff there). When discussing a player individually, I see no problem saying, “Yes, his overall numbers say this, but for three-fourths of the season since this date, he’s been far better.”

    Paul SF September 16, 2009, 9:28 am
  • I don’t think it’s all that suspect to use selective start points if your end point is the current day. It just shows what a guy has done in the past X days, which I think is a better metric of his performance than what a guy did in April or May. Here’s the Sox’s top three starters, with start points included:
    Beckett (May 5): 3.22 ERA, .648 OPSA, 4.25 K/BB
    Lester (May 31): 2.02 ERA (!), .534 OPSA (!!), 3.82 K/BB
    Buchholz (Aug 8): 2.77 ERA, .577 OPSA, 1.84 K/BB
    I should say that Beckett’s production is particularly backloaded, but it is impressive nonetheless. Actually, since August 8th (when Buchholz got good), the Sox’s record is 23-11. Compare that to the Yankees’ 25-11. The Sox have been on a very, very good roll for a while now.

    AndrewYF September 16, 2009, 10:06 am
  • The Sox starting rotation is clicking at exactly the right time. The Yanks starters on the other hand (CC solid, AJ’s problems already covered ad nauseum here, Pettitte needing a break due to a sore shoulder, and Joba, who isn’t likely to see ALDS action anyway, in the middle of his Spring Training Part II experiment) are cause for concern. The Yanks’ offense is unrivaled, but it would be nice if at least one pitcher other than CC were fully healthy and seemingly pitching to his potential.
    If I were an SF I’d be feeling very good right now – much better than 3 weeks ago anyway. Their road record could be an issue, but solid starting pitching solves all.

    IronHorse September 16, 2009, 10:30 am
  • “…Even without the various caveats, those full-season numbers are very good…”
    you went ’round and ’round to reach this conclusion paul, but as usual, your statement is well supported by the stats…you don’t need to include the caveats to prove your point that the sox have a very formidable top 3, despite the speed bumps along the way…i have no problem carving up a season any way you guys want…even small sample sizes are ok, if we take them with the appropriate grains of salt…jeter recently went 0-12 in a 3 game stretch…while interesting, because it probably doesn’t happen too often, it was a yawner because as a snippet in time it doesn’t accurately reflect how his full season is going…similarly, i smile when i see comments like, ‘well if we take out april, and the 3rd tuesday in june, so and so is having a cy young season’…uh, well, you get the point…again, i’m ok with it, in fact find it interesting, but hardly conclusive of anything…the season is a 162 game entity…splitting it into anything else is nothing more than an interesting exercise to pass the time…

    dc September 16, 2009, 10:41 am
  • What are their numbers against Anaheim, Detroit, and New York this season? That’s what matters, not their season long numbers.
    Taking overall numbers like these and applying them to the playoffs is kind of a wrong headed way of doing this analysis.

    Crewd September 16, 2009, 11:03 am
  • “What are their numbers against Anaheim, Detroit, and New York this season? That’s what matters, not their season long numbers.”
    Actually, it doesn’t really matter at all. The 2007 Red Sox beat the Angels once in the regular season. The 2006 Yankees were 5-2 against the Tigers in the regular season, the 2007 Yankees swept Cleveland in the regular season.

    AndrewYF September 16, 2009, 11:14 am
  • What are their numbers against Anaheim, Detroit, and New York this season? That’s what matters, not their season long numbers.
    Taking overall numbers like these and applying them to the playoffs is kind of a wrong headed way of doing this analysis.

    I’m sorry, but this makes zero sense to me. The Sox played Detroit, what? Six times this year? So the average Sox starter has faced the Tigers exactly once. So five to seven innings against a team carries more weight than the other 193 to 200? In 2007, for examle, the Rockies shelled Josh Beckett in the regular season. He came back and dominated them in the playoffs. One, two or even three or four starts have practically zero predictive power going forward, certainly not as much as a whole season’s worth, never mind the craziness that is the playoffs.

    Paul SF September 16, 2009, 11:23 am
  • Nice post, Paul, can’t wait for the next two installments!!!

    SF September 16, 2009, 12:23 pm
  • “What are their numbers against Anaheim, Detroit, and New York this season? That’s what matters, not their season long numbers.”
    To piggyback on Andrew’s reply, Crewd, those stats would include the period when the Yankees were stumbling and the Red Sox were 8-0 against them. Those first eight games do not reflect how the Yanks have played since then, so they would be skewed heavily in the Red Sox favor.
    There are many ways to gauge postseason projections; although they can be objective and subjective, they are inexact.
    But the one consistent gauge almost always seems to be how well a team is playing as they head into the playoffs. The Red Sox, right now, appear to be hot. Those elements they need to be successful – pitching, defense and clutch hitting – all appear to be in place right now.
    To me, that is a much better gauge of how a team might fare in the playoffs than how a team fared against other playoff teams during the season.

    I'm Bill McNeal September 16, 2009, 1:19 pm
  • Oh, and ANOTHER reason it doesn’t matter is because the Red Sox always beat the Angels in the post-season. Why? Because that’s when Scioscia’s bout with accute radiation poisoning starts to act up: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0701114/ and
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_at_the_Bat

    I'm Bill McNeal September 16, 2009, 1:48 pm
  • “But the one consistent gauge almost always seems to be how well a team is playing as they head into the playoffs.”
    I think this is also pretty meaningless. The 2000 Yankees were absolutely terrible heading into the postseason, almost to the point of losing their playoff spot. They won it all. The 2002 Yankees were as hot as anyone, and they got bounced in the first round.
    To win in the playoffs you first have to make the playoffs, which is where the regular season counts. Then you have to play well in the playoffs, where the regular season matters not at all. That’s pretty much it.

    AndrewYF September 16, 2009, 1:53 pm
  • Some more examples. The 2006 Tigers limped into the playoffs, blowing their division lead on the last few days of the season. They rolled to the World Series. The 2006 Cardinals were similarly bad (although they kept their division lead), and they won it all.

    AndrewYF September 16, 2009, 1:58 pm
  • Man, it’s amazing how bad I feel about the first-round bounces in ’05, ’06, and ’07. Those are the years I started watching every single game. Stupid baseball.

    AndrewYF September 16, 2009, 2:11 pm
  • So, you have a more accurate gauge, Andrew?
    Please, share.

    I'm Bill McNeal September 16, 2009, 4:32 pm
  • “…So, you have a more accurate gauge, Andrew?
    Please, share….”
    there ain’t one bill…that’s his point…the team that gets the hottest, or as some of you like to say “luckiest” [by the way, luck is bullshit] will win…ba da bing…

    dc September 16, 2009, 8:06 pm

Leave a Comment