We’ve Been Here Before

No big foam finger for the Red Sox this morning (at least not the index finger), as the Beantowners dropped back into second place with their third consecutive loss. It's a disappointing end to an exhilarating month, one that saw the Sox climb all the way back into the AL East race.


When April ended, the Sox were 11-15, in last place, five games out. Now they are tied with the Yankees for second-most wins in the American League after a 19-7 start to May. The last three games notwithstanding, nearly every member of the Red Sox experienced a huge turnaround last month:

Player (OPS diff) April May
Varitek (+.594) .111/.200/.139, 41 PA, 1 XBH, 13K .333/.400/.533, 50 PA, 5 XBH, 12K
Crawford (+.419) .155/.204/.227, 104 PA, 5 XBH, 17K .304/.328/.482, 116 PA, 11 XBH, 22K
Ortiz (+.312) .267/.373/.395, 102 PA, 6 XBH, 11K .342/.387/.694, 119 PA, 19 XBH, 12K
Salty (+.209) .216/.273/.275, 55 PA, 3 XBH, 16K .220/.281/.475, 64 PA, 7 XBH, 12K
Gonzalez (+.153) .314/.379/.457, 116 PA, 12 XBH, 17K .341/.371/.618, 132 PA, 16 XBH, 21K
Ellsbury (+.022) .266/.337/.468, 104 PA, 11 XBH, 24K .314/.381/.446, 134 PA, 12 XBH, 18K

The Red Sox' offense rocketed forward, leading the league in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, batting, on-base percentage, slugging, total bases and OPS+ for the month. They were the only club with an OPS over .800 in May and the only club with an OPS+ above 120.

There are three principal reasons for that explosion: The resurgence of Carl Crawford, David Ortiz's journey in the Wayback Machine (he's now having his best season since 2007 and is on pace for his most home runs since setting the club record in 2006), and the sudden competence of the catchers. Adrian Gonzalez's transition from excellent to superawesome and Jacoby Ellsbury's continuing excellence are also contributing factors.

Those five positions (C, LF, CF, 1B, DH) have more than offset declines from the other four — a slight drop from Kevin Youkilis, a bona fide slump from J.D. Drew, leveling off from Jed Lowrie and continuing mediocrity from Dustin Pedroia.

Crawford produced a May in line with his career numbers in an incredibly streaky manner: He opened the month with an 11-game hitting streak (.356/.370/.467), then had nine terrible games (.171/.194/.171). Then he had five games that included his back-to-back four-hit explosion (.579/.619/.1.368). Finally, a hit yesterday broke an 0-for-13 slump. 

The other line of note is Ellsbury's. Though he only increased his OPS by 22 points month-over-month, his on-base percentage jumped by .044, fueled entirely by an increased batting average. By reaching base more, he stole bases far more frequently (five in April, 14 in May) and his wRC+ (which measures and weights appropriately all offensive contributions on a scale with 100 as league average) went up from 120 in April to 140 in May.

Ellsbury, who many, here and elsewhere, feared was getting too power hungry, saw his traditional game rebound in a big way. His strikeout percentage plummeted from 25 percent to below 15 percent. He traded in a bunch of fly balls for ground balls, which play better for his speedy game, and though his walk percentage declined a little, he saw many more pitches (3.7 P/PA to 4.0). This is definitely the player the Sox (and I) expected to see last year.

It's a good thing the Sox saw their offense return because the pitching left something to be desired:

Pitcher (ERA diff) April May
Clay Buchholz (-3.25) 27 IP, 5.33/1.85/.950, 16BB, 15K 39 IP, 2.08/0.95/.602, 8BB, 29K
Josh Beckett (-1.65) 34 IP, 2.65/0.85/.536, 9BB, 32K 36 IP, 1.00/1.17/.519, 16BB, 31K
Jon Lester (+2.98) 39.1 IP, 2.52/1.12/.631, 14BB, 35K 36 IP, 5.50/1.61/.857, 17BB, 39K
D. Matsuzaka (+4.93) 26 IP, 3.81/1.23/.613, 13BB, 20 K 11.1 IP, 8.74/2.03/.765, 10BB, 6K
John Lackey (+8.69) 28.2 IP, 5.65/1.54/.843, 10BB, 17K 10.2 IP, 14.34/1.54/1.034, 8BB, 2K
Alfredo Aceves No starts 25.1 IP, 3.91/1.34/.685, 11BB, 13K
Tim Wakefield No starts 25.2 IP, 3.51/1.25/.663, 8BB, 12K

Jon Lester was one of the worst starters in the game in May, yet he still leads the league in wins and winning percentage for the season, and the Red Sox won four of his six starts last month. Lester needs to buy guys like Gonzalez, Ortiz and Crawford some steaks. 

Thankfully for Boston, Clay Buchholz turned things around at the exact same time, continuing to give the Sox two front-line starters even as Lester struggled. Buchholz's velocity increased, and so did the strikeouts. He halved his walks despite pitching 12 more innings, and posted the best WHIP of the starting staff.

Josh Beckett allowed more walks in May than in April, but got some good luck on his side and allowed just four runs all month. Lester will be fine, and when he is, it looks like the Sox can certainly challenge the Phillies for the best front three in the game.

The last two, on the other hand, are less certain. Aceves and Wakefield have been season savers, Aceves' meltdown in yesterday's game notwithstanding. Neither is an ace, but they certainly have been among the better fourth and fifth starters in baseball. Lackey will be starting in five days, and the Sox will have a hard decision in which of the two serviceable spot starters to leave in the rotation and which to push to the pen. From here, it makes more sense to have Wakefield starting as long as he's performing well; it seems like Aceves can make the adjustment better, and his arm can handle warming up on short notice better than the 45-year-old Wakefield's can.

And it's a good thing the Sox' starters were mostly solid in May because the bullpen was anything but:

Pitcher (ERA diff) April May
Jon. Papelbon (+1.45) 9.1 IP, 1.93/0.96/.554, 2BB, 12K 13.1 IP, 3.38/1.13/.669, 1BB, 19K
Daniel Bard (-0.27) 12.1 IP, 3.65/1.14/.630, 3BB, 12K 13.1 IP, 3.38/0.83/.656, 4BB, 13K
Matt Albers (+2.90) 6 IP, 1.50/1.17/.423, 4BB, 5K 14.1 IP, 4.40/1.26/.604, 5BB, 16K
Dan Wheeler (-1.20) 8.2 IP, 8.31/1.39/.842, 0BB, 7K 6.1 IP, 7.11/1.90/1.068, 3BB, 5K
Bobby Jenks (-1.89) 8.1 IP, 8.64/2.16/.824, 6BB, 10K 1.1 IP, 6.75/4.50/1.167, 3BB, 0K
Rich Hill No appearances 8 IP, 0.00/0.63/.322, 2BB, 12K
Scott Atchison No appearances 12.1 IP, 5.11/1.46/.829, 2BB, 9K

It might surprise you, as it did me, to learn that Daniel Bard has the same ERA and a lower WHIP and OPS allowed in May than Jonathan Papelbon, but that's because Papelbon has allowed his hits and runs (he doesn't walk anyone anymore — one free pass in the entire month of May) in situations where the Sox are ahead by two or more runs. Check it: Bard and Papelbon both have 10 Shutdowns on the year, but Bard has six Meltdowns. Papelbon has zero. Nobody else in baseball has more than seven Shutdowns with no Meltdowns. Anyway, relief pitching is all about the win probability. Papelbon has been unhittable when he's needed to be; Bard has been surprisingly inconsistent.

Just when we thought Matt Albers was stepping up to take some pressure off Bard, he self-destructed against the Cubs, which skews his May line quite a bit. Albers has five Shutdowns against just two Meltdowns this year. He and Hill have been the surprising bullpen saviors. Hill has yet to allow a run in a Red Sox uniform, dating back to his cup of tea last season. He also has three Shutdowns and, obviously, zero Meltdowns.

In fact, let's look at SD/MD splits for the Sox' relievers:

Pitcher: SD/MD April, SD/MD May

  • Papelbon: 3/0, 7/0
  • Bard: 3/3, 7/3
  • Albers: 2/0, 5/2
  • Hill: 0/0, 3/0
  • Jenks: 2/4, 0/1
  • Wheeler: 0/1, 1/2
  • Atchison: 0/0, 0/1

Papelbon, Albers and Hill combined have had fewer Meltdowns all season than Bard had in May. 

In short, the Sox in May have had some unexpected pitchers (Aceves, Wakefield, Hill, Albers) step up and help cover the shortcomings of more established teammates (Lester, Lackey, Matsuzaka, Bard), while the offense has provided more than enough leeway to allow those replacements to take place without costing the team on the field. 

In a way, that's encouraging. The Red Sox just finished an incredibly successful month and are in the thick of the race despite bad months from players like Bard, Lester and Dustin Pedroia and injuries to expected key contributors like Lackey, Jenks and Wheeler. It didn't all go right for the Red Sox — it rarely ever does, for any team — but they won anyway. Call me optimistic, but I think that's a good sign moving forward.

13 comments… add one

  • A foreward: call this the ‘pessimistic’ side of Paul’s optimistic post.
    It didn’t all go right for the Red Sox, but many, many more things went right (and unexpectedly right) than wrong.
    And most of the things that did go wrong were just continued on from May (Jenks and Wheeler, Lackey being injured/awful). It’s probably not reasonable to expect those things to suddenly go right when they haven’t shown any sign that they will. Maybe you could use Jenks and Wheeler’s last couple of years to make an argument, but bullpen arms are so volatile it’s hard to use careers as valid benchmarks.
    Honestly, the only ‘wrong’ thing in May that should be expected to turn around is Lester. Pedroia is dealing with his foot injury, and that’s not going away. Bard didn’t really go wrong, dude had a 3.30 ERA, just picked his spots badly. Sorry, unless you’re Mariano Rivera you don’t get to call that bad. Matsuzaka, well, we all know his story. Lackey has been declining ever since his last two years in Anaheim. Okay, he’ll probably be better than a 14 ERA, but he’s a 32 year old pitcher with arm problems, a recent injury history, and declining stuff. Hard to expect anything better than what you’d already been getting from Wake/Aceves.
    Meanwhile, guys like Varitek and Ortiz simply cannot be expected to continue their production from May, and it would be foolish to expect Beckett and Buchholz to continue at their ridiculous May pace. And getting those awesome innings out of Rich Hill and Matt Albers was nice, but you can’t expect anything better, and probably should be expecting worse. Overall, much more in the way of overperformance than underperformance for the Sox.
    The Sox are not a .655 team. They’re not a .423 team, either. Like always, they’re somewhere in between. Whether that means they’re a .600 team, a .550 team, or a .500 team (okay, probably not) remains to be seen.

    AndrewYF June 1, 2011, 1:37 pm
  • .600 ball from the sox the rest of the way will put that at 94 wins total. So a drop back from .655 ball to .600 ball would probably put the Sox in the playoffs.
    But who knows.
    Also, I hope Drew improves. I recognize he is older and in decline, but he fell off a cliff hitting-wise. He seems healthy, so he ought to make up some of the regression from Tek. I pray he does, actually.

    SF June 1, 2011, 1:46 pm
  • Where’s it’s still obvious that Salty and Crawford are killing the offense, take a look at:
    http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/2011.shtml
    Now look under the BB and OBP columns among the starters. Only two have yet to hit double digits in walks. The Sox lead the league with a .340 OBP (second in walks to the Yankees) but have given 330 plate appearances to Salty and Crawford at a .270 OBP. That difference of 70 points, over 330 appearance, is enough to make up for the Sox being a second place team right now.
    Today is a perfect example. Salty and Crawford got on-base once each across 8 plate appearances (.250 OBP). In a game they could have easily lost by one run, every baserunner means something. Crawford and Salty don’t give them that. They’re holes that good pitchers can exploit because they’re so free swinging. They bleed outs.
    As much as it looks like Crawford turned a corner in May (while Salty, apart from a few extra bases clearly didn’t), he walked 3 times against 22 strikeouts. That’s worse than his woeful April (5 BB/17 K). This is going to be an infuriating player for SFs. JD Drew at least gets on base.
    By contrast, take a guy like Swisher. He’s been awful, but he’s got a .335 OBP – or Crawford’s career mark.

    James YF June 1, 2011, 5:25 pm
  • Hey SF’s…who is a better player, Ichiro or Swisher?

    krueg June 1, 2011, 7:52 pm
  • What do you mean by “better”
    Better in their careers?
    Better in 2006?
    Better now?
    Better how?
    Brown cow.

    James YF June 1, 2011, 8:17 pm
  • Better player dude….now, then, tomorrow…period.

    krueg June 1, 2011, 8:20 pm
  • Now = Swisher
    Then = Ichiro
    Tomorrow = Swisher
    Period.

    James YF June 1, 2011, 8:47 pm
  • Not.
    Put it this way.
    Bottom of the 9th…2 outs…tie game…ALCS…against the Sox…Paps on the mound…Game 7…
    Would you want Ichiro or Swisher at the plate?

    krueg June 1, 2011, 8:54 pm
  • PS Timmy Thomas is definitely the best American goalie not named Ryan Miller.

    krueg June 1, 2011, 8:58 pm
  • And most of the things that did go wrong were just continued on from May (Jenks and Wheeler, Lackey being injured/awful). It’s probably not reasonable to expect those things to suddenly go right when they haven’t shown any sign that they will. Maybe you could use Jenks and Wheeler’s last couple of years to make an argument, but bullpen arms are so volatile it’s hard to use careers as valid benchmarks.I like it very much, thank you
    cheap custom jerseys

    cheap custom jerseys June 1, 2011, 9:28 pm
  • Well, we can shut the book on Dice-K with the Red Sox. $103M for 9.6 WAR. Or if you like your WAR fangraphsified, $44 million in value for $103M spent. I’d think the Red Sox would like that one back even with 2007 in the rafters.
    Warning to the Yankees: Yu Darvish is not worth the cost. He may have a few good seasons, but the chances of a long career in MLB are very slim. Even Nomo, who had two excellent debut seasons, quickly tailed off to replacement level. Besides Nomo, no Japanese starting pitcher has qualified for the ERA title in more than two seasons.

    James YF June 2, 2011, 5:51 am
  • This is the first time I’ve heard of “shutdowns” and “meltdowns”, but I totally dig those stats. They’re a much better way of looking at relievers than just ERA or WHIP alone.

    Atheose - SF June 2, 2011, 8:05 am
  • This is the first time I’ve heard of “shutdowns” and “meltdowns”, but I totally dig those stats. They’re a much better way of looking at relievers than just ERA or WHIP alone.
    I totally agree. WPA isn’t useful for much more than a curiosity (someone called it the sabermetric version of RBI, and I kind of agree with that) for position players, but for relievers, whose sole job is to lock down games in high-leverage situations, using it makes a whole lot more sense. Scaling it to saves is a neat trick, too. I’d forgotten about it until, of all people, Daniel Bard referenced it as a stat he likes.

    Paul SF June 2, 2011, 10:00 am

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