Red Sox Lineup is One of the Best, yet Again

Red Sox

At first glance, the Boston Red Sox lineup appears just above average. The MVP won’t come from this team unless Papi somehow continues his Barry Bonds-like start to the season. The team’s RBI leader, Mike Napoli, signed a one-year deal in the offseason because nobody wanted to risk signing him for more than that. Dustin Pedroia has yet to hit a homer. It’s May 5th. And of the regular starters since this season’s beginning, Daniel Nava has the highest OPS at .891, a guy thought to be a utility outfielder.

Yet the Red Sox lead the majors in extra-base-hits with 106. They are third in the MLB in steals with 23, third in the majors with 114 walks, and are fifth in total runs with 149. They rank third in the league in OBP with .347, slugging percentage at .443, and OPS at .790. The sox created the bulk of these numbers without their best hitter David Ortiz, perhaps the best hitter in the majors (Big Papi’s ridiculous numbers through 13 games: .440 batting average, .473 OBP, 1.313 OPS, 8 2B, 4 HR, 17 RBI).

Boston also leads the majors in team batting average on balls put into play at a .329 clip. Some might say that number will come down, as it could be an indication of a good luck trend to begin the season and is not sustainable. Don’t be so quick to judge, though.

Aside from Ortiz’s scorching .440 start at the plate, no every day starter is over .300 on the season for the Red Sox; Dustin Pedroia comes closest at .294, followed by Nava and Ellsbury at .286 and .279. Mike Carp is 13 for his first 32 at the plate this season, a rate bound to come down at some point, but for now his swing looks smooth and confident, and John Farrell seems to have a knack for putting guys in the right situations at the plate depending on the opposing pitcher.

Furthermore, both Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks have gotten off to horrid starts. Drew has a .182 average, and Middlebrooks is not much better with his .195 clip. Given the Red Sox patented patient approach in the batter’s box, their average on balls in play should remain at the top of the league, for as a team they tend to swing at the good pitches and let the bad ones go. In a season the Red Sox were thought to be built around defense and (finger’s crossed) pitching, their lineup, yet again, will be one of the three best in the majors.

Drew vs. Iglesias: Who Will Prevail?

Jose Iglesias

Courtesy of bostonglobe.com

The Red Sox shortstop situation remains the one question mark as we head into May. The team sent a message to Jose Iglesias, Stephen Drew, and the rest of the organization when the front office sent Iglesias back to Pawtucket the instant both doctors and Stephen Drew deemed himself ready.

Drew’s play on the field, however, leaves the question mark on the proverbial page. His measly .146 average and .250 slugging percentage will rise, but by how much? His highest average of the last three years was .252 in 2011. For Drew at the plate, his effectiveness stems from his power. From 2006 to 2010 with the Arizona Diomandbacks, Drew’s lowest slugging percentage was .370 in 2007, while recording a slugging percentage of more than .500 twice (2006 and 2008). Prior to his gruesome ankle injury in 2011, Drew was consistently one of the most powerfully hitting shortstops in the game.

Post ankle injury, however, Drew has yet to display the same power. The closest he has come were in his 39 games with Oakland last season, in which he posted a .382 slugging percentage. The most troubling pattern of Drew’s has been his strikeout to walk ratio. In 2012 he walked 37 times while striking out 76 times. So far this season he has 8 walks and has struck out 16 times.

Drew counterpart Jose Iglesias has not fared much better. Since being sent to Pawtucket, Iglesias has walked just three times while striking out eleven times. He has homered three times already, three more than Drew this season. But until this year, Iglesias had yet to record a season with more than one homerun, so time will tell if this new power surge is trend or truth.

The perceived difference lies in their fielding abilities. Scouts compare Iglesias’ range, glove skills, and intangibles to the likes of Omar Vizquel, and former Red Sox shortstops Alex Gonzalez and Orlando Cabrera. But Drew, thus far, has closed the gap enough to at least warrant time to right his ship at the plate.

Where Iglesias has made three errors this year at Pawtucket, Drew has made just one error with Boston. According to baseballreference.com, Drew, so far this season, is worth three runs above the average shortstop in the field. That puts him on pace for a +24-run rating over the average MLB shortstop for the season. These numbers, of course, stem from a 15-game sample size. Drew has not played in more than 100 games since the 2010 season. Time will tell for Drew and Iglesias: what is truth and what is trend? We will know what the Red Sox think come the July 31 trade deadline.

Jacoby Ellsbury Gives the Red Sox AL East Edge

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury looks good. Like really, really good. He creates win for the Red Sox at the plate, on the base paths, and in the field.

For example, in Wednesday’s game against the Oakland A’s with the game tied at three in the fifth inning, Jacoby stepped to the plate and chopped a slow grounder past the pitcher and to the second basemen’s right. Oakland second basemen, Andy Parrino, tried to bare-hand the grounder and throw to first in one motion. He never controlled the ball due to Jacoby’s speed and effort,—Jacoby on first.

A’s pitcher Brett Anderson is left-handed. He still had no chance of keeping Jacoby from stealing second. Jacoby stole. Then Anderson, with Shane Victorino at the plate, Jacoby on second and nobody out, threw only inside pitches to Victorino, most of those pitches off-speed, in the hopes of preventing Victorino from hitting the ball to the right side and moving the go-ahead run to third with one out and Pedroia, followed by Big Papi, due up next. The result: Anderson threw Victorino multiple inside curveballs; Victorino adjusted to Anderson’s strategy after fouling off a couple of inside pitches, and ripped a double down the left field line to score Jacoby from second; the score now 4-3 Red Sox. The Sox went on to score two more runs that inning.

The new sabermetric baseball stats, as well as the old-school stats, fail to properly quantify Ellsbury’s impact. His speed forced the second baseman to bare-hand the ball, and cough it up. He then stole second, with ease, off a lefty. And due to Jacoby’s his speed again, Victorino saw only off-speed and inside pitches.

Combine his stats so far this season with the multi-dimensional impact his speed supplies, and Ellsbury will be one of the most dominant position players in the American League at season’s end. He leads the MLB in steals with 10 while the next closest guy has seven steals. Not to mention he remains the only player in the top five without being caught stealing at least once.

His power ability will round into form. You can see it in his stance and his swing. He already leads the league in triples with three. Expect multiple months of 5-plus homers later in the season.

Red Sox off to Good Start, but Room to Improve

Red Sox

Courtesy of harvardsportsanalysis.wordpress.com

The Red Sox appear to have started the season at a blazing pace. Most baseball “experts” are probably predicting the Sox to come back to earth, so to speak, in the coming weeks. They are 12-4. If Hanrahan doesn’t blow two saves, they’d be 14-2. They have outscored their opponents by 33 runs already, five runs higher than the second best run differential in the American League held by the Oakland A’s at +28. But the Red Sox lineup has far more room to improve than it has room to come back to earth.

In fact, no single player has gotten off to an otherworldly start to the season. Daniel Nava is the only player hitting well above his career numbers with three homers in just 36 at-bats, a .333 average and .435 OBP. Everyone else has room to improve, and should.

Dustin Pedroia looks like his typical self, hitting .310 and getting on base at a .412 clip. However, he has yet to homer or record a triple, and has doubled only twice in 58 at-bats. His power will increase as the weather warms, per usual. And with Big Papi David Ortiz returning in the lineup behind him, Pedroia will see more pitches to hit.

Jacoby Ellsbury, too, is off to a solid start. His average is up around .300; he leads the majors with three triples and seven stolen bases. Yet in 70 at-bats Jacoby has walked just twice, a rate of one walk for every 35 at-bats. In 2011 he averaged a walk every 12 at-bats. Expect Jacoby to get on base more, meaning more steals, more pressure on opposing pitchers, and more runners on base for Victorino, Pedroia, and Ortiz.

Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks, and Jonny Gomes have all started the season in terrible form. Drew is 2-23 at the plate, and has not recorded a single hit with a runner on base. Middlebrooks is hitting .182 overall, has walked three times while striking out eighteen times, and has just one hit in eleven chances with runners in scoring position. Furthermore, the Sox signed Jonny Gomes to hit against lefties—he is 1-12 against lefties with five strikeouts. Yeesh.

So for everyone expecting the Sox to come back to earth, don’t be surprised if they really take off in May.

Red Sox and Blue Jays Headed in Opposite Directions

Red Sox

As Red Sox fans, we understand nothing is won in April. Well, except for games that if won could be the difference between a potential playoff run and a disaster of a season, alas the 2011 Boston Red Sox. We also know crowning a team in April makes no sense, again alas 2011, when many Boston sports media moguls deemed that team the best ever.

Yet we can’t help the hyperbole. This is the most likeable Red Sox team since at least 2009. This team has that feel about it you need to see if you have World Series expectations: the ability to win all types of ball games. They can jump to quick leads and cruise. They can grind pitchers down with their plate discipline and win the game late. They can win in a pitcher’s duel. They can save runs in the field and manufacture them on the base paths. And we have yet to experience the lineup with David Ortiz in the middle of it. I can’t wait.

The Toronto Blue Jays, on the other hand, have begun the season in the opposite direction. The Sox and Jays are not just opposites in the standings so far—they have opposite feels to them, and those feelings began in the offseason.

Where the Sox were expected to have a rebuilding year, the Jays were expected to finally have their breakthrough, their time to shine in the AL east. The Jays made the big offseason splashes; the Sox kept quiet. Whispers of Jays’ players’ discontent with John Farrell leaked out—the Sox hired him. The Jays suddenly had media-induced expectations before they played a single inning together, while the lack of expectations for the Sox aided in the identity already spawned by Pedroia, Ortiz, Lester, Middlebrooks, and even Jackie Bradley, and that identity is a grind-it-out every day, every pitch approach.

In week 1, new Jays’ addition, and supposed ace, R.A. Dickey gave up ten earned runs, six walks and three homers. Melky Cabrera has yet to display the power he possessed at the plate last season (shocker). Jose Reyes has gotten off to a hot start, but he has done that in the past, only to fade over the course of the season or sustain a series of injuries. The Jays have no identity coupled with the expectations of a potential champion. The Red Sox established a clear identity in week 1: win any way you can—the first step to a successful season.

Red Sox Defense: Best in Franchise History

100 years patch

We all recognize this Boston Red Sox team as a different type of team than we are used to watching. But does it have the ingredients for success, for a championship? It does, and that is due to one major reason: the defense. This team could have the best defense in modern Red Sox history, and perhaps in the entire history of the franchise.

I am looking specifically at our outfield defense—the Sox essentially have three center-fielders out there—and the up the middle defense at short and second.

Baseballreference.com provides sabermetric fielding statistics. The two keys stats are Runs Saved Above Average, and Runs Saved per 135 games. They calculate these stats based on a fielder’s range, put-out, and error percentages. I will be referencing these stats throughout this evaluation of the Sox defense.

Jacoby: The last season Ellsbury was healthy in 2011 he won the gold glove award, in large part due to his range, and his mistake free defense. That year he saved 7 runs above the average center fielder. Expect more of the same solid defense from Jacoby this season.

Victorino: The Flyin’ Hawaiin spent most of his time in left field last year, saving 7 more runs than the average left fielder. When he did play center, Victorino was 3 runs below the average center fielder, a sign of his decline in range as he ages. But he is still one of the better corner outfielders in the league, a must for the Red Sox to have given Fenway’s expansive right field area. In 2008 playing in center field, Victorino saved 10 runs above the average center fielder. I can’t remember the last time the Sox had someone with Victorino’s speed patrolling in right.

Jackie Bradley: Baseballreference.com does not keep stats in the minor leagues, so Bradley has no stats as of yet. However, we know scouts fell in love with his ability in center field. He gets fantastic jumps on the baseball—we saw that in spring training and in the first game in New York. He has the potential to be better in center than Ellsbury (he could already be better) so he will eat up the small Fenway left field. He also has a plus-arm, so he will keep those wall balls to singles, and will deter many runners from trying to score on him from second base on a single to left. Combine Bradley with Victorino in right and Ellsbury in center, and I challenge you to find me a better Red Sox of the last thirty years.

Pedroia: Last season, Pedroia saved 11 runs above the average second basemen. In 2011 he saved 18 runs above the average second basemen. That is the reason he is a two-time gold glove winner. He also turns one of the quickest double plays, and makes the whole time better in the field by his example, as he hones in on every single pitch.

Iglesias: Iglesias has a limited sample size in the major, but wow. In 24 games last season, he already saved 7 runs above the average shortstop. That is a pace of 43 runs saved over the average shortstop per 135 games. This was a small sample size and if Iglesias continues that pace this season, some baseball nerds’ heads could be found on a street near you, but you get the point. This guy is good. He will be historically good, with the chance of going down as the greatest Red Sox defensive shortstop ever.

Between these five guys, the Sox defense should save at least 35-40 runs above the average defense at their positions. Don’t be surprised if you see John Lackey taking those guys out to dinner every fifth night.