After the series sweep in Baltimore, Red Sox Nation is full of anguish and recrimination. One month in, the most expensive team in Red Sox history has looked like one of the worst. So what is really going on? Why is such a good team, at least on paper, playing so badly?
First of all, ARE the Sox playing badly? W-L record would say yes, but wins can be misleading. Going deeper, there's Pythagorean wins, an estimate based on run differential of what the record SHOULD be based on how well a team is playing. By this measure, the Red Sox are actually... [drumroll] ... overperforming their expected wins by 1 game; their pythagorean record would be 10-14 (using the figures from before today's game was added).* Furthermore, the Sox are not doing terribly in 1-run games, which is one sign of an unlucky team - they now have a 6-5 record in 1-run games, which is fairly unremarkable.
Now that we know the Sox are actually playing badly, not just really unlucky, let's look at where the problems are. Is it the defense, the offense, or the pitching that is most victimizing this team? [Read on: the answer may surprise you.]
Defense: In the offseason, much was made of Boston's acquisition of vaunted defenders Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron. Scutaro was also supposed to shore up the defense (one of MLB's worst in 2009). But after Boston's wretched start, the chattering classes are focused on errors, especially Beltre's 5. Mix in the injuries to Ellsbury and Cameron, and there's more cause for panic. On the surface, our defense has looked porous.
But look deeper. By Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced defensive statistic, our team has the 4th best defense in all of baseball, behind only the Rays in the AL. The team has played good D, at least going by UZR, with standout performances by J.D. Drew in RF, Hermida and Ellsbury in LF, Adrian Beltre at 3B, and Pedroia at 2B. Of our regular starters only Kevin Youkilis and Marvo Scutaro have negative ratings; at least in Youkilis' case, we can expect him to recover. Whether this trend of overall good defense will continue is another matter, but given the histories of many of these players, it seems likely. The biggest question marks for me are SS (is Scutaro really cut out for it) and CF (will Ells / Cameron EVER come back), but it seems likely the Sox defense will remain a signfificant overall improvement over 2009.
Offense: In game after game, it seems, the Red Sox have come up short. Any team that has a record below .500 clearly must have some issues scoring runs, and need more offense, right?
Actually, Boston's offense has been fine. They are 5th in the league in runs scored, 5th in hitter VORP (one estimate of player value). Maybe this is not great for a $145+ million ballclub, but it's hard to say that lack of runs is the biggest problem. Our offense has actually powered most of our victories: in games in which Boston has scored 5+ runs, they are 8-4, while in games in which they've only scored 4 or fewer runs, Boston is 3-10. With good players like Victor Martinez underperforming, and JD Drew and Ortiz showing signs of heating up, I feel optimistic about the offense improving.
Pitching: Clearly the Sox pitching has disappointed. But more than anything else, this is what is destroying the team's chances.
ERA is a crude measure of underlying performance, but it shows actual results fairly well, and they are not pretty. The team was 13th in the AL by ERA before the game with Baltimore.
It all begins with starters. John Lackey (4.5) and Jon Lester (4.7) both have disappointingly high ERAs. Beckett (7.22) and Wakefield (6.59) have really sucked, with Jawsh, our putative ace, holding the highest ERA on the team . Daisuke looked good today until he bombed for 6 runs in the 5th inning, so it's hard to know what to expect to him. Only Clay Buchholz has been pitching truly well, although his 2.19 ERA masks 5 unearned runs. On a team with 3 aces, for a rookie like Clay to be the early stopper is very surprising.
Relief pitching has been atrocious as well. Here it makes sense to look at FIP (which is interpreted like ERA). The only Red Sox reliever with a FIP below 4.0 is Daniel Bard (3.9). Other relievers have been deceptively bad: Papelbon has a 4.66 FIP, Okajima 4.96, and RamRam 5.43. Manny Delcarmen, the pitcher with the lowest ERA, has an unsustaimably low .065 batting average against on balls in play, meaning he is very lucky on balls in play getting caught, and we should expect him to be tagged for way more runs.
Bad pitching in the pen leads to more blown leads, longer games, and more losses. Since opening day, the Sox have played six extra-inning games, and have emerged victorious in only one of them.
Conclusion: What should be the takeaway here? Well, the Sox biggest problem two games into May is poor pitching, as the defense has been above-average, and the offense has been good (although it can be better). The fact that pitching is the biggest problem could bode well going forward, as we can expect significant improvement from Jon Lester (a notorious slow starter) as well as Beckett and Lackey. The biggest reason for this is that Lackey, Lester, and Beckett all have lower FIPs than ERAs, indicating they are pitching fundamentally better than the results would suggest. Furthermore, Clay looks like the real deal and Wakefield has disappeared from the rotation, leaving Daisuke as the biggest wildcard.
While there are still many games left to play, the schedule for May is absolutely brutal. We face the Angels, Yankees, Rays, Phillies, Detroit, and Twins; the only opponents that are not probable playoff contenders are Toronto and Kansas City, and we only have 7 games against them. If the Sox don't play better in May, they may dig themselves into a very deep hole two months in. It's time for Beckett, Lackey and Lester to fulfil their roles as aces. This team can still be a powerhouse of pitching and defense, with a strong offense to boot. They just have to play to their ability.
*Clever readers will ask where I'm getting the Pythagorean record from. I used Baseball-Reference, but it's available from Baseball Prospectus as well, and both say pretty much the same thing. You can also calculate it yourself, although I'm too lazy to tonight.