Upgrades or Replacements? Comparing the 2010 and 2011 Red Sox

Tell me if you've heard this argument before during the offseason:

The Red Sox haven't improved this offseason, they've just replaced Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez. Anyone calling them the favorites to win the division is way off base.

I'll admit, for a while there, I frowned. One of the things that has confused the last couple of offseasons for the Red Sox is overperforming. In 2009, the Sox allowed a paltry 736 runs-good for second best in the American League, and just four runs worse than the White Sox. How did they pull it off? The pitching was solid enough, coming in fifth in xFIP, but with a defense that was either average or disastrous depending on who you asked and left on base and home run per fly ball rates suggesting a decent amount of luck was involved, Theo could read the writing on the wall: If something didn't change dramatically, the Red Sox were in for some nasty correction in the immediate future.

We saw proof of that this season. Excepting Adrian Beltre, the team's best defensive players spent much of the season injured, and despite again coming in above average in xFIP (believe it or not), the Red Sox found themselves amongst the league's worst when it came to keeping runs off the board.

Amazingly, though, the Red Sox still managed to win 89 games. And they did that through offense, posting a .345 wOBA-the second best in baseball. My initial reaction was to wonder how this team could pull something off playing so many replacements. Were we just overperforming again? Due for another crash if we didn't make the necessary adjustments?

This brings me back to that initial argument because, as I'm sure many of you thought, the first response that comes to mind is that even if Gonzalez and Crawford simply replace Beltre and Martinez, we're getting all those games missed due to injury back! If we weren't hurt as much as we thought by the injuries, then that's a moot point.

Then I looked at the numbers and realized how mistaken my thinking was.

The Offense

The first irrational mistake I made was to think that, since the Red Sox had the second best offense last year, they could not expect to get much better this year.

Wrong.

Let's consider the most recent (full) seasons of our starting lineup, and the players' wOBA.

Carl Crawford: .378

J.D. Drew: .346

Jacoby Ellsbury: .354

Adrian Gonzalez: .378

David Ortiz: .380

Dustin Pedroia: .377

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: .296

Marco Scutaro: .319

Kevin Youkilis: .413

I'm going to stick to simple math here, because this is more of a proof of concept than it is an exact prediction. So let's say Red Sox' starters take 80% of the plate appearances next year at the wOBA they had in their last full season. This leaves 20% of all plate appearances for replacements, who we'll give a fairly conservative .315 wOBA-pretty low considering that it's Jed Lowrie, Mike Cameron, and Darnell McDonald who will be filling the bench roles this year.

Let's just average those numbers, ignoring the wOBA bump we might reasonably expect for Adrian Gonzalez and the difference in plate appearances based on position in the lineup in exchange for accepting that David Ortiz doesn't regress noticeably and Jacoby Ellsbury comes back to form. We'll just ignore any potential improvement from Drew, Scutaro, and Salty.

That gives us a team wOBA of around .351, a difference worth about 25 runs over the course of a season. And that's a conservative estimate. The Red Sox will not only be a better offensive team next year, but chances are, they'll be a very noticeably better offensive team.

The Defense

And then there's the other side of the ball. Again, it might be tempting to think that losing Beltre and shifting Youkilis from first to third would be enough to negate the defensive improvement that Crawford would bring to the table. That would be completely missing the point, though, and rather overvaluing the contributions of the replacements last year.

I've already covered the numbers here, but the gist of things is that the Red Sox should probably be pretty average defensively next year-probably a bit above, even. Deficiencies at catcher and possibly short and center (the Ellsbury question has been pondered so often that I feel it necessary to reiterate that over 2,000 innings at center, he is almost perfectly average by UZR) will be made up for by having the league's elite in left and at second base.

Which is, of course, a huge upgrade over last year's team. Even if we don't take the whole five wins' difference between an average team and what DRS had the 2010 Red Sox as, and just accept the 1.5 wins by UZR, that's a solid bonus.

The Pitching

To be honest, as much as we Red Sox fans love to bash the current state of the Yankees lineup, there's every possibility we're about to find ourselves in a similar situation. But, at the very least, we have a shot at something dominant.

There are two things that come to mind when comparing last year's team and 2011's Red Sox: regression and the bullpen. We all know, for example, that Clay Buchholz isn't about to put up another 2.33 ERA season. It's an interesting argument to consider how much he'll regress, but for now, let's approach this in a different way.

First, it's worth considering how close the team's results were with its peripherals. A 4.20 ERA compared to a 4.08 FIP and a 4.30 xFIP. Interestingly, that 0.12 ERA-FIP difference fits very nicely with UZR's estimation of how much the defense cost the team at 19.4 runs over the course of the season. For once, then, it seems reasonable to go with ERA as a good baseline for last year's season. We've already taken into account the difference with FIP when we did the defensive numbers earlier, after all, and Fenway Park's slight home run suppression accounts for a 9.0% HR/FB rate. On the whole, then, we can actually accept that regression shouldn't be a major factor. It'll work one way for Buchholz, the other way for Beckett, and we'll wind up someplace in between.

The second thing is the bullpen. Oh that tragic, tragic bullpen. And that's where the most predictable improvement should come from. Going back to last year, the Sox picked up -2.1 WAR just from relievers coming in at negative numbers. The addition of Bobby Jenks with his 1.5 WAR should bring a big boost to the pen just by virtue of adding a big number. But it's the fact that having even largely-neutral Dan Wheeler (.4 WAR the last three years) along with Jenks makes bullpen management such an easy job for Terry Francona that really helps out. No longer will the Sox need to deal with the constant shifting in-and-out of mediocre arms hoping to find a gem. Generally, there just shouldn't be any need for the likes of Robert Manuel (-0.6 WAR), Manny Delcamen (-0.5 WAR), Fernando Cabrera (-0.3 WAR) and Dustin Richardson (-0.3 WAR).

Sure, Hideki Okajima or Scott Atchison could slip into negative territory. Ditto Tim Wakefield if things really fall apart. But generally speaking, the Sox are just going to have a few guys around zero WAR, and then the cream-of-the-crop in Bard, Papelbon, and Jenks combinging for about four wins. That's a bump of three over last year's team.

The Math, Etc.

So, that's two-and-a-half wins from offense, three from pitching, and one-and-a-half from defense. Seven in total. Add that to last season's total, and we're at a solid 96 based on mostly conservative estimates.

But wait!

Since we're going based on run-to-win predictions, we also have to consider, as always, our baseline. How good were the Red Sox, really, in 2010? Were they actually 89 wins good despite their injuries, or was that just another bit of overperformance?

Believe it or not, it's the other way around. By third-order wins, which consider runs scored, allowed, and quality of competition, the Red Sox were actually sold a few wins short. In a "perfect" world last year, the Red Sox should have been in the playoffs!

Of course, the world remains imperfect. While the Rays are likely to be less of a juggernaut than they were last year, the Yankees really didn't get much worse, unless all their guys declining continue to do so free of even dead cat bounces. The A.L. East will remain a ridiculous division-it's just that now we're the ones likely to make it all-the-more ridiculous for others instead of the other way around.

But hell, we've already got seven wins under our belt. Why get greedy, anyways? All we needed to do was show that the Red Sox are an improved team, and I'd say we've done more than that.

So even if Gonzalez and Crawford are just replacements for Beltre and Martinez, who cares? They're part of an overall upgraded product.

Four more days to Truck Day.

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