Many things went wrong over the last two seasons for the Boston Red Sox. Some of the problems responsible for the team's failure were more direct. Many players were injured and some stars under-performed expectations, for example. Problems like that are often isolated. Players get injured but then they heal. They have bad seasons, but if they're talented enough, they come back and perform up to expectations the next season. Injuries and under-performance can and will and did destroy a season, but usually not more than one at a time.
But some are more ingrained, more insidious problems. The Red Sox spent the off-season remaking their roster. They did it in any number of ways and depending on who you talk to, they did it with any number of things foremost in their collective mind. Maybe solving the clubhouse issue was paramount, maybe they were focusing on draft pick retention, or keeping contract length to a minimum above all else. Probably they were working on all of those simultaneously. There's one other aspect to the team though that needed fixing.
That is a chart of the Red Sox team ranking in on-base percentage since 2007. You'll note some consistency followed by last year. And while I'm already making silly charts on Excel, here's another.
If you can overlook my lousy graphic abilities, you can see a trend there. Part of that trend is the overall drop in offense in baseball across the board. In fact, that's mostly all there is in the drop between the 2007 and 2011 teams. But then comes last year, the first year in a long time when the Red Sox were bad at getting on base.
Bill James once observed that outs are a game's currency. Most sports have a clock which runs at certain times and teams can't do much outside of the occasional time-out to stop it. But baseball is different. In baseball, good teams make games last longer because they avoid making outs. This same ability to elongate the game also leads to scoring more runs. It has ancillary benefits as well, such as tiring out the opposing team's pitchers. In short, getting on base is a thing that good hitters do. While not doing it doesn't make you a bad hitter, let's just say it limits how good you can become.
The Red Sox front office must have noticed when they looked deeper at last season's numbers the decline in the team's on-base percentage. In fact, I'm sure they did because there's almost no way to miss it.
And because I'm clearly in a charty mood, here are the on-base percentages the 2012 Red Sox received by position along with the major league averages for those positions, and the difference between the two. (Told you I was charty.)
Hopefully the graphics published clearly and you can see that the Red Sox received below league average on-base percentages from five defensive positions, or more than half of their batting order. That isn't going to get it done. Those below-average positions are catcher, shortstop, third base, center field, and right field. Let's look at those positions specifically, see what happened last year, and what the Red Sox have done to address it.
While Boston didn't trade starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia, they did sign a new back-up catcher, David Ross. It has been speculated by the media (and possibly specifically stated by the team, though I'm unable to find any quotes to that affect at this time) that Ross will play more than most normal back-up catchers typically do. Ross hasn't been an on-base monster during the last two seasons, but he was the two before that, posting .380 and .392 on-base percentages for the 2009 and 2012 Braves. The last two seasons he's been closer though still better than the average catcher at .333 and .321. In any case, when he plays, he'll help bring up the team's average.
Further down the line, Ryan Lavarnway offers the promise of a starting catcher who can put up on-base numbers that won't make your eyes bleed to look at them. For now though, while they've made incremental improvements with Ross, the Red Sox are probably going to have to look elsewhere for the on-base skills they need.
Last year Mike Aviles got the majority of starts at short and performed well defensively, but his offense was about what you'd expect should you find 500 plus plate appearances at the bottom of your closet and give them to Mike Aviles. In short, not good. A .281 on-base percentage, one that wasn't helped when the Red Sox decided to play the offensively impotent (For now! For now!) Jose Iglesias at short towards season's end. Iglesias' .200 OBP managed to make Aviles' contribution to getting on base look Hall of Fame-level.
The Red Sox decided that changes needed to be made here, likely due in no small part to the topic of this piece. Aviles was shipped to Toronto and Iglesias was told to learn how to hit Triple-A pitching and then give us a call. In their place comes Stephen Drew. Drew isn't the selective hitter his brother J.D. was, but the bar was set so impossibly low here that just about anyone would be an upgrade. In this instance Drew qualifies. In 2010, his most recent full season prior to a severe ankle injury, he put up a .352 OBP. The tools are there if the health is to put up something respectable if not earth-shattering. After last season, respectable works just fine.
Will Middlebrooks isn't going to light the world afire with his on-base percentage, but there are other things he does well, so we forgive him this fault because he crushes bombs over the Monster. However, Middlebrooks was injured and missed the end of last season. That necessitated playing Mike Aviles at third, and on and on. The result was a .303 on-base percentage from Red Sox third baseman in 2012. The good news there is that a healthy Middlebrooks should be able to improve upon in 2013, even if it's not by much.
We all know the story here. Coming off his almost-MVP 2011 campaign, Ellsbury was severely injured almost immediately upon the start of the season. When he returned much much later, he wasn't himself. He played in 74 games, posting a .313 on-base percentage, a 63 point drop from 2011. The Red Sox filled in those 88 games without Ellsbury with, well, it doesn't matter. Lots of nobody. The point is, there is reason to think that, if Ellsbury isn't eaten by lions, he should be able to improve on, not just the team's center field OBP, but his own.
Last season we all enjoyed the bat flipping prowess of Cody Ross in right field. However entertaining that was though, the time in between bat flips wasn't often filled with walks. Throw in a .303 on-base from Ryan Sweeney and you've got a recipe for below average production. Ross is gone, taking his bat flips and lack of walks to Arizona for three years. Sweeney may be the fifth outfielder though who knows. In any case, he likely won't be counted upon to start with frequency as he was last season.
In their place the Red Sox have signed Shane Victorino. Victorino is one of those guys who doesn't do anything amazingly, but does many things well, one of those being getting on base. He's the possessor of a lifetime .340 on-base percentage and posted a .355 mark as recently as 2011. He stands a good chance of bettering the on-base production the Red Sox received last season from Ross and Sweeney.
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Three charts and five bolded headlines later, we're left with a roster that should improve over last season's dismal on-base performance. Specifically, all five below average positions have been upgraded either through free agency or improved health (we hope). The Red Sox may not be a great team in 2013, but they're at least going to get on base from time to time, and that will be an improvement. Looking further afield, it seems clear that Boston's front office is set to move back to it's early Epstein-era roots as a high on-base percentage team.
This change could take time (or not!) but the road to improvement has been found and everyone's in the car. Time to turn the key and see if it starts.