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Theo Epstein's Boston Red Sox

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When Theo Epstein was named Red Sox GM in the wake of Billy Beane’s last minute decision to remain in Oakland, he was just twenty eight years old, the first in a growing trend of young baseball executives who had high powered educational backgrounds and a distinctive lack of professional baseball playing experience. Nine years removed, with many of the best teams in the game being run by men like Theo, it is easy to forget just how revolutionary his hiring was.


Missing out on Beane- the man who had been indelibly linked to the use of statistical analysis in baseball management in print and now on-screen- Boston chose a GM who was even more removed from the game’s old guard of scouts and ex-player front office execs. Fans and sports pundits all wondered what this brave new world of Boston baseball would look like. What would Theo Epstein value in players? How would he build a winner? Here in 2011, as Theo takes his considerable talents to Chicago’s North Side, we can look back at the time when Epstein ran things and see what his teams were really made of. 

As you might expect, offensive prowess has been the team’s most consistent quality. During Theo’s tenure, only the Yankees have scored more total runs in the American League. No AL team had more hits and only the Yankees and Rangers had more home runs between 2003 and 2011. The Red Sox are second only to their hated rivals in OBP, wRC+, ISO (in a tie with the Rangers) and K/BB ratio. The gap between the two teams on the offensive side has been razor thin with Epstein at the helm, as their matching wOBA (.352) reflects. The gap between Boston and New York and the rest of the American League is substantial. Over a nine year period, only four other teams have maintained an average or better wRC+. Theo’s Red Sox have been 11% better.


Only one of the team’s Theo put together featured a below average offense, the 2006 Sox team was a mere 1% below average at the plate (by wRC+). That team saw a number of players performances fall of the cliff. Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek and then newly acquired Mark Loretta all had terrible seasons. Theo also brought in weak hitting players to man the key defensive positions of shortstop (Alex Gonzalez) and centerfield (Coco Crisp). That team was certainly not designed to be such a mediocre hitting one, but the acquisitions of Crisp and Gonzalez did indicate a shift away from heady days of immobile sluggers at every position that originally characterized Boston baseball under Epstein .


Theo’s first Sox club was the best hitting group of any he presided over. It was a historically good offense, posting the highest team ever slugging percentage. Theo didn’t completely assemble this group, but he did add three major offensive contributors in David Ortiz, the team’s third best hitter, Bill Mueller, the team’s fourth best hitter, and Kevin Millar the team’s seventh best hitter. He also added Gabe Kapler, mid-season and got some solid production on the cheap. If a certain third baseman’s fly ball had hooked foul, this might be the best remembered team of Theo’s reign. The 2003 Sox could certainly get on base and hit for power, two of the primary hallmarks of Theo Epstein run teams.


For all the attention given to knocking the cover off the ball, Theo did almost as well in assembling a killer pitching staff. During his nine year tenure, Boston had the best combined season FIP- of any team in the AL. Their FIP was tied for the AL best over those nine years with Anaheim. They were very good by ERA as well, yet only ranked fifth by that measure, possibly due to luck, though Theo’s indifference to defense in the early years might also have something to do with the difference. Theo has stocked his teams with pitchers who get K’s. The team’s 7.11 K/9 rate is the highest of any AL team by a wide margin (the Yankees 6.98 comes in second). Those K’s have come with some extra free passes though, as the Sox have been giving up walks at an average rate.


While Red Sox pitching has been very good under Theo it has not dominated the American League quite the same way the hitting has. The teams have typically been just slightly above average by both ERA and FIP, usually between 2-7% better. It won’t surprise many Red Sox fans to learn that the 2004, 2007 and 2008 teams were the exceptions. The Shilling-Pedro lead 2004 Sox were the best by the advanced metrics with a 87 FIP-, the best in the league and a raw FIP of 4.03, just behind the Twins 3.98. Fortune favored the 2007 team, who had an exception ERA- of 83, a fair bit better than their FIP, which was still good enough for third in the league.


The worst Sox staffs both occurred in the transition between the best ones. In 2005, the absence of a healthy Schilling and the free fall of some of 2004’s key bullpen arms (Alan Embree and Keith Foulke especially) led to a team that was 5% worse than the league on the mound. 2006 saw the acquisition of Josh Beckett and the arrival of Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon. However, only Papelbon resembled the pitcher he would be in the following seasons and the team was once again a hair below average.


Despite some much discussed attempts to change things, the Sox biggest weakness under Theo has often been defense. In the first few seasons, Theo seemed to harbor a palpable contempt for decent fielders. The 2003 Sox were -46.4 runs worse than average by UZR. 2004 was worse, with the Sox giving up -50.1 runs. Shockingly, neither team was the worst in the league. The 2004 Yankees managed to give up 70+ runs on their way to an AL East title. Giving playing to players like Manny Rameriz, Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Millar and an aging Johnny Damon might have helped the offense but it had a dark side as well.


Theo abandoned his statue garden approach to team building with the addition of Coco Crisp and Alex Gonzalez in 2006. By 2007, the days of ignoring glove work were over. The 2007 World Series Champion Sox were 30 runs above average by UZR thanks to Crisp, Kevin Youkilis, and a dynamic young second baseman named Dustin Pedroia. Drafted and developed under Theo’s management, Pedroia is a testament to Epstein’s best qualities- at 5’7, he was easy for many baseball men to dismiss, but the FO trusted the results anyway and were rewarded by a Rookie of the Year, MVP, super star player. Easily the best defensive second baseman in the AL, Pedroia along with 2011 MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis put Boston on solid defensive ground. The 2010 team, which lacked all three stars for much of the season, has been the only negative UZR squad since 2006.


For nine years under Theo Epstein, the Red Sox have been an elite baseball organization. They have won more games than anyone but the Yankees in that time period. While they possess substantial resources, the consistent ability to compete is not simply a result of outspending other teams. Theo’s Red Sox drafted aggressively, developed carefully, and gave its own players the chance to impact the major league team. When they did trade for players or sign free agents, they were exhaustive in their evaluation process and rigid when setting their price.


At every level, Theo sought to make the Boston Red Sox the best run team in the game and his success in that pursuit is nearly unparalleled. The Chicago Cubs are getting a leader who can shape their operations into a continuous powerhouse.  Boston will see Epstein’s closest allies take over the organization he built and try to maintain the lofty standards he set for it. We can only hope they can come close to the same level of success.