The Red Sox have ended their crisis of belief

Back around the end of the Red Sox early September road trip, I was getting ready to talk about what I saw as the last ingredient the Red Sox needed to be a championship team this year. I'd just blogged about how the relief pitching had come around due to the extended rest they got in early September, thanks to lengthy starts and the expansion of the roster. The end of that post laid the foundation of my post-to-be that never came to be, noting that "The one thing remaining that the Red Sox have lacked is late-inning offense, especially in close games. If they can turn that around, they’ll have all facets of their game working well. That will make for an easy September, and an easy September will allow them to set themselves up to perform well in the playoffs."

My new post would attempt to demonstrate that the Red Sox had a crisis of belief. That they did not believe strongly enough in their ability to produce needed runs in the late innings. I had captured numbers to back this up. They would show how, although all teams experience a clear drop off in offensive production after the sixth inning of games, for the Red Sox the drop off was much more dramatic than for other teams, going from elite production in innings 1 through 6 to only slightly above average in innings 7 through 9, this in terms of Batting Average, OBP, and OPS. Those specific numbers, alas, are lost, but there are some others I saved at that time, and I'll use those here to show how things have turned things around these past two weeks.

I would then have concluded this post-that-never-came-to-be by saying that this crisis of belief was probably a result of all the young players on the team who, despite their talent, hadn't yet won a postseason berth. That it would take some spurring on by the Red Sox' own Mr. Clutch, David Ortiz, to get this team to start believing it can win those games that are close late. Something like his famous 2013 World Series dugout rant that helped turn the team's fortunes around. Because he's handing over the reins to the young guys at the end of the season, and they'll need to believe in themselves to be able to believe they can do it next year without Big Papi. But more immediately, to be able to play like a championship team this year, and have a shot at the World Series.

Well boy, did that ever happen.

Alas, I did not have the opportunity to write that post, but now I can use the numbers I gathered then to show how they've turned around their late-inning offensive woes. They won't match the Red Sox current winning streak exactly, covering the last 12 and 14 games instead of the last 11, but that's because I'm not actually that good at predicting the future. My guesses at how something needs to happen are better than my guesses at how they actually will happen.

But first let's indulge in reliving the moment when David Ortiz indeed did spur his teammates on. It came on September 15, the first game of the Yankees series, and the first game of the winning streak. Coming off a pair of tough losses to the Orioles, a third straight loss would have been quite demoralizing, yet the Red Sox found themselves trailing 5 to 1 in the 8th inning, having had trouble getting anything going against Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. This lead must have appeared insurmountable to a Red Sox team that had all season long seemed unable to produce late-game runs when they needed them. But then David Ortiz slams a home run, comes into the dugout, and as Hanley Ramirez reported, said "Let's go." No big speech, but a very clear message. Don't give up on this game, guys. Don't give up on us. We need to try harder to win these games. We need to believe.

It seems like that message was picked up, because the Red Sox put up 5 runs in the next (ninth) inning in a dramatic, come-from-behind, walk-off win. The kind of win that gets a team believing that they can do it again. And they haven't lost since, with several come-from-behind victories during this 11-game winning streak that has propelled them not only into the playoffs, but also into a neck-and-neck race for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

And now let's check the numbers to confirm that there truly has been a turnaround in their late-inning offense. All numbers used here came from

The first two charts show the Red Sox dropoff in scoring in the late innings. The first chart shows average runs per inning broken out by inning, and multiplied by 9 so they can be compared to average runs per game (which for most teams falls between 4 and 5). "9+" groups together the 9th inning with extra innings, which helps normalize the sample sizes. As you can see, in innings 1 through 6 (with the exception of the 4th), though September 11 the Red Sox (red line) had a far more potent offense than the rest of baseball (blue line). However, in the late innings, while the rest of baseball experiences a slight drop in run production, the Red Sox had a dramatic drop. This was one of the reasons the Red Sox struggled so mightily in close games.

The dotted line shows what the Red Sox have done in the last 14 games, including the current 11-game winning streak.

Runs by inning 20160926 photo Runs per 9in by inning 20160926.png

An apparent improvement, though the fluctuations due to the small sample sizes make it hard to tell. To make it easier, I've made another chart which groups the innings into "first three", "middle three", and "7th and later" (which includes extra innings).

Runs by inning group 20160926 photo Runs per 9in by inning group 20160926.png

Much clearer. Whereas before, their run production would drop from elite to average in the late innings, now they're maintaining an above-average rate of run production into the late innings, for the duration of the winning streak and the three games before it. Probably wouldn't be too much work for me to manually separate out those first three games to focus just on the streak, but I think the point is made.

Next, we'll look at what I consider the most telling of Baseball-Reference's "Clutch Stats", the one known as "Late & Close". It is defined as "Plate Appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck." The Red Sox have done okay in the other clutch stats, but quite poorly in this one - until recently.

We'll start by looking, for reference, at the major league average numbers for Late & Close. You can see there's a dropoff in all offensive numbers, probably because these are the very situations in which batters will be facing the opposing team's best relievers. The dropoffs aren't large, though: 7 percent for batting average, 2 percent for on-base percentage, and 10 percent for slugging percentage.

MLB through 9/25 PA BA OBP SLG OPS
All situations 177344 0.255 0.321 0.418 0.739
Late & close 28043 0.237 0.314 0.378 0.692

The Red Sox, by contrast, were seeing (through September 13) a 12 percent dropoff in batting average, 11 percent in OBP, and 20 percent in SLG:

Red Sox through 9/25 PA BA OBP SLG OPS
All situations 6103 0.285 0.350 0.467 0.817
Late & close - first 144 G 762 0.250 0.312 0.374 0.686
Late & close - last 12 G 75 0.319 0.373 0.565 0.939

But look at what they've done in the last 12 games. They're hitting far above their already elite level of overall production in these late & close situations during the streak. And with it has come a few dramatic come-from-behind victories. (If you want those percentages, it's 12% above for BA, 7% for OBP, and 21% for SLG.)

Finally, just because I have the numbers, let's look at how the Red Sox have done in high-leverage situations. To explain, consider that a single play can cause a big swing in the probability that one team versus the opposing team wins the game. Some plays have a big potential to cause a big change in this probability, by nature of the game situation, such as men on second and third with the home team down by a run in the bottom of the ninth. Some plays have low potential to cause a big change in this probability, such as when one team is losing 10-0 in the third inning. At they divide all plays into high, medium, and low leverage categories. As you can see, through most of the season, the Red Sox were at their best in medium-leverage situations, but at their worst in high-leverage situations, and the differences are very clear. However, in the last 12 games, they've been most definitively at their best in those high-leverage situations that provide the biggest payoffs in terms of their chances to win the game.

first 144 games PA BA OBP SLG OPS
High Leverage 1051 0.267 0.338 0.428 0.766
Medium Leverage 2042 0.303 0.363 0.513 0.876
Low Leverage 2551 0.281 0.349 0.452 0.801

last 12 games PA BA OBP SLG OPS
High Leverage 101 0.326 0.370 0.554 0.924
Medium Leverage 178 0.261 0.356 0.464 0.820
Low Leverage 174 0.220 0.287 0.314 0.602

All this, to me, says that the Red Sox are now a team that has learned to believe in their ability to pull through. Let's hope they can carry that belief into 2017, when they'll have to do it without Big Papi.