The Boston Red Sox have gone through quite the roller coaster in terms of success during the last four decades. They experienced one of the most notorious moments in franchise history in 1986 and then achieved one of the greatest accomplishments in the sport’s history in 2004, not to mention additional World Series titles in 2007, 2013 and 2018, even if that last one isn’t looking as pristine as it once did.
At the same time all that was going on, sabermetrics have risen to become main stream (or nearly main stream) statistics that get bandied about when analyzing baseball. One of the most popular is wins above replacement and over the previous two weeks, I identified the most surprising leaders for the Red Sox in the statistic from 1900 to 1939 and from 1940 to 1979. Today we’ll be wrapping things up by looking at the outlier leaders in Baseball Reference WAR from 1980-89, 1990-99, 2000-2009 and 2010-2019.
While researching for this third and final installment in this series, I couldn’t help but notice that there were fewer obvious picks than there seemed to be in the first two series. With that in mind, I’ll be including a bit more info than usual on the runner up in some sections and even a tie for one at no additional cost.
Now enough with the introduction. Here are the picks.
Player(s): Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans
Season(s): 1980 and 1981
WAR: 4.7 and 6.7
This was an excruciatingly tough decision. The contenders here are Dwight Evans, who led the team in WAR in 1981 and 1982, and Fred Lynn, who led the team just once in the 80s (1980), but was the team’s leader in 1979 and 1975 as well. When I first wrote this, I had Evans here but then I changed it to Lynn and then changed it again and then changed it again and... you get the picture.
Here’s the argument against Lynn as the outlier. When he was in Boston, his ceiling shot past Evans’, as he posted a mark of 8.9 WAR in 1979 and 7.4 in 1975 when he won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the same season. In addition, he averaged 4.6 WAR per season in his seven years with the Red Sox while Evans averaged 3.5 across 19 seasons.
It’s Lynn’s time after Boston that hurts his case. He would leave the Red Sox in 1981 and even though he went on to record three All-Star seasons with the California Angels, he never recaptured the magic of those 1975 and 1979 campaigns and had just one more season with a mark of more than four WAR.
Now let’s put some respect on Evans’ name because he most certainly deserves it. Evans actually finished his career with more total WAR (67.1 vs. 50.2) and had eight seasons with four WAR or more compared with six from Lynn. As previously mentioned, Evans played 19 seasons in Boston and the only time he ever posted an OPS+ below 100 was in 1973, which was just the second season of his career. He won eight Gold Gloves, two Silver Sluggers and went to three All-Star games. He also made taking walks cool long before on-base percentage was a coveted statistic. Evans had the best year of his career by several metrics in 1981 even though a strike kept him from putting together even more impressive numbers. That’s why we’re looking at that season and not 1982. The knocks against Evans’ case are that his peaks didn’t reach the same heights as Lynn and he led the Red Sox in WAR fewer times.
Clearly neither Evans or Lynn is really an outlier, so you may be wondering, why not pick someone else from this decade? Well, the only other players to lead the Red Sox in WAR during the 80s were Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens. If you thought finding an argument for why Evans or Lynn were outlier leaders in WAR was difficult, imagine doing the same for Boggs or Clemens.
Player: Danny Darwin
The early 90s were mediocre at best for the Red Sox. After getting swept in the ALCS in 1990, they mostly hovered around .500 as the stars of the 80s like Boggs and Clemens started to look elsewhere to practice their trade. In 1993, Clemens was still part of the starting rotation but he was outpaced by the 37-year-old Darwin, who went 15-11 with a 3.26 ERA, a 143 ERA+ and the lowest WHIP in the American League (1.068). Darwin, who came to the Red Sox in 1991, only spent one more year in Boston after 1993, with his ERA ballooning to 6.30 in 1994. Yet in that 1993 season, he was the best pitcher on the Red Sox’s roster.
Player: Derek Lowe
In 2000 Lowe was an All-Star closer who tied for the AL lead in saves (42) and led in games finished (64). Just two years later, he was a co-ace of the Red Sox pitching staff with Pedro Martinez. Although Martinez outclassed Lowe in most categories during this season, including ERA (2.26 vs. 2.58), strikeouts (239 vs. 127), ERA+ (202 vs. 177) and FIP (2.24 vs. 3.34), Lowe managed to ascend to WAR leader powered by... innings pitched? This is a puzzling one for sure, and shows that WAR is an imperfect statistic, but there’s no denying that Lowe was spectacular this season. However, it was the first and only time in his Boston career that he had a mark above 3.5 in WAR and after being a hero in 2004, he left the Red Sox for the Dodgers.
The other player in consideration here was Kevin Youkilis, who led the team in WAR with a mark of 6.6 in 2009. Youkilis did make three All-Star games and was top-six in MVP voting twice during his career, however, and he also posted four seasons with a WAR of four or greater during his time with Boston, making him a bit more of a consistent threat for the crown than Lowe.
Player: Jacoby Ellsbury
This decade largely belonged to Mookie Betts (2015-2019) and Dustin Pedroia (2012-2014), however, in the first two years of the decade, some interesting things happened. With the benefit of hindsight, the one that stands out the most is Ellsbury’s spectacular 2011 campaign. He had established himself as a budding star prior to that season, leading the AL in steals twice (including an MLB-leading 70 in 2009) while coming in third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2008. Then 2011 happened and it looked like he might be the best player in baseball. He smashed 32 home runs, slashed .321/.376/.552 and just missed winning the AL MVP award. That was all during his age-27 season.
Unfortunately, Ellsbury was never able to replicate that type of performance again. He missed a lot of time in 2012 and after a bounce back season in 2013, signed with the Yankees where he accumulated 9.8 WAR in total across four seasons.
At the time, it would have been 2010s WAR leader that seemed more like an outlier compared with Ellsbury, who looked like he was just entering his prime. I’ve written about Adrian Beltre’s seemingly out-of-nowhere 2010 season before, but the fact is that it was a sign that he was still at the peak of his powers after a solid but inconsistent tenure in Seattle from 2005 to 2009. Beltre’s 7.8 WAR campaign in 2010 started a stretch of seven-straight years with a mark of at least 5.6 for the four-time All-Star third baseman. Beltre is an outlier WAR leader because he only played one year in Boston but Ellsbury’s 2011 season is a larger outlier in his career than 2010 was in Beltre’s. That’s the difference here.