Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Friday, June 28, 2013

Evaluating the Red Sox Mid-Way Through the 2013 Season



The Red Sox have now played 81 games and officially reached the mid-point of the 2013 season. The Sox find themselves at 48-33, atop the AL East and owners of the best record in the American League. Only the Cardinals and Pirates have fewer losses (30 each).

The Sox got off to a red hot start, posting a 18-8 record in April. They cooled to 15-15 in May, but are 15-11 so far in June.

The Boston offense leads the majors with 417 runs, 407 RBI and a .793 OPS. They're also second in hits (764); second in walks (305); tied for second in stolen bases (62); second in on-base percentage (.348); second in slugging (.445); and third in batting (.274).

Boston's starting pitchers are second in the majors with 440 strikeouts and are tied for second with 36 wins. They are second in the AL with 486.1 innings and second in opponent's batting average, at .246. Sox starters are also third in the AL with a 3.79 ERA.

If there is a weakness on this team, it is the closer's role. Joel Hanrahan was lost for the season due to an elbow injury and Andrew Bailey, a former All Star who was slated for the closer's role last season, failed to step up and seize his opportunity. Bailey blew one-third of his save chances (4 of 12) before being demoted to middle relief.

Thirty-eight-year-old Koji Uehara has been appointed as the new closer, and it's too soon to tell how that will fare. He certainly seems to have the right make-up for the job.

When it comes to defense, the Sox are solidly middle-of-the-pack in the AL with a .986 fielding percentage and 43 errors.

However, Dustin Pedroia is having a Gold Glove-caliber season at second, and the sure-handed Jose Iglesias has been installed as the team's starting third baseman (replacing the demoted Will Middlebrooks). Iglesias has seamlessly made the adjustment to his new position.

Stephen Drew has surprised many will his excellent defensive play and Shane Victorino covers lots of ground in right and also has an excellent arm. To top things off, both Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes have been far better in the field than anyone expected.

This team seemed to gel early on and does indeed have the great clubhouse chemistry that GM Ben Cherington was seeking during the offseason. The players have openly expressed their support for one another and have noted a great sense of team unity. As easy as it was to dismiss Cherington's quest for chemistry, it does seem to be working.

Let's go around the diamond and look at the offensive performance of each payer to this point. I'll also project the current numbers over a full season, simply by doubling some offensive numbers, which I'll put in parenthesis. Lastly, we'll look at Red Sox statistician Bill James' pre-season projections and see how those might stack up at year's end.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, catcher: .261/.326/.459/.785, 8 HR (16 HR), 30 RBI (60 RBI), 19 2B (38 2B)
Bill James' pre-season projection: 19 HR, .309/.454/.752

Salty's numbers are respectable for a catcher. As long as he remains healthy, it wouldn't be a surprise if he ends up with 20 homers and 40 doubles at season's end. Salty's continued health will be critical to the Red Sox fortunes considering David Ross' concussion problems and Ryan Lavarnway's inexperience.

Mike Napoli, first base: .264/.344/.447/.791, 9 HR (18 HR), 53 RBI (106 RBI), 21 2B (42 2B), 98 SO (third in baseball) (196 SO), 73 games (146 games)
Bill James' pre-season projection: .248/.350/.469, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 127 G

Napoli started the season red hot, posting 4 homers and 27 RBI in April. However, over the next two months, Napoli has managed just 5 homers and 26 RBI. That's like falling off a cliff. And he strikes out a ton. Napoli may whiff an astounding 200 times this season. Aren't you glad that three-year deal feel through?

Dustin Pedroia, second base: .318/.398/.434/.832, 5 HR (10 HR), 47 RBI (94 RBI), 21 2B (42 2B), 99 hits (198 hits), 43 BB (86 BB), 52 runs (104 runs), 80 games (160 games)
Bill James' pre-season projection: 296/.367/.459, 17 HR, 45 2B

To this point, Pedey has to be the Sox MVP. He plays stellar defense and makes stunning plays on a regular basis. Yes, his power has dropped, but expecting a guy who is 5' 6", 160 pounds to continually bash 17-20 homers may be a bit optimistic. That's not his game. Pedroia is doing everything else incredibly well and is having one of his best seasons in the majors.

Jose Iglesias, third base: .417/.466/.550/1.016, 1 HR, 9 RBI

James didn't make any projections for Iglesias. Why would he? The fact that Iglesias is the team's starting third baseman, having supplanted Will Middlebrooks (who was supposed to be a bona fide middle-of-the-order hitter) is nothing less than stunning. The kid's defense at third is every bit as good as at short.

And how is it that a guy who couldn't hit Triple-A pitching is batting over .400 in the bigs? No, that torrid pace won't continue (after all, he has 15 infield hits so far), but if Iglesias manages to hit even .300, that would be a shocking over-achievement. Iglesias looks like a keeper.

Stephen Drew, shortstop: .226/.308/.391/.699, 5 HR (10 HR), 29 RBI (58 RBI), 13 2B (26 RBI), 5 3B (10 3B)
Bill James pre-season projection: 11 HR, .325/.411/.736

Drew was once an offensive force with Arizona. Coming into this season, he ranked fourth among all Major League shortstops over the previous five seasons with a .441 slugging percentage and was fifth with a .770 OPS (min. 1,500 plate appearances).

Unfortunately, that firepower has vanished in Boston. It's not just that Drew isn't hitting; he's not getting on base much either. On the other hand, he has been really steady in the field and routinely makes excellent plays at short. Drew has just two errors this season, the same number as that defensive wizard, Iglesias.

Daniel Nava, outfield: 281/.372/.443/.815, 10 HR (20 HR), 49 RBI (98 RBI), 43 runs (86 runs)

Nava is another guy who Bill James didn't bother making projections for. Again, why would he? What Nava is doing is simply astonishing. I've detailed Nava's story previously, so I won't bother to do it again. But, let's just say that this guy has overcome all the odds, and every obstacle at every turn. No one, except perhaps Nava himself, expected him to perform at this level and to be among the Red Sox most productive players.

Jacoby Ellsbury, center field: .292/.356/.406/.762, 1 HR, 27 RBI (54 RBI), 19 2B (38 2B) 93 hits (186 hits), 32 SB (64 SB), 49 runs (98 runs)
Bill James pre-season projection: .294/.346/.436, 15 HR, 37 SB, 100 R

If you haven't been paying attention, Ellsbury has been red hot as of late. After batting just .254 in May, the center fielder is batting .356 in June. Yes, he has just one homer, but so what? He's a leadoff hitter. His job is to get on base and score, and he's doing that quite well. Additionally, he's frustrating opposing pitchers by continually putting himself in scoring position with his major league-leading 32 stolen bases.

Sure, Ellsbury's stellar 2011 season was an outlier. But he's playing great defense and looks like the guy we all fell in love with in 2008 and 2009, when he posted a cumulative .291 average and .346 OBP, while averaging 96 runs and 60 stolen bases. We'll take that guy any year.

Shane Victorino, right field: .297/.349/.401/.750, 3 HR (6 HR), 19 RBI (38 RBI), 9 2B (18 2B), 31 runs (62 runs)
Bill James pre-season projection: .269/.338/.418, 14 HR, 29 2B, 7 3B, 29 SB, 85 R

I'll admit it: Victorino doesn't look washed up and is performing better than I had anticipated. He's hitting for average, getting on base, playing great defense and has a far better arm than I had realized.

On the other hand, he's shown little power, is largely a singles hitter and has just nine stolen bases, which is a major letdown for a guy with that kind of speed. Victorino has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. For a guy who is getting on base at a .349 clip, mostly by hitting singles, he's not putting himself in a position to score by stealing bases. That's why he has just 31 runs, which is not acceptable. He needs to do more in the second half. The most important thing is for Victorino to stay healthy; he has appeared in just 51 of the first 81 games this season.

STARTING PITCHING

Clay Buchholz is 9-0 with a stellar 1.71 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. He should be the starting pitcher in the All Star game, if he's healthy. And there's the rub. Once again, Buchholz has proven himself to be as delicate as a flower. If it's not one thing, it's another with this guy. He's never pitched 200 innings in his six-year career and that trend will continue. Buchholz topped out at 189.1 innings last season and he won't even pitch that many this year. The righty has thrown just 84.1 innings in 2013 and who knows what might ail him in the second half?

Jon Lester remains a frustrating mystery. Is he the guy who dominated hitters from 2008 to 2010, when he averaged 16.7 wins, 207 innings and 201 strikeouts, or the guy who has struggled so mightily since September 2011.

The lefty entered September 2011 with a 75-31 record and the highest winning percentage among qualified active pitchers (.708). However, Lester is just 18-21 (.462) since that time. And his 4.61 ERA is 65th among AL starters this season.

Lester is only 29 and should be in the prime of his career, yet he has regressed. Though he started the season strongly, going 4-0 with a 3.11 ERA in April, it's been mostly downhill since then. Lester went 2-2 with a 3.92 ERA in May and 2-2 with a 7.62 ERA in June. That slide is alarming.

Quite tellingly, Lester has the highest ERA among the Red Sox primary starters this season.

Felix Doubront is 4-3 with a 4.33 ERA. But he's fooling enough hitters to post 76 strikeouts in 79 innings. Doubront's biggest struggle continues to be his high pitch counts early in games, which leads to early exits and unwanted stress on the bullpen.

Doubront has gone as far as the seventh inning just once in his 13 starts this season. That needs to change soon. However, he did have a stellar eight-inning performance on June 18th (the longest of his career), in which he shutout the Rays on just three hits and no walks. It was, by far, the best performance of Doubront's brief career and it highlighted the reason the Red Sox still have so much hope for the 25-year-old's continued development.

Veteran Ryan Dempster has given the Sox lots of innings and fanned dozens of batters in the process. Though the righty is just 5-8 with a 4.15 ERA, he's thrown 95.1 innings and struck out 94 batters along the way.

Despite his record, Dempster always gives the Red Sox a chance to win and keeps them in games. The offense has given him a run support average of 5.19, which should be enough to win, given his 4.33 ERA. But somehow the wins just haven't materialized. Regardless, Dempster has been a consistently solid, middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Sox.

Lastly, there's John Lackey, who is having a remarkable comeback season. The righty's 2.99 ERA is 12th best among AL starters this season (min. 75 innings). Though Lackey is 5-5, he is getting the lowest run support of any Red Sox starter and, with an average of 4.15 runs per start, is just 64th in the AL.

Lackey has fanned 73 batters and given up just 77 hits in 78.1 innings this season. Not bad for a guy that most of the fan base was trying to run out of town.

The fact that the Red Sox have maintained their hold on first place in the ultra-competitive AL East speaks to the quality of this team. Four of the five clubs in the division are above .500 and the fifth, the Blue Jays, are at exactly .500.

To the contrary, only two teams in the AL Central and two in the AL West are over .500. Yes, the Red Sox are pretty good. They're beating the good teams, as well as the mediocre and bad ones.

The Sox are 26-15 at Fenway, 22-18 on the road and 21-14 against AL East teams. This new version of the Sox is for real.

What is most vital for the Sox in the second half is to stay healthy. Their playoff hopes are riding on the health of their staring lineup, their starting five and their bullpen.

Joel Hanrahan is out for the season. That was a big loss. But so far he is the only regular that is gone for the year. Resiliency and relatively good health are among the major reasons for this team's success to this point. David Ross and Shane Victorino have suffered through assorted injuries, yet only Ross is still out.

But, above all else, the health of Clay Buchholz will be the most important issue for this team going forward. Without their best pitcher, the complexion of the starting rotation changes dramatically.

As long as the Sox stay healthy, there is no reason not to expect them to continue their winning ways, right into the playoffs.

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