Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013 Red Sox Season Preview

If great expectations can be a burden, perhaps low expectations will be a blessing.

In 2011, the Red Sox entered the season under the weight of some mighty expectations. Many baseball observers projected that the team would win 100 games and eventually the World Series. However, the Sox famously flamed out after enduring a 7-20 record in September.

As that 2011 Red Sox team proved, a general manager can build an apparent powerhouse during the offseason, but some teams only look good on paper and never live up to all the hype.

Yet, the 2013 Red Sox will enter this season with low expectations and no hype whatsoever. Though the Red Sox have recently added David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Joel Hanrahan and Mike Napoli, none of them is a true star. Though some are former All Stars, most are considered past their prime (Victorino, Dempster, Uehara) or were never stars at any point in their careers (Ross, Gomes).

Now that the Red Sox have finally gotten the Napoli situation resolved, the team has added eight free agents this offseason, which is as many as they’ve acquired in the John Henry era. The Sox also added eight after the 2004 season. By any measure, the Sox have had a very busy offseason.

Yet, despite all of those additions, it may not be enough to make Boston a playoff contender once again. That's troubling since this is a team that hasn't made the postseason since 2009 and hasn't won a playoff game since 2008.

The most glaring thing about most of the Red Sox offseason acquisitions is their advanced age, which increases the risk of injury. Uehara (38 next season), David Ortiz (37), Ross (36 next season), Dempster (36 next season), Victorino (32) and Napoli (31) are all on the wrong side of 30, as far as baseball is concerned.

This is worrisome because last season, as in 2010, the Red Sox were decimated by injuries. The Sox are assuming the same risks in 2013 by loading up on veteran players in their 30s.

Pre-season predictions are a tough business, but one man has made a career of them.

Famed Red Sox statistician Bill James has some rather uninspiring predictions for the 2013 Red Sox rotation, as far as wins are concerned, at least:

Jon Lester 12-12
Clay Buchholz 12-11
Ryan Dempster 11-10
John Lackey 12-12
Felix Doubront 12-11
Total 59-56

As you can see, James envisions just three Sox pitchers breaking .500 this year and none with more than 12 wins. If the Sox are to win as many as 89 games this season, the bullpen will have to come up with a combined 30 victories. That seems far-fetched. If James is right, the Sox are in for another miserable summer.

While none of the above projections is exciting, if you're looking for optimism, James provides some of that too.

The stat guru projects that Lester, Doubront and Lackey will each pitch 200 innings and that Buchholz will reach 190. James also projects a 3.64 ERA for Buchholz, 3.70 for Doubront, 3.71 for Lester, 3.74 ERA Dempster, and 4.05 for Lackey.

If correct, all five starting pitchers would have ERAs lower than the league average.

When it comes to offense, James projections are much more optimistic:

Will Middlebrooks is projected at .277, .806 OPS, 29 HR, 99 RBI.

Dustin Pedroia has a bounce back season, .296/.367/.459, 17 HR, 45 2B.

Jacoby Ellsbury hits .294/.346/.436, 15 HR, 37 SB, 100 R.

David Ortiz projects at .283/.386/.533, 32 HR, 103 RBI

Ryan Lavarnway projects to have a solid rookie season: .261/.335/.435, 16 HR, 66 RBI (115 G)

Mike Napoli projects at .248/.350/.469, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 127 G.

Shane Victorino projects at .269/.338/.418, 14 HR, 29 2B, 7 3B, 29 SB, 85 R.

Jonny Gomes is projected with 16 HR (in 322 AB), .337/.441/.778.

Ryan Kalish projects at 10 HR, 21 SB, .320/.384/.704.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is projected at 19 HR, .309/.454/.752.

Stephen Drew projects at 11 HR, .325/.411/.736.

That amounts to three 30-ish home run hitters, two 30-base stealers and four players with an OPS of .800 or better. Not bad.

For what it's worth, James has a long history of uncanny predictions. That's why the Red Sox employ him.

But, as the Red Sox know too well, a team's season can be derailed by injuries. The 2012 Red Sox used a franchise-record 56 players, required 42 disabled list transactions, and lost nearly 1,500 total player-games to injury.

The Red Sox had 24 players, 13 of them former All-Stars, go on the disabled list 34 times last season. Since 1987, when records were first kept, no team in baseball used the disabled list more.

That's why depth is so critical. The question is, are the Red Sox deep enough to contend as presently constituted? There's little financial flexibility left to improve the roster.

Peter Abraham reports that $105.275 million came off the Red Sox books by the end of the 2012 season. However, with all of their offseason acquisitions, the resigning of David Ortiz, contract raises for some players, and expected increases for arbitration-eligible players, the Sox have added back $98.66 million.

According to Abraham's calculations, the Sox payroll for 2013 will be just $6.615 million less than it was last season.

In light of all that money spent, the troubling thing is the lack of star power. It's reasonable to question how the Sox can once again approach last year's $176 million payroll without having added any true stars to their roster. The offseason spending also leaves little room to improve the team at the deadline, or in the event of a serious injury to a key player at any point this season.

If Napoli misses time due to his hip condition and is unable to earn all the incentives in his contract, it would give the Sox a few million extra dollars to play with by the trade deadline.

In order for the Red Sox to be competitive this season, all the stars and planets must align. Every one of their regulars will have to play to the top of his ability. That just doesn't seem likely.

The Sox face a litany of questions heading into the 2013 season. Here's a look at some of them:

• Will the Red Sox get the 2008-2010 version of Jon Lester, who was one of the game's best young lefties, or the 2012 Lester, who was a shell of his former self?

More than anything else, perhaps, the Red Sox fortunes may rest on the performance of Lester, who turns 29 on January 7. The lefty entered September 2011 with the highest winning percentage among qualified active pitchers (75-31, .708). However, he's gone 10-17 since then and has fallen to seventh on the list.

This means that Lester went from a career .708 winning percentage to a .639 winning percentage in just one calendar year. If he does not regain his winning ways this season, the Sox won't regain their winning ways either.

Over the last three seasons, Lester’s fastball velocity has dropped from 93.5 to 92.0. Is it mechanical, or is it physical? Somehow Lester and the Sox have to figure it out and get him right.

• Will Clay Buchholz look like the pitcher who went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, or the pitcher who regressed over the last two years, culminating with a 11-8, 4.56 campaign in 2012? Through five big league seasons, Buchholz has never pitched as many as 190 innings. That's got to change this year.

Over the last three seasons, Buchholz’s hits per nine innings have gone from 7.4 to 8.3 to 8.9, while Lester’s have risen from 7.2 to 7.8 to 9.5. Those are troubling trends. New pitching coach Juan Nieves and manager John Farrell will have their work cut out for them.

• Will John Lackey look like the former Angels' ace who once won an ERA title, or the bust he's become in Boston?

• Can Ryan Dempster continually stand up to unfamiliar AL lineups at age 36? How will he fare over a full season against DHs instead of pitchers?

Dempster is 124-124 with a 4.33 ERA in his 15-year career. He has made at least 28 starts and won at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons. That makes him a solid No. 3 starter, and nothing more.

The Red Sox hope he can give them innings, and lots of them. Dempster has pitched at least 200 innings in seven seasons, including four of the last five.

• Will Felix Doubront continue to improve on all the promise he displayed in 2012, or will he regress and suffer a sophomore slump? Doubront made 29 starts last year and threw 161 innings, the most in his pro career. He finished the season 11-10 with a 4.86 ERA. However, he struck out 167 batters in 161 innings while allowing 162 hits, which is pretty impressive.

• Is David Ortiz fully recovered from his Achilles injury, or will it hamper him this year at age 37? Can he be the same powerful presence in the Red Sox lineup as in previous years, or is he finally starting to breakdown?

Recent history is not on his side. Last season was the first in 20 years that not one player aged 37 or older hit at least 20 home runs.

How important is Ortiz to the Red Sox? Consider this: Though he missed all but one of the final 72 games in 2012, Ortiz still ranked second on the Red Sox with 23 homers and tied for fourth with 60 RBI.

• Can Dustin Pedroia stay healthy for an entire season, or will his all-out style of play cost him time on the DL, as it has in two of the last three seasons? The Sox will need the former MVP to be at his best this year.

• Will Jacoby Ellsbury be more like the 2011 MVP runner up, or the star-crossed player who can't remain on the field consistently?

Last year, Ellsbury missed 79 games due to a partially dislocated shoulder. It marked the second season in the last three that Ellsbury missed extensive time due to a serious injury. Ellsbury played in just 18 games in 2010 after colliding with third baseman Adrian Beltre and fracturing his ribs.

• Can second-year man Will Middlebrooks show the same flashes of brilliance he did last year, or will AL pitchers make the necessary adjustments to get him out more often? Can he handle the grind of a full 162-game season?

• With the addition of David Ross, how many games per week will Jarrod Saltalamacchia play? Will he even be with the Sox when they open the season, or will he soon be traded? Salty is 27 and will become a free agent at the end of this season, which diminishes his trade value. Moreover, he batted an anemic .222 last season with a terrible .288 OBP. The big catcher struck out 139 times in just 448 plate appearances in 2012. That's just brutal.

On the other hand, Salty led the Red Sox with 25 home runs, the first catcher to do so since Carlton Fisk had 26 in 1977. Saltalamacchia ranked third among major league catchers in home runs and finished with the fourth-best slugging percentage (.454) among American League catchers (minimum 375 PA).

• Is there a place for Ryan Lavarnway on this team?

• Is Stephen Drew's fractured ankle fully healed? Will he once again be the offensive force he was with Arizona? Due, in part, to that nasty ankle injury, Drew hit just .223/.309/.348 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs in 79 games last season.

However, Drew ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops over the last five seasons with a .441 slugging percentage and fifth with a .770 OPS (min. 1,500 plate appearances).

• Is Shane Victorino still the All Star caliber player he was in 2009 and 2011, or an over-the-hill player with fading bat speed? Victorino hit just .229 against right-handed pitching last season, compared to .323 vs. lefties. From 2006 to 2009, Victorino batted .288; but over the last three seasons his average dropped to just .264. That downward trend is worrisome.

Victorino has a career line of .275/.341/.430/.770 and has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. He is also considered an excellent fielder.

• Can Jonny Gomes make up for the loss of fan favorite Cody Ross? Ross batted .267/.326/.481 with 22 home runs, 81 RBI and an .807 OPS in 130 games last season. That's a lot of offense to replace.

Ross was tailor-made for Fenway Park, producing 39 extra-base hits at home in 2012. Only three American League players had more: Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano.

In the 100 years of Fenway Park's history, only four players had more extra-base hits in their first season with the Red Sox: Ted Williams, Bill Mueller, Jimmie Foxx and Dick Stuart.

Yet, away from Fenway, Ross hit just .232 with a lowly .684 OPS. Perhaps that's why the Sox weren't inclined to enter into a long term deal with him.

Enter Gomes. Over the course of his career, Gomes has struggled against righties, posting a .223/.307/.425/.732 line. However, he has pounded lefties, posting a .284/.382/.512/.894 line. That seems to make Gomes an ideal platoon candidate with lefty Ryan Kalish.

According to BasseballAnalytics.org, of Gomes' 73 hits in 2012, just five were placed to the right side of the field, with all 18 of his home runs going to left field. Considering the league as a whole hit a combined 1.035 on balls hit to left field at Fenway last season (better than any other placement in the park), that seems to bode well for Gomes in Boston.

However, Gomes is inferior defensively to Ross and is more of a liability versus right-handed pitching.

• What is the condition of Mike Napoli's hip and can he play every day? Napoli has been on the DL five times over the past six seasons, missing a total of 123 games in that span. Napoli topped out at 140 games in 2010, making it the only season in which he's played in more than 115 games. That's worrisome.

Yet, Napoli never missed time due to a hip injury. But it now appears that he has a serious hip condition that may in fact be degenerative. That's why the Sox are so concerned.

With the Rangers last season, Napoli struggled with leg injuries and batted just .227. However, he still posted an .812 OPS and hit 24 homers. And in 2011, Napoli had a breakout year, batting .320/.414/.631/.1.046 with 30 homers and 75 RBI.

Over his seven-year career, Napoli is a .259 hitter with a .356 OBP, a .507 slugging percentage and an .863 OPS. For five straight seasons, he has hit at least 20 homers, peaking at 30 in 2011.

However, Napoli is a weak first baseman and is not strong defensive catcher either. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher himself, didn't have confidence in Napoli behind the plate. Consequently, the Angels dealt him following the 2010 season.

The additions of Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara, plus the late-2012 emergence of Junichi Tazawa, should greatly improve the Red Sox bullpen this year. Red Sox closers were 35 of 57 (61%) in save opportunities last season. That's why the club acquired Hanrahan from Pittsburgh. The pen should now be an area of strength for the Sox.

More than any time in recent memory, the Red Sox enter the season with a huge number of questions, to which only time will provide answers. If all of the above players thrive this season, the Sox will surprise a lot of people. But if these players have mostly average seasons, or if the Sox are again stricken by injuries, this will likely be a .500 team, at best.

It appears the AL East will be even more competitive than in recent years, so the Red Sox will really have their work cut out for them. Not since 2000 has an AL East team won the division with fewer than 95 wins, or made the playoffs with fewer than 91.

That's the challenging history confronting the 2013 Red Sox. Yes, it's a tall order.

No one is picking this team to contend for a playoff spot. But perhaps the low expectations will serve them well. The only way this team will surprise anyone is if they outperform.

The Red Sox open the regular season on April 1st in New York, against the Yankees.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is Curt Schilling Worthy of the Hall of Fame?

Like the pitcher himself, Curt Schilling's candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame is controversial.

While I always admired Schilling as a pitcher, I didn't always admire him as a person. Schilling made himself a lightning rod, never missing an opportunity to look into a TV camera or speak into a microphone, which often led to controversy. Many observers, and even teammates, viewed Schilling as a blowhard and a glory-hound.

But the Hall of Fame is about baseball credentials, not personality.

I was thrilled when the Red Sox traded for Schilling after the 2003 season. I thought he would be the difference-maker for them, and that ultimately proved to be correct. Schilling was an extraordinary competitor and was a proven winner in the post-season.

Schilling's post-season resume is phenomenal. He was every bit as good in the playoffs as Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. Schilling has an 11-2 record in the post-season. That's an .846 winning percentage, which is a Major League record among pitchers with at least 10 decisions.

The big righty pitched in five post-seasons and posted a cumulative 2.23 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, that latter of which is phenomenal.

He led three different teams (Phillies, Diamondbacks, Red Sox) to the World Series, pitched in four Fall Classics ('93, '01, '04, '07) and won three titles.

But the post-season, though critical and pressure-packed, is only part of a pitcher's resume. The regular season, which is the bulk of a pitcher's work, carries a lot of weight.

Here are Schilling's primary career stats:

216-146 record
3.46 ERA
3,116 strikeouts
1.14 WHIP

Right off the bat, the stats the jump out and separate him from most of his contemporaries are the strikeouts and the WHIP.

However, Schilling missed the 300-win threshold by a long shot. Naturally, that's long been thought of as a primary criteria for election. For perspective, a pitcher would have to win 15 games a year for 20 straight seasons, or 20 games a year for 15 straight years, to reach 300 — which sounds highly improbable in today's game of six-inning starts, 100-pitch counts, and seven-man bullpens.

Shilling's win total was hurt by the fact that he came up as a reliever with Baltimore in 1988. He was just 21 when he arrived in the majors, but over his first four seasons he made a total of just five starts. It wasn't until his fifth season that he became a full-time starter. That really hurt his career win total. Assuming he had averaged 10 wins over those four seasons, which isn't outrageous considering his subsequent accomplishments, he would have tacked on 40 wins to his career total. Finishing with 256 career wins would have made a better case for his inclusion in the Hall.

Schilling essentially won 60 percent of his starts, finishing with a career winning percentage of .597, which is 117th all-time. Considering the huge number of pitchers who have played in the majors over the past 100-plus years, that's impressive. But it's not outstanding.

The strength of the argument for Schilling is that he broke 3,000 Ks, something that only 16 pitchers in Major League history have accomplished. That's why it has long been a historic criteria for election. Schilling is 15th all time in strikeouts and even had three seasons in which he exceeded 300 Ks, which sounds just unbelievable. These days, a guy can lead the league with 230 to 240 Ks. The other side of the coin is that Schilling had just five 200-plus strikeout seasons in his career.

Another stat that bolsters Schilling's case is that he walked just 711 batters during his career, leading to a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.38. That is second all-time (to someone I've never heard of named Tommy Bond, who posted an amazing 5.03) and ahead of Pedro Martinez, who came in at 4.15. That ratio is really impressive. Schilling wasn't just a hurler with a blazing fastball. He was a control pitcher who could put the ball wherever he, or the catcher, wanted.

It's worth noting that Schilling's career WHIP (walks, plus hits, per nine innings) is 1.14, which is the 46th best percentage in history. Schilling's mark is ahead of such Hall of Famers as Tom Seaver, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton and Don Drysdale, the player Schilling is most often compared to historically.

For those who insist that wins are the major criteria for a pitcher, 216 may never be enough. Yet, there are many baseball fans and analysts who are dubious of guys who hung around for years, with less than stellar careers, just to get to 300. Guys like Phil Niekro (24 seasons), Don Sutton (23 seasons) and Gaylord Perry (22 seasons) have all been accused of this. Sutton was a 20-game winner just once, Niekro just three times, and Perry five times.

For his part, Schilling won 20 games just twice, and both times he led the league.

Some guys have "what if" careers that are marred by injuries. Fans are left to wonder how good they could have been and what would have become of their careers, if only they'd stayed healthy. But staying healthy is part of the game. You can only have longevity if you remain healthy. Some of that is luck, some is genetic, some is a product of taking care of one's self, and some is a result of not being reckless.

Schilling's career win total wasn't held back so much by injury as by GMs and managers in Baltimore and Houston who kept him in the bullpen for four years at the start of his career. Perhaps he was just a late bloomer. But if he'd been put into the rotation sooner, his career numbers would have all been even better. Schilling threw 226.1 innings in his first year as a full-time starter ('92). Clearly, he was a horse just raring to get out of the gate.

Schilling seems like a borderline candidate to many observers. Induction to the Hall is supposed to be reserved for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. So, the question is, how does Schilling compare with current members of he Hall?

At present, there are 61 former Major League pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Every eligible pitcher with 300 wins or 3,000 Ks since 1900 has eventually been voted into Cooperstown.

While Schilling's 3.46 career ERA isn't remarkable in any way, it is better than eight members of the Hall of Fame. And while 216 wins doesn't, at first glance, seem all that impressive, there are 19 pitchers in the Hall with fewer wins than Schilling. Most of them are players from long ago eras you've likely never heard of (i.e., Chief Bender, Jack Chesbro, Stan Covelski, etc.).

As Joe Posnanski noted on his blog, there are 31 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born in 1900 or earlier. There are also 31 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born after 1900. Joe makes the following cogent point:

"Men who pitched mostly before the end of Deadball in 1920 are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame. Before 1920, teams hit many fewer home runs and scored many fewer runs ... so ERAs were low. Pitchers started every third of fourth day, and they tended to pitch deep into games ... so win totals were high."

There are 24 pitchers in the 300-win club; 10 of them won their 300th game in 1920 or earlier. The "Deadball Era" is typically viewed as 1900 to 1919. This means that 42 percent of the pitchers with 300 wins pitched in either the Deadball Era or prior to the "modern era," which began in 1900.

The point is, over the years it has become increasingly improbable that a pitcher will win 300 games over the course of his career. Many baseball people think that Randy Johnson, who accomplished the feat in 2009, may be the last of his kind.

Most critically, wins can be a misleading stat for a pitcher because they are a team stat. Playing on a great team with a stingy defense and a potent offense really benefits a pitcher, while the opposite is a detriment to a pitcher's win total.

Lots of players get game-winning hits, but no one credits them with the win. While game-winning hits may be tallied somewhere, for some reason they aren't viewed as important as a pitcher's win total. And fielders who make game-saving defensive plays aren't credited with wins either.

Simply put, a win is a team effort and a team stat. Despite this, wins are still credited to pitchers and goalies.

Among Schilling's career accomplishments: he was a six-time All Star, a three-time World Series Champion, the 2001 World Series MVP and the 1993 NLCS MVP.

Schilling also led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio five times, complete games four times, starts three times, wins two times, innings twice, strikeouts twice, batters faced twice, WHIP twice, fewest walks-per-nine innings twice, win/loss percentage once, home runs allowed once and hits-per-nine innings once. Importantly, all of those achievements were spread out over a 15-year span of high productivity, not a five to 10-year span.

What makes Schilling's accomplishments most impressive, perhaps, is that he achieved it all in the 'steroids era' and was never linked to PEDs in any way. In other words, he did cleanly.

Schilling did have the benefit of longevity that came with a 20-year career. However, he pitched in a total of just nine games over his first two seasons in the majors. If Schilling's exploits are viewed in the context of his 15-year peak, perhaps it would make those accomplishments more impressive to his doubters and detractors.

Schilling was one of the better pitchers of his time, but was he dominant? Well, he never won a Cy Young Award, but he did have four top-five finishes. He never won an ERA title either, but he finished second twice and fourth once.

Many of us see the Hall of Fame as a shrine to elite players, not merely very good ones. Yet, when one reviews the list of pitchers in the Hall (a group that exceeds all other positions by nearly 3-to-1), there are a number who don't appear elite, or as if they even belong. That can lead to problems, in which candidates are pushed for induction because they are as good as the lowest caliber players already in Cooperstown.

I must say I began my research into Curt Schilling's career as a doubter. I didn't think he merited induction to the Hall. But after careful analysis, I think he merits stronger consideration.

To summarize:

The case for Schilling: 3,000 career strikeouts; 1.14 WHIP; second best strikeout-to-walk ratio of all time; best post-season winning percentage of all time; four World Series and three titles.

The case against Schilling: no Cy Young Award, wasn't dominant enough in his era, 216 wins (better than 31% of pitchers in HOF), 3.46 ERA (better than 13% of pitcher in HOF).

Schilling is not amongst the very elite pitchers who have ever played the game. But he is certainly every bit as good as many who are already in the Hall, and even better than a number of others enshrined there.

If that is the ultimate criteria, then Curt Schilling should certainly be a Hall of Famer.