Last Updated: 2018-02-22
Even though the New York Yankees were better in just about every way, it was the Boston Red Sox that won the American League East Division in 2017. The Red Sox seem to come into the 2018 season as something of an afterthought, with New York’s Giancarlo Stanton acquisition, the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros, and the very strong Cleveland Indians drawing most of the headlines in the Junior Circuit. Perhaps the recent JD Martinez signing has changed that narrative.
Teams don’t win 93 games by accident. Sure, Boston had the fewest wins of any division winner outside of the Chicago Cubs and got bounced quickly by the Astros in the first round, but this is hardly a ruined team. Offense was a problem in 2017, to say the least, but a roster with Chris Sale, David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, JD Martinez, and a cast of average or better Major Leaguers is a pretty damn good foundation from which to build.
The Red Sox finished exactly as expected per Pythagorean Win-Loss, but BaseRuns painted a less favorable picture. The Red Sox were the second-biggest overachiever per that alternate standings metric. The Red Sox were more like an 87-75 team in a world of context-neutral outcomes. They were -0.2 runs scored per game and +0.18 runs allowed per game if you eliminate sequencing. Basically, BaseRuns serves as a metric to determine luck. The Red Sox posted a 105 wRC+ and a .334 wOBA with men in scoring position. With the bases empty, they posted an 89 wRC+ and a .311 wOBA. Overall, they posted a 92 wRC+ and a .316 wOBA. In other words, the Red Sox had their best offensive production at the most opportune times, which can obscure a lot of weaknesses.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no correlation to hitting with runners in scoring position. It is not a “skill”. Good hitters are good hitters irrespective of the situation. Guys that put bat to ball at a higher percentage than power hitters that strike out a lot will probably have better numbers with RISP, but that is simply a byproduct of an overall skill, not a skill with hitting in high-leverage situations. JC Bradbury covered many of these topics in The Baseball Economist, which is a recommended read for those interested in a comparison of old-school statistics versus new-school philosophies.
In any event, the Red Sox were 10th in runs scored, but 20th in wOBA and 22nd in wRC+. I like teams like this from a win total standpoint because it gives me something to work with. Are the Red Sox going to be better all around offensively? Will they regress to the mean with RISP? I haven’t even really talked about the pitching staff yet. This will be a good one to explain a lot of the concepts I’ll be using in my writing and to illustrate why I find these advanced metrics to be the best predictors of future success.
Season Win Total Odds (as of February 22):
5Dimes: 90.5 (-155/135)
BetOnline: 91.5 (-135/115)
Bovada: 91.5 (-140/110)
Additions: JD Martinez, Eduardo Nunez, Oscar Hernandez, Ivan De Jesus Jr., Esteban Quiroz, Luke Tendler, William Cuevas, Andy Ferguson, Fernando Rodriguez
Losses: Kyle Kendrick, Fernando Abad, Blaine Boyer, Rajai Davis, Doug Fister, Eduardo Nunez, Addison Reed, Robbie Ross, Josh Rutledge, Chris Young, Brian Bogusevic, Henry Owens
The game of chicken between Scott Boras and the teams interested in JD Martinez went on for a while, but he eventually signed with the Red Sox for $22 million per. That move made too much sense. Between teams sitting too close to the luxury tax threshold and next season’s epic crop of free agents, this was the only legitimate destination for Martinez.
The players lost to free agency and waivers are mostly part-time players. The Red Sox really didn’t have a whole lot of holes to fill. I’m a bit surprised that they did not try to build up the bullpen around Craig Kimbrel, but Tyler Thornburg could basically be considered a free agent addition after missing basically all of 2017.
Why bet the over?
Teams that have quiet offseasons are often overlooked coming into the season. The Red Sox really didn’t need to add much of anything. Better health is basically all that the Red Sox need in 2018. Xander Bogaerts played through injuries. Dustin Pedroia was limited to 463 plate appearances. David Price only worked 74.2 innings. Eduardo Rodriguez only worked 137.1 innings. Tyler Thornburg never threw a pitch in a meaningful game. Adding another 100+ innings from Price, 60ish from Thornburg, and another 20-30 from Rodriguez would be extremely significant for the Red Sox.
Mookie Betts is one of the players that you want near the top of your draft board. Betts went from a .379 wOBA and a 137 wRC+ in 2016 to a .339 wOBA and a 108 wRC+ in 2017. A big reason why is because Betts posted a .268 BABIP. The contact quality took a big tumble for Betts, who became pull-happy and hit fewer line drives. He hit more fly balls and saw a huge tumble in his HR/FB%. He actually had a career-best 10.8 percent BB%, but his OBP was lower than the previous season when he had a 6.7 percent BB% because of the drop in contact quality. Despite just an 11.9 percent K% against RHP, Betts posted just a .258 BABIP. Considering an everyday player will have about 70-72 percent of his plate appearances against right-handers, this was a killer for Betts’s season. Betts’s xBA was .261 and his actual BA was .264, so Statcast really didn’t like the batted ball profile. We’ll see if Betts can make the necessary changes and stay healthy. Even if he doesn’t, he has an extremely high ceiling as a player that creates surplus value in the field and on the bases. Betts was eight percent above league average offensively and was still worth more than five fWAR. Imagine his value if the offense comes back like it should.
Xander Bogaerts’s offensive profile took a big step back, but he, like Betts, was playing through an injury. For Bogaerts, it was a wrist injury and it crippled his offensive value. He’ll never an elite offensive threat, but he plays above average defense and posted wRC+ marks of 111 and 115 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Last season, he fell to 96. Like Betts, Bogaerts set a career high in BB%, but contact quality was a problem. He went from 21 home runs to 10 home runs in a season when everybody was hitting dongs. He still created value in the field and on the basepaths, so he, once again, like Betts, is a player with a high floor. A healthier Bogaerts means a better slash line and a better slash line means a better player. Look for Bogaerts to get back to four wins at a minimum. We’re looking at two players worth about 10 fWAR already, simply with better fortunes in the health department.
JD Martinez hit .303/.476/.690 with two different teams last season. He’s a terrible defensive outfielder, but he can DH for the Red Sox or play left field in a pinch, which even Manny Ramirez did admirably when he was in Beantown. Martinez is instant offense and quite possibly the missing piece for this team. Speaking of late additions, the Red Sox reunited with Eduardo Nunez, who will slot in at second base while Dustin Pedroia recovers and then will be moved around as a utility guy.
Andrew Benintendi had a 20/20 season and a BB% of 10.6 percent, but he did wear down in the second half of his first full season with a drop in power and a spike in strikeouts. Dustin Pedroia walked more than he struck out, but generated very little power with a sub-.400 SLG because of injuries. Jackie Bradley Jr., who posted a .354 wOBA and a 119 wRC+ in 2016, fell back to a .313 wOBA and a 90 wRC+ in 2017. He went from 26 HR to 17 HR and his walk rate fell. He also had a lower BABIP. Basically, it was a perfect storm for the Boston offense in that everybody decreased in a lot of key offensive categories all at once.
Mitch Moreland is a mostly useful player at first base. Rafael Devers certainly has a ton of upside after a .284/.338/.482 debut in 240 plate appearances last season. Christian Vazquez was useful enough behind the plate for a catcher with a good arm that threw out 21 of 50 would-be base stealers. Hanley Ramirez was not particularly good, and the advanced metrics did not like him much, but he did hit 23 HR and forms an interesting platoon with Moreland at first.
Pedroia is set to miss at least the first two months of the season, but probably won’t be back until mid-to-late June, so that could be a hindrance for the Red Sox, but Nunez will plug that hole and shoulder the load until Pedroia returns.
All in all, this is an offense that needs to be respected. There are some guys that played through some injuries last season and dropped off in key areas. They aren’t old players that could simply be falling apart, well, except for Pedroia. Betts and Bogaerts are two mid-20s cornerstones set for bounce back offensive campaigns.
It will also be interesting to see how new skipper Alex Cora handles this team. Recently, Bradley Jr. talked about how he plans to steal more bases this season. The key takeaway from those quotes is that it seems like Cora will give players the freedom to be more aggressive on the bases. We know that in this era of power, a caught stealing is more hurtful than it was in recent years and as hurtful as it was during the Steroid Era. If the Red Sox can steal bases with enough efficiency, it can produce some surplus value, to go along with how good this team is defensively. That could be a reason why the Red Sox brought back utility man Eduardo Nunez.
Only Tampa Bay and the Dodgers had more defensive runs saved last season than the Red Sox and no team in baseball had a higher UZR. Over the last three seasons, only the Cubs had more defensive runs saved than the Red Sox.
I’m over 1,000 words into why you should believe in the Red Sox to go over the season win total and haven’t even mentioned the best player on the team. Ace Chris Sale had a legitimate case at the Cy Young Award, but came up short against Corey Kluber. Sale was phenomenal. He had the best season of his career from a K% standpoint at 36.2 percent. Let’s remember that he used to be a reliever back in 2010 and 2011. He posted the lowest FIP of his career at 2.45. He posted the second-best xFIP of his career as a starter at 2.65. He struck out 308 batters, becoming the first American League pitcher to cross the 300 plateau since Pedro Martinez in 1999. He had the third-highest K% dating back my arbitrary search of 1975. Basically, the dude was awesome, as he racked up 7.7 fWAR. I’m not going to say that he’ll repeat 2017 because it was such a record-setting season, but a healthy Chris Sale competes for the Cy Young Award again and probably wins it.
That David Price guy is pretty good, too. I think there are going to be a lot of skeptics about Price, who had some elbow discomfort last season and was limited to 11 starts and five relief appearances. Price is 32, but he’s still under that relatively unspoken threshold of 2,000 innings, so I have to think there’s life left in that arm. He’s a career 3.22/3.27/3.41 pitcher slash guy. Like most of the Red Sox, better health should yield better production. He still held opposing batters to a .303 wOBA in his 66 innings as a starter with a 63/22 K/BB ratio. Maybe he’s not the elite ace-level guy he once was, but he’s still very solid.
One of my best calls last season was to fade Rick Porcello. He may go down as the unlikeliest Cy Young winner ever by the time all is said and done on his career. It was easy to fade him last season. He had a career year because of a .269 BABIP against and posted a 3.15 ERA with a 3.89 xFIP in 2016. xFIP has traditionally been a good predictor of future performance. As it turned out, Porcello posted a 4.65 ERA with a 4.60 FIP and a 4.43 xFIP, so he really hit a wall. He allowed 38 home runs and 236 hits because he completely lost his command. I’m not looking to buy a lot of Rick Porcello stock, but I’d speculate with a minor position. He should be somewhere in the middle of 2016 and 2017 barring another horrendous year with his command. He had one of those in his first season with Boston, but managed a 3.72 xFIP.
If you have realistic expectations for Drew Pomeranz, you’ll really like him. Pomeranz has averaged three fWAR over the last two seasons with over a strikeout per inning and some less-than-stellar peripherals. For whatever reason, Pomeranz has been able to carry an 80 percent LOB% over his last 344.1 innings of work. If that regresses a lot (league average is around 73 percent), then he’ll lose some value. You can still pencil Pomeranz in for 170 innings at better than league average. That plays well in this rotation, especially without Eduardo Rodriguez, who I’m very high on, until probably late May because of knee surgery.
Craig Kimbrel is an elite relief arm. There aren’t enough adjectives worth of praise to heap on him. He’s phenomenal. The rest of the bullpen is a question mark. Tyler Thornburg was excellent in 2016 with a 2.15/2.83/3.28 pitcher slash, but he was unavailable in 2017. His return would be huge. Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly are pretty useful right-handers. Carson Smith returns from Tommy John surgery that has limited him to 11 MLB appearances over the last two seasons. He was a two-win reliever for Seattle in 2015 in 70 appearances. The Red Sox would be wise to grab a matchup lefty off of the free agent scrap heap and there are a few of those out there to consider.
I like that nobody is really talking about Boston. This is a team loaded with talent that also creates some additional value by being among the league leaders defensively. This is a team that won 93 games with a bunch of key losses or players playing at less than 100 percent. There is also some organizational depth with prospects like Sam Travis and Michael Chavis knocking on the door to the big leagues.
Why bet the under?
Remember those skeptics I talked about with regards to David Price? Maybe they are justified. Maybe the drop in command that we saw in 2016 was a sign of things to come. That year, Price’s HR/FB% increased to 13.5 percent and his BABIP against was still the highest of his career. Remember that home runs don’t count towards BABIP because they are not balls in play. Price is something of a wild card in that his last season and a half doesn’t look as good as his seasons with the Rays and then his split seasons with stops in Detroit and Toronto.
Price isn’t the only injury risk in this rotation. People have long talked about the mechanics and heavy slider usage of Chris Sale. Thus far, he hasn’t missed any extended time, but you never know. Again, injuries are just part of the risk when it comes to these things, but an elite pitcher like Sale cannot be replaced.
The more obvious injury risks are Drew Pomeranz, who has made 62 starts over the last two seasons but always seems to be bothered by a triceps injury, and Eduardo Rodriguez, who has had knee and elbow problems throughout his career and is out until the end of April. There is always the chance that Pomeranz’s LOB% finally decides to regress and he winds up losing some of his value. The advanced metrics certainly point to that happening sooner rather than later. It is also interesting to point out that he posted an identical ERA in 2017 to 2016, despite a BABIP against that was 42 points higher. His K% fell by three percent while his walk rate stayed the same at 9.3 percent, which is a little below average. I’m not sure how much stock I’d buy in him.
Rick Porcello’s command may just be bad. The outlier is his 2016 Cy Young season, not his full body of work. An increased strikeout rate with Boston has been helpful, but he’s just finding the barrel way too often. Porcello’s 4.28 SIERA was his highest since 2010, when he was a second-year hurler for the Tigers at just 22 years of age. As Jeff Sullivan wrote in October, Porcello fell back in love with his two-seamer and it just isn’t an effective pitch, with a below average ground ball rate and a below average swinging strike rate. Will some new voices help Porcello change his arsenal? I’m not sure.
The reason I harp so much on the rotation is that this is the pitching strength of the team. The bullpen is Craig Kimbrel and a bunch of guys. Matt Barnes is a pretty standard RHP in today’s specialized game. Tyler Thornburg is the only reliever with legitimate upside, but he’s coming back from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Surgery. Others to have that procedure in recent years are Matt Harvey, Shaun Marcum, Phil Hughes, Luke Hochevar, and Jaime Garcia. We take for granted the success rate of Tommy John, which is still a major procedure. TOS surgery is an even greater unknown for pitchers. We’ve seen the Harvey struggles firsthand, as one example. Carson Smith has some upside, in that he’s training for the season instead of rehabbing, but he’s still a post-Tommy John guy.
This bullpen needs one of the free agents that are out there. Given that a lot of guys are signing really cheap deals, I’m surprised Boston hasn’t scooped anybody up yet. Maybe they are truly content with their in-house options. I wouldn’t be.
I feel like I laid out a pretty compelling case for the offense, so let’s try to do the opposite. Power is the name of the game nowadays. The Red Sox hit more home runs than the Braves, Pirates, and Giants last season. Remember that pitchers hit regularly in the NL and that Pittsburgh and San Francisco have two of the worst hitting venues in baseball. The next closest AL team to Boston was the White Sox with 186 home runs, 18 more than their colored sock-wearing brethren. JD Martinez helps, but let’s remember that Martinez did only hit 22 HR in 2016. He still had a huge offensive season, but the spike to 45 last year in fewer plate appearances with an unsustainably high 33.8 percent HR/FB% should be met with some skepticism. Martinez will be a good hitter, but I’d be stunned if he sustains last year’s pace.
It was a team-wide issue of contact quality. The Red Sox were 17th in BABIP at .300 and towards the bottom of the league in slugging percentage because they simply didn’t square up enough baseballs. As a team, the Red Sox were ninth among the 15 American League teams in average exit velocity on a sample size of 4,489 balls in play. With the talent level on this team, that simply isn’t good enough. Just think of how lackluster this offense would have been had it not been for the timeliness of the hits. In that context-neutral BaseRuns environment, instead of 785 runs scored, the Red Sox would have been down to around 753 or 754 runs. That would have ranked around the middle of the pack, which would have been much more indicative of the performance from this offense.
This is also a high win total. The higher the win total, the lower the margin for error. The Yankees are certainly better and I happen to like the Blue Jays on the surface. Tampa Bay and Baltimore are not complete doormats like some of the teams around the league. As a random aside, the Red Sox were 16-4 in interleague play. They were also 15-3 in extra-inning games, which is another anomaly. Regress those two numbers a bit and we start chipping away at a high win total.
Alex Cora is new to managing. As I mentioned in my Baltimore write-up, I don’t really know what a manager is worth. I’m not entirely sure how to quantify that. What I do know is that John Farrell didn’t stand out one way or another. Cora doesn’t have the luxury that some other managers have with regards to deploying relievers. Will he use Kimbrel for multi-inning saves or in the highest-leverage spots? Will he find that guy he can trust? The blueprint isn’t as obvious as it is with other teams and those decisions at the margins can be a deciding factor with a win total.
Pick: Over 90.5 (-155; 5Dimes)
You cannot tell me that the Red Sox are a worse team now than they were when they won 93 games last season. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, David Price, and Dustin Pedroia either played hurt or missed time from injury. JD Martinez adds that power element that the Red Sox sorely needed and Eduardo Nunez is a really quality utility player to bounce all over the diamond. He was solid in his 38-game sample size, too.
Admittedly, the bullpen is a concern and starting rotation depth is not in abundance, but the Red Sox can get by and there are still some cheap relief options out there that can be had for Monopoly money. This offense should be a lot more consistent than last season’s group, which excelled at just the right time.
I’m not particularly interested in -155 juice for a season win total, so I’d consider waiting around and seeing where this one settles. Even with JD Martinez, PECOTA, which is a driving force behind a lot of season win total moves, has the Red Sox down for 89 wins. Let the public perception of the Martinez signing die down a bit and then reassess.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
It’s going to be very hard for any American League East team to top the Boston Red Sox. We’re going to go ahead and put that out there right away. The American League looks like a three-horse race between the likely division winners of Boston, Cleveland, and Houston. Just take a look at the win totals and see how close these races could be.
Yeah, I know, that’s why they play the games. But, it’s hard not to be completely enamored with what the Boston Red Sox have on the roster this season. And also the help that resides down below at the Triple-A level. Boston was the class of the American League East last season with 93 wins and actually underachieved based on Pythagorean Win-Loss and BaseRuns. Pyth W-L had the Red Sox more like a 98-64 team, which was the best in the AL by 6.5 games over the Indians. BaseRuns actually had Boston more like a 102-60 squad that would have outscored the opposition by 1.28 runs per game over the course of the season.
Expectations are high. They always are in Boston. Ownership hands whoever’s in charge a blank checkbook and it just so happens to be Dave Dombrowski’s responsibility to fill out those checks. Dombrowski has fallen into some really great situations in his career and this is certainly one of them. Money increases the margin for error. It allows teams to be more aggressive with the trading of prospects. That’s a common theme here for this season, as the Red Sox used money and organizational strength to improve in two very big areas.
A first-round exit in rapid fashion to the Cleveland Indians certainly has Boston chomping at the bit to get back to the postseason. Incredibly, it was just the second time since 2009 that the Red Sox have made the postseason. For a team with this much talent and this much cash flow, that’s a remarkable statistic. Will this be the start of a playoff appearance streak?
Season Win Total Odds:
BetDSI: 92.5 (-125/105)
BetOnline: 92.5 (-130/100)
5Dimes: 92.5 (-130/100)
Additions: Chris Sale, Tyler Thornburg, Josh Rutledge, Kyle Kendrick
Losses: David Ortiz, Ryan Hanigan, Bryan Holaday, Clay Buchholz, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Brad Ziegler, Travis Shaw, Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech
The Red Sox have been pretty busy this offseason. They’ve scoured the free agent wire to pick up some minor league depth and made two pretty significant trades. The first was to acquire Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers. The Red Sox gave up Travis Shaw and a couple of prospects to get a much needed arm for the bullpen. Thornburg will be discussed later, but he’s a very underrated arm.
The big splash of the winter was the acquisition of Chris Sale. Technically, it was the fall, since the deal was consummated on December 6, but the White Sox were willing to move the Florida Gulf Coast product and Boston was willing to pay up the cost that it took. The Red Sox gave up international free agent signing Yoan Moncada and other prospects to get the starting staff’s second ace. Oh, and the other guy is just the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner.
Clearly the loss of David Ortiz is significant in the middle of the order. The future Hall of Famer (yes, he’ll get in) retired at the end of last season as promised. Clay Buchholz was shipped off to Philadelphia for minor league infielder Josh Tobias. Koji Uehara, Junichi Tawaza, and Brad Ziegler all found new homes, so the bullpen is one area to watch at the start of the season.
Why bet the over?
Man, where do we start? I guess we’ll start with Mookie Betts, who is now a top-three player in Major League Baseball. I don’t think you’ll find too many people upset to hear that Betts is behind Kris Bryant and Clayton Kershaw in the pecking order. Betts took the next step forward in his second Major League season. He slashed .318/.363/.534 (BA/OBP/SLG) and played exceptional defense in right field. In two full seasons, Betts has been worth 12.6 wins above replacement player per Fangraphs’s calculations. He makes a ton of contact, he had 31 homers with 26 steals, and he won’t turn 25 until after the regular season. He’s a special player and the scary thing is that he may only keep getting better. I first heard of Mookie Betts on the Fringe Average (RIP) podcast with Mike Ferrin and Jason Parks, who is now a special assistant to the GM in the Cubs organization. He hasn’t disappointed.
Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts are part of the incredible young corps of position players for the Red Sox. Bradley has his problems against same-side pitching, but he mauled right-handed pitching with a .277/.363/.538 slash. He’s also one of the top defensive center fielders in the game with a plus arm and plus range. With the quirky dimensions of Fenway Park and some ballparks with some carry in the AL East, Bradley’s defensive acumen is a massive asset.
Bogaerts hit a bit of a wall in the latter part of his third full season as his BABIP regressed and his numbers sagged. He added more power to his game, though, and hit 21 home runs and stole 13 bases with a .294/.356/.446 slash line. He’s also a plus defender at a premier defensive position. The 24-year-old shortstop increased his walk rate by so much that he actually had a higher on-base percentage last season with a .294 average and a .335 BABIP than he did the previous season with a .320 batting average and a .372 BABIP. He’s another player with five-win upside. We haven’t even talked about the veterans yet and we’re already talking about 16 or 17 wins above replacement player from the new version of the Killer B’s with Betts, Bradley, and Bogaerts.
We’re probably going to see some decline soon from Dustin Pedroia, but the scrappy second sacker had a really nice bounce back season in 2016. After being hobbled by injuries in 2015 that limited him to 93 games, Pedroia played 154 last season with a .318/.376/.449 slash, a .358 wOBA (weighted on-base average), and well above average defense. His 5.2 fWAR was the most he’s had in a season since 2013. Pedroia will turn 34 in August and aging curves show that second basemen have the quickest decline, but even with decline, we’re talking about a 3.5 to 4-win player.
The ace in the hole for the Red Sox this season is that they will get a full year of top prospect Anthony Benintendi. Benintendi rode the fast track to the big leagues as an accelerated college bat out of Arkansas. In 118 plate appearances, Benintendi batted .295/.359/.476 in his first big league cup of coffee and is so highly thought of on this ballclub that John Farrell spoke about Benintendi hitting second for his team. He hit at every level of the minors and raked against college pitching. He was serviceable while trying to master the Green Monster in left field, so he’s not going to hurt the team defensively.
We’ll see what we get from Pablo Sandoval, Mitch Moreland, and Hanley Ramirez, but all three guys have a Major League track record. Sandoval is the wild card after missing basically all of last season. Hanley can still hit with a .286/.361/.505 slash and now he can be the designated hitter with Big Papi watching from the comforts of home. Mitch Moreland is useful enough at first base and can use that short right field corner to hit a few dingers. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better offense than this in all of baseball, even with regression from starting catcher Sandy Leon. The bench is also really strong with a good platoon bat in Chris Young and the versatile skill set of Brock Holt. If Leon can’t keep up the pace he needs, Blake Swihart can take the reins.
In each of the last five seasons, Chris Sale has finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting. The putrid Chicago White Sox have hurt Sale both offensively and defensively and he’s been unable to get over that hump and take home some hardware, despite being among the best pitchers year in and year out. Well, Sale now brings 1,244 strikeouts in 1,110 innings to Beantown, where he’ll also be aided by arguably the best defensive team in the American League. There have always been questions about the efficiency of Sale’s mechanics and about whether or not he can stay healthy, but he’s worked three 200+ inning seasons in the last four years and worked 192 prior to that. He’s a significant boost to the Red Sox and we’re likely talking about a 6-7 win upgrade in the rotation.
David Price is exactly the reason why I like to evaluate players using the advanced metrics. Price finished last season with a 3.99 ERA, even though he posted a 3.60 FIP and a 3.52 xFIP. He posted a 13.5 percent HR/FB% in his first season with Boston, which was the highest of his career. Tropicana Field and Comerica Park do suppress home runs better than Fenway, but a spike like that for a guy with Price’s control and command appears to be an outlier. The pressure is off of Price to carry the staff this season and to live up to his contract. Price wasn’t the first guy to struggle after signing a huge contract and he won’t be the last.
The story of Rick Porcello’s 2016 was one of redemption. Porcello was one of the game’s unluckiest pitchers in 2015. He posted a 4.92 ERA with a 4.13 FIP and a 3.72 xFIP. He simply gave up too many home runs and a lot of them seemed to come with runners on. Porcello’s K rate went down and his walk rate improved, but a lot of things were pretty similar to the previous season. The biggest difference was sequencing. Porcello stranded nearly seven percent more base runners and fewer balls found holes. Even with some mild regression, which is likely coming, Porcello still has the upside of a four-win pitcher. That would be probably 15 wins above replacement player from the top of this rotation, assuming Sale keeps his pace.
What makes Boston so good is its depth. The lineup is terrific 1 through 9 and beyond. The rotation has three top-end starters and then a collection of guys that can all get a lot of outs and look good doing it. It’s anybody’s guess as to how the Red Sox put together the back of the rotation. Drew Pomeranz could be in there. Steven Wright could be in there as a much different look as a knuckleballer. Left-handed prospects Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens both have a ton of promise. Even guys like Roenis Elias and Kyle Kendrick can make cameo appearances. In a general sense, teams want at least eight MLB-caliber starters and will likely use up to 10 or 11 in a season. The Red Sox have exceptional depth here.
If there is one area of mild concern, it is the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel had some massive control problems last season and couldn’t get guys to hit the ball on the ground. And, yet, he still struck out 37.7 percent of batters faced coming out of an AL bullpen for the first time. He held opposing hitters to a .151 average. His velocity was fine throughout the season. There’s a learning curve to switching leagues and there’s also a statistical adjustment going from the NL to the AL of generally about 10 percent. Kimbrel will turn 29 in May, so he should be fine for a few more years.
There are some really good arms in this pen that won’t get respect from the average fan. The first is Tyler Thornburg. Thornburg punched out 90 in 67 innings as a reliever last season and was stunningly effective against lefties. A lot of relievers tend to show platoon weaknesses, but lefties batted .130/.223/.190 against Thornburg with a .192 wOBA. It’s impossible to overstate how much it means to a manager to have a reliever that can clean an inning rather than have to play the matchup game. Joe Kelly may have found a niche as a middle reliever. He’s always thrown hard with a very heavy sinker that hitters bury into the ground. In 14 relief appearances last season, Kelly allowed a .203/.261/.297 slash. Robbie Ross is a lefty, but he’s not a one-trick pony. He held lefties to a .262 wOBA and righties to a .297 wOBA. He’s a bit erratic, but there’s upside left here. Fernando Abad was Agood signing as a matchup lefty. Carson Smith should return from Tommy John in June or July to add another weapon to the bullpen.
Why bet the under?
Well, we’ve seen really good Red Sox teams fall flat in the past. That’s not really a predictive element, but the games must still be played, no matter how great a team looks on paper. The concerning thing with an under here is that the Red Sox can withstand major injuries. A few of them would be more crippling. If Mookie Betts is lost, it will be awful and terrible for the game, but the Red Sox have a lot of depth to make up for that loss as best as they can. The same can be said about the loss of Chris Sale. But, that possibility is always there that injuries become such a significant problem that a team cannot reach its ceiling or even its expectations.
There are some things that could happen. Dustin Pedroia, as mentioned, is probably teetering near the top of the aging curve for players at his position. He plays such an integral role for this team as a leadoff hitter and a leader. His loss or drop-off would be pretty significant, because it would force John Farrell’s hand into shuffling the lineup around a bit. There’s always the chance that Hanley Ramirez, who is 33 and has had some injury-plagued seasons, runs into a swarm of injury bugs.
The corners could be really low spots for the Red Sox. There’s a good insurance policy at third base in Brock Holt, but that would eliminate his versatility at other positions. It would benefit the Red Sox if Pablo Sandoval is useful, but he hasn’t been useful since 2014. He looks like a sunken cost at this point, no matter how healthy he appears in pictures before the season starts. Mitch Moreland isn’t a very exciting player. The 31-year-old posted an 87 wRC+ last season and didn’t have a lot of good contact quality. He’s a patchwork solution at the position. The idea seems to be a platoon with Hanley, wherein Hanley DHs against right-handed pitching and plays first base against lefties. We’ll see how long that arrangement lasts. As great as the outfield is, a down year from Pedroia could make the infield pretty average. That includes the catcher position, where Sandy Leon effectively came out of nowhere to post a 2.5-win season in 78 games.
Perhaps there’s something more to the command problems of David Price. Price has been working on fastball command ever since he started throwing in January according to reports, so that will be something to watch. We know that some regression is coming from Rick Porcello, who had never had a three-win season per Fangraphs’s WAR formula before winning the Cy Young Award last season. Projection systems are shaving about 1.6 wins off of Porcello. We can also make a case that Chris Sale will struggle in a better division. The AL Central didn’t feature the level of offensive competency that he will see in the AL East. He’ll also be pitching in some more hitter-friendly environments.
Drew Pomeranz was acquired by Boston and then posted a 4.59 ERA with a 4.78 FIP and a 3.85 xFIP in 13 starts and one relief appearance. Steven Wright is graded on a whole ‘nother level as a knuckleballer, but he’s dealing with some shoulder discomfort early in camp and posted a 5.06 ERA and a .261/.324/.396 slash against in the second half over 42.2 innings of work last season. Eduardo Rodriguez hung a 4.71 ERA with a 4.43 FIP and a 4.72 xFIP in his 107 innings of work and he’s pitching for Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, which is always a concern.
Season Win Total Pick: Under 92.5 (+105; BetDSI)
This is a bold stance to take, but hear me out. I hate the Red Sox, as an Indians fan, but I love the Red Sox as an impartial party writing season win totals. However, as phenomenal as the outfield looks and as high as the expectations are, I wonder if the Red Sox fully live up to them. Rick Porcello’s flash in the pan Cy Young season stands out as a massive outlier. David Price is very good, but leaving Comerica and Tropicana didn’t seem to work out for him last season. Chris Sale is great, but he’ll have an adjustment period changing teams, coaches, catchers, etc.
As mentioned, I think both corners are a concern for the Red Sox. I think the wide range of Xander Bogaerts outcomes with his BABIP-driven offensive profile could yield a lesser performance than people might be expecting. I think it’s easy to buy in to all of the talent and automatically give this team 95 wins. I certainly could make a case for that. Truthfully, this isn’t a very strong pick. It’s not to be contrarian or pull punches. It’s simply because I think that there are some areas in which this team is a little bit less than advertised. I think, unlike the AL Central, for example, the division is a bit stronger here.
This is a great team. It’s a team that will be a factor in October. I just don’t know if it will win 93 games.
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