Relentless Attack

MSP-Red-Sox_cover_2011.jpg
(Maple Street Press)

The 2011 Offense Will Be Better Than It's Looked So Far

BDD's exclusive excerpt of the Maple Street Press 2011 Red Sox Annual: Relentless Attack: The 2010 offense was elite, but 2011 will be even better
By Steve Mastroyin

Last year in these pages we spoke of the Red Sox’ surprising off-season direction of pursuing run prevention. For one reason or another, the run prevention part of the formula didn’t quite work out, and the Sox ranked 11th in the AL in runs allowed. But somehow that offense everyone was worried about rose to the occasion and kept the team in contention until the weight of injuries eventually carried them under.

It is easy to remember the criticism of the 2009/10 offseason. After two years where the offense had struggled when it counted most, many theorized that bringing in players like Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Cameron (while waving goodbye to Jason Bay) was going to make things even worse and submarine the team’s chances. Funny how things work out.

While early returns were poor on both sides of the ball, a hot streak starting in May brought the Red Sox offense up near the top of the league before those injuries slowed them down in August. In all, they finished second in the AL in runs scored, first in OPS and OPS+, third in OBP, second in slugging, and second in home runs. When you consider the team finished the year without Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Cameron, or Jacoby Ellsbury, those rankings start to look even better.

Despite this, for the second straight year the Red Sox seemingly zigged when people were expecting a zag. They made two huge splashes in the offseason to improve the offense when they traded for Adrian Gonzalez and later came seemingly out of nowhere to sign Carl Crawford. Why improve what should have been the best offense in league? There are a few reasons. The players Theo Epstein liked were available and he took the opportunity to get them. A second is that Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez never looked to be serious candidates to return.

Table 1 But, perhaps the most important reason is long-term planning. Table 1 shows the Red Sox lineup for 2010 and also projected lineups for 2011–2014. In these charts, players in bold are what we could call good bets—established players under contract. You can see in the “before” charts that after 2011, there is not a lot of bold ink. Some liberal guessing is made here, including that Ryan Kalish and Jose Iglesias will be ready in 2012. The lineups also rely on Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie to hold onto starting jobs. But a team with the Red Sox’ resources should have a couple more “sure things.” And, as has been mentioned elsewhere in this magazine, the prospects of impact free agents becoming available in this timeframe are not great. So the Red Sox made their move, and, assuming they get a deal done with Gonzalez, those future lineups look a lot stronger.

On top of what we project out here, the Sox have added some depth to cover the “what ifs.” For instance, in the “be-fore” scenario, the Sox needed to find an outfielder in 2012 even if Kalish pans out. Maybe that would be Josh Reddick, but it’s better to bet on those two guys to fill one slot instead of two. Similarly, if Jose Iglesias’s bat does not let him be a major league regular, the Sox would not have to find a shortstop in 2012, but a DH, moving Lowrie to short and keeping Youkilis at third and Gonzalez at first. In a way Lars Anderson becomes a back-up plan to Iglesias.

Most important are the ages on the chart (in parentheses). This is now a team built around three high-level players in their prime and a fourth (Youkilis) just leaving it. Even if the kids don’t work out, these four players will be a good enough core that role players can be brought in. Or, as is the case this year at the catcher position, the offense is strong enough elsewhere for the Red Sox to take a risk.

What is on our mind right now, though, is 2011. The Opening Day lineup could have as many as five different players from the one that closed the 2010 season. Let’s take a look at the changes, for better and worse, and what we expect overall from the redesign.

CATCHING UP WITH THE RED SOX

Victor Martinez’s bat may well be the biggest subtraction for 2011. He started slow in 2010 but ended up having another fine season, hitting .302/.351/.493 (AVG/OBP/SLG), the second best line for AL catchers (behind Joe Mauer). The Red Sox know these numbers as well, and clearly were not worried about how much of an asset he was at the plate, but rather how much he could offer behind it. And it’s not just the Red Sox who think so, as the Tigers have already announced that they only plan to catch Martinez for about 70 games. That slash line becomes a lot less attractive when it is attached to a DH or first baseman.

So the Red Sox will go into 2011 with an unknown. Well, unknown in terms of performance, not in terms of reputation. Jarrod Saltalamacchia will likely get the nod as the starting catcher to begin the season and “Salty” has been on the minds of Red Sox fans for a long time. One time considered an equal or better prospect than his fellow Atlanta farmhand Brain McCann, he was the centerpiece of the deal that sent Mark Teixeira to the Braves. Due to Texas’s apparent surplus of catching prospects, Sox fans had been dreaming up ways to acquire him for years (including a straight-up swap for Clay Buchholz). But, after he struggled at the major league level and in Triple A his value dropped. Eventually the Rangers finally did trade him to the Red Sox, for three lower minor league players. Will this exercise in patience pay off? Early returns have had an air of optimism. The Red Sox think they have gotten him through the throwing problems that were threatening to end his catching career and he put up an .850 OPS in Pawtucket before finishing the season with the big club.

Meanwhile, Jason Varitek will return for another season, mentoring Salty and hopefully having his immense platoon split leveraged by Terry Francona. Varitek’s injury did not impact the team as much as others in 2010, but his absence was felt against lefties.

What does the loss of Martinez mean? In 2011, it is unlikely that Saltalamacchia will have the kind of breakthrough that would put his bat in Martinez’s class, but we like his potential. And if he can stay healthy and catch well enough to keep the Kevin Cashes of the world away from significant playing time, the Sox should still be in decent shape. The usual assortment of injuries and doubleheaders will likely lead to enough playing time for other catchers, but Saltalamacchia and Varitek should get most of the work. Clearly the catcher position offers a lot of downside risk in 2011, but there is up-side as well. What affords the team the ability to take this kind of risk? That answer comes from the improvements to the rest of the offense.

ADRIAN VS. ADRIAN

Perhaps the most intriguing debate of the offseason was whether it was worth it for Boston to send prospects to the Pa-dres in order to finally close a deal for Adrian Gonzalez. After all, they had one of the best first basemen in the league in Kevin Youkilis, two good-to-excellent first base prospects (Anthony Rizzo and Lars Anderson), and a third prospect (Ryan Lavarnway) who may need to fall back to that position. Last, and perhaps most controversial, was the fact that the team could simply re-sign Beltre, who had a fantastic 2010.

After a very rough 20 games to start the season, Beltre turned into a monster. When he wasn’t swatting homers off of one knee, or batting away the latest person trying to touch his head, he was making Marco Scutaro forget that he had to cover ground balls in the hole. In all, Beltre accumulated 7.1 WAR according to FanGraphs—second in the league behind Josh Hamilton.

But looking closer, it is clear that Beltre’s great season cannot be expected as a norm. Much of his value compared to his other seasons was tied into a great batting average, especially on balls in play. Over the last five years, Beltre’s BAbip has been .294, .294, .276, .301, and .331. Beltre’s 2010 slash line, if we apply a more reasonable .300 BAbip, goes down to .292/.337/.525 even if we assume he just lost singles. And that is a big reason why Bill James projects him at .283/.335/.477 for 2011. Still a very good player with his defense, but perhaps not someone to commit five years and $80 million to at age 31.

Luckily for the Red Sox, they didn’t have to worry too much about whether to retain Beltre because they were able to seize the opportunity and land the other Adrian. Somehow the Sox found a way to improve on the strongest part of their offense, and get four important years younger at the same time.

A NEW FACE IN LEFT

Last year’s injury to Jacoby Ellsbury led to six players playing at least 10 games in left field. Going into the offseason, it seemed the Red Sox would try to get by with the same rotation they had in 2010, only adding a healthier Ellsbury and Cameron. Instead, they shocked everyone by signing Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal. A cursory look at his numbers gives some initial pause as he holds a lifetime slash line of .296/.337/.444 with a 107 OPS+. But, he is only 29 years old and had his best year in 2010. As Dave Cameron explains nicely earlier in this magazine, Crawford’s great de-fense and base running combined with that maturing bat is why the Sox thought he was a $20 million per year player.

Elsewhere in the outfield, the Red Sox expect the return of both Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron. While the sur-prising contributions of Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, and Ryan Kalish managed to keep the outfield from being a black hole in 2010, there is no doubt things could have been better. Even J.D. Drew struggled, posting a .255/.341/.452 line, with the .341 OBP being the lowest of his career.

Given the addition of Crawford, better health from Ellsbury and Cameron, and a bit of a comeback from Drew, we ex-pect that the outfield play will significantly exceed its 2010 level. We also like Ryan Kalish to be able to step in if there are injuries and provide solid play.

GETTING HEALTHY IN THE MIDDLE INFIELD

The last positions for us to look at are short and second. Here, the Sox will have largely the same cast of characters patrolling the middle of the diamond with Pedroia, Scutaro, and Lowrie returning. Departing will be the versatile bat of Bill Hall, who we include with this group rather than the outfield even though he split the time relatively evenly.

Pedroia is the biggest source of potential improvement, simply through his health. In 2010, he was on his way to his best season, putting up a .288/.367/.493 line good for a 127 OPS+. Unfortunately, he broke his foot with a foul ball in June and was limited to 75 games and only 351 PA (he racked up over 700 PA in each of the previous two seasons). The Red Sox had to fill his spot for over half the season, but they were lucky enough that Hall and Lowrie hit at a relatively high level. Hall put up a .247/.316/.456 line and Lowrie was even more impressive after coming back from a bout with mono, hitting a spectacular .287/.381/.526. Still, the return of Pedroia for a full season will help, and it is nice to have Lowrie as a backup in case there are lingering effects from the foot.

Lowrie himself should move into a role as an infield super-sub, likely taking time at third to relieve Youkilis (perhaps with Youk even taking the DH role from Ortiz against tough lefties) as well as to back up both Pedroia and Scutaro.

SO HOW GOOD WILL THEY BE?

RS11-final Table2.jpg Table 2 shows the players from 2010 that received significant playing time, as well as our predictions for the players who will see the most playing time in 2011. Along with the players are their actual slash lines and Runs Created for 2010, and their projected figures for 2011 (see page 28). Here, we can make some comparisons of the two offenses to see just how much improvement can be expected.

Runs Created (RC) is a statistic first created by Bill James that has been refined over the years. The basic idea of RC is to quantify in runs what a player contributes to the offense. In its most simple form, it can be estimated as a product of OBP, slugging, and at bats. While there are many refinements to this formula that go into the numbers presented in Table 2, this basic idea will get you most of the way there. So, for instance, if you are surprised that Marco Scutaro was second on the team with 81 RC, a big part of that was his team leading 632 ABs.

All in all, we project the Red Sox to be quite a bit better on offense in 2011. Just looking at the rough totals, we see an additional 266 RC from the 2011 team. However, we have not yet done any adjustment for playing time. As Runs Cre-ated is an accumulated stat, playing time differences can account for big swings.

In Table 3 we see positional at bat totals for the major groupings of players. The 2010 numbers reflect only the top 20 players in terms of playing time—if we include everyone who played the number is 5646 ABs. Regardless, it jumps out very quickly that we have projected enough playing time for a fourth full-time outfielder and third middle infielder. A quick and easy way to make this adjustment is to decrease the ABs and RC for those positions by 25% and 33%, respectively. This gives us comparable at bat totals for the team (the difference will be made up by players we have not projected), and while a more rigorous exercise may give a slightly more accurate result, it would be based on playing time guesswork.

RS11-final Table3.jpg Using the playing-time adjusted RC numbers, then, we see the 2011 offense with a total of 880 RC for players we have projected. Last year, the Sox gained an additional 44 RC from players not included in Figure 2 (for a total of 841), and we can probably expect a similar figure from various fill-ins and scrubs in 2011, which brings the total 2011 projection to 924 RC, an improvement of 83 runs.

There does not seem to be much doubt that the Red Sox will score more than they did in 2010, even if the catching situation is worse than we project. Some projections will end up being low and some will end up being high, but overall, this looks like the best offense since the halcyon days of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. But unlike those teams, this one will have a speed aspect to go with the big bats, and with the key players all being under 32, we could be looking at another three-year run like 2003–2005 both in terms of performance and stability. MSP

Steve Mastroyin is a lifelong Red Sox fan who has contributed to every edition of the Maple Street Press Red Sox Annual. He posts his thoughts and analyses about the team at Sons of Sam Horn. Get your copy of the Maple Street Press 2011 Red Sox Annual here

BDD is a feature of Boston.com. All posts are by Steve Silva unless otherwise indicated.

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ProJo:

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NY Post:

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