Barrels and Bloops — Boston Red Sox
A 30-part series highlighting each team’s 2017 journey featuring a few of my favorite team attributes.
No one is feeling sorry for the Boston Red Sox this last decade — this isn’t your grandfather’s cursed squad — but more has been expected from this group the past couple of years then they’ve produced.
When Dave Dombrowski took over as president of baseball operations in late 2015, he brought with him his stigma of always playing for the present. His new residence changed none of that as he made big trades and major signings in his first offseason, pushing the Red Sox to one of everyone’s short list to win it all in 2016.
The Red Sox moved even further up the list when Dealin’ Dave made the biggest move of the 2017 offseason trading the №1 prospect in all of baseball for one of the best proven pitchers in the sport — Chris Sale.
With 2016’s best offense in baseball, and a rotation now fronted by Sale, big-money-man David Price, and the reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, there was little excuse why Boston wasn’t poised to win it all.
It didn’t exactly work out that way.
First off, the offense was a far cry from the 2016 club. The loss of David Ortiz to retirement turned out to be much more impactful than imagined. Boston didn’t exactly replace his production, and of course his intangibles were impossible to be replaced as well.
The trade of Travis Shaw was clearly an oversight, crippling the third base position, a common spot to find a middle-of-the-order bat. Even though the thought process of improving the bullpen was on point, the belief in Pedro Sandoval being able to step in for Shaw was far from.
But it wasn’t only the players they lost, but also the players they kept all taking a step in the wrong direction. Dustin Pedroia dropped 20 points in wRC+, Hanley Ramirez dropped 35, Andrew Benintendi dropped 19, Mookie Betts dropped 29, Jackie Bradley Jr. dropped 29, and Xander Bogaerts dropped 19. Perhaps the “protection” from Ortiz and Shaw cost the rest of the lineup, but either way this was nowhere near the same offense as the previous year.
In the rotation, Sale was as good as projected. In essentially a toss-up, he was the runner-up in this year’s Cy Young voting. But after him, the rotation was inconsistent at best.
Price didn’t make his first start until May 29, and then went back on the shelf after a July 22 start. When he returned, he went to the bullpen, which was a good story due to its success, but it wasn’t exactly how they drew it up. Porcello’s fortune was nowhere near 2016’s levels and he fell hard back to earth.
Obviously the worst part of Boston’s 2017 was the rise back to prominence of the New York Yankees. Even though it was great for the rest of baseball — one of the best rivalries in baseball truly felt like it used to — there was no way Boston was expected to be pushed in the AL East by their historic foes this early in their re-tooling stage.
Despite all of these things going wrong, Boston won the division for the second straight year. But just like in 2016, they couldn’t get past the first round, and for the most part, it was essentially a beat down as they exited the playoffs early again.
Did The Roster Meet Expectations?
Already got into this a bit above, but the offense clearly fell off from nearly every regular. However, this team was very solidly defensively and collectively came fairly close to most of their projections on the position side, even in most places, they fell short. In addition, despite a surplus of base running outs, I pointed out in a recent piece on “risk vs reward in base running” the Red Sox are on the right side of the ratio. Even with great peripherals all around, there was no breakout offensive performance on the roster.
On the pitching side there were better surprises. As much of a surprise you can get out of Sale dominating happened as his 7.7 fWAR led all of baseball outside Aaron Judge. Craig Kimbrel was superb putting up over 3 fWAR as a closer. Drew Pomeranz was also a nice treat, putting a little shine on a Dombrowski trade from the previous year.
Injuries were the major culprit for the downside to pitching as Price wasn’t the only Boston arm who lost the majority of their season. Steven Wright made all of five starts on the season, Carson Smith made only eight appearances, and Tyler Thornburg — the bring-back for Shaw — did not pitch in 2017.
For a team who won 93 games, it’s hard to say its roster disappointed, but there’s no way around it. The Red Sox left a lot out on the table.
Barrels by Red Sox hitters — 213 (15th in AL, 26th in MLB); Barrel/PA — 3.36% (15th in AL, 26th in MLB)
Top barrel hitters:
· Mitch Moreland — 45 (7.81% (per PA))
· Hanley Ramirez — 36 (6.51%)
· Jackie Bradley Jr. — 27 (4.99%)
Barrels allowed by all Red Sox pitchers — 271 (10th in AL, 25th in MLB)
Barrel FIP by all Indians pitchers — 3.97 (fourth in AL, seventh in MLB)
Barrel FIP by Indians bullpen — 3.84 (fifth in AL, sixth in MLB)
Top Barrel FIP (starters)
· Chris Sale — 2.41
· Drew Pomeranz — 4.25
· Eduardo Rodriguez — 4.29
Top Barrel FIP (relievers)
· Craig Kimbrel — 2.13
· Matt Barnes — 3.21
· Addison Reed — 3.73
The Red Sox were truly carried by their defense; taking a look above in the barrel numbers unveils that point. Sure, Red Sox pitchers were pretty good at their K/BB numbers, but they let the ball get hit hard quite a bit. But there was a reason it didn’t do as much damage as it could. The trio of Benintendi, Bradley, and Betts was arguably the best in baseball at patrolling the outfield.
The statistic I’ll bring up here is a sad one for me. The Red Sox failing to win it all ended the “streak” of the best outfield defense taking home the championship, as I pointed in my piece at The Hardball Times this past offseason. Boston had the №1 OF UZR (Fangraphs) in baseball, by a pretty significant margin over their AL East rival Tampa Bay Rays.
The Red Sox also led baseball in OF DRS; it is hard to argue their dominance in their performance. My catch probability metric will attempt to. as it had the team fifth in baseball.
What’s great when discrepancies come up like this is the opportunity to QA my own metric and see where it differs from the more commonly used terms in today’s sabermetric lingo.
A big difference is catch probability doesn’t quite love Betts as much as the other metrics do. Instead of the top overall guy, where he placed in UZR, this particular metric had him 12th. Betts “only” caught 31 of 36 3-Star catches, a drop from his peers.
In fact, Betts wasn’t even top on his own team, as Bradley Jr. took home the honor. He caught 20 of 22 3-Stars and didn’t miss a single catch in the 2- or 1-Star buckets (Betts missed three). Bradley took a step back at the plate from an all-star level in 2016, but he still is as good as anyone (seventh in MLB in my catch prob metric) in the field.
Of course Fenway Park has its own effect on how outfield defense is played within its walls, and Benintendi certainly gets hit in the metrics due to playing in front of the Green Monster. The catch prob metric had him as the 16th worst outfielder in baseball, which doesn’t seem like it passes the eye test.
The image below shows every barrel hit at Fenway off Red Sox pitching:
There is not a single pink dot on that picture in left field, showing Benintendi’s opportunities are few to make the highlight reel catches. As far as defensive metrics have advanced, the game of baseball — and some of its wacky perimeters — are often difficult to meld into the numbers.
By any metric, the Red Sox had a great outfield and righted a lot of wrongs by its pitching staff. There is still a lot of confidence from this author that outfield defense makes a huge difference. I even showed it in a prediction I made saying the Red Sox were going to take the Houston Astros down in the ALDS.
Unfortunately the Red Sox had no chance at catching that.
What to Expect
The outfielders aren’t going anywhere — Mookie Betts’ FA year in 2020 is the soonest of the three — so the team will be one of my favorites again in 2018. Although Bradley Jr. has had some trade talk early on in the offseason, that would seem to be a mistake even after a down year at the plate.
The main reason trade talks are abound is the Red Sox are in search of their David Ortiz replacement. With Mitch Moreland hitting free agency, they would not only like to replace his modest numbers, but blow them out of the water. The Red Sox have been in rumors on every power bat, whether a free agent or via trade.
Boston is close to the luxury tax limit and there is the possibility they are trying to keep their expenses low, always a difficult task in free agency. J.D. Martinez is the biggest power bat available, but will be requesting a sum of money deem fit for his abilities. Martinez may also be interested in sticking around in the outfield, and that would seem unlikely in Boston.
It’s more likely the team searches for a first baseman to be their power guy, keeping Ramirez as an everyday designated hitter. First base is one of the deepest positions available this season in free agency, and the front office can most likely find someone to fit their bottom line. Will it be enough to bring the offense to 2016 levels?
Catcher is another area the Red Sox could look for some help on offense, but if some of the other bats can get back to their potential, it would be less of an issue. Boston has three young catchers under cost control for many years. The hope there is this isn’t an area to worry about for the next few years.
A full season of super-prospect Rafael Devers should keep the hot corner consistent, and with the loss of Eduardo Núñez to free agency, he’ll be the projected everyday starter.
Price makes $30 million in 2018, a large sum for a fireman. It’s assumed he will head back to the rotation, an area of the Red Sox which should be a strength.
The bullpen, even with the loss of a few arms, none more key than Addison Reed, should be even better next season. With the possibility of Smith and Thornburg joining Kimbrel, the back end of the pen would be set if their returns are successful.
Another playoff team review piece and another discussion of a new manager. The Red Sox also let go of their head man, John Farrell, after their postseason run and brought in first-time manager Álex Cora.
Cora, like Dave Martinez in Washington and Aaron Boone in New York, will be expected to bring their team right back to the playoffs… and advance.
The three new managers bring about a new era in MLB history — it is now clear the role of a manager has changed. The front office is now in charge of nearly everything on the field, and the manager is more responsible for the off the field stuff.
The relationship to their players now seems why managers are being hired, the age and the respect due to all of these new hire’s baseball careers, seem to point to exactly that.
The Boston-New York rivalry will now be led by two forty-year-olds, with each team expected to win the AL East. Sounds entertaining.