2016 Boston Red Sox: Do the numbers add up?


Dalton Jones

Utility infielder Dalton Jones had just 172 plate appearances for the 1967 Red Sox, but without what he did with them, The Impossible Dream might not have been possible. Jones reached the majors at age 20 in 1964 and by 1967 had been relegated to a reserve role by third baseman Joe Foy and second baseman Mike Andrews. His value in it helped win the pennant. Jones batted .289, walked 11 times, had 11 extra-base hits and knocked in 25 runs, many in September when most needed. His second-inning home run on May 24 beat Denny McLain and the Tigers, 1-0, for Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg; his two-run double on Aug. 20 spurred a four-run rally which helped erase an 8-0 deficit to beat the Angels, 9-8; two nights later his two-out, two-run pinch-triple broke a scoreless tie and beat the Senators, 2-1; he had four hits and the game-winning home run in the 10th in a 6-5 win over the Tigers on Sept. 18; his two-run single helped beat the Indians, 6-5; three days later; he had two singles, a double, a triple and five RBIs in an 11-7 win over the Orioles on Sept. 24; and his pinch-single in the next-to-last game of the season helped the Sox rally from a 1-0 deficit and beat the Twins 6-4. On the last day of the season Jones started and had two hits, his sixth-inning single loading the bases for Carl Yastrzemski as the Sox scored five times to erase a 2-0 deficit. That’s a pretty full stat sheet for 172 plate appearances. Jones started four games in the Series and had seven hits, batting .389 as the Sox lost to St. Louis in seven games. Jones never played so well again — he batted .234 and .220 the next two years and was traded to Detroit and played his final big-league game with Texas in 1972 at age 28. According to his bio at sabr.org, Jones had 81 pinch-hits in his career, 55 of them for the Red Sox. Career numbers: .235 average, .295 on-base, .343 slugging, 548 hits, 41 home runs, 91 doubles, 237 RBIs, 20-33 stealing, 191 walks, 309 strikeouts, 79 OPS+, -3.8 WAR.

On deck: The Red Sox are well stocked with young outfielders, but that won’t preclude a rapid rise by last year’s No. 1 pick Andrew Benintendi from the University of Arkansas. He went No. 7 to the Red Sox, who went slow with his career, giving him 239 plate appearances in short-season and Low A. Benintendi hit .336, slugged .556, walked 35 times to just 24 strikeouts, stole 10 bases and played center field. No surprise — if you can handle SEC pitching, you can handle low A. The Sox say they’ll be prudent with Benintendi, though a good year in the minors and a bad one by someone — are you listening Rusney Castillo? — in the majors might not allow them to be.

2015 Stat: David Ortiz struck out 95 times in 2015, the fifth straight season he’s not fanned 100 times. Of the 20 players who hit 30 or more home runs last year, the only ones who didn’t strike out at least 100 times were Ortiz (37 homers, 95 Ks), Albert Pujols (40 homers, 70 strikeouts), Edwin Encarnacion (39 homers, 98 Ks) and Mark Teixiera (31 homers, 85 strikeouts). The latter likely would have, but missed the last month-plus of the season.

What he said: Red Sox manager John Farrell on Rick Porcello’s 9.77 spring ERA: “We need Rick to pitch to his strengths, which are continually worked on …” What he meant: “We’ll let you know if we find any.”

Outlook: The British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” and you can guess which one Red Sox owner John Henry blamed for a second straight last-place finish in 2015.

(Or maybe Disraeli didn’t say it and Mark Twain said he did. If so, what kind of lie is that?)

Henry said the Red Sox “have overly relied on numbers,” and, “Perhaps there was too much reliance on past performance and trying to project future performance. That obviously hasn’t worked in three of the last four years.”

If new team executive Dave Dombrowski wanted a job where no math is required, it sounds as if he’s come to the right place.

Henry is right, to a point. The numbers say the Red Sox were 69-93, 71-91 and 78-84 in three of the last four seasons and finished last in all of three.

What Henry left unsaid is that the numbers say the Red Sox won 97 games and the 2013 World Series in the fourth year, when analytics worked pretty well. That’s an exception that needs no exaggeration, and there are 27 other franchises that would trade their last four years for the Red Sox’s.

Win a World Series among three last-place finishes and you shouldn’t need a scapegoat. Maybe a Cubs fan could explain.

Henry never mentioned how well the Red Sox’s traditional talent evaluation fared in the 85 years between their championship in 1918 and the hiring of Bill James in 2003. Not nearly as well as analytics have in the last 13 — the Red Sox won no titles, overpaid for players and  were the last team to integrate even though they gave Jackie Robinson a tryout and told him “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

You can understand Henry’s point. The Red Sox spent $183 million of his money on Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval and finished last again. Maybe those are the numbers that really bothered Henry.

But blaming the signings on analytics is missing the point by as much as Sandoval missed the baseball with so many of his swings. The sabermetric community was hardly unanimous in support of the signings,  and there were plenty of questions about where Ramirez would play and whether it was safe to drop $95 million in the lap of a 255-pound third baseman. It’d be safer to ask Chris Christie to watch your M&Ms.

Henry wasn’t so done with analytics after GM Ben Cherington used them to sign Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino before the 2013 season.

Ramirez and Sandoval didn’t work out as well. Ramirez hit 19 homers but was a -2.5 WAR defensively in left field in just 92 games, which is hard to do unless you position yourself inside in the Green Monster. Manny Ramirez, who played left field as if it were part of a dream sequence, was never worse than -2.1, and he was out there, no pun intended, every day. And Sandoval wasn’t much better defensively at -0.9.

The Red Sox signed both players to produce offense for a team that was 18th in runs scored with the head start of playing half their games in Fenway Park. Ramirez and Sandoval didn’t even do that. Ramirez batted .249 and had a .291 on-base percentage; Sandoval hit .245 with a .292 on-base percentage.

That the Red Sox improved to fourth in runs scored in 2015 was because of better production from Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts and a full season of Mookie Betts. They didn’t improve offensively because of Ramirez and Sandoval but in spite of them.

Thursday manager John Farrell announced that Travis Shaw, a first baseman playing third who hit 13 homers in less than half a season for the Sox last year, would start the season at third. It might not be long until Pablo is gonzo.

The 2016 Sox are an enigma. There’s an abundance of good, young talent, but there are almost as many questions, from Clay Buchholz’s confidence (is there anyone who believes in Buchholz less than Red Sox fans? Unless it’s Buchholz himself) to Carson Smith’s flexor to Bradley’s All-Star second half vs. his AAA first half (.267/.352/.539 vs. .4-for-30) to who sits next to Pablo on the bench and will there be enough room?

The remade Red Sox, with Price starting and Craig Kimbrel closing, could win 90 games. And with holdovers Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello starting, they could win 80.

The numbers don’t always say definitively what John Henry thinks they do.

Team Song: Miles Davis: Freddie Freeloader

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