Run Production

How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?

Runs? That’s important in baseball right? Yeah, the Red Sox were bad at that whole runs thing in 2014. After leading the league in 2013 and even being eighth in the 2012 disaster, they tied for 18th in runs scored last year with just 634. For a franchise consistently at or near the top of the run-scoring heap, 2014 was a huge outlier and a major disappointment for fans who take slugging squads at Fenway for granted.

To say they were star-dependent is an understatement. They wouldn’t have even managed that backhanded compliment if David Ortiz didn’t take his now seemingly annual sip from the Fountain of DH Youth. A 38-year-old Big Papi was the only Sox with more than 500 plate appearances and an OPS+ above 101. Papi’s supporting cast was somewhere between underwhelming and non-existent, leading to Boston’s first finish outside the top 10 run-scoring teams since his arrival in 2003.

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia gutted it out through several bumps and bruises and was eventually shut down in September to undergo hand surgery. His 101 OPS+ was the lowest of his career. Mike Napoli was reasonably productive when healthy – he was a top 10 first baseman with a .353 wOBA – but missed a quarter of the games despite just one 15-day DL stint. Right fielder Shane Victorino had what amounts to whatever is slightly better than a lost year.

Shouldering much of the blame in the Boston media are the three young players who were counted on in starting roles: shortstop Xander Bogaerts, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and center fielder Jackie Bradley. Bogaerts had a team-high 138 strikeouts, and an 85 OPS+, but managed to be the best of the three at the plate. Middlebrooks has since been dealt for backup catcher Ryan Hanigan. Bradley’s outstanding defense kept his historically bad bat in the lineup for 423 PA but he seems destined for either the Pawtucket AAA team or a trade.

The bright spots were the emergence of Mookie Betts in the second half, as he posted a 128 OPS+ with seven steals in 52 games split between second base and the outfield. Utility man Brock Holt (BROCKHOLT!) was also a nice story, giving them a non-embarrassing leadoff option with a .331 on-base percentage and an even 100 OPS+. But he’s not a player you make long-term plans around. We also got a glimpse at Cuban signee Rusney Castillo, who impressed in a late stint in the outfield.

So the Sox added Hanley Ramirez from the Dodgers and Pablo Sandoval from the Giants in big free-agent deals. Sandoval will be installed at third base, while Ramirez is shifting to left field from shortstop. Ramirez was the best-hitting shortstop in the majors last year by wOBA (.362), which would still make him a top-five left fielder, while Sandoval settled in at 14th over at the hot corner.

The Sox are also looking for bounce backs from Pedroia and Napoli, growth from Bogaerts and to a lesser extent catcher Christian Vazquez, and full seasons from Victorino, Betts and/or Castillo in the pasture.

Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?

The Red Sox were seventh in the American League in pinch-hitting substitutions in 2014, up from 10th in 2013. Prior to that, Farrell’s Blue Jays were similarly middle-of-the-pack, rising as high as sixth in 2012. The Red Sox had an even 50 per cent of their plate appearances with the platoon advantage, 20th in MLB, but they were sixth in 2013 at 61 per cent. Previously, his Toronto teams were near the bottom.

Farrell typically seems to find a role for everyone, and you can usually think along with his moves, for example the Daniel Nava/Jonny Gomes platoon of the 2013 champs. But the numbers also show he isn’t a prolific pinch-hitter. While he is likely aware of the numbers, this may be a soft “man management” strategy on his part. Perhaps he feels the tiny advantage gained by a single pinch-hit appearance can be outweighed by the goodwill created by letting a guy stay in the game to take his hacks against a same-hander. It can also be a function of who the men on the bench are. With no obvious platoon at any position this year, Boston’s platoon number may drop even further.

What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much?

Those Sox sure do grind out at-bats, they sure see a lot of pitches right? Those games against the Yankees take forever because they’re just grinding down those pitchers. That’s the way to win ballgames right?

If nothing else, the 2014 Red Sox proved that seeing a lot of pitches does not necessarily equate to success. In fact they LED THE LEAGUE in pitches per plate appearance in 2014 at 4.05, the only average greater than 4 in the majors. That’s up from their 4.01 of the championship 2013 season, so technically they “improved.” The only team better than them in 2013? The powerhouse Minnesota Twins, who saw .01 more pitches per PA and scored nearly a run and a half less per game.

Seeing a lot of pitches is generally considered a good thing, and would certainly be on a short list of things that come to mind if there is a “Red Sox Way.” But that’s only as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s better to be aggressive and hit your pitch hard somewhere than to look at a lot but not know which to swing at and/or be able to do anything with it.

Both Sandoval and Ramirez do not fit the mold of the typical Red Sox grinder. Both typically saw fewer pitches than all regulars from the 2014 Red Sox lineup. HanRam averaged 3.79 pitches per plate appearance, while Sandoval’s average was 3.53, 136th of 149 players with 500 or more PAs.

They also don’t mind swinging at first pitches. Sandoval offered at a whopping 42.4 per cent, Ramirez 36.5. Ortiz is the highest returning Red Sox regular at 26.7.

Strikeouts have been welcome at Fenway, with the Sox finishing in the top 10 in the league during both years of the Cherington/Farrell regime. Again, Sandoval and Ramirez buck the trend. Both had sub-20 strikeout percentages in 2014, with Sandoval’s 13.3 higher than only Dustin Pedroia’s 12.3 compared to last year’s regular Sox.

Whether or not the signings were conscious efforts to bring in hitters with a different approach, Sandoval and Ramirez will break the typical Red Sox lineup stereotype.

Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?

The 2013 Red Sox stole often and effectively. Not so much in ’14, as they dropped to 17th in the majors with a 71.59 per cent rate a year after leading the league at 86.62%, the best mark since the 2007 Phillies (87.9%). They sat near the bottom in with just 88 steal attempts after trying 142 in 2013.

That’s with Jacoby Ellsbury gone to the Yankees and Shane Victorino on the shelf most of the year, which accounts for more than 70 stolen bases. Dustin Pedroia, meanwhile, dropped to just 6 from 17.

The Sox were seventh in hit-and-runs in 2013, 16th in ’14. Again much of that likely comes down to personnel. With Betts, Victorino and/or Castillo in the lineup on a regular basis these numbers may rise again, even Hanley has been known to run in the past. Betts has flashed his speed with two straight pro seasons totalling more than 40 steals.

Bunting, on the other hand, seems to be against organizational policy. Farrell’s Sox have been bottom three in the AL both years, but he bunted a lot in Toronto, including second-most in the AL in 2012.

Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?

You’ll be seeing this type of picture a lot.

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Ortiz, Ramirez and Sandoval are likely to be the 3-4-5 when all are healthy and in the lineup. Farrell has been saying this since the winter. One change in his batting order messaging, however, involves right field. He seemed to be hinting Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts would both have starting jobs in the outfield. Then around the time Spring Training opened that tune changed to “Shane Victorino is my right fielder.”

Of course that declaration came with the caveat “if healthy.” But even if he is whatever passes for healthy in the “34-year-old balls-to-the-wall outfielder with a history of hamstring problems coming off back surgery” category, Boston’s fourth outfielder will likely log healthy playing time.

 

Mookie Betts has earned rave reviews for his bat and defense so far in the spring, and appears to have the edge on the center field job.

Betts figures to lead off, with Pedroia assuming his regular No. 2 slot, followed by Papi-Hanley-Panda and Mike Napoli. Victorino, Bogaerts and Vazquez would round out the order.

Castillo could be parked in the minors temporarily, but they didn’t give him a record-setting $72.5-million contract to play in Pawtucket.

Certainly there are question marks. Can Castillo or Betts handle a full season defensively as “the guy” in center field? Will Bogaerts live up to the hype? How long can Papi do it? Will a Vazquez/Hanigan catching tandem hold off top prospect Blake Swihart? Where do Daniel Nava and Allen Craig fit in? What kind of creature is Wally the Green Monster?

wally

 

Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness?

Fenway has long had a reputation as a hitter’s park and was fifth-highest on ESPN’s park factors by runs. For home runs, however, it’s fourth-lowest.

The Green Monster turns lazy flies into singles and doubles and its proximity just 310 feet from home plate presents an attractive pull target for righty power. Both center (420 feet deep) and right field (380 at its deepest but just 302 at “Pesky’s Pole”) have some odd angles that can turn into adventures for opposing outfielders. According to FanGraphs the park plays particularly well for left-handed doubles, and righties have an easier time going deep than lefties.

 

Run Prevention

What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned? Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?

The big story around the team has been the “no ace” story, with a rotation of four or five number 2-3 types and a collection of well-regarded but unproven prospects behind them. Clay Buchholz should get the Opening Day start and first crack at the nominal “ace” title. New acquisitions Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson will round out the rotation, along with holdover Joe Kelly. Adding three newcomers to two guys who have never thrown 200 innings makes it hard to predict exactly how deep Farrell will let them go, but it’s easy to envision the bullpen needing to carry extra workload.

The new-look rotation leans towards groundballers who can pound the bottom of the zone.

That puts pressure on the defense, which could make Xander Bogaerts the biggest X-factor on this team (see what I did there?) Napoli, Pedroia and Sandoval are generally regarded as strong defenders but Bogaerts is a big question mark whose struggles were obvious and at times painful to watch last year.

 

When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?

Farrell is traditional in that he likes to have a closer, 7th/8th inning guys, and play matchups where appropriate. At 40, closer Koji Uehara could be a question mark. The team seems to like Edward Mujica behind him as the next man up. The Sox have shown willingness to bring guys up from minors in recent years, most notably Brandon Workman in 2013, when he ended up the eighth-inning guy in the World Series. Although he’s being stretched out as a starter, flamethrowing Matt Barnes is the type of arm you may see come in later in the season to provide some relief horsepower.

One interesting arm to note as the bullpen picture is coming into view is Anthony Varvaro, acquired from the Braves. The right-hander has a track record of being better against lefties and there’s talk of him being a right-handed “lefty specialist.”

 

Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?

According to the Bill James Handbook the Red Sox were above the American League average with 479 shifts in 2013, but they had the smallest increase in 2014. As shifts increased by more than 75 per cent leaguewide, Boston shifted just 19 more times and became a below-average team in this regard.

Ramirez will have to adjust to the outfield and could be a candidate for a defensive replacement late. Daniel Nava’s defensive reputation has improved, so he could conceivably pick up some late innings, as could Betts, Castillo or Victorino if one is on the bench.

 

Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?

According to Baseball Prospectus Christian Vazquez added the ninth-most value in the Majors via his pitch-framing, and that’s as a part-timer who had with fewer chances than any of the top 16. Ryan Hanigan, meanwhile, was 20th, so it seems this is a target area for the Red Sox.

There was off-season talk they were going to target a left-handed hitting catcher to pair with Vazquez, but the right (left) candidate never materialized. After David Ross left (right?) to follow Jon Lester to the Cubs, they dealt Will Middlebrooks and his unrealized power potential for  Hanigan, a 34-year-old who just hit .218. The Sox obviously think his value comes from elsewhere and that he could handle a similar backup-plus role that Ross filled if Vazquez isn’t up to the task.

Top prospect Blake Swihart could force his way into the mix this season. Farrell recently said his receiving is a “work in progress” but the potential is there. Pitchers already say they love throwing to him, the word “athleticism” dots his scouting reports and he was the 2013 Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Year.

 

Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?

Fenway has the smallest fair territory in the Majors but that doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging. Left field is small but Ramirez will have to learn to play the Green Monster. Center and right are spacious and quirky, which is probably a factor in why the Sox love Victorino so much as a “second center fielder” in right. Jackie Bradley Jr. is a darkhorse here if he can hit a little. He’s somewhat off the radar now and likely to start the season in the minors. But he was a Gold Glove caliber defender last year in center, which is why his sub-Mendoza average stayed in the lineup as long as it did.

 

Managerial/Miscellaneous

Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?

Mookie Betts and/or Rusney Castillo are expected to jump right in to major roles, as is Christian Vazquez. All saw varying levels of playing time last year and finished with the team. Castillo came somewhat out of nowhere, and most sources have skipped including the 27-year-old on their prospect lists. The Cuban posted a .409 wOBA in his 10-game MLB stint, and was 4-for-5 stealing bases in limited pro action after coming to the U.S. He has been touted as a future leadoff type and ZiPS projects him as a 10-homer/20-steal player this season.

Keith Law still has them ranked as a Top 5 system while Baseball Prospectus has them at No. 6. That’s particularly impressive when you consider it’s been thinned by the combination of the above graduates, and the trades of Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo.

Those trades were possible because behind them is lots more pitching depth, including Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Matt Barnes and Brian Johnson.

On the position player side, Blake Swihart was considered the crown jewel until recently. A catcher so athletic he could play center field, he ranks in the Top 10 in baseball according to Law and Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs.

Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus both rank him 17th , while MLB.com has him at 19th.

Possibly even more promising is recently signed Cuban infielder Moncada, who MLB.com added to its list at No. 9 after his $31.5-million deal became offficial. The 19-year-old will head to the minors and his preferred position – second base – is well covered for now. He has also played third base, shortstop and center field thanks to his strong arm, so projecting a spot on the diamond won’t be a problem. If the projections of a .280 hitter with 20-plus homer power and above-average speed come to fruition, he’ll find a place to play.

Owens, Rodriguez, Johnson, outfielder Manuel Margot, third baseman Rafael Devers all appear on the various Top 100 lists.

Of course any player could end up a trade chip but if the Cole Hamels rumors are to believed, so far the Sox have shown a reluctance to part with Swihart.

 

Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?

Victorino is the most obvious and Ramirez has missed significant time the past two seasons, but the team is super deep in the outfield.

You don’t think of Pedroia as “fragile” but he has battled injuries lately. If needed Brock Holt or even Jemile Weeks could provide depth at second, or Betts could potentially shift back to his primary position and clear up the outfield logjam.

Napoli had off-season surgery for snoring.

 

Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?

The Sox have to compete every year; there is no such thing as “rebuilding.” Even terms like “bridge year” cause riots among a fan base somehow unsatisfied by Boston’s transformation from “I just want my grandfather to see them win one” to winning three World Series in a decade. So now they’re trying to go worst-first-worst-first for the first (worst?) time ever

They’re looking at another top-three payroll this year, and their willingness to basically pay double to sign Yoan Moncada shows financial flexibility isn’t really an issue. Assuming there is truth to the Cole Hamels trade rumors they’re obviously willing to consider taking on a big contract to add impact Major Leaguers as well.

They will usually make a deadline acquisition if necessary, although in more recent years they’ve been unwilling to give up top prospects to do so. The result is they’ve protected their well-stocked farm system, but by avoiding the Jeff Bagwell trade you tend to end up also avoiding adding true impact players in-season. Boston’s deadline deals have tended to be of the more underwhelming variety (Erik Bedard in 2011) or tweaks around the edges (John McDonald in 2013). Both Jake Peavy trades – the acquisition in 2013 and the departure for prospects in 2014 – paid off nicely and were made possible by Boston’s willingness to take on his big contract.

 

What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.

This is whatever the opposite of breaking news is but I’ve got to think they’re going to move at least one outfielder from the Ramirez-Betts-Victorino-Castillo-Nava-Bradley-Craig-Brentz glut. The acquisition of an “ace” starter would seem to be a logical target, especially if Joe Kelly’s bicep soreness turns out to be something more serious and long-term. Could they put together a package for Cole Hamels, Jordan Zimmermann or even Stephen Strasburg? The Hamels rumors have created the most smoke but seem to be hung up on Boston not being willing to surrender Blake Swihart. If they won’t deal someone from the A-list like Swihart or Betts they may not be able to land a true ace.

 

What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.

They will make at least one big trade and – how’s this for hedging your bets – they should be able to compete in the AL East. PECOTA has them tying for the division lead but it’s lukewarm about the whole division, with only 8 wins separating top from bottom, the closest spread in the league.

I’m going to predict they win the division by a narrow margin, with at least one key member who isn’t there now.

 

Thanks to ESPN, FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus for the stats!

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