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Looking behind the numbers at the Red Sox awful start

By: Tom Tippett
Date: May 2, 1996

Diamond Mind Baseball is based in Lexington, MA, a suburb of Boston. So we've been hearing every day about the Red Sox awful start. And we're about to tell you why it's not as bad as it looks. We're not saying it's good -- just that there is reason to believe things will get much better.

First, it was widely reported that the Sox made 21 errors in their first 11 games, but little mention has been made of their improved defense, committing only 7 errors in their next 15 games. They're still not a great fielding team, but they're not nearly as bad as they looked in the first couple of weeks.

Second, the vaunted Red Sox offense was last in the AL for much of the first month. This is mostly an illusion caused by bad weather and strong opposition. Consider three factors:

  • Almost all of the Sox first 15 games were played in cold, damp weather. It's not surprising that they would have trouble scoring runs in these conditions, nor is it surprising that they're scoring more runs now that the weather is much better.
  • The Sox have faced only three left-handed starting pitchers in their first 27 games. It shouldn't be a big surprise that the hitters who are off to a good start are lefties (Vaughn, O'Leary) and the ones who struggled early have been right-handed batters (Valentin, Stanley, Cordero, Canseco).
  • But these two factor pale in comparison to the quality of the opposing pitchers. To gauge quality of opposition, we divided the 70 AL pitchers who began the season in the starting rotation into three groups of roughly equal size. The first group is filled with consistently good or great pitchers such as Johnson, Mussina, Appier, Hill, and Wells. Not all superstars, for sure, but guys who are expected to be the ace or second starter on a good team. The second group are pitchers who have pitched well in stretches and would be considered solid third or fourth starters on a staff that's not awful -- guys like Belcher, Bones, Radke, Hentgen, Gubicza, and Ontiveros. The third group consists of everyone else -- fourth and fifth starters on bad teams; first, second and third starters on awful staffs (Detroit), and anyone called up from the minors after opening day. We ended up with 21 starters in the top group, 25 in the middle, and 24 in the bottom.

    We then examined the Red Sox performance over the first 27 games. Because the groups are of equal size, we would normally expect the Sox to face about nine from each category in a 27-game stretch, with a small bias toward the top group because the #5 starter doesn't pitch as much early in the year. But the Sox have faced 14 from the top group, 8 from the middle group, and 5 from the bottom group, and their record reflects it -- 2-12 and 3.7 runs per game against the top group, 2-6 and 4.5 runs per game against the middle group, and 7.4 runs per game and a 4-1 record against the bottom group. Their real record is 8-19, but it could easily be 12-15 if they had faced nine from each group. That doesn't sound like much, but it means they would be only 3-1/2 games out of first.

    By the way, we did the grouping of the pitchers based on their performance prior to this year and expectations for the coming year. If we had just looked at 1996 performance to date, this would be a circular argument. Your team beats up on a pitcher...helping to put him into the last of course you have a better record against that group.

Finally, there is ample reason to worry about their pitching. They have faced some of the most potent offenses in the league (Texas five times, Cleveland seven, Baltimore three), but they've also played six games against KC (clearly a bad hitting team) and four with Minnesota (which is hitting well this year but not highly-regarded as an offensive powerhouse coming in). But, despite favorable weather, they've walked way too many hitters and given up far too many runs.

So, as you look ahead to the remainder of 1996, expect to see (a) the Sox climb near the top in runs scored as they take advantage of better weather and begin to feast on the weaker pitching staffs in the league, (b) below-average but not awful defense, and (c) a pitching staff that will probably continue to struggle. The net result should be a team that wins more than it loses the rest of the way, and probably finishes a little over .500. But they don't have the pitching needed to climb all the way back into playoff contention, unless Clemens continues to pitch well and Sele comes back to where he was two years ago and Wakefield is at least mediocre and Gordon or Moyer can be a solid fourth starter and Suppan comes up and peforms the way Sele did in his rookie year. It's very unlikely that enough of these things would happen to make them a serious contender to make the post-season and have a chance once they get there.

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