Saturday, May 21, 2005

Right and Wrong

I wrote this piece over at on July 25th, 2004, just 6 days before the Nomar trade. I was dead wrong discounting the solution but Master Theo and the Stat Pilots saw the problem and enacted the solution.

Keywords: Boston Red Sox, baseball, baseball statistics, infield defense

Anyone Can Criticize. True. Analyzing problems pales in comparison with developing solutions. Assisting Robo-organization in breaking down stats and facts can’t come easily. But that doesn’t mean we won’t try.

The big picture shows the Sox having the third most wins in the American League, but under the hood we see Boston with the second greatest disparity in home versus road victories, second only to the A’s. The Sox have virtually identical runs scored versus runs allowed record versus the Yankees, yet trail by 8 ½ games at about the 5/8ths pole. The Sox are 7-10 in one run games compared to the Yankees 17-10, and rank among Detroit, Montreal, Kansas City, and Arizona in close game futility.

First, examine the pitching staff. Homers per game and WHIP ratio are basically flat home versus away. Mysteriously, the road ERA is about one-third of a run higher. Both Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe in particular have pitched much better at home.

Maybe it’s something about the offense. Why, yes that’s the ticket. The Sox score over 6 runs a game at home, and about 4.7 per game on the road. The team batting average is almost fifty points higher at home (.302) and the OPS is one hundred ten points higher. Millar, Varitek, Mueller, and Bellhorn have proven far less robust away from the Monstah.

As for defense, we’re talking shock and aw. The Sox rank twelfth in AL fielding percentage, and as everyone from Block Island to Bangor knows, lead the universe in unearned runs allowed. If home official scorers weren’t protecting certain infielders, the results would only be worse. Bosox first basemen have the league’s worst fielding percentage. Kevin Millar couldn’t fare worse with skates. Even with ‘error protection’ scoring, the Red Sox are close to the bottom in shortstop fielding percentage. AND it’s not because of Nomar’s great range factor, as the Sox are close to the bottom there, too. The outfielders have a pitiful fourteen assists, as with the arm weakness out there, everyone runs on them. Of course, because the outfield is last in zone rating and in range factor, they probably don’t catch enough balls to actually give them the chance to gun runners down. The Sox are also last (.21) in caught stealing percentage (only partially a Wakefield effect) and eleventh in turning double plays.

Of course, According to Mark Twain “there are three kinds of lies, lies, damned lies, and statistics.” After all, the A’s lead the AL in fielding percentage, and Seattle, Toronto, and Tampa aren’t far behind. Who wants to be like the Devil Dogs?

Summarizing the Sox pitching is about equal home and away and the offense outperforms dramatically at home. The defensive drag on the team (inability to hold runners, unearned runs, inability to reach balls in the outfield) may contribute to the inability to win close games and win on the road, where scores are lower and the margin for error non-existent.

Okay, so what’s the solution, short of Draconian measures like summary execution? The overall winning percentage of teams relates to the number of runs scored in their ballpark, the fewer the better. Proven. Bandboxes and altitude guarantee happy crowds and no championships. Satisfying Fenway’s station to station mentality creates home tigers and road kittens.

Player accountability would comprise a great start, as in ‘play better,’ that is, catch routine ground balls and flyballs and throw the ball to the base. Realistically, wholesale team restructuring can’t and won’t happen at this point in the season. Superior offensively, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez can’t both be DH. Long-term, the Sox need more outfield athleticism, and far more consistency defensively from both shortstop and first base. I don’t know whether Theo and ownership have the will or the means to make a paradigm shift. Eighty-five years of frustration won’t end easily.

The point is that the front office isn't taking the underperformance lying down. I'm sure they've identified the bullpen as the problem and are working to solve it. There could be some help coming late season if the Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester duo keep coming on. Player accountability regarding infield offensive production can't hurt either.

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