What Went Wrong in the First Half: Part 1

Chip takes a look at what went wrong in the first half, and how things could turn around in the second half.

'Jacoby  Ellsbury' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/So here we are at the so-called mid-point of the season:  the All-Star break.  While we knew this season would likely be tougher than seasons in recent memory, few could have expected the veritable roller coaster ride the Red Sox have been on since Opening Day.  Up and then down.  Then, up and back down again.  To call this team volatile would be an insult to the word and a gross understatement.

Just one day before the official start to the season’s second half, the Red Sox sit at 43-43, 9.5 games behind the division leading New York Yankees, tied with Toronto for fourth (read:  last) place.  Clearly, this is not where any of us hoped the team would be come mid-July.  In preparation for the final 76 games on the schedule, let’s take a look at what went wrong during the first half, and how things could turn around during the second half.

Injuries in the Outfield

What’s gone wrong?

This has been, perhaps, the single most frustrating development of this season.  Entering the season, we had so many reasons to believe the 2012 outfield would be leaps and bounds better than the disappointing 2011 edition.  In fact, on Episode 118 of the Fire Side Chats, Tim, Paul, and I expressed great confidence that we could be in for something potentially special.  How could we not be excited?  Clearly, Jacoby Ellsbury was unlikely to reproduce his 9-fWAR season, but surely, a 5-6 fWAR season was possible.  Carl Crawford exuded a new level of confidence during Spring Training, and seemed eager to bounce back from his lost first season in Beantowne.  In right field, the platoon combination of Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross appeared poised for a well balanced season that could certainly outproduce the decrepit J.D. Drew (you’re welcome, Paul), the capricious Josh Reddick, and the replacement level Darnell McDonald.  Everything seemed to be in order.

Then, of course, the season started, and everything went to hell.  First, Crawford suffered a huge set-back when he developed a sprained elbow ligament, which has caused him to miss all 86 games this season.  Next, Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a subluxation of his right shoulder during the seventh game of the season.  He’s missed the 77 games since.  Cody Ross was next up with a fractured foot that cost him 28 games.  Ryan Sweeney?  A concussion and a stress fracture of his left big toe removed him from the lineup for a combined 26 games.  For you math majors out there, that’s 217 games lost to injury out of a possible 258 games.  Replacing them was a motley crew of replacement level caliber players:  Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish, Scott Podsednik, Jason Repko, and Marlon Byrd.  While Nava and Podsednik have been nice surprises, they’re certainly not the kind of players you want starting for your team long-term.

How could things turn around in the second half?

For starters, it would be nice if Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford came back healthy and productive.  Considering their injuries, it’s probably too much to expect anything more than 2 fWAR in value from each at this point.  Still, those four additional “wins” could be a huge bonus for the Red Sox as they strive to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.  When both Ellsbury and Crawford are healthy, that will likely mean that Ross and Sweeney will be forced to split time in right field as originally intended.  That’s not a bad thing.  While both have been productive playing regularly (when healthy), neither are well equipped to play every day.  Aligning both players to play to their strengths should pay some pretty serious dividends for the Red Sox.

The Underperforming Starting Rotation

What’s gone wrong?

While some might say that everything that could go wrong with the starting rotation has gone wrong, I’m not willing to go that far.  Things certainly haven’t gone as planned, but things could be worse.  The Red Sox’s biggest rotation has been Daniel Bard‘s disastrous transition from the bullpen to the rotation.  To be fair, the move looked pretty smart on paper coming out of spring training, and it looked even better after Bard’s strong April.  Then May hit, and Bard lost his command, control, and ability to induce whiffs.  After some pretty intense struggles, the Red Sox finally demoted him to AAA to work on regaining his confidence.  He’ll be pitching out of the bullpen if and when he returns to the majors.

The rest of the rotation has been a mixed bag.  Staff ace, Jon Lester, has been somewhat of an enigma, struggling to find effective command and consistency.  Josh Beckett‘s primary numbers don’t look great, but he’s actually pitched very well save for a couple of terrible starts.  Clay Buchholz has overcome a brutal stretch to start the season to put up some pretty solid numbers starting in mid-May and continuing through June.  Felix Doubront has been the most pleasant surprise this year impressing many with his better-than-advertised repertoire.

Injury replacements Aaron Cook, Diasuke Matsuzaka, and Franklin Morales have been a mixed bag.  Cook’s 81 pitch, no whiff shut out, though impressive, is not what we should expect out of the soft-tossing lefty.  He’s a solid pitcher, but he’s best used as a spot starter.  Morales looked very impressive in his first three starts before appearing to be a mere mortal against the Yankees on July 7th.  It’ll be interesting to see how he bounces back.  And as for Dice-K…I give up.  He’s shown flashes of brilliance followed by moments of pure frustration.  Nothing new to see here.

How could things turn around in the second half?

Ideally, everyone in the rotation would pitch to their true talent levels.  Lester would return to being the ace we all know he’s capable of being; Beckett would quietly step-in as an effective number two; and Buchholz will finally put the whole package together.  So really the plan should be:

Step 1 – Identify plan to turning staff around

Step 2 – ???

Step 3 - Profit.

See?  It’s that simple.  The rotation will be dominating in no time!

Good news is that Lester has shown a few signs of improvement.  I’m sure that’s hard to believe after his last start against the Yankees, but we have to look at the big picture.  Over his last 12 starts, he’s produced a 69/13 K/BB over his last 74-2/3 innings.  Typically, improved peripherals means improvements in primary numbers like ERA.  That hasn’t been the case.  Lester has been battered all over the yard because, despite having better control, his command has been off.  That might sound counterintuitive, but it’s true.  Whereas he was nibbling on the corners early in the season, he’s been attacking the plate as of late.  While this new approach has had a positive effect on his strikeout rate, he’s been catching a little too much of the plate at times.  This has caused an increase in his line drive rate, which has consequently resulted in more hits allowed.  If he can figure out a way to balance his command and control, he’ll be fine.

Ultimately, Lester’s success is key.  He sets the tone.  Beckett, Buchholz, and Doubront have been pitching pretty well of late (when healthy).  Provided they continue to pitch as they have been, the Red Sox could (and I stress, could) be in a good position to steal a playoff spot as we enter the stretch run.

Interesting story lines to follow in the second half:  who will the front office target via trade, and how will the Red Sox handle Felix Doubront’s innings limit.

Categories: Aaron Cook Boston Red Sox Carl Crawford Clay Buchholz Cody Ross Daisuke Matsuzaka Daniel Bard Daniel Nava Felix Doubront Franklin Morales J.D. Drew Jacoby Ellsbury Jason Repko Jon Lester Josh Beckett Ryan Kalish

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

17 Responses to “What Went Wrong in the First Half: Part 1” Subscribe

  1. Mike July 12, 2012 at 8:58 AM #

    Wait, I'm confused – someone explain the difference between control and command for me…

    • evanbrunell July 12, 2012 at 9:51 AM #

      Control is if you can throw it in the strike zone or not. Command is if you can throw it exactly where you want.

  2. Walt in Maryland July 12, 2012 at 10:33 AM #

    Step 1 for turning the rotation around is acquiring another starter. We can't rely on Lester-Beckett-Buchholz any longer.

  3. Patrick July 12, 2012 at 12:39 PM #

    I've heard people say that a benefit of the new playoff system is that more teams will feel like they have a shot and will be buyers at the trade deadline. However, doesn't that mean that less teams will be SELLERS and that teams will have to overpay for talent? Not sure how the Sox could get an impact starting pitcher without sacrificing serious talent in a not-too-deep-in-the-upper-levels farm system. I don't see this team winning a world series and would rather have them acquire talent for next year than get a #4 starter for prospects. Kinda feel like getting people healthy and the performance of our current starters is the only thing to hope for.

  4. LarryAtIIATMS July 12, 2012 at 3:08 PM #

    It's odd, Chip, but a story I don't hear being reported is how both Lester and Beckett have "underperformed their peripherals."

    Lester’s underperformance is particularly acute: a 3.57 FIP, a 3.60 xFIP and a 3.69 SIERA, but a 4.49 ERA. Beckett underperformance is not as sharp, but it’s significant: a 3.69 FIP, a 3.98 xFIP, a 4.08 SIERA and a 4.43 ERA. This looks like bad luck to me, particularly in Lester’s case – he has a .326 BABiP against, fourth highest in the American League, and a 66.9 LOB% — the third lowest LOB % in the AL (minimum 100 innings pitched). Beckett cannot complain about a .278 BABiP against, but his 67.1 LOB% is nearly as unlucky as Lester’s.

    Overall, the BoSox appear to be pitching to their peripherals (there’s a bit of underperformance, but I don’t think it’s significant). But as so much attention has been focused on Beckett and Lester, I think it’s important to check out the luck numbers.

    I gotta admit, I’m looking hard at the Red Sox numbers these days. The psycho-phenomena surrounding and following the September collapse is fascinating to me. To my way of thinking, there’s been a consistent failure to understand what’s going on with this team. The truth is, this is a pretty good baseball team, but it’s pretty consistently been the same baseball team since the start of 2010. The advanced numbers tell us that this is a team with mediocre pitching, the bullpen slightly better than the starting staff. Per SIERA this is the sixth best pitching staff in the AL so far in 2012, and the seventh best starting rotation – not great numbers, but in each case the Red Sox are slightly ahead of the Angels. If you look at 2011, the Red Sox finished 5th in the AL in team SIERA. In 2010, they finished 7th. THIS IS WHO THEY ARE – an average or slightly above average pitching staff. But the Red Sox are an excellent hitting team. This year so far, even with all the injuries, the team has the third highest wOBA in the American League. Last year they finished first in the AL in team wOBA; In 2009 and 2010, they finished second.

    A team that’s third best in league hitting and sixth best in league pitching should not be tied with two other teams for ninth best in wins. My feeling is, the Red Sox have been unlucky so far this year, not just in terms of rate of injuries, but also in terms of underperforming their peripherals. I would expect the luck of the Red Sox to normalize over the second half of the season, but I suspect that this normalization alone will not be enough to get the Red Sox into the post-season. I think the Red Sox will need a bit of good luck in order to play meaningful games in October.

    • Sean July 12, 2012 at 5:50 PM #

      They haven't hit good pitching consistently since Manny left, that's why they struggle against teams like Seattle and now Oakland. The run differential is what it is because they score 8 runs against 4th and 5th starters on mediocre staffs but cant get more than 2 runs against good pitching 2 of 3 games. If I'm wrong we will win the Tampa series, but I think the Tampa series will lay this out exactly.

      • LarryAtIIATMS July 12, 2012 at 10:06 PM #

        Sean, no team hits good pitching consistently. That's what makes the pitching good.

        I am striving to give you an objective picture of your team, one you get at this site to a considerable degree, but one you'll miss on the MSM this week for the simple reason that the Red Sox stumbled going into the All-Star break and have been analyzed to death as a .500 team. If the All-Star break had come a week earlier, you'd be seeing a different set of "report cards" and second-half projections.

        You're reading a ton about the failures of Beckett and Lester. Go to FanGraphs and look up the pitching leaders in the American League: Lester is ranked ninth and Beckett 14th. The Rangers have three pitchers listed in the top 15; the Angels, Red Sox and Mariners and White Sox have two each; the Tigers, Yankees, Orioles and Rays 1 each. I don’t see the top of the Red Sox rotation as a weakness. But if I look at wins and ignore Kevin Millwood for the moment, the two pitchers in that top 15 with the fewest wins are Beckett and Lester. If I compare xFIP to ERA in the top 15 to see who is underperforming their peripherals, only three pitchers qualify: In order of underperformance, it’s Lester, Beckett and CC.

        FanGraphs does not give me the ability to rank pitchers by biggest gaps between xFIP and ERA, but it does look at the gap between FIP and ERA. In the American League, among qualifying starting pitchers Lester has the fifth largest such gap, and Beckett ranks sixth.

        • Sean July 14, 2012 at 7:07 AM #

          In terms of the eye test you know an ace when you see one, and as I replied below would you really slate '12 Beckett or pick a year Lester ahead of '04 Pedro or '04 Schilling? Or '07 Beckett? Bottom line is in 2004 Sox had a great team, now both the offense and rotation is worse. In 07 they had a better offense, great bullpen, and Beckett as a true ace. This team has gotten worse and that should not be acceptable nor defendable with their payroll.

  5. Sean July 12, 2012 at 5:45 PM #

    Good to know Cook is a lefty, and better to know all will be peaches n cream for the Sox in the second half. Sadly I think Cherington shares your optimism, won't sell, and we will remain the Mets from the last decade (huge payroll, 3rd-last place finishes)

    • Danny July 13, 2012 at 3:19 PM #

      "3rd-last place?" Uhh. Perhaps you should sign yourself up for an English course. It might distract you from this team you clearly have an unjustifiable hatred for.

      • Sean July 14, 2012 at 7:04 AM #

        thats 3rd to (-) last place, and I don't hate this team it just isnt very good, given Lester's best year he would have been the 3rd starter in 2004, and the problem starts there, this team does not have a legit ace and hasnt for years. In my lifetime there was Rocket, the year in between, Pedro, Schill+Pedro, the year in between, and vintage Beckett. They have yet to come close to replacing vintage Beckett and instead run out 3 at best 2nd starters and call them all aces. Morales? Maybe, hope so. Needs to build his arm up first, but until they have a real ace they will need to rely on luck like last year's crappy Cards team that happened to win anyway.

  6. rlburnside July 14, 2012 at 9:08 AM #

    I like the trade of Lester + Ellsbury for Hernandez. Seattle says Hernandez is not for sale but I believe they would take that trade and I believe it would be good for both teams.

    • Danny July 14, 2012 at 3:01 PM #

      Way too much for Hernandez. You know he hasn't been having a good season, right?

      • Sean July 14, 2012 at 4:48 PM #

        Seattle wouldn't do it anyway, Ells is team controlled for 1 year and will be looking for a huge payday. Maybe chase Cain, or Josh Johnson (yes I know its a down year and I'm talking long term how to acquire a true ace), but sadly I don't think adding payroll is on the agenda through the CC/AGon contracts meaning either Matt Barnes is the answer or get used to having a bad team for another 5 years.

  7. Benjamin Raucher July 14, 2012 at 9:37 PM #

    Interesting points of view here.

    BENJAMIN RAUCHER

    • gerry July 15, 2012 at 7:58 PM #

      I will certainly agree that the team featuring Gomez, Ciriaco, Aviles, Punto, Nava, Pods and pick one of recently DL'd Ross/Sweeney/Kalish/DMac is not the Sox of 2007. They get kudos, thanks and admiration for keeping the Sox in it until an AllStar/GG/SS/MVP team ot Gonzo, PD, Aviles, Middlebrooks, CC, Ells,'Ross/? Get into the batters box and on the field. It is already happeningmand Sox pitching and team took 2 of 3 from the Rays at the Trop. This week CC and PD, soon Bailey and Atch. Not to worry about the next five years.

      • Gerry July 16, 2012 at 1:18 AM #

        Forgot to mention that the Sox offense hit Hellickson, Price and Shields, good pitching. And that Morales, Buchholz and Beckett effectively beat Hellickson, Price, Shields. With the team getting healthy and pitching rounding into form, hope is not unreasonable.