Sixty-nine wins and a last-place finish in the American League East in 2012 was the culmination of one of the most disappointing seasons in Red Sox history.
Boston was a bad baseball team last year, and the press that followed the club only made things worse. The 2012 season was, in effect, a complete disaster.
But 22 games into the 2013 campaign, the Sox are doing their best to make the Fenway Faithful forget. The Red Sox are 15-7, tied for the best record in the AL, and they hold a two-game lead over Baltimore for the division. Boston’s +27 run differential – perhaps a better indicator of team success – is tied for third in the majors.
So, what’s the difference between this year and last? Of course, Boston was busy this winter, spending over $100 million in free agency on several new players. But the Sox didn’t exactly bring in any premier stars, compared to the signings of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford two offseasons ago.
Yes, the difference is somewhat in the personnel. But if we dig a bit deeper into some of the team’s statistics, we can try to pinpoint a few reasons why the Sox are getting back the edge that helped them become one of the top franchises in the game over the past decade.
2013 LOB% = 78.5% (3rd in MLB)
2012 LOB% = 69.6% (27th in MLB)
This is pretty simple: Boston is not allowing opposing baserunners to cross home plate better than it did in 2012. A 78.5% strand rate is probably not sustainable in the long run, but it’s not exactly out of reach (Cincinnati led the league at 76.9% last year). A strand rate under 70%, however, is abysmal.
Keeping runners on base is a great way to not allow runs (see: Baseball Strategy 101). The Red Sox’ ERA last year was 4.72, or 27th baseball. This year, Boston sits 10th with a 3.49 ERA.
2013 K/BB = 2.66 (14th in MLB)
2012 K/BB = 2.22 (23rd in MLB)
This may seem like a small difference, and while it’s not the most noticeable change in the Red Sox this year, it is important. Boston pitching staffs have long been among the most efficient in the league, as the sabermetrics-inclined Red Sox front office became well aware of the value of strikeouts and the horror of walks.
Leading the way in this improvement are Jon Lester (2.80 K/BB in 2013; 2.44 in 2012) and Clay Buchholz (3.00 in 2013; 2.02 in 2012), who have so far emerged as the 1-2 punch Boston fans have always desired.
2013 starters innings per start = 6.05 (7th in MLB)
2012 starters innings per start = 5.73 (23rd in MLB)
Red Sox starters have recorded an average of one more out per game, but it’s brought the staff up by 16 spots in the big league rankings. Boston starters are now pitching into the seventh inning, on average, which relieves a burden on the bullpen (which is also much improved).
While one out per game may not seem like much, the difference results in an extra 54 innings of bullpen work over the course of the season. And in the highly competitive American League East, a sharp bullpen is an important tool for a manager to have at his disposal.
2013 BB% = 9.8% (6th)
2012 BB% = 6.9% (29th)
Another way the Red Sox are getting back to their roots: they’re wearing pitchers out, and doing what it takes to get on base. Boston’s walk rate last year was appalling, a complete 180-degree turn from the great offenses of years past. The Red Sox having to play a slew of young, inexperienced players was a big reason for that decline in 2012, but now the Sox have a loaded depth chart chock-full of patient hitters.
A hero in this cause: Daniel Nava. The outfielder has walked in 13.7% of his plate appearances this year, and has been one of the most patient hitters on the team so far in his brief career.
2013 BABIP = .320 (3rd)
2012 BABIP = .301 (10th)
Boston’s success on balls in play this year has been evident, and it may be due to a bit of good luck. According to FanGraphs, Red Sox hitters have hit line drives 21.4% of the time in 2013. Last year, Boston smacked line drives 21.3% of the time.
So, the Sox may be a little “lucky” in the batted ball department so far this year. But Boston will need some good breaks to make the playoffs in 2013, and this may just be the key it needs to get over the hill. Let’s see if it keeps up.