Theo’s “95-Win Team”, Beckett’s Extension, Falling Dominoes, and the Mailbag

Texas v Texas A&M

Theo’s “95-Win Team”

In recent years, one of the most important axioms put forth by the Theo Epstein and the Red Sox front office is the law of the “95-Win Team”. According to this directive, the team’s goal is to target 95-wins annually in an effort to compete every season. This is really a great piece of wisdom, as a team that wins 95 games will make the playoffs most years. In fact, the Wild Card winner since 2003 – the first year Theo took the esteemed office of Red Sox General Manger – has averaged a record of just about 95-67.

However, this doctrine relies on one major assumption – that this team will always be able to perform up to their expected level.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s step back for a moment and assume that the Red Sox can build a team every year that averages 95 wins – or, more accurately, has the talent to win 95 games per season, but is not guaranteed to do so. This is an important concept to grasp because, though a team has the talent to win 95 games, any number of events can occur that divert the team from achieving this goal.

For instance, in any given year, the team may have a career year or two, leading to a record of 100-62. Or, conversely, they have a few unlucky breaks and down years, leading the team to win just 90 and miss the playoffs altogether.

So, given these uncertainties and Acts of God, what are the chances that the Red Sox can win 95 games when they have the talent to do so?

While it may seem obvious that they should win 95 games most of the time, it doesn’t really work out that way. It’s actually somewhat of a rare event that a team with a certain amount of baseline talent will actually perform exactly the way they are expected. Assuming the Red Sox have that baseline talent of 95 wins – or a .586 winning percentage – the chances that they win exactly 95 games is only about 6 percent.

Surprised? Me too. Common sense says that the team’s average wins should prevail most of the time. But it doesn’t – and that’s why the plan is such a good, robust one, because a 95-win Red Sox team is really just a general range of what we’d expect the team to do. What the front office really wants is the team to have a good chance at the playoffs.

Harking back to what we discussed earlier, the American League Wild Card representative has won just about 95 games over the past seven seasons. Therefore, to make the playoffs, the Sox need to win at least 95 games. So, the team doesn’t have just a 6 percent chance (the chance of winning 95 games) of making the Wild Card. They have the chance of winning 95 games or more.

So, what are the chances they take home 95+ and make at least the Wild Card?

53 percent.

Hmm, that’s OK, but not quite what we’d hope or expect to find given the Sox recent success.

But that’s not the end of the story.

When looking at the American League standings, the threshold for the Red Sox making the playoffs are actually lower than the 95 game average, because the Sox were the team winning the Wild Card almost all those years. Therefore, going along with this logic, they only need to have one more win than the best non-Red Sox team.

Again, looking back since 2003, the best non-Red Sox teams have won about 92 games per year, meaning the Sox would have to win 93 games to make the playoffs in each of these years.

In this instance, the team, assuming 95-win talent, would have a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs each year. Again, it’s a good, but not great ratio.

But, more important than the front office target of 95-wins is the actual rate of success the team has had over that seven year span. Since Theo’s first season at the helm, the team has had a record of 660-474, or just under 95 wins per season at 94.28 wins per year. This has been a very good team, making the playoffs six of those seven seasons, winning a high of 98 games in 2004 and a low of 86 in 2006.

This 0.7 win difference reduces the chances of making the 95-win threshold oh-so-slightly, to 49 percent.

But, it’s not so grim. Using the team’s record and some statistics, we can determine that the team has been probably been operating at a baseline talent level between 90 and 98 wins per year. A team with a 98-win talent level would cross the 93 win threshold about 76 percent of the time, while a 90-win Sox club would eclipse this mark just 29 percent of the time. While 8 wins may not seem like a huge amount, it is actually monumental, which contributes to the reason why the lack of a salary cap in baseball is such a hot point of contention.

But, the Red Sox don’t live in a vacuum, do they? They have to compete with the Yankees for the AL East title, who have won an average of just over 97 wins per season since 2003. Since that time, the Sox have topped the Yankees only twice, winning the division once. The numbers seem to bore this out, as the chance that a 95 win team would top a 97 win team is only about 25 percent – very close to the actual rate.

How about if we wanted to top the 100 game plateau?

Unfortunately, our chances are low but achievable, at 16 percent – or one in every six years.

How about topping 116 games, the record set by the Seattle Mariners in 2001?

Well, there’s a reason it’s a record because the chances are almost impossibly low, at only 0.015 percent – about one in about 6670 seasons. Therefore, when or if this team every wins 116 games, or even 100, it is almost a certainty that you are not starting at a “95-win” team, that the underlying talent of the team is, in all likelihood, much greater than 95-wins.

Similarly, the chances of the Sox winning 81 games or fewer is just over 1 percent. So, when this occurs, it is far more likely that we just plain had a team that was worse than the 95-win baseline, not that we were unlucky.

Still, when looking at some of these daunting probabilities, it is important to remember that there is no way to actually confirm that the Red Sox are or are not a “95-win” team. The notion of a team that consistently wins 95 games is an abstract idea that we can never prove or disprove. For instance, there’s no way of knowing, with 100% confidence, that the team we put together is a 95-win team, or .500 dud. There’s no way of knowing the true underlying talent of a Kevin Youkilis or Mike Lowell in any given season. We can only do the best with the information we have at hand.

… which makes this model very useful for assessing the value of players and their contributions toward the team’s overall success. For instance, if we know how many dollars a win costs, we can estimate how much better the team will get by “buying” additional wins.

Using the Fangraphs.com price for free agent wins, which is about $4.5 million per win on the free agent market, we can see how useful each potential player is for helping the Red Sox into the playoffs.

For instance, given a 95-win team, we’ll assume John Henry decides to raise the budget of the team by $4.5 million, which allows the team to buy one additional win on free agency. According to our model, this makes turns the Red Sox into a 96-win team. This actually has some significant affects, raising the team’s chances of reaching the 95-win threshold by about 6 percent, from 54 percent to 60 percent.

And, what if John Henry decides to let Theo loose from his leash, going on a spending spree and raising payroll by $26 million, or about four wins? Now, the 95-win Red Sox are a Yankee-killing, 99-win juggernaught. All of a sudden, the team raises its chances of winning at least 95 games from 56 percent all the way to 77 percent. That’s quite the improvement.

For winning at least 93 games, the lower threshold for making the playoffs in the past seven years, the number jumps to 81 percent.  Maybe Uncle John should open the coiffures and give Theo a little extra dough. I know I’d love to see it.

Josh Beckett’s Extension

Over the past few days, rumors have been circulating that the Sox and the Josh Beckett camp have been discussing a contract extension. Adding fuel to the rumors, Beckett and agent Michael Moye have indicated that there will be no hometown discount for the Sox, so the team will have to be ready to shell out quite a bit of cash.

In terms of performance, there are few pitchers in the MLB who are worth such an extension, as Beckett has been worth 17 wins over replacement in the last three seasons. But this is no easy decision, as these negotiations are very complex situation… and the timing of such a deal could make it perfectly maneuvered – or poorly executed.

The 2011 free agent class for starting pitchers could be among the best and deepest in recent years. At this juncture, included among the prospective free agents are  Beckett, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Javier Vazquez, and Brandon Webb, with Jorge De La Rosa, Joe Blanton, Ted Lilly adding depth, with the potential for Jeff Francis and Aaron Harang to enter due to contract options.

Now, there are sure to be a few who sign extensions with their clubs before the 2011 off-season begins – particularly any of Halladay, Lee, and Beckett. But, that’s where it gets interesting, where the strategies of the Sox front office and Beckett’s agent will be tested.

Depending on which side of the aisle you sit, the wealth of starting options is either an inescapable threat or an enormous opportunity. From the perspective of the Beckett and Michael Moye camp, this is a dangerous occurrence, as every additional starting pitching option significantly drags down the final price for Beckett.

Remember, there are not many teams in the major leagues that can afford the price tag that Beckett will command – the Sox, Yanks, Angels, Cubs, Mets, Tigers, Phillies, and Dodgers are the best bets. However, the Phillies, Mets, and Cubs already have significant commitments into 2011, so they are not as strong front runners to add a marquee starter. They will be players, but their prospects as buyers are reduced because they will have multiple needs but limited space to fill them.

Therefore, with the high number of options available and the low number of teams that can afford them, this class is shaping up to be quite the buyer’s market – everyone will have a date to the dance.

So, the Sox can approach the negotiation a number of ways.

First, they could attempt to sign Beckett before anyone else signs, while all of the other options are still potential free agents. Under this scenario, Beckett will go for slightly less, as the remaining pitchers will pull down his price tag due to the threat of Beckett hitting free agency in a crowded market. This is a somewhat brash, risky approach, as it could backfire in the event that no other pitchers sign extensions.

Another approach could be to sit and wait, letting the free agent market pan out over the course of the season. On the one hand, this would allow the team more time to see where the other pitchers will end up and who will sign early. Does Cliff Lee sign an extension with the Phillies? Is Halladay traded, then extended?

This is the “middle-road” approach. The team won’t win big by taking the risk and signing first, as they could in the first scenario. However, they won’t lose big if they sign Beckett to a “market-level” contract early in the season, while other teams don’t sign extensions and Beckett’s price would have been reduced on the free agent market.

Their last option is to let Beckett walk, in an attempt to re-sign him in free agency or take another starter. This can be considered more an extension of the second option, where they delay a decision long enough to see where the other pieces fall, then deciding for themselves. However, there is an obvious drawback – if Beckett has a career year or if enough pitchers sign extensions where there are few options on free agency, Beckett will likely forego signing an extension – opting instead to test the free agent market, where his price tag will be significantly inflated.

This is really a very interesting confrontation that will be fun to watch over the next few months. The Sox will likely take the second option – biding their time for the moment, as there is really no reason to rush… yet. Sure, Tim Hudson is likely to announce his extension with the Braves in the next few days, taking the first starter off the market. But, Cliff Lee is very early in his negotiations and, beyond Lee, there are no real threats at the moment to get the dominoes falling.

2011, the year Beckett’s presumed extension kicks in, will see the pitcher turn 31 years old. Assuming he signs for the six-years, $17 million per annum that Evan posited, the team will have Beckett under control through his age 36 season. Though Beckett has been relatively healthy through his tenure with the Red Sox, betting on six years of any pitcher, especially an aging one, is a very risky wager. While it’s certainly possible that Beckett can remain effective through those six presumed years, there are plenty of cautionary tales that suggest the Sox exercise discretion in these negotiations.

Personally, I would like to see the team wait until at least Cliff Lee signs an extension or see where Roy Halladay is traded. Signing Javier Vazquez to a short-term deal could be nearly as valuable in the short-term with far less risk. Ted Lilly or Jorge de la Rosa could be nice consolation prizes. de la Rosa, in particular, is a pitcher to keep your eye on. With or without Beckett, he could be a great signing as a back of the rotation starter with enormous potential. He made great strides last season and could be a solid #3 starter, with significant upside if he adds just a little more command.

Either way, there are plenty of options on the board at the moment where the Sox have no need to force their own hand.

Introducing the FireBrand Mailbag

And, finally, I would like to announce that FireBrand will periodically be holding a mailbag to answer all of your darkest, most burning questions about Red Sox Baseball. If you would like to ask the writers a question to be answered on site, please forward your inquiries to Mike_Silver_FireBrandAL@yahoo.com.

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