This guest post was written by David Schubert of Sabeanmetrics and Curse of Benitez, blogs about the San Francisco Giants.  This is his first guest post for Fire Brand of the American League. 

One of my favorite things about humans is the innate, relentless drive to improve, which can take on many different shapes and forms, but is ultimately reduced to a matter of comparison – how do I, or we, stack up compared to this other standard or individual. As far as how that construct pertains to sports, one could argue that there are two primary planes of existence upon which all parties involved strive for improvement: fiscal and on-field performance. With that in mind, I respectfully submit that you, Red Sox Nation, take a good look at how wide open your window of opportunity extends. Grab your winter coat, because your house is looking mighty drafty.

First thing’s first. I’ve been a Giants fan since as far back as I can remember, with vague memories of smudged eye paint and passionate fans yelling out things like “Awesome 5-6-3!” in the bleacher seats that I’d regurgitate innings later to the amusement of the adults around me. We all start somewhere, and at the core, we all share that fundamental enthusiasm and respect for the game. It’s what allowed me the opportunity to become open-minded, embracing an alternative method of understanding the game many years later, and what permits me the luxury of sitting down to comb over Red Sox stats and projections.

Whereas I am all too familiar with the bandwagon Giants fans who buy Panda hats and rock New Era fitted caps with ridiculous designs, you are equally grumble grumble about the obnoxious Red Sox fans who people like me dubbed “mouthbreathing knuckledraggers.” However, I know the collective “you” better than that, and I respect your team and the many years you waited to call yourselves champions of our beloved sport.

It is with that preface that I posit you ought to take that aforementioned step back to gain perspective on why you truly have little to complain about over the next few years, and if your front office can continue to draft well and replenish your farm system, many years to come. But enough about that particular facet of the team’s future, let’s focus on why your current roster is one of two teams I believe have the best opportunity to make playoff runs in the American League over the next few seasons.

I was taught years ago that one of the best predictors for future behavior is the aggregate of past behavior, and as we are well aware, the game is not played on paper – but through acute comparison to others in the league, and tools like the ZiPS projection algorithm, we can take a good guess at where things will shake up.

C: This might be the one position, at least of those for which the depth chart is already somewhat penciled in for 2012, that there is the most guesswork involved (save the amplitude of Carl Crawford’s bounce back). I’m going to lean heavily on the ZiPS projections, a few scouting tidbits I was able to drudge up on Baseball America, and the fact that he tore up minor league pitchers at a pretty good clip.

ZiPS projects him as a 20 HR guy with an 89 OPS+ in his first full major league season, and ScHUBERT projects his upper lip to be a respectable 104 STACHE+. There’s very little that I am willing to speculate on with respect to Lavarnway, so excuse the humor, but I’m not about to be overly optimistic about anybody acclimating to the horror that is AL East pitching.

1B: Adrian Gonzalez is insane, and I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate how much of a dominant force he is in a lineup. We didn’t deal with him for too long in the NL West, though we were all too happy to bid him a fond farewell. In 2011, here were his key stats with qualified 1B AL leaderboard ranking in parentheses:

159 G (2nd), 715 PA (1st), 27 HR (T-5th), 10.3% BB% (6th), .210 ISO (7th), .406 wOBA (2nd), 153 wRC+ (2nd), and 6.6 WAR (2nd).

Now, that alone is a phenomenal output from an individual, but I’m going to take all of these comparisons a step further and break it down into rankings within the division. Gonzalez, not surprisingly, tops the leaderboard in the AL East for all but three of those metrics, coming in 3rd for HR, BB% and ISO – three metrics that I think he has a legitimate chance to improve upon in 2012.

ZiPS sees a meaty .297/.384/.526 slash line, complemented by 31 HR and a 138 OPS+ in Adrian’s future, with a 44% chance of topping 140 OPS+ and 69% chance of slugging over .500. I don’t see any reason to disagree.

2B: Dustin Pedroia is not a name unfamiliar to Red Sox fans, and with good reason. He killed last year, and when 5 out of 7 minimum PA-qualified players were 5.6 WAR or better, that’s saying something. Here are some of his 2011 numbers, again compared to qualified 2B in the AL:

159 G (T-1st), 731 PA (1st), 21 HR (3rd), 1.01 BB/K (1st),  .377 wOBA (1st), 134 wRC+ (1st), and 8.0 WAR (1st).

Bottom line, the guy is tops; the only key stat he doesn’t stand alone looking down within the division is HR, which was led by Cano with 28.

ZiPS for Pedroia is equally encouraging, with 35% chance of hitting north of .300, 20% chance of slugging over .500, and 15% chance of both hitting 45+ doubles and stealing 30+ bags. As this would suggest, he projects to be your best all-around hitter in 2012.

SS: Here’s where things get a little dicey, but in fairness, shortstop is a problematic position not only on your team but most. The Marco Scutaro / Jed Lowrie combination was nothing to write home about, but I present you with an alternative perspective: of the seven teams who fielded better shortstops in 2011 than the Red Sox, only two fall within your division (Escobar with the Blue Jays and J.J. Hardy with the Orioles). Furthermore, the Scutaro/Lowrie combination accumulated a combined 3.2 WAR, which is still slightly better than league average. It’s not like you had Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera or anything.

I can’t cherry-pick here and tell you that everything’s going to be okay, but if there is one encouraging stat from 2011 for Marco Scutaro, it’s this: his 1.06 BB/K ratio was tops in the AL for shortstops with 300 PA or more. In that cluster of players, his 8.5% BB% was 3rd in both the AL and the AL East, and his 8.1% K% topped the board. That’s not saying much, but it’s something.

ZiPS sees Scutaro as effectively league average in all ways, shapes, and forms. As such, there’s nothing worth noting here (nor should you pull up the ZiPS projections just to confirm this, though I highly recommend checking it out for all your other guys).

3B: I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but Kevin Youkilis is in decline and while I don’t expect 2012 to be significantly worse than his 2011, this is probably a position I would think requires the most attention over the next 1-2 years. “Kevin Youkilis” and “full season” aren’t going to be seen in the same sentence without the words “won’t be playing” somewhere in between.

His 19.3% K% was the worst among qualified 3B in the AL; only Adrian Beltre posted a worse BB% than Youk’s 6.8%; his .202 ISO is essentially middle of the pack ahead of guys I didn’t know existed like Alberto Callaspo; 11 HR at a power position like 3B is something you want to forget about and never mention again. And yet, despite what is clearly a struggling and often on the pine Youk, he was a 3.7 WAR and thus better than league average guy. It’s just that in the AL East, it simply isn’t good enough. I side with you on this one, Red Sox Nation. You get the Mutombo finger wag, Youkilis.

ZiPS projects a slash line of .268/.374/.477 for Youk in 2012, which is a slight improvement from 2011, but nowhere near his 2008-2009 numbers (and rightly so). It does predict an 18% chance he hits over 140 OPS+, and a 27% chance to slug over .500, both of which I find highly optimistic unless he seriously improves his plate discipline and stops whiffing on garbage outside the zone.

LF: I get it. You’re scared Carl Crawford is going to be the position player analogue to Barry Zito. Huge contract coming off a career year in Tampa Bay, promptly followed by leaving a stench under the Monster not seen since Manny last urinated there. Crawford is one of the best examples of the game not being played on paper, and at the same time, there are encouraging bits of history that lend me to believe you will have little to worry about in 2012.

Yes, the 4.3% BB%, 19.3% K%, and .304 wOBA in 2011 were career worsts for Crawford. But look around your division and tell me you don’t like whom you have compared to guys like the to be determined Lind/Thames/Snider combination, Nolan Reimold (!), or Brett Gardner.

The 2012 ZiPS projection on Crawford is neither kind nor cruel, slanting him at a 102 OPS+ and a 57% chance of topping 30 SB. His projected .325 OBP, .448 SLG, and 0.36 BB/K are virtually identical to his career numbers, which you can interpret on a high level as a strong pull towards the hitter you expected him to be coming into a Boston uniform. To summarize: calm down.

CF: You can resume the back patting and knowing, smug nods now. Jacoby Ellsbury had a tremendous year at the plate, but the question on everyone’s mind is whether the power spike was a fluke or there is a second act to follow. I can tell you right now that the ZiPS algorithm, of course, favors the former – but that’s jumping the gun and reverting to something I alluded to earlier, playing the game on paper.

A quick look at Ellsbury’s 2011 should demonstrate to you exactly how impressive his season was, as I outline his accomplishments with respect to all qualified CF in baseball:

158 G (T-3rd),  32 HR (3rd), 39 SB (6th), 0.53 BB/K (6th), .230 ISO (4th), .402 wOBA (2nd), 150 wRC+ (2nd), and 9.4 WAR (1st)

If you look at the AL East specifically, Ellsbury leads all above stats except for HR, and in turn, ISO – both trailing Granderson.

Regardless of whether or not you think he can reproduce his 2011 season, anything in between what was expected of him coming into 2011 and what he just finished doing is a marked bonus. To get something that even remotely resembles DH or corner outfield level offensive production, from arguably the most challenging defensive position in baseball that lends to a slappy speedster at the plate, is worthy of kicking your feet up.

It’s certainly feasible that Ellsbury, should he remain healthy, could reproduce the fantastic run that Grady Sizemore went on for the Indians from 2006-2008, racking up a cumulative 21.6 WAR. That’s a rarity at that position, and something that would give a significant position-relative advantage to the Sox over the competition.

RF: Okay, you got me. I literally have nothing for you here. But then again, neither do you! Perhaps you can take solace in the fact that, surprisingly, most of the AL East RF were generally ineffective once you look past Joey Bats.

DH: Huzzah, the return of Ortiz! That is a good thing, right? Well, ZiPS sure seems to think so, and I don’t see any reason to believe that Ortiz will taper too terribly much off of his 2011 stats, which I’ll once again lay out compared to qualified DH across the AL:

29 HR (T-2nd), 1 SB (Sorry), .246 ISO (1st), .309(3rd)/.398(1st)/.554(1st) slash line, .405 wOBA (1st), 153 wRC+ (1st), and 4.2 WAR (1st)

ZiPS projects Ortiz to decline ever so slightly, but that’s debatable considering his presence in the lineup and the tangential effect he has in crucial game situations. I’m going to play the “watch the game, nerds” now after rattling off stats on stats on stats, yes I am.

But wait, you forgot the pitching!

Yes and no. Here’s where I might lose some of you. If it wasn’t readily apparent by now, I think pretty highly of your offense, Red Sox Nation – to the point that I didn’t even bother to analyze your defensive projections for 2012.

Similarly, I believe the front-end of your rotation is so strong that even if Lester, Buchholz, and Beckett independently slump for 3-6 starts at a time there is a legitimate chance for your team to still win those ballgames.

In case you forgot, your 5.40 runs scored per game was the best in baseball. Sure, your 4.55 runs against per game was pretty crappo, but it was 4.12 runs against before the All Star Break when you were scoring 5.36 runs per game.

On a high level, my point is that your offense is far better than league average, so if your pitching can remain but league average over the course of the entire season, things ought to work in your favor. Well, guess what. My lean on 2012 is about 80% ZiPS projections, and those are very favorable to your front-end. First allow me to show you what Dan Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V (as my pal Otis Anderson from Bay City Ball likes to call him) cooked up for your starters in 2012:

Jon Lester:

187.3 IP, 8.94 K/9, 3.56 BB/9, 0.865 HR/9, 127 ERA+

48% chance ERA+ >130, 92% chance ERA+ >100, 81% chance K/9 >8, 78% chance HR/9 <1

This is a good thing.

Clay Buchholz:

116.7 IP, 6.40 K/9, 3.47 BB/9, 0.848 HR/9, 122 ERA+

38% chance ERA+ >130, 88% chance ERA+ >100, 79% chance HR/9 <1

This is an equally good thing. ZiPS predicts 20 GS and about 6 IP/GS on average.

Josh Beckett:

154.0 IP, 7.77 K/9, 2.62 BB/9, 1.11 HR/9, 116 ERA+

22% chance ERA+ >130, 82% chance ERA+ >100, 35% chance K/9 >8, 41% chance HR/9 <1

Can you guess the trend yet? This is a good thing.

Now, take a deep breath. A real deep one.

Daisuke Matsuzaka:

80.3 IP, 7.39 K/9, 4.43 BB/9, 0.90 HR/9, 101 ERA+

56% chance ERA+ >100, 28% chance K/9 >8, 70% chance HR/9 <1

I understand that many of you will not want to give this a second of your time, but this is also a good thing. Granted, ZiPS doesn’t see Dice-K starting more than 15 games, but here is what’s most important. The algorithm sees a greater than 50% chance that his ERA+ is 100 or more, and league average sits at 96.

I am steadfast in my belief that your fourth and fifth starters need only be league average for the entirety of your rotation to be a success on aggregate. To reiterate my earlier point, I assume that at this stage you agree with me that your offense is far better than average as well as league average. A floundering Carl Crawford could not keep the Red Sox from being the most productive offense in the most elementary form of comparison, runs scored. Marco Scutaro and the worst Youk you have ever seen could not keep the Red Sox from being the most productive offense in baseball.

I realize the easy thing to look at and blame, 2011 being what it was and September even more so, is the pitching. I really do. I have my own issues with the total lack of offense being the downfall of the Giants that prevented them from making any sort of run for the division title last year.

At the time that I have submitted this post for review, the vast majority of readers on this blog support the notion that Bard, Aceves, or both have a legitimate chance to be rotation guys. I have no stake here, but I think both guys should at least be afforded the chance to make a difference for your team in the back-end of the rotation. Before throwing caution to the wind, though, there are a few things I think would be prudent to consider.

First, switching the role a pitcher has repeatedly has shown to be at great detriment to their acute physical and metal skills as well as their durability. If you are going to put either guy into the rotation, you have to be willing to commit to that change on a permanent basis. If it doesn’t pan out the way the team wants it to, so be it, but that change back to the pen ought to be the last the player sees if you want them to pitch with the greatest efficiency they are capable of.

Second, you need to temper your expectations. There will be changes in the efficacy of their pitches, in that you will see marked drops in velocity, vertical and horizontal movement, and the obvious fact that as the game progresses they will have reduced effectiveness – in fact, not only within the game but the season. Not only should their innings be monitored carefully, but also spot starters such as Dice-K ought to be considered in order to pace the wear and tear a full season has on a starter.

Lastly, and I do believe this is paramount to both what I’ve been getting at this entire article as well as Boston’s overall chances for success in 2012 and the years to come, the goal is to have league average pitchers for your back-end. End of story. You can choose to accept what I suggested about the front three only needing to be league average at minimum given the level your offense produces at, or not, but the back-end doesn’t have to be anything spectacular. I realize the lament of the big dog is to be human, to be searching for any form of perfection you can take, and I admire that in all of us. But sometimes, average is enough.

If you don’t find this post terribly offensive, I’d love to come back and tell you all about how I think the comprehensive effect of everything I’ve written about so far, in combination with the second wildcard, makes for a very conducive playground in which Toronto and Boston have the best shots at playoff runs for the next five years. But that’s probably pushing it, and I fear I’ve overstayed my welcome by about 3,000 words.

This article was written by David Schubert of the fantastic San Francisco Giants blogs, Sabeanmetrics and Curse of Benitez.  You can follow him on Twitter @CurseofBenitez. I highly recommend it.