Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Path to The Playoffs

*Warning: This post is completely based on Wins Above Replacement. If you hate this or don't understand the concept then I understand if you want to skip this one, but I plan to keep this at the most basic levels of the concept.

The Boston Red Sox were a long way away from a playoff spot last year. In fact, they finished closer to the worst record in the league (the 55-107 Houston Astros) than they did to a playoff spot. At 69 wins, the Sox would have to realistically add about 21 wins to their roster to get back to the playoffs. Though Baltimore and Texas tied at 93 wins apiece last year for the two Wild Card slots, I would guess that most years, 90 wins would be enough to claim the final Wild Card spot. So how do the Sox get those 21 wins and head back to the promise land? It’s all about being average and avoiding terribleness.

Before we get into how the team will get there, let’s talk a little bit about Wins Above Replacement (WAR), specifically the concept of a replacement player. The replacement player is not tangible. According to Baseball Prospectus (one of the earliest proponents and creators of the concept), “replacement-level players are of a caliber so low that they are always available in the minor leagues because the players are well below major-league average.” Sources differ on this, but most say that a team full of replacement players would win about 50 games in the Major Leagues (only slightly worse than the Astros last year and actually better than the Detroit Tigers in 2003). So when a player has a WAR above 0 they are incrementally improving that hypothetical replacement team by that many wins. 

A great illustrator of this concept is last year’s Red Sox. Using Baseball-Reference (this site and are the two main sources of WAR, but they differ because each uses different defensive stats for the final tally. WAR is far from perfect, but it gives a good data  point and it is a good tool to use in discussions like this) we see that the Red Sox got 18.9 WAR out of their roster last year (17.7 from the offense and a putrid 1.2 from the entire pitching staff. Yikes). If you round that up to 19 WAR and add that to the 50 win baseline you get 69 wins, or exactly as many as the team won last year*.
*Please note that this does not always work out so nice and tidy. WAR is a number assigned to an individual performance, not divided up by how many wins a team has at the end of the year. A lot of factors go into a team's wins and losses that are beyond an individual's control, so most of the time team WAR+50 does not equal the actual win total.

There are a lot of ways to go from 69 wins to 90 wins. One is to add significant top line talent like the Blue Jays have this year. The Jays one just 73 games last year, but when they looked at the rest of the AL East and AL in general, decided that there was a path to winning enough games to make the playoffs if they could add top line talent. They imported Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera and R.A. Dickey and now Vegas is listing them as the World Series favorite.

Another way is to replace terrible with average, and that is just what Boston is doing. Let’s start with removing terrible. In 2012, the Red Sox employed 12 pitchers who combine to provide negative 7 wins to the team (Beckett, Padilla, Thomas, Carpenter, McDonald, Bailey, Melancon, Bard, Stewart, Aceves, Cook, Matsuzaka). This means that these guys performed worse than an average minor leaguer would have. In 2011, it was even worse as the pitching staff had 12 guys combine to post negative 11 wins, thanks mostly to Lackey and Tim Wakefield.

Having terrible on the team is unavoidable, especially on the pitching staff. Every year a team is going to suffer injuries or ineffectiveness, but the key is minimalizing it. In the years the team was successful they were able to limit their negative wins on the pitching staff to around 3. With the team getting rid of 9 of the 12 players on that list (and potentially 11 if Bard and Aceves fail to make the roster) the team is off to a good start.

The next step the team is taking is adding a lot of average players. Assuming Mike Napoli signs, the team has added 8 players this off season, none of whom would be considered a super star (though about half have had super star seasons in the last three years). It is reasonable to expect that they will all be average this season given their recent performances and age.

Last year I wrote a post talking about league average hitters. I argued that being an average player is not a bad thing at all and that the word “average” carries a negative connotation. I wrote that “a hypothetical team with perfectly average hitters and pitchers would be in playoff contention every year.” In 2013, it seems like the Red Sox are putting that theory to the test.

Boston has a very few players on their roster that could post a true super star season. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Lester are the most likely and you could envision a scenario where Middlebrooks, Victorino, Napoli or Buchholz do the same. A super star season usually means about 5 WAR. All of these guys, though, are more likely to post average seasons, or about 2.5 WAR. But if all of these guys do just that, the Sox will be in great shape in 2013.

Ok, time for a quick back of the napkin math section. If you have stuck with me this long then hopefully you won’t mind this too much. Let’s start with the starting the lineup as it is likely to look right now. I am going to assume that just about every regular player in the lineup will post an average season, and that any platoon spots (LF and C) will combine to produce an average season. Based on recent track record, the major stretches here are that Stephen Drew will be average and that Pedroia won’t be well above average.

Ellsbury – 2.5 wins
Victorino – 2.5 wins
Pedroia – 2.5 wins
Ortiz – 2.5 wins
Napoli – 2.5 wins
Middlebrooks – 2.5 wins
Gomes/Nava – 2.5 wins
Drew – 2.5 wins
Salty/Ross – 2.5 wins
TOTAL - 22.5 wins

Now we get to the rotation, where we have to do a little bit of wishful thinking, though not a lot. I will assume that the top 3 (Lester, Buch, Dempster) will be average this year, though I do think Lester and Dempster will be better than that and Buch a bit worse. Lackey and Doubront are the tricky cases where we have to dream a bit. Before Lackey’s miserable 2011, he posted consecutive seasons of about 1.5 wins. I am hoping that 2011 was so terrible because of the arm problems he spent 2012 recovering from and that he can return to the pitcher he was in ’09-’10. Doubront was exactly replacement level last year (0 WAR), but he was just 24 in his first time as a rotation pitcher and showed good skills so I am going to assume he can improve some this year with the experience under his belt.

Lester – 2.5 wins
Buchholz – 2.5 wins
Dempster – 2.5 wins
Lackey – 1.5 wins
Doubront – 1 win
TOTAL – 10 wins

This leaves us with 82.5 wins (50 for the baseline, 22.5 for the starting offense, 10 for the rotation) before we consider the bench and rotation. Since I have already included 2 key bench players in the projections (Nava and Ross) for the starting offense, I will only add 1 more win for whoever makes up the rest of the bench. If Ferrell can manage left/right matchups and defensive replacements properly then this should be easy to achieve. For the bullpen, I expect it to be above average, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s consider it to be average. If we speculate that the rotation will average 6 innings per start (probably a stretch, but we will use it as a round number) that leaves about 500 innings for the bullpen to handle. A starting pitcher is expected to throw about 200 innings per season, so for 500 bullpen innings we can consider that 2 and a half starters. If we multiply 2.5 starters by 2.5 wins, we get just over 6 wins.

Bench - 1 win
Bullpen - 6 wins
TOTAL - 7 wins

That covers just about all of it. There are other factors like the manager, mid-season trades and prospect call-ups that can affect the final tally, but to keep it simple we end up with 39.5 wins above replacement, or 89.5 total wins. I set out looking for the team to get to 90 wins and it looks like they are reasonably set up to get there. For a team of average or worse players, it is easy to see how they can make the playoffs. In a division that looks to be more vulnerable than at any point in the last 10 years, the Sox have as good a shot as any besides maybe the Blue Jays to contend for the playoffs. When you hear people lament the fact that the team added a lot of average and mediocre players, be content in knowing that this has a strong chance to be a winning plan.

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