*

*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 Fangraphs.com 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.