It’s easy to look at the Red Sox’s 2015 season (and 2014 season … and 2012 season) and give the question of “what went wrong” a broad, team-spanning answer.
“What went wrong? Well, Pablo Sandoval sucked and Hanley Ramirez sucked and Rick Porcello sucked (for a while) and Allen Craig sucks now. Also, the bullpen sucks, the team needs three more starting pitchers, the outfield is composed of question marks, and the team’s depth is limited and sucks.”
Hyperbole aside, we have the power to quantify which parts of the roster truly suck, and which are just disappointing based on expectations. Instead of pointing to all the problems that we think exist, perhaps it’s best to lay out a few numbers, and see if we can identify more specific issues that speak to the composition of the team. Maybe this way we can find something that Dombrowski and Hazen can do to alleviate the pain the team caused us in 2015.
To do that, let’s hit some leaderboards, and compare the state of this team to the others in the league. Today we’ll cover the position players, and next week, we’ll look at the arms.
Up until Monday morning, the Red Sox ranked 19th in baseball in True Average (TAv) … BP’s holistic hitting metric. This is not great, particularly when you keep in mind that National League teams — teams that force their pitchers to hit in many games — outhit the Red Sox in many cases. Boston’s team TAv was .259, which was a far cry from Toronto’s massive .280, but also better than the contending teams in Anaheim (.256) and Minnesota (.248).
Normally, a pretty-much-average team offense isn’t a huge problem. Of course, it’s not what you want to see from a team expected to compete for a title, and it’s certainly not what you want to see from a team projected to be an offensive juggernaut. Unfortunately, there is one major reason why the offense really was a problem, despite coming in closer to league-average.
Coming into 2015, hitting was supposed to be a strength of this team. And not just a plus, but a true, paradigm-changing strength. Do you remember how, when the season started, the word on the street was that the additions of Ramirez and Sandoval were supposed to create a top-five-in-baseball offense? Pundits thought that all the Sox rotation had to do was survive, and this offensive titan would carry the day.
That was a long time ago, and since then, we found out Mike Napoli can’t hit much anymore, and that the Panda thought that since it was an odd-numbered season he should just go all Giants on the team. Instead of being a great-hitting team, the Red Sox were an average-hitting team. And that really hurts when the pitching is bad, as you now know.
The new question is this: as composed, do you expect the Red Sox to be a great-hitting team in 2016? The cruel answer is that no, we probably shouldn’t at this stage. This is a team that’s stacked with well-rounded players … ones expected to contribute both offensively and defensively (save Papi). The “problem” with that strategy is that the team doesn’t have a surplus of major offensive threats, even if you squint and platoon.
The tandem of Bogaerts and Betts is awfully good, but one of the reasons that it’s awfully good is because of their defense. Their offense is still a work in progress, and it’s great for people who play important defensive positions, but it’s not objectively great. There’s no .300 True Average on the horizon, likely. The team needs a couple of guys who are way above-average hitters to have an objectively great offense … and this season those guys have been — at best — Travis Shaw and Jackie Bradley. I don’t think anyone expects that to carry into next year.
If Dustin Pedroia is healthy in 2016, he may still be an impact bat … but if Dustin Pedroia is healthy in 2016, I may have to eat a stapler. But we’ll get to that later.
No, for the Red Sox to upgrade the offense significantly with the personnel already in place, multiple things need to happen. Ortiz needs to stay awesome. Betts and/or Bogaerts needs to improve a little. Sandoval and/or Ramirez need to hop in the 2014 time machine. Or guys like Bradley, Shaw, or Rusney Castillo need to take a quantum leap forward.
… or they could go get impact talent. And that’s much easier said than done.
By the way, did you know that the Sox were actually a pretty savvy on-base team this year? Here’s an infographic.
This shows that the Sox were actually the fifth-best OBP team in baseball. Reaching base was not the problem — at least not in a vacuum. The problem is that the Sox get a bit of an offensive advantage playing in Boston, so being merely good doesn’t really mean all that much. See that “BPF” item on the right? That’s Fenway’s park factor. Everyone hits well at Fenway … especially since the Sox’s pitching sucks.
But even still, while improving the offense would be nice, you can almost live with average. Average is okay, if everything else isn’t so average.
Though baserunning doesn’t add a lot to the overall team performance package, it matters. According to Mitchel Lichtman’s UBR statistic, the Sox have teamed up for about 3.5 runs in the black on the basepaths, good for about 12th in baseball. Teams like the Rangers, Reds, and Diamondbacks were worth more than a win, and teams like the Mariners and Tigers cost their teams more than two wins.
Baserunning ability is good for a few things: I personally believe (without that much data) that it helps a team in late and close situations, it provides a small advantage on the team level, and it’s a good way to decide between the contributions of particular players. From a team perspective, the Sox don’t need to do much here — the state of the team baserunning looks strong, and guys like Bogaerts and Betts offset guys like Ortiz and Rusney Castillo.
The only thing perhaps worth considering is Castillo’s rough run of things. He may have cost the team about 2.5 runs on the basepaths, and when combined with his hitting, his overall performance doesn’t look so hot this year. While I don’t advocate cutting bait on Rusney yet, right field may be a place where the team can significantly upgrade in the offseason, by acquiring an impact talent to replace Rusney.
Depending on your metric of choice, the Sox were either a pretty average defensive team this year, or a tire fire. BP’s Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency tells us that the Sox did a terrible job turning batted balls into outs, and that an average team would have turned 2.5% more hits into outs. They ranked 29th in the majors. Boo. Hiss.
However, stats like UZR and DRS — which are pretty decent as well — give a different picture. These stats aggregate individual performance instead of at the team level, and while they’re volatile, they paint the picture of an average or slightly above-average team. In fact, they paint a picture of a very good team, above-average or average defenders across the board, aside from two very, very bad regulars. And I bet you can guess who they are.
Hanley was a complete disaster in left field, and Sandoval actually wasn’t much better at third. These two players, whom everyone expects to return in 2016, actually cost the team between three and four wins on defense alone, over the course of 2016.
If the Sox could improve in these two places, then the team would drastically improve their overall defense, one would imagine. While there’s no accounting here for performance dropoffs, most of the team is young and likely to improve or stay the same defensively … with perhaps the exception of Pedroia up the middle. But Pedey is great, so we won’t touch anything here.
This is kind of important. Arguably, this team centers on four primary performers on the positional side: Betts, Bogaerts, Ortiz, and Pedroia. This is the team’s core, and probably their four best players. Unfortunately, Ortiz is old, and Pedroia is injury-prone. As such, depth is important to this team, to be sure.
Brock Holt is an almost-perfect depth piece, as he is best suited as a backup to Pedroia when Dustin’s injured, and a super-sub everywhere else when he’s not. But his early All-Star run notwithstanding, Holt looks a little overmatched when put in a full-time role. In addition, the Red Sox now look to be a little shaky in terms of depth throughout the roster. Catcher is probably fine in 2016, as Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan make for very solid depth, but in most other areas, the team lacks impact talent. And, unfortunately, as deep as the Sox’s farm system is, I’m not certain anyone other than Manny Margot could really help the team in 2016 on offense (or rather, defense).
This is actually a team that needs to add quality depth — the types of players who can mitigate the drop-off when someone needs a day off or an injury hits. Right now, the team looks especially weak at the infield corners, and maybe in the outfield. While the team is stacked with center fielders, having a guy who can, y’know, hit might help too.
So after looking at the data — what should the team do? Well, on a broad level, I’d lay out a few items:
- Add an impact offensive talent somewhere.
- Shore up defense at third base and left field.
- Add one or two competent bench pieces for depth.
I think there’s a couple of relatively “easy” ways to do this. And one of them is already in progress.
While I know Hanley Ramirez really blew it in the outfield this year, I’m fond of the idea of moving him to first base. Yes, I know Travis Shaw’s been pretty good in limited action there, but Hanley is still a very good hitter when healthy. I’m not confident he’ll be a great defensive first baseman in 2016, but I’d bet he could be average. With Shaw moving to a reserve role, he’ll be able to support both Ramirez and Ortiz with the occasional day off, and be a legitimate bat off the bench. Two birds, one stone. This could save the team a couple of wins, even if Hanley hits like he did in ‘15.
The Sandoval problem is a little tougher, and I’m not sure there’s an easy fix. Perhaps the best bet is the rumored Panda-for-Shields trade that’s been buzzing around, but unless the Sox think that they can make a third baseman appear out of thin air, I’m not sure there’s another great fit here. What I would do, however, is add another body to back Sandoval up and help the team out defensively, if needed. It would be ideal if they could hit a little too. My best idea is an upcoming free agent: Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets. Murphy isn’t the best player in the world, but he’s a little versatile, and he’s an above-average hitter whose best position is third base.
Murphy could be a nice catch-all backup for Sandoval and Pedroia, and add another quality left-handed bat off the bench at a reasonable cost. He’d also be a useful regular option at third were the Sox able to slough off Panda’s contract.
The last thing is to consider the place where the team may be able to upgrade most dramatically: the outfield. While the BBC outfield of Betts, Bradley, and Castillo may look pretty enticing at times, a corner outfield spot may be the best chance this team has to add impact offense in a hurry. There are some legit corner outfielders available in free agency: and Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and old friend Yoenis Cespedes could fit in very nicely as established hitters. Then again, the team may be reticent to throw more money after bad, given the free agent fiasco post-2014.
Given the fact that Dombrowski is the new sheriff in town, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Sox took to the trade market to add an outfielder as they wait for Andrew Bentiendi time. Unfortunately, many of the trade market corner outfield bats are expensive themselves, with guys like Carlos Gonzalez and Jay Bruce due substantial sums. Honestly? I’d like to see the team push hard for Upton, believe it or not, and use the trade chips in hand to go after pitching. Upton has a track record of consistency, and though he’s no stellar defender, this is a team that can live with that, especially if they put a smart, hard-working talent like Bradley in right and leave Upton to left.
No matter what, the Sox have to fill the holes they have, and the team’s position players have to shoulder more than half the team’s load. (Don’t believe it when they say pitching is half the game, it’s not.) But their team requires tweaks, not a wholesale redesign to get things back on track. One big move, perhaps, and a couple of smaller ones, and the holes could be patched and a leaky boat set aright.
Photo by Danny Medley/USA Today Sports Images