If you’ve watched the Boston Red Sox recently, you might understand the feeling of frustration that has permeated the fan base. It seems the team is perpetually working at cross purposes with themselves. One night they put seven runs on the board while giving up nine, and the next night they hold the opponent to just two but only manage one of their own. It’s strange and, while that’s only a feeling, the idea that this team is somehow worse than the sum of their parts isn’t, I don’t think, far-fetched or unsupported by data.
For example, just look at the team’s record. The Red Sox stand, after their win in Seattle last night, at 59-48, two games back of both Baltimore and Toronto in the AL East. Looking slightly deeper than just wins and losses, you can see that both Toronto (+86) and Boston (+83) score more runs than they allow by a good margin, while Baltimore (+30) doesn’t belong in that group.
Looking even deeper, we publish something called Third Order Winning Percentage here at BP. It’s available under the Standings header, just click on Adjusted Standings. Doing that will show you the Red Sox have the best third order winning percentage in the American League. They’re not way ahead of Toronto’s .599, but they are ahead. I should note that, as I write, these stats haven’t been updated to reflect Thursday’s games.
Recall the Red Sox have the fifth best record in the American League and it seems something isn’t quite adding up. This team should be better than they are. That feeling we fans have felt over the last month isn’t just that the team has been losing, though they have, but it’s how they’ve been losing.
When the Red Sox win, they win by almost four runs on average. When they lose, the same thing happens, only in reverse.
I looked at the last month plus of the season from July 1 onward to see how the Red Sox have been playing relative to their competition. I found that when the Red Sox win, they win by almost four runs on average (3.7 to be exact). When they lose, the same thing happens, only in reverse. When they lose it’s by a lot, 3.3 runs. Part of this is just the way numbers work. Every game is won by at least one run so that’s the starting point. Boston then is out-scoring their opponents by almost three runs more than necessary when they win and losing by almost two and a half runs when they lose.
But all that does two things. It reinforces the idea that the team is good (when they win it’s by a lot) and when they lose, it makes us feel that the team is falling apart or some other cliche.
So maybe that’s why it feels like the team is perpetually under-performing, or is not as good as they could be. On some nights the Red Sox bludgeon their opponents, but only on some nights (“Why not all nights??”). On other nights the pitching comes apart or the offense never gets going and Boston loses by a good bit. The truth though isn’t really that way, even if it feels like it. The Red Sox aren’t a bad team. They are out-scoring their opponents significantly so we know they’re not a bad team. They’re not a great team either though, or at least they sure haven’t performed like it.
Part of that is in the sequencing of events. The Red Sox as a team are hitting .285/.351/.469 this season. That means the average Red Sox player in any situation has had that batting line, which is pretty outstanding. But the Red Sox haven’t been able to put that line up in every situation. For example, when the game is late and close (Baseball Reference’s definition), the team’s slash line drops to .256/.316/.393. That’s a significant drop. Like replacing Jackie Bradley with Bryce Brentz. Similarly the Red Sox have been terrible with the bases loaded. No great reason for it, that’s just how it’s worked out this year. They’ve hit a Vazquez-ian .239/.280/.391 with the sacks full and that, as anyone who watched the Red Sox leave a billionty-seven men on base last night, means a lot of squandered opportunities to score, opportunities which would normally net them a few runs are netting them nothing. No nets, nothing at all.
There’s nothing intrinsic to the construction of this roster that has made the team lousy in important situations. In fact, they aren’t uniformly bad in important situations. With men in scoring position, the team is hitting .284/.368/.481 which is a slight step up from the team average. They’re even a few points of OPS better with men on base. There have just been a few crucial situations where the team has rolled snake eyes a few more times than you’d think they would’ve given their team.
I think there’s one other component at work here and that is star power. The Red Sox have two things in that vein, big names and a big offense. With David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia having great seasons and the emergence of the young stars like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Bradley, the Red Sox have been putting a lot of runs on the board (most nights). But with star power comes expectations and in baseball there’s more to winning than three or four great hitters. The Red Sox also have David Price and Craig Kimbrel, but Price’s results have been lousy this year and Kimbrel, as a reliever, just isn’t important enough to have a massive overall impact on the team’s record.
Ultimately this isn’t a terrible place to be, despite the drowsy and depressing play over the last month. The Red Sox are close to the division lead, have the smallest of leads for the second Wild Card, and they’re due for things to start going their way a bit more. I don’t mean to chalk a bad month up to luck, variance, or the baseball gods. That’s part of it of course, but the Red Sox own their record. They’ve played a lot of bad baseball since July 1. But the good news is they’ve got a team that can rebound. There’s nothing to say they can’t improve with the bases loaded. There’s nothing to say they can’t come through a few more times late and close. here’s nothing to say David Price and Drew Pomeranz can’t pitch more like the pitchers they were expected to be and less like the ones they’ve been recently. Indeed, the chances of those things happening are, individually at least, pretty good. The trick will be doing them all while nothing else goes horribly wrong.
The fact that the Red Sox can beat their opponents by so much reflects positively on their offense. The fact that they’ve had the same though slightly lesser thing happen to them in their losses is less promising. For that we need to look at the scouting. Pomeranz is new. Price should be better. Porcello has been quite good. This team can win more. They have the talent. We’ve seen it.
It’s been a bad month. Nobody on the Red Sox or who watched the Red Sox would deny that. While there are reasons to worry, the Red Sox are better than they’ve played. BP’s Third Order standings think so. The team thinks so. I think so. Now they just have to prove it on the field.
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