Mar
28

2012 Season Preview: The Boston Red Sox

By

More of this, please. (photo by Chris McGrath/Getty)

Much has been made of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry over the years, although for my money the so-called “rivalry” didn’t really earn its name until the 2003 season, as the teams locked horns in the first of consecutive classic seven-game American League Championship Series. For a rivalry to exist, one presumes that both sides are relatively evenly matched, and prior to the 2000s this generally wasn’t the case for a good majority of Yankee-Red Sox teams.

In addition to the Red Sox of the aughts finally fielding a team as-good-as if not outright-better-than the Yankees, also helping dramatically ramp up the intensity between the two franchises was MLB’s implementation of the unbalanced schedule at the outset of the 2001 season. This of course expanded the number of times the Sox and Yanks faced off from 12-13 games a year to 18-19.

To illustrate just how closely matched the Yankees and Red Sox have become, the following two graphs depict the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ offense and pitching staffs since 1995, which seemed like a notable cutoff as it marks the advent of LDS play. There’s too much information presented to include labels, so if you’re interested in the raw data behind the creation of the graphs, please feel free to click here.

The two teams have been in a near-dead heat offensively since 1995, with the Yankees leading all of baseball with a .351 wOBA during that time frame (112 wRC+) and the Sox boasting the second-most-potent offensive attack at .349 and 107 wRC+. While the Sox have generally out-slugged the Yankees, the Bombers have typically been a tad more adept at getting on base. Additionally, given the favorable offensive environment that comes with playing 81 home games at Fenway Park, the Yankees have led the Red Sox in adjusted offense (wRC+) in 12 of these 17 seasons despite only bettering the Sox in wOBA in nine of them. Perhaps even more impressive regarding the Yankee offensive attack is that it’s been above average (100 wRC+) in each and every season depicted here, while the Sox actually posted below-league-average offensive attacks in 2000, 2001 and 2006.

On the flip side, the rich offensive environment at Fenway makes pitching in Boston a tougher-than-normal task — that difficulty level has helped propel the Red Sox to tie or better the Yankees in adjusted ERA (ERA-) in 10 of these 17 seasons, and even more impressively, tie or better the Bombers in adjusted FIP (FIP-) in 13 of the last 17 seasons. However, one thing I was not expecting to find was that the Yankees actually lead the AL in both ERA and FIP since 1995, with 4.25 and 4.17 marks, respectively. The Sox are fourth in ERA, at 4.32, and second in FIP (4.19).

Even though the rivalry didn’t really heat up until the early aughts, if you go back to 1995 the two teams really have been quite even head-to-head over the last 17 seasons. Since 1995, the Yankees are 145-134 against Boston, with a 75-64 record at home and 70-70 mark at Fenway Park. However, if you change the cutoff to 2003, the Yankees have actually been slightly outplayed by the Red Sox, with an 82-84 record (42-41 at home and 40-43 at Fenway). Additionally, since 2003, the two teams each feature identical MLB-leading .352 wOBAs (though the Yankees get the slight edge after park adjusting, with a 114 wRC+ to Boston’s 111).

After years of essentially playing each other at a .500 clip, things spiraled comically out of control last season, as the Yankees started the year out losing eight of their first nine against Boston (a showing of ineptitude eerily reminiscent of the 2009 team’s 0-8 start against the Sox), due in part to an obscenely prolific Boston offense that was treating seemingly every member of the Yankee pitching staff as if they were Jose Cano in the 2011 Home Run Derby. However, instead of rallying to tie the season series like they did two years prior, the Bombers ultimately finished 2011 with a 6-12 record against the Sox — the Yankees’ worst winning percentage against Boston in a season since going 4-8 in 1999.

Despite dropping 12 of 18 contests against a heated division rival, the Yankees still managed to not only win the 2011 AL East, but also finished the season with the best record in the league, while the Fenway faithful had to endure perhaps the most historic (and horrific) late-season collapse in baseball history. Of course, even though the Red Sox have now missed the playoffs two years running — while boasting the top offense in baseball this past season (116 wRC+) and the second-best in 2010 (109 wRC+) — and haven’t won a postseason game since 2008, they remain one of the top teams in the American League and will undoubtedly give the Yankees fits again in 2012.

Starting Pitching

For one, if Josh Beckett can come close to approximating his 2011 against the Yankees — a season in which the Bombers acted as if they’d somehow never before seen Beckett, whose 1.85 ERA vs. New York in 34 innings was bettered only by Brandon Morrow’s 1.74 among pitchers who threw 20 or more innings against the Bombers — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable righty in probably five to six of the 18 games the two teams will play.

For another, if Jon Lester returns to his pre-2011 form, which saw him toss to a 1.19 ERA against the Yankees in 2008, a 4.43 ERA  in 2009 (if you take out the aberrant 2.1-inning, five-run outing on September 25 of that year, the ERA drops to 2.70) and a 2.13 ERA in 2010 — including carrying no-hitters into the sixth inning in both his August and September starts — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable lefty to take up another five to six of the remaining games, which means Boston will likely have a big-time pitcher on the mound in more than half their contests against the Yankees. Throw in Clay Buchholz, who has historically tended to struggle against the Yanks but appeared as though he’d finally figured something out in limiting the Bombers to two runs over seven innings in his last start against them on May 13, and Boston looks to have as formidable a top three in its rotation as any team out there.

With punching bag John Lackey out for the year and Daisuke Matsuzaka not expected back until late May, question marks abound surrounding the fourth and fifth slots in the Boston rotation — can Daniel Bard successfully make the transition from top-flight fireballing set-up man to successful starting pitcher? Will southpaw Felix Doubront or old friend Alfredo Aceves grab hold of one of the available holes in the rotation? And can the Red Sox’s starting pitching situation possibly be as bad again as it was in September of 2011, when they were forced to give nine of 27 starts to the troika of Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland and Tim Wakefield while watching their stalwarts turn in enough ineffective performances to let the Rays come all the way back and sneak past them on the very last day of the season? Fortunately for Boston — whose pitching staff turned in a 5.84 ERA in the month of September — the answer to the latter question is almost certainly no, although whether any of the in-house candidates can step up and solidify the team’s biggest area of need will likely determine if the Sox make it back to the playoffs or get relegated to their couches for a third straight October.

The Bullpen

Though they lost elite closer Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies during the offseason, new Boston GM Ben Cherington rebuilt his bullpen on the fly with a series of interesting moves, acquiring former Athletics closer Andrew Bailey for outfielder (and designated-player-who-gets-a-hit-every-time-up-against-the-Yankees-even-though-he-sucks-against-everyone-else) Josh Reddick, and replacing Bard with former Yankee wunderkind Mark Melancon, acquired for Jed Lowrie (see Reddick’s description). Given the fungibility of relief pitching performances, I wouldn’t expect the Red Sox ‘pen — which actually finished the year with the fourth-best ERA and top FIP in the AL despite a wretched April — to miss a beat. Expect Aceves to log his share of relief innings, while Michael Bowden, lefty Franklin Morales, Matt Albers and Andrew Miller appear to be on their way to at least starting the year in the Boston bullpen.

Offense

As for the 2012 Red Sox offense, while I’m certainly pleased as punch that flies-in-the-ointment Lowrie (.330/.423/.534 career against the Yankees) and Reddick (annoying walk-off hit) are gone, Boston’s offensive attack remains relatively unchanged from the relentless machine that pounded out an MLB-high .347 wOBA last season. Jacoby Ellsbury will look to prove the doubters that the adjustments he made are here to stay, while Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis (if he can finally stay healthy) and Adrian Gonzalez make for one of the most potent hearts of any order in all of baseball. Add in another presumed solid season from David Ortiz (who is apparently immune to the dead cat bounce) and a year that has no choice but to be better from Carl Crawford (whenever he returns from the DL), and the Sox have no holes from 1-6 in their lineup.

Additionally, as if they weren’t already potent enough as it is, this is a crew of hitters that seems to save its best work for when they play the Yankees — Pedroia hit .406/.463/.565 (!) across 81 PAs against the Bombers last year, and has a career .392 OBP (again, !) against the Yanks; Youk has a career .313/.442(!)/.498 line against the Yanks; Ellsbury tagged the Yanks for a ridiculous .375/.439/.708 line last year to bolster his .291/.356/.443 career line; and of course, there’s Big Papi, who hit .282/.378/.577 with five bombs against the Yanks in 2011 and has utterly annihilated the Bombers throughout his career to the tune of a .303/.391/.559 line across 741 PAs, including 800,000 (fine, 36) career home runs. Given these numbers, it feels like nothing less than a minor miracle any time a Yankee pitcher can actually retire one of these batters.

However, some cracks in the armor start to appear in the lineup’s lower-third, where new manager Bobby Valentine will generally be starting some combination of Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.319 wOBA in 2011), Cody Ross (.321), Ryan Sweeney (.306), Mike Aviles (.307 wOBA, though .338 as a Red Sock) and Nick Punto (a completely out-of-character .350 wOBA in 2011; .296 for his career). While Saltalamacchia looked like he was finally coming into his own last season none of these players seem overly threatening, although then again I’m sure I would’ve said the same thing about Mark Bellhorn had I been blogging during the 2003-2004 offseason, who rebounded from a .296 wOBA in 2003 to post a .360 mark in 2004 after he joined the Red Sox. For whatever reason, donning a Boston uniform seems to turn even the scrubbiest of players into superstars from time to time, so I’m prepared to eat my words when Boston’s bottom third starts tearing the cover off the ball.

Conclusion

CAIRO has the Red Sox at 92-70, tied with the Rays for second place in the AL East; PECOTA pegs them at 90-72, also in second place in the ALE; and Oliver has them at 92-70 and second-best record in the AL. All three of these scenarios would entail the Sox securing one of the two AL Wild Card berths and playing the one-game playoff to advance to the LDS round, and so barring another disaster, Boston is most likely playoff-bound in 2012.

The Yankees’ first set of the season against Boston is at Fenway Park from April 20-22, and as ridiculous as I find conspiracy theories, at this point I almost can’t help but wonder whether the schedule-makers have it in for the Yanks by once again scheduling an April series at Fenway. Since the advent of the unbalanced schedule in 2001, the Yankees are — believe it or not — a ridiculously bad 8-22 at Fenway Park in April, and have only won their annual April set at Fenway against the Red Sox once (back in April 2010)  in that 11-year span. Not only that, but prior to their April 2010 series win, the last time the Yankees had won an April set against Boston at Fenway was in 1975. So yeah, needless to say I’m really excited to be playing the Red Sox in April at Fenway again, you guys.

Categories : Other Teams
  • Chris in Maine

    Great piece, although I really, significantly, disagree with the idea that there was no rivalry until recently. I’m sure Munson, Nettles, Pinella would all agree with me.

    • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

      Exactly. Larry = young.

  • Chris in Maine

    I think that while the piece is certainly informative, the assertion that the rivalry did not “really start until 2003″ is just wrong. Ask Sweet Lou, Munson, Nettles etc, if there was a rivalry between these two teams. Boston Massacre? Bucky Dent homer? These are part of Baseball Lore, not something so be poo poo’ed.

    • Monterowasdinero

      +1

      Epic battles in the 70′s.

    • Manny’s BanWagon

      Absolutely right.

      Maybe someone 30 years old of less could say that but anyone who was around for the mid to late 70′s saw real hatred between these 2 teams.

    • Anchen

      Probably a bad choice of wording. Something more like really started up again, rather than started period. Unless he meant it in a more national sense, where it wasn’t until then that it started getting plastered over ESPN everytime they would play. There’s no denying the rivalry has existed though, especially in the 70s.

  • Manny’s BanWagon

    With Bobby V managing the Sux, I think this rivalry is going to be revitalized.

    I can’t think of a more loathsome character in any sport than that loudmouth know it all. Heaven forbid he ever won a world series, I’d have to give up watching baseball for a few years.

    • hogsmog

      Yeah give me Francona any day. At least he had the courtesy to be passive aggressive rather than slanderous.

  • CJ

    Boston is still an epic rivalry but Tampa is scary. Toronto could give Yanks fits along the lines of what Baltimore did against Boston last year.

  • Kosmo

    Certainly the mid 70´s Yanks-Sawx rivalry but also if you go back to the DiMaggio-Williams Era from 1938 to 1949 the Sawx had six 2nd place finishes, five of those to NY. I think you can trace the rivalry back to those teams.

    • jayd808

      I grew up in the midst of Mantle vs Williams in the late fifties.

  • pgsbii

    I think the point is that despite Bucky Dent, Nettles vs Bill Lee, Munson hating Fisk, etc, it really wasn’t until 2004 that the Sox ever beat the Yanks straight up when they were both in it. The 40s, 60s, 70s, 90s… every time they were both in a race, the Sox lost. It’s not really a rivalry when one team wins all the time.

    • Larry Koestler

      Thank you, pgsbii.

      • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

        Sorry guys but I disagree. Consistent one sided outcomes over time do not obviate what makes a rivalry. Ask any real red sox (I.e. the losing team) fan whether it was a rivalry over the decades and the answer from anyone with any medium or long term perspective would be an unequivocal yes.

      • Duh Innings

        So it’s not really a rivalry to you and pgsbii cuz the Yanks triumphed most of the time ’40s on? C’mon.

        The rivalry began when the Red Sox handed Babe Ruth to the Yankees, period, end of story, case closed. That trade changed the face of both franchises forever and you better believe the Red Sox players and fans were fuming over it for decades albeit in a back of our minds what’s done is done way. You do know that it takes only one team to have beef with another for there to be a rivalry? Boston started it by handing Ruth to the Yanks then getting pissed off about it/all that ensued from and after it, and the Yanks thankfully accepted the challenge haha.

        With your logic there has never been a rivalry between the Yanks and Red Sox because the Red Sox have won only two World Series after 1918/the Ruth trade, both WS titles came three years apart, and the second one was a half-decade ago, since you’re agreeing that it isn’t “really a rivalry”. Ludicrous.

        I defy anyone else to name me a rivalry between two AL teams anywhere close to Yanks-Red Sox. Forget anyone in the AL West or AL East in the three divisions era. The Twins and Royals have never had a rivalry with anyone save the Yanks (Yanks-Twins in the ALDS, Yanks-Royals 1977-80.) Detroit-Cleveland? Detroit-Chicago? Cleveland-Chicago? Please, please, and please. Undercards no one cares about to the main event (Yanks-Red Sox.)

  • SevenAces

    “…and the Sox have no holes from 1-6 in their lineup.”

    What are you talking about? They have six! Six assholes!

    http://instantrimshot.com/

  • Brian in NH

    dude…Mark fucking Bellhorn? idk how that guy did anything against the us back then. And then we fucking signed him?

    just terrible.

  • Duh Innings

    My 2012 Red Sox preview:

    Who cares how the Red Sox do? There’s two wildcards now. They will win one of them since they don’t have the depth on all fronts (rotation, bullpen, starting nine, or bench) to win the division. Tampa Bay will most likely win the other wildcard.

    Brace yourselves for Red Sox-Rays wildcard championship games (WCGs) most years or Yanks vs. either some years for years to come, which is what this ridiculous two wildcard teams playoff setup has created.

    The Red Sox have exactly two locks in their rotation, Lester and Beckett, but last I checked, a rotation is five starters. Bucholz is more of a lock to be 2010 solid than Hughes is a lock to be 2010 solid, but I wouldn’t annoint Bucholz a solid #3 yet as he still missed significant time last season. In fact, if he was on the Yanks, he’d be fighting for a rotation spot considering Sabathia and Kuroda are locks and they, Nova, Pineda, and Garcia had fine 2011s. Boston’s 3 through 5 starters is a question mark and their backend rotation is a complete question mark and would’ve been even if it was any two from Lackey, Matsuzaka, and (the retired) Wakefield.

    They lost three hitters who had very good 2011s in Scutaro, Reddick, and Lowrie. Ortiz is a year older and probably a few pounds heavier. Their catcher tandem is not as good as Varitek when he still had it. Their outfield outside of Ellsbury blows. Wakefield is gone. They downgraded at closer and setup man. Bailey is a nice pitcher but Paplebon is better and who is Melancon compared to Bard?

    85-88 wins depending on how well Lester and Beckett do, but again no matter as they will be one of the wildcard winners.

  • Mrs. Mattingly

    perhaps the most historic (and horrific) late-season collapse in baseball history.”

    FTFY. You can literally say this now.

  • Kevin

    Anytime you bring up last season,the automatic response is 04..3-0 yadda yadda.
    At the end of the day,that was still a short series. The chokejob last year was a month in the making,and was the worst in regular season history.

  • Ross the Albatross

    Youkilis is old, older than his age, and will never have another great season. Too many nagging injury issues. Ortiz will decline this year, that is certain in my mind. Last year was an anomaly; he should have declined last year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big drop off in production from him, getting to where he “should” be had he had the expected decline in 2011.

    Gonzalez is solid.

    Pedroia is a fantastic player….but the foot injuries have hurt him. Last season he was awful for alot of the year, incredible for other parts of it. But when you factor in the foot issue and the way second basemen tend to fade, there is no guarantee we’re going to see a great year from Pedroia.

    I have no idea about Ellsbury. If he had put on 10 pounds of muscle last season, I might have “believed” his surge more. I’m not saying his surge wasn’t real, and I’m definitely not accusing him of juicing. But I still think it’s possible last year was a freak thing, and we’re going to see someone who hits 10-12 homers per year for the next few years, not 25-35.

    But I’m not predicting anything on him. Wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 30 homers again this year, it certainly could be ‘real,’ and he is a fundamentally solid ballplayer and a good athlete.

    Anyway, I think the Boston offense is going to be significantly inferior to last season. As will the pitching. I don’t think the Red Sox will win 90 games this year.

  • mford

    The singular form of Red Sox is still Red Sox, not Red Sock.

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