Monday, January 11, 2010

Automatic outs in the Red Sox lineup

The Red Sox, conventional wisdom has it, have upgraded their defense while allowing their offense to get a little bit worse. Mike Cameron has replaced Jason Bay. Adrian Beltre has replaced Mike Lowell. The Red Sox might prevent more runs than they did a year ago, but they're not going to score as many runs.

Well, maybe.

The worst thing a player can do at the plate, after all, is make an out. The fewer outs a team makes, the more opportunities it will have to score runs. A home run tends to do the most damage, but the reason walks have become en vogue is because teams have started to realize that a walk beats virtually any result that involves making an out.

(The only exception might be a sacrifice fly or squeeze bunt that wins a game in the bottom of the ninth. Some might argue that a sacrifice fly trumps a walk with a runner on third and less than two outs -- but while a sacrifice fly plates one run and otherwise lets the air out of a rally, a walk puts another runner on base and makes a crooked-number inning more likely.)

And taking a backwards look at the Red Sox lineup -- measuring players' propensity to make outs rather than players' propensity to hit doubles or triples or home runs -- tells an interesting story:

Ellsbury, .685 outs per at-bat
Pedroia, .668
Ortiz, .686
Youkilis, .605
Drew, .631
Bay, .635
Lowell, .715
Varitek, .701
Green, .744
Total: .669

2009 (with 2008 stats)
Ellsbury, .685 outs per at-bat
Pedroia, .668
Martinez, .644
Youkilis, .605
Ortiz, .686
Cameron, .682
Drew, .631
Beltre, .740
Scutaro, .649
Total: .664

(The American League average last season was .693.)

You can look at this a couple of ways:

1. The Red Sox probably are going to make outs at a lower clip than they did a year ago -- not significantly so, but the rate will be lower nonetheless. For all of the hand-wringing about how Theo Epstein has a worse offense next year than he had last year, well, his lineup has the potential to keep the line moving at an even better rate than it did last year.

2. The Red Sox don't have the black holes in their lineup that they had a year ago.

The biggest issue the Red Sox had a year ago was the lack of depth in their lineup. Once an opposing pitcher got past Jason Bay, he could cruise through the bottom third of the lineup. Lowell, Jason Varitek and Nick Green all averaged better than 0.7 outs per plate appearance a year ago.

(This figure does include double plays as well as sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies. Double plays skew the numbers a little bit given that they, like RBIs, depend on whether runners are on base, but even Lowell -- the Red Sox leader last season with 24 GIDPs -- saw double plays account for a tiny fraction of his 346 outs.)

Of the hitters expected to start for the Red Sox on Opening Day next year, only Beltre averaged better than 0.7 outs per plate appearance last season -- and the potential exists for Beltre to see his numbers improve thanks to his move from Safeco Field to Fenway Park.

Pitchers won't get a break with the Red Sox lineup. No one other than Beltre can reasonably be expected to make outs at an above-average rate. Marco Scutaro is an enormous upgrade on Green even if his numbers regress from his career highs a year ago. Victor Martinez is an enormous upgrade on Varitek. Cameron is no Bay when it comes to avoiding outs, but he's still above average in that department.

Most importantly, as a team, the Red Sox lineup of a year ago got out more often than the Red Sox lineup of next year likely will. Backwards thinking sometimes can tell a fascinating story.

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