This blog is intended to be insight into my life as an irrational, stats-driven, obsessive sports fan in Boston. I am a fan of all types of sports with an emphasis on Boston teams and am a proud UConn alum.
People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. –Rogers Hornsby
The weather in Boston is going to be perfect for the 2:05pm first pitch of the Red Sox 2017 season today. The 50 degree sunshine will light up Fenway Park in anticipation of strong campaign for the hanging socks. The expectations are high and the mood is hopeful as the Red Sox begin their season at home for the first time since 2010 (a 9-7 win over the Yankees). Overall, the home opener has been kind to the Sox, winning 10 of the last 12 and going 69-47 in home openers since 1901. Today, the Red Sox will match up with inter-league foe, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One can analyze this team and spring performances until blue in the face, but the only thing that matters is what happens between the lines when the games count. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello toes the rubber this afternoon as a nod to his 2016 performance and then Wednesday, fans get officially introduced to the biggest addition to this Red Sox club, SP Chris Sale. The lineup will have a different feel from last year without David Ortiz, but they still could be a force in the AL.
Now, for the 2 words we have been waiting all winter to hear…Play Ball!
Let me begin by saying I love spring training. Baseball is my first love, so any sign that the season is around the corner gets me giddy. There is just one problem… It’s too damn long. Pitchers and catchers reported mid-February and won’t play any meaningful baseball until April 2nd on opening day. That’s 6+ weeks of drills and meaningless baseball games, which can be hard for the casual fan to follow. An added challenge for most is that many games are not on TV or are afternoon games during the week.
Over the years I have developed a system for knowing what to look for (and not look for) during spring training games. Hopefully it helps you decipher what’s really important this time of year.
What to Watch For (and Ignore)
Watch for Pitcher Ramp-Up, Ignore Pitcher Stat Lines
The most reasonable explanation for a long spring training is the need for a slow build-up of stamina for starting pitchers (and even some relievers). In order to reduce injury risk, most pitchers slowly add workload throughout the month of games in order to be ready for opening day. Watch for starters to begin with an inning or two, around 20-30 pitches initially, then slowly add pitches and innings leading to a more normal-looking start in late March.
During that span, ignore pitcher stat lines. There is nothing more frustrating for me than to read an alarmist article about a starter giving up 4 runs in an inning in March. Every pitcher is unique and their throwing schedules vary greatly. Some pitchers will spend an outing just working on their fastball with very few (or no) secondary pitches. Some will work on their curveball almost exclusively at times to try and improve that particular pitch. ERA and record mean very little in the spring, unless you have a pitcher with a fragile level of confidence (a whole other conversation).
Watch for Quality At-Bats, Ignore Batting Averages
Another mistake made in the spring is looking at player batting averages and projecting regular season success based on them. There are sometimes the case of a young player getting hot in the spring and carrying it over into the season, and that shouldn’t be fully ignored, but the majority of the time it just doesn’t matter. If you are watching a spring game, take a look at how the player approaches an at-bat, how many pitches they see, how fluid and comfortable they look in the batters box. Those things can be much subtle, but also more telling than average.
Let’s take the 2016 Red Sox spring training as an example. David Ortiz played in 18 games, had 45 at-bats, and hit .178 with 2 doubles, 1 HR, and 10 Ks. In the first month of the regular season, Ortiz hit .321 with 5 HRs, 11 doubles, and 14 Ks (22 games, 78 at-bats). Ortiz came right out of the gate with a HR and double on opening day and played well in April, even though his spring was bad. Zero correlation in his case. It’s an extreme example, but proves the point.
Watch for Young Prospects, Ignore Records
After spending time telling you to ignore batting averages, I’m going to slightly modify my stance here in reference to young prospects. Spring is the best time to see young players get reps and try to impress their organization honchos. This may be the only time most fans are able to watch the young guns perform, so take advantage. Sometimes a strong spring for a young player will result in a longer look for a minor league promotion or even a future big-league roster spot. Just ask Jackie Bradley Jr. or Travis Shaw if spring can be the difference in making the MLB roster or not (hint: it did for both of them).
The absolute #1 thing to ignore in the spring is a win/loss record. It is by far the most meaningless stat, because players are slotted in prior to each game to give everyone appropriate playing time. It doesn’t matter if the team is up 10 or down 10, the manager has a plan for player usage and usually follows it closely. On top of that, it is rare that a full regular season lineup is all starting on the same day with an MLB caliber starter on the mound. It will be even less likely this year with the World Baseball Classic happening in conjunction with spring training games. For example, Xander Bogaerts left to play for team Netherlands on 2/28 and won’t play in another game for the Red Sox until at least mid-to-late March, and perhaps not again until the regular season. If you are hoping to see the Red Sox opening day lineup anytime soon, you will be disappointed.
As a Red Sox fan who’s peak watching years have coincided with David Ortiz‘ tenure in Boston, last night was tough. It wasn’t tough because the Red Sox lost, realistically their fate was sealed in Cleveland, but rather to see Big Papi walk off the Fenway Park grass for the final time as a player was more emotional for me than I care to admit. Hell, I’m getting emotional just thinking and writing about it today. The words ‘thank you’ aren’t enough, but they’re the best I can muster: Thank you David, you will be missed more than you could ever know.
When Ortiz emerged on the Red Sox scene in 2003, my first instinct was that he was Mo Vaughn 2.0. Mo was one of my favorite players growing up. At 6’1″ and 225lb, he could put a baseball into orbit and that entertained me to no end. At the time, I thought no one could hit the ball harder or further…until I saw David Ortiz in a Red Sox uniform. During the first few games of Ortiz’ career, I was in awe that someone could be even bigger and stronger than the great Mo. Standing at 6’3″ and 230lbs (although at times I think that number was a little light), Big Papi filled the entire batters box with ease.
It took a while in that first season for Ortiz to get going, but one of the most telling moments of future success was his first HR in a Red Sox uniform. It came against the Anaheim Angels (or whatever they were called then) in the top of the 14th inning. He pinch-hit for Jeremy Giambi to lead off the inning and hit an opposite field bomb on a pitch on the outer-half of the plate to give the Red Sox the 1-run lead. It was followed by a Jason Varitek HR and the game ended 6-4. It was just a late April regular season contest, but it was the first of dozens of late-inning clutch heroics for Big Papi in Boston.
As much as I would like to re-hash every great moment in Big Papi’s career, I only have space and time for my favorites. At the absolute top of the list, and frankly should be at the top of every Red Sox fans list, is his performance in the 2004 ALCS against the New York Yankees. We know the story: down 0-3 after getting pummeled 19-3 in game 3, the Red Sox went on to win 4 straight and get to the World Series in which they swept the St Louis Cardinals and broke the 86-year curse. The script that was written in 2004 is arguably the greatest story in baseball history given the intense rivalry and unreal individual and team effort. At the center of it all was Ortiz.
Because today is a day for nostalgia, let me take you back. Game 4, bottom 9, down 4-3 with the season on the line and the greatest closer of all time (Mariano Rivera) is toeing the rubber. The situation does not look good from a Red Sox perspective. Kevin Millar leads off the inning with a walk and is immediately lifted for Dave Roberts (Rivera had just 20 walks all season in 2004 in 78.2 innings). Even though every single person at Fenway Park and every single person watching at home on television knew Dave Roberts was going to try and steal 2nd base, he slid in safely by the thinnest hair on my chinny chin chin to give the Red Sox a runner in scoring position. Still to this day when watching the replay of Derek Jeter applying the tag to Roberts, I honestly can’t tell if he was safe or out. After the steal, Bill Mueller hit the 3rd pitch of the at-bat into center field for a game-tying single. Hope was alive.
Fast forward to the bottom of the 12th inning. Manny Ramirez singles to lead off the inning and David Ortiz steps into the box against Paul Quantrill. On the 4th pitch of the at-bat, Ortiz crushed one over the 380 sign in right field for a walk-off win that will never be forgotten. By my estimation, that one swing is the most important hit in Red Sox franchise history. It propelled the Red Sox to a 7-game series victory and led to the most important moment in Red Sox history, the final out of game 4 of the 2004 World Series. Ortiz went on to hit 2 more HRs in the series as well as a walk-off single in the bottom of the 14th inning in game 5. His legacy truly began being written in that Yankees series and the story grew longer and more impressive as each passing year and clutch hit occurred.
All of this unfolded during my sophomore year at UConn. Being uniquely situated between Boston and New York, the UConn campus was rife with trash talk and bad blood between Yankees and Red Sox fans. I heard it from every single Yankees fan, real and bandwagon, after the 19-3 game 3 drubbing and I just had to grin and take it. There was no response and very little hope for a comeback. Just 4 days later, I was watching game 7 with my girlfriend, now wife, who is an avid Red Sox fan from the Boston area. Even though the Red Sox had a 7-run lead entering the 9th inning of game 7, our hearts were pounding out of our chest and our nerves were fried. Once the final out was recorded, tears of joy (and relief) began to flow and outside you could hear hundreds upon hundreds of cheers and screams across campus.
As any college students would do, we all ran outside and began running around campus like complete idiots. Hoards of students ran past Gampel Pavilion (basketball arena) and to the old football stadium on campus, Memorial Stadium. Dozens of students (mostly drunk) decided to take down the goal posts in celebration and after several minutes of trying, were successful. Even though I watched from a safe distance, that moment sticks with me to this day. It was finally time for Red Sox fans to celebrate.
All of this is just to say, in the most heartfelt way possible, Thank you Big Papi. You have single-handedly changed everything about being a Red Sox fan. You created expectations that are just unrealistic and nearly impossible to reach, yet somehow, you reached them over and over again. We now expect wins and championships on a yearly basis and anything else is a failure. In the 8th and 9th inning last night, most of Red Sox nation was expecting a big late-game comeback because you have set bar so damn high. It was a honor to witness your career unfold in Boston; the void that is left behind with your retirement is to large to fill.
As my brother-in-law Jonathan said on Facebook last night after the game, “Thank you 34 for the memories. See you in Cooperstown in 5 years with Brian Phair!”
Another sub-par outing from a Red Sox starting pitching and in less than 24 hours the chances of making a deep postseason run almost disappeared. Being down 0-2 in a best of 5 series is a worst case scenario for any playoff team, but hope is not all lost until the 3rd win is official. The series shifts to Fenway Park on Sunday with the Red Sox on the ropes. Now the Red Sox hopes lay squarely on the shoulders of Clay Buchholz.
If you want something to hold onto until game 3 on Sunday: the Red Sox have a rich history of coming back from down 0-2 in the ALDS. The Sox are the only franchise to come back from 0-2 more than once in their history and one of those, in 1999, was against the Cleveland Indians (the other was 2003 against Oakland). As an optimistic person (mostly), that stat makes me feel slightly hopeful, but still not good. What we have seen so far in this series, bad at-bats/weak offense and bad starting pitchers, tells the story. Unless the Sox can have a much better offensive approach and get better starting pitching performances, this series is not going back to Cleveland for game 5.
Who would have thought before the season that all hopes for playoff survival rest with the unstable Clay Buchholz. He had an up-and-down year that saw him in and out of the starting rotation on numerous occasions. I have a strange feeling that he will throw a gem on Sunday to prove everyone wrong. Redemption is the name of the game this weekend.
Game 3 is Sunday at 4pm eastern. Not only could it be the final game of the 2016 season for the Red Sox, it could be the final game of the illustrious career of David Ortiz. What a sad way for a Hall of Fame career to end: a sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians. Let’s go Buchholz!
…It took me 12 years, but I’m finally getting a chance to play playoff baseball at Fenway. I’m just really happy to have that opportunity after how last season went. You know, in spring training this year, we all got together and set one goal: Get David a ring in his final season…
…We don’t know what’s gonna happen, but you got a team here that never gives up. We got 25 names, but we’re all one person. We are gonna do our best so that David can go out dancing.
It’s been nothing short of an unreal stretch for the Boston Red Sox over the past few weeks. They are winners of 8 straight, two consecutive 4-game series sweeps against AL East foes the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, and owners of the MLB leading 15-5 record in September. They sit 5.5 games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays in the division and 7 games up on the Orioles just a few weeks after a 3-way tie for the division was very much in the conversation. How have the Red Sox gone from a fringe team to a legitimate contender? Pitching and a will.
Thus far in September, the Red Sox pitching staff is having their best month of the season. The staff has a ratio of 4 Ks per BB, a .209 opponent batting average and a .598 OPS in September, all significantly better than any other month. Most notably, Red Sox relievers have allowed just a .186 opponent batting average this month, which is excellent. The improvement in the pitching staff has allowed the Red Sox offense to feel less pressure to score in huge bunches and just have smart at-bats. They have now scored exactly 5 runs in 5 consecutive games for the first time in history.
Although the pitching has significantly improved, the offense has also still performed at a very high level. The Red Sox batters are hitting .289 in September with 31 HRs and 119 RBIs thanks to an incredible tear from Hanley Ramirez and the continually impressive hitting of David Ortiz and Mookie Betts. It’s more than just the offensive firepower however, there is a certain intangible quality that all great teams have: a will to win.
Until September, the will to win appeared only on occasion and in spurts, but now it feels like this team will have a chance to win every game, every day. Teammates support each other and lift each other after a bad inning or a bad defensive play and celebrate together after a big win. They have each others backs and appear to believe in their ability to make a serious postseason run now, something that was missing just a short month or so ago. A streaking team is often even more dangerous that the consistently great team.
Don’t look now, but the Red Sox seem to be peaking at just the right time.
As a football fan it’s easy to get caught up in the early season rush and in many years past, with the Red Sox virtually eliminated by now, the attention shift was easy. Not this year. This weekend was even more important for the Red Sox than the Patriots (and college football) given the outrageously close playoff race in the AL. Entering the weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Red Sox were 1 game ahead of the Jays in the standings, 2 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and just 4 games ahead of the surging New York Yankees. After Sunday’s crazy, but huge 11-8 victory over the Jays, the Red Sox have built a 2 game lead in the AL East, their largest division lead since May 31st (3 games ahead). With 20 games to go, it’s still a 4-way divisional race.
Sunday’s finale was a must win for both the Jays and the Red Sox. The Jays were 1 game back of the Red Sox and a W would have tied them atop the league. The game played like each team was desperate, once one team scored, the other would come back with a rally of their own. The game was 1-1 after 1, then Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a 3-run bomb in the 2nd inning to give the Red Sox a 4-1 lead. The bottom of the 3rd was Toronto’s chance to respond, getting 5 runs off of Clay Buchholz (how many times have I typed that line?) to take a 6-4 lead. The Red Sox tied it up in the top of the 4th, only to lose the lead again in the bottom of the inning on Edwin Encarnacion‘s 2nd HR of the game.
After grabbing a run back in the 5th inning, Brock Holt inexplicably tried to steal home with 2 outs in a 1 run game and gets caught leaving the game 8-7. File that in the head-scratcher category. Never fear Red Sox fans, David Ortiz is here for the rescue, hitting a 3-run HR to give the Red Sox the lead for good. They tacked on 1 more in the 7th to make it an incredibly important 11-8 wild win. That was a precursor to a day of close, but important wins in New England!
According to the ESPN calculation, the Red Sox now have an 93.4% chance of making the playoffs, which was hard to imagine a few weeks ago. The Jays have dropped to 74.5%, the Orioles at 56.7% and the Yankees still hanging in at 13.5%. All 4 teams are still within 4 games of the division lead and the Jays and Orioles are currently 2 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers and Yankees for the 2 wild card spots. There is a real chance 3 AL East teams make the postseason in 2016, but with dozens of divisional games remaining, who knows.
After taking a week off, I’m refreshed and ready to go. Unfortunately, the Red Sox are decidedly not refreshed and struggling with injuries and fatigue with a big 11-game 4-city road trip in front of them. Besides the obvious recent DL stints for Steven Wright (shoulder soreness) and Ryan Hanigan (ankle tendinitis), Xander Bogaerts and David Ortiz are looking slower and fatigued as of late. It’s a big concern for the Red Sox who are fighting for a postseason spot.
Bogaerts had played in 108 of the team’s first 110 games of the season, which is a lot to expect from a guy playing shortstop. The overwork is beginning to show it’s ugly head. Since July 24th, Bogaerts is hitting .231 and his season average has dropped .020 points. He does not have a HR in August and his bat has looked slow compared to April and May. By all measures, his .313 average, 14 HRs and 69 RBIs is a very strong season thus far, it’s how far it has dropped and how fatigued he has looked over the last several weeks that is most concerning. He got the day off on Sunday vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks and is likely to have another day off on Monday as the team travels to Cleveland. I’m worried the rest is a little too late.
For David Ortiz, the outrageous first half of his retirement tour is in the rear view mirror. At the all-star break, Ortiz was hitting .331 with 22 HRs, 72 RBIs and 34 doubles, which were all at or near the top in the AL. Now, in 26 games since the break, he has begun to shoot back to earth with a .239 average, 4 HRS, 18 RBIs, and just 3 doubles. Like Bogaerts, his overall stats are impressive for the season (.310, 26 HRs, 90 RBIs, 37 doubles), but the sharp downward trend is a huge concern moving forward for the 40 year old. At his age, he’s much more likely to continue to decline the final 6 weeks of the season.
If the Red Sox are going to get a playoff spot and contend this year, Bogaerts and Ortiz have to be healthy and able to produce when it counts. At this moment, I have no confidence that either player can rest and regroup enough to have a significant impact down the stretch.
By any measure or any stat, David Ortiz is having one of the best years of his career At age 40, he has decided to take one last victory lap in baseball and is certainly making the most of his final hurrah. Earlier this season, I explored Ortiz’s projected career numbers in relation to a potential Hall of Fame invite, but didn’t dig into his season numbers and where they stand in relation to his overall career. Since it is the unofficial halfway point of the season, the all-star break, let’s look at Ortiz’s epic 2016 season thus far.
Ortiz has appeared in 81 games (out of a potential 87) thus far in 2016 and has a .332 average with 22 HRs, 72 RBIs, 34 doubles, and 2 stolen bases (I had to throw that one in for fun). For some context, Ortiz is a career .286 hitter and based on 150 games, averages 40 doubles, 33 HRs, and 110 RBIs per season. Ortiz is on pace to shatter his career averages at age 40 and set some new career highs. If he plays in 150 games and maintains his pace, he will finish the regular season with career highs in batting average (.332 – tied with 2007), slugging percentage (.682), doubles (63), HRs (59), and hits (180 – tied with 2005).
Considering some of the incredible offensive seasons Ortiz has had in a Red Sox uniform, to break his own career records would be just astounding. Looking at his success in context with the rest of the league is also impressive, removing age from the equation. In all of the MLB in 2016, Ortiz is 4th in batting average (.332), 1st in slugging percentage (.682) and doubles (34) by wide margins, 2nd in RBIs, and 9th in HRs (to name a few). He is not just having a career year, but also a stand alone amazing run as well.
I do anticipate a slight drop-off from Ortiz in the 2nd half of the season, mostly because how can his numbers not decline? He is 40 and has been dealing with achilles issues for a number of years now, which will likely limit his playing time a bit more in the 2nd half of the season, especially if the Red Sox are contenders because they need Ortiz healthy for the postseason. Even with a mediocre 2nd half by his own standards, Ortiz will be in rarefied air and certainly should leave a great impression on the Hall of Fame selection committee.
Most of the attention on this year’s Red Sox team has been around the struggles associated with the pitching staff and for good reason. There are many holes in the pitching staff and if the Red Sox want to contend this year, they need to improve on the mound, but what is being overlooked in 2016 is the Red Sox offense. As a team, the Red Sox are on pace to have one of the best offensive seasons in the history of the franchise.
Through 84 games, the Red Sox offense leads the MLB in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, RBIs, OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS. They are the best offensive team in baseball by far, leading in most offensive categories by a fairly wide margin. Seven members of the Red Sox starting lineup are hitting over .285 (Sandy Leon .477, David Ortiz .337, Xander Bogaerts .332, Dustin Pedroia .305, Mookie Betts .299, Jackie Bradley Jr. .293, and Hanley Ramirez .287) and six players have 48 or more RBI with 3 games left before the all-star break (David Ortiz 69, Mookie Betts 58, Jackie Bradley Jr. 54, Xander Bogaerts 52, Travis Shaw 48, and Hanley Ramirez 48. Since the team has been so offensively dominant, I wanted to see historically where they would be if the pace continued in the 2nd half of the season.
Boston Red Sox All-Time Rankings for 2016 team (116 years) (if current pace continues)
3rd best in batting average (.292)
2nd in slugging percentage (.476)
1st in doubles all time (411)
1st in hits (1689)
5th in runs (918)
9th in runs/game (5.67)
5th in RBIs (874)
3rd in OPS (.836)
It’s hard to argue that the 2016 team wouldn’t be the best or at least among the top few best offensive seasons in the history of the franchise if the pace were to continue. I would imagine the pace would drop off slightly in the 2nd half of the season, but the lineup is so strong that I can’t imagine there will be many prolonged team slumps leading to an extreme drop. Now if only the pitching could improve…