Friday, May 21, 2010
Are Red Sox already too far behind?
By Jeremy Lundblad ESPN Stats and Information
The Boston Red Sox are heating up. Sure, it's only a three-game win streak. But in a season in which they've yet to win more than four in a row, this feels downright tropical. On Friday, the Red Sox could move to three games over .500 for the first time all year.
But, just a quarter into the season, could it already be too late?
Even with a soon-to-be replenished outfield and key bats waking up, injuries and inconsistencies linger. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees, both division rivals, feature the two best records in the American League. Boston is 8½ games out in the division and 3½ games back in the wild-card race, behind three teams.
So have the Red Sox already dug too deep of a hole for themselves? History indicates that Boston may need a storybook finish. Prognostications paint an even uglier picture.
AccuScore.com projects postseason probability using the average results of 10,000 season simulations. According to their forecast entering Thursday, both New York and Tampa Bay stand a better than 80 percent chance of making the postseason. Meanwhile, the Red Sox make the playoffs in only 7.6 percent of simulations. Those long odds are largely the result of taking the AL East title just 1.7 percent of the time.
AccuScore's AL East playoff percentages entering Thursday
Not surprisingly, the Red Sox need key players to raise their game, while hoping their competition falters. For example, Dustin Pedroia is projected to hit .298 over the rest of the season, according to AccuScore's Stephen Oh. But in the simulations in which Boston makes the playoffs, Pedroia averaged .335 at the plate. On the mound, Josh Beckett is projected to finish 9-10 overall but averaged a 14-6 record in simulations in which the Red Sox are bound for the postseason. These are not minor differences, but they are also not improbable.
Another forecasting site, CoolStandings.com, paints an even bleaker picture. Entering Thursday, the Red Sox were given a 5.8 percent chance of making the playoffs (0.9 percent for the division, 4.9 percent for the wild card). Again, Boston is enormously hindered by the quality of its divisional foes. Consider the following: The Nationals are considered more likely to make the postseason, and the lowly Indians are given a better chance of taking home a divisional crown.
While the percentages differ slightly, both forecasters are extremely bearish on Boston's chances to take down the AL East (Baseball Prospectus is a bit more optimistic). That pessimism is no surprise with both the Rays and Yankees on pace for more than 100 wins. While one could certainly fall off that pace, the Red Sox need both to falter to grab the division.
That leaves the wild card, which means one thing: 94 wins -- at least. Over the last 14 years, the average AL wild-card winner won 94.9 games. Meanwhile, no AL team has missed the playoffs with 94 or more wins in the wild-card era. The 1999 Reds, who won 96 games, are the only such NL team to come up short. Sure, teams have captured the wild card with as few as 88 wins, but given the competition atop the AL East, even 94 wins seems conservative in 2010.
The Red Sox will need Jon Lester to stay hot deep into the summer if they hope to make a run at the Yankees and Rays. In his last four starts, he is 3-0 with a 2.32 ERA.
Of course, these forecasts are just that -- educated estimations based on historical data and trends. Weather in New England is notoriously difficult to predict, but just imagine if meteorologists attempted a 120-day forecast. The numbers do provide excellent context for just how difficult Boston's climb would be. But they can't possibly take into account future transactions, injuries or late-season magic.
In 1914, the Boston Braves were in dead last at 26-40 after losing both games in a Fourth of July doubleheader. According to the CoolStandings.com formula, they stood a less than 1 percent chance of making the playoffs at that point. They proceeded to go 68-19 the rest of the way and won the World Series.
Then there are the 1975 Reds, who at this point in the season barely resembled the team now considered one of the best ever assembled. At 12-12, manager Sparky Anderson asked Pete Rose to move from left field to third base to open up an outfield spot for George Foster. Rose, a former Gold Glover in left, agreed to the switch despite not having played the hot corner for nine years (and even then for only 16 games). Just like the 2010 Red Sox, the Reds were 19-20 after 39 games. The rest is history -- albeit one Red Sox fans would rather forget. Cincinnati finished with 108 wins on the way to the title.
Unless the current Red Sox lineup is hiding four Hall of Fame caliber hitters along with a future home run champ on the bench, no one is actually comparing this team to the '75 Reds. However, history tells us not to blindly trust the odds. Even the 2009 Yankees started just 17-17 while treading water without Alex Rodriguez.
A full rebound from such a slow start is not unprecedented in Red Sox history, but it is quite rare. After Monday's heartbreaking loss to the Yankees, the Red Sox stood at 19-20 -- 8½ games out of first place and 3½ games behind Toronto for third in the division.
Only twice have the Red Sox made the playoffs after being under .500 that late in the season. Both summers attained legendary status in Red Sox lore, and are perhaps the only two seasons immediately identifiable by a nickname: Impossible Dream and Morgan Magic.
Uphill climb for Red Sox
Latest into the season Red Sox teams that have made the postseason have been under .500.
>>2010: 19-20 after Monday's loss
In 1967, the Red Sox were also 19-20 through 39 games. As late as June 18, they were still at .500 (31-31) with a 3.0 percent chance at the postseason, according to CoolStandings. On Aug. 14, the Red Sox were still in fifth place in the 10-team American League. However, the "Impossible Dream" of a postseason was realized thanks to 32 wins in the final 49 games.
The 1988 season offered an even more improbable playoff run. The Red Sox were 31-32 on June 18 and in fourth place going into the All-Star break. When Joe Morgan replaced John McNamara, the Red Sox had a 5.1 percent chance at the postseason. But after winning Morgan's first 12 games as manager, that number jumped to 24.6 percent. Riding the "Morgan Magic" for the rest of the season, Boston took over first place Sept. 4, never to look back.
Are we already at the point where only dreams and magic can save their season? The addition of the wild card certainly improves their chances, but the Red Sox have a long road ahead. The three-game win streak is a start.
One thing seems clear: If the Red Sox do turn it around, it will be a summer to remember -- the kind that might require a nickname.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.