No matter how many times we say it, the denizens of Red Sox Nation are not going to stop grumbling about the starting pitching until a wayward Phillies pitcher ends up in Boston.
But the offense is a different story. You have to look hard to find someone who isn’t bullish on this Red Sox offense. The talent on hand might evoke words like “best ever” or “historic.”
So let’s take a look at how this projected Red Sox offense stacks up against the team’s units of the past.
One of the statistics found at FanGraphs is Off, short for Offense. It combines batting runs above average and baserunning runs above average, and is scaled to league average, so it makes for a good comparison across years, though differences in games played in the years when the schedule was 154 games instead of 162 can skew things a bit.
Right now, this year’s Red Sox are projected to be 17th-best in team history. That’s good news, considering this will be the franchise’s 115th season. But it could be better.
So, could they jump from 17th to first? Well, let’s first acknowledge that this probably won’t happen. That 2003 offense was legendary. That one decision by Grady Little really did rob the team of the remembrance it deserves. But let’s entertain it. Here’s what we need to see.
(A note about the FanGraphs team projections — they combine the Steamer and ZiPS systems to give a more balanced projection.)
More Mookie, less Victorino
There are great unknowns with each player. Mookie Betts has a thin major league track record, and Shane Victorino is recovered from a back injury. You don’t need to look very far, though, to remember that back injuries tend to linger. Given Victorino’s approach at the plate, he can only be productive if he is hitting for a modicum of power. He wasn’t able to do that in two of the past three seasons, and might not be able to do so this year. His projected .398 slugging percentage isn’t very encouraging. Betts, at .416, isn’t much better, but there are two key differences. First, his on-base percentage is projected to be 25 points higher. Second, given his major league track record, his projection is going to be more conservative, but even by conservative standards for young players, Betts has one of the better projections in the game. Perhaps, the team will trade Victorino and eliminate this issue. However, if he remains, manager John Farrell must give Betts more run.
Rebound from Pedroia
Dustin Pedroia had a pretty bad 2014 season at the dish, at least by his standards. As such, we have previously wondered if Pedroia’s days of a productive hitter are over. He has no such doubts, and has been telling everyone capable of listening, whether they want to hear it or not. If the Sox are to have a historic offense, he’s going to have to be right.
Less Brock Holt
Last June, Brock Holt did all sorts of extraordinary things, or so it was thought at the time. He had a good month, to be certain, but it wasn’t all that extraordinary. He hit 30 percent better than league average for the month according to wRC+, which ranked second on the team because no one else outside of Mike Napoli was hitting well. But it ranked just 61st overall in the game that month, and from there it was downhill. For the first half, he hit 33 percent better than league average, but in the second half, he hit 47 percent worse. The truth of his ability is somewhere in the middle, but he is no better than an average player and not the supreme rescuer of the Red Sox he appeared to be last year. With much more capable hitters on board this year, Holt should no longer be playing regularly, or even semi-regularly. If he does, either because things fall apart or because Farrell is still too smitten with the versatile Holt, it’s doubtful the Red Sox will have an offense to remember.
A catcher needs to step forward
The Red Sox have a solid trio of catchers at or near major league level in Christian Vazquez, Ryan Hanigan, and Blake Swihart. None of them has a strong offensive projection. Vazquez is similar to Betts in that he is a young player with a conservative forecast, given his lack of major league time. Swihart has no major league time. And Hanigan is simply limited as a hitter. Though he has excellent plate discipline, he has no power. For his career, 79.5 percent of Hanigan’s hits have been singles (for reference, David Ortiz’s career mark is 52.2 percent). One of them will need to step forward. The one who does will be one of the more intriguing subplots of the season.
Improve on the bases
The Red Sox project to have the worst group of baserunners in the game this season. Last season, they ranked 28th out of 30 teams. In years past, Jacoby Ellsbury was enough to cover for the team on an aggregate level, but the bottom line is that Ortiz, Allen Craig, and new addition Pablo Sandoval have been three of the worst 25 baserunners over the past three seasons. If they can’t figure out how to better run the bases (you don’t need to be fast to be a smart baserunner) then Farrell may need to be more aggressive deploying pinch runners. All that depth has to be good for something.
Be it Xander Bogaerts or Rusney Castillo fulfilling their massive potential, Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval finding their groove in Boston or some other thing that we can’t even fathom right now, historic offenses usually have the breaks go their way. We can’t foresee everything — which is why it’s so much fun to watch the games as they unfold.
The Red Sox project to have a great offense this season. It is projected to be the third-best in the game in 2015, and it looks like it could comfortably be in the top 20 in team history. And if enough players take steps forward and the team plays its cards right, the top 10 or top five is also within reach.
Paul Swydan is a writer and editor for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter at @Swydan.