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Red Sox in the hunt at midpoint, but plenty of room for improvement

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  July 3, 2012 11:25 AM

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“We’ve done well enough to gain respect around the league. Teams know we’re going to come to play every day. There’s great effort. We have had a group of players who really get it, who did the right things on the field and approach it with such a great attitude every day."
- Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine


“The best part is we’ve done this without our full team together. We’ve had Carl [Crawford] and [Jacoby Ellsbury] out. We have pitching injuries. And yet, we’ve been playing so well. I think the second half is going to be fun.’’
- Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia



Do you agree with them? Do you? Or are the Red Sox stuck somewhere between half-empty and half-full, a team worthy of both great scrutiny and at least some respect?

Fresh off a 6-1 loss to the Oakland A's, the Red Sox will play the 81st game of their 2012 season on Tuesday night in Oakland. By the time the final pitch is thrown on the West Coast, those of us in New England will be celebrating our Independence Day. And yet, the Red Sox will still be trapped between the failure of last year and the promise of next, a team on either an 84-win pace or an 86-win pace this season depending on the outcome of Game 81.

Tell you what. For simplicity's sake, let's call it 85. Whether you perceive that as a success or a failure is entirely up to you.

In the interest of full disclosure, here is what was written about the Red Sox' prognosis in this space on March 16:

Seriously folks, exactly how many wins do you project for your baseball team this season? 85? 95? Either number would be an entirely legitimate guess. The Red Sox have not entered a season with this kind of relative uncertainty in a very, very long time, and so the range for them is greater than perhaps any other time during the ownership of the John Henry conglomerate. The Sox have the talent to be a championship contender and the lingering issues to be the object of disdain, making them one of the great variables - or dare we say true wild cards? - in all of baseball this year.
So here we are, precisely 109 days later, and the Red Sox are still somewhere in the middle. The 85-win pace puts the Sox on the lower end of the preseason spectrum, but they remain a mere half-game off the pace for the fifth American League playoff spot. The Red Sox are absolutely, positively and indisputably in the hunt for October, though any suggestion that their injuries have held them back is more than a little misleading.

Fact: Of the Red Sox' 80 games to date, 69 have been started by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront, their season-opening five-man rotation. Until Beckett and then Buchholz went on the disabled list late last month, not a single one of them had missed more than a start to injury. Further, the Red Sox are 6-5 in games started by Daisuke Matsuzaka, Aaron Cook and Franklin Morales, the last of whom currently looks like a potential discovery.

In games started by Lester and Beckett this season - the alleged aces of the staff - the Red Sox are 14-17. At a time when pitchers are reclaiming the game, neither has an ERA under 4.00. Boston's two best starters (in theory) rank 21st (Beckett) and 31st (Lester) among the qualifying 44 AL starters in ERA, which simply is not good enough.

And so, when someone like Saltalamacchia refers to "pitching injuries" as he did to the Globe's Nick Cafardo on Monday, he's twisting the facts. Even minus any real contribution from Andrew Bailey or Mark Melancon, Red Sox relievers rank fifth in the AL in ERA (3.10), and they could be as high as second (Oakland, 3.00) by the end of the night.

Injuries have not been the real problem on the pitching staff.

Execution has.

As for the offense, the Red Sox have generally been quite good, scoring more runs than any team in baseball except the Texas Rangers. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. If the Sox have shown any vulnerability at the plate, it has come vs. righthanded pitching, against whom the Sox are just 24-29 this season (nowhere near good enough) and have suffered an inordinate number of shutdown defeats.

With last night's loss against Oakland righthander Jarrod Parker, the Sox are now 4-28 this season when scoring three runs or fewer, a winning percentage of just .125 that ranks 26th among the 30 major league teams in that category. They simply do not pitch well enough to win those games anymore, which means they have problems any time they face a good righthanded pitcher.

Make of this what you will: of the 32 games this season in which the Sox have scored three runs or fewer, 23 of them have come against righthanded pitching. (On a percentage basis, this number is only slightly higher than it should be. The Sox have faced righty starters 66.2 of the time overall.)

The Red Sox are just 1-22 in those 23 low-scoring games, their only victory being Jon Lester's 1-0 victory over Jake Peavy and the Chicago White Sox on April 28.

So what should we make of that statistic? Two things.

No. 1: Adrian Gonzalez is killing the Red Sox mostly in this area because he has been relatively inept against righthanded pitching this season. Last season, Gonzalez ranked second in all of baseball in OPS against righthanded pitching, pounding 24 home runs and posting an OPS of 1.046. (Only Miguel Cabrera, at 1.047) was better. This season, Gonzalez' OPS against righthanders is a dreadful .703, a figure that places him (and his luxury-tax salary of $22 million) 49th out of 70 players with at least 200 such plate appearances.

No. 2: Jacoby Ellsbury can't come back soon enough. Like Gonzalez, Ellsbury murdered righthanded pitching last season, belting 26 homers and posting a .965 OPS that ranked fourth in baseball among those same players with at least 300 plate appearances. Assuming health, Ellsbury's combination of power and speed makes him one of the game's unique run producers, especially against righthanded pitching, which could be the biggest factor in improving the Red Sox' performance in lower-scoring games.

Assuming, of course, that the pitching doesn't get better.

In the end, what seems quite clear is the Red Sox' need to improve in the second half, however that is. In the 17 years the wild card has been in existence, the fifth-best team in the American League - the team that would have qualified for the postseason under the new playoff format - averaged 88.7 victories. In the first seven years of that sample - from 1995-2001 and projecting the strike-shortened 1995 season - the number was 86.6 victories. In the last 10 years, during which the Red Sox qualified for the playoffs six times (including five as the wild card), the number was 90.3 victories.

As we approach the Fourth of July, once again, the Red Sox sit between an 84- and 86-win pace.

So far, under the circumstances, that is certainly not too bad.

But it's probably not good enough, either.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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