Boston Red Sox: 1978 vs. 2011

Today, the Portland Forecaster will publish my prediction that the Red Sox will win the World Series despite their historically ugly September. While I could still see that happening, I’m not quite as optimistic as I was when I wrote the piece almost a week ago. Here’s the counterpoint to that piece:

The Sox’s recent collapse has drawn many fleeting comparisons to the 1978 team, which led the Yankees by 14 1/2 games in July, only to blow the whole thing by mid-September and lose the division in a one-game playoff. We can talk all day about the differences in the way these teams collapsed. The 2011 team is fighting for the Wild Card, while the 1978 team needed to win the division to get into the playoffs. The 2011 team was in first place into September and has yet to relinquish the Wild Card lead (though they’re currently tied with Tampa Bay), while the 1978 team actually fell 3 1/2 games behind by September 13, only to win 11 of their last 13 to force the playoff.

What I find remarkable about Boston’s current slide is not just how bad they’ve been in September, but how good they were the rest of the season. After starting the year 2-10, the 2011 Red Sox won 80 of their next 121 games, a 107-win pace that put them in the conversation with the greatest teams in recent memory. They scored runs like no other team in baseball, had two of the ten best pitchers in the American League, and were getting the most out of a top-heavy bullpen. They had a 2 1/2 game lead on the Yankees in late August and the division started to seem like a sure thing, while the Wild Card was nothing but a guaranteed consolation prize should the Yankees go on a hot streak.

This team is loaded. Even after the recent slide, their run differential suggests a 95-win team, and that’s with all those starts given to the 7th and 8th starters on the depth chart and innings eaten by the dregs of the bullpen in blowout losses. On the surface, the 1978 team looks even better. They finished the season 99-64, with the run differential of a 96-win team. They employed four future Hall of Famers (Fisk, Rice, Yastrzemski, and Eckersley), and two other guys (Evans and Tiant) who would have been defensible choices. This year’s team has no certain Hall of Famers, but we may have serious conversations someday about the candidacies of Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, and… gulp… Carl Crawford (I see 2-3 from that crowd getting in).

Let’s look at the two teams position-by-position to see which was the better team. I’ll focus only on results from the current (2011 and 1978) and prior (2010 and 1977) years, as past and future success aren’t really relevant to the discussion. All WAR cited are courtesy of Baseball-Reference. I’ll give an edge at each position in estimation of what the team could expect out of the player over the last month of the season, based on his results over the past two years.

Catcher: Carlton Fisk vs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
No contest here, as Fisk was a Hall of Famer in his prime, worth 6.8 WAR in ’77 and 6.1 in ’78, receiving MVP votes in both years. Saltalamacchia has become a very useful player this year, but was worth just 0.1 WAR in ’10 and 0.7 in ’11.
Big Edge: 1978

First Base: George Scott vs. Adrian Gonzalez
Scott may compare more directly to Ortiz, but he played first base over 100 times in ’78, so we have to put him up against Gonzalez, a player far out of his league. Scott was worth 1.5 WAR in ’77, but cost the Red Sox .4 wins by hitting .233/.305/.379 in ’78. Even an average first baseman would certainly have helped the Red Sox avoid the one-game playoff and advance to the real postseason. Gonzalez, in contrast, has raked all year and played excellent defense, contributing 6.0 WAR in 2010 and 6.7 in 2011.
Big Edge: 2011

Second Base: Jerry Remy vs. Dustin Pedroia
Remy was a serviceable player, but he has offered so much more to the Red Sox as an announcer than he ever did as a player. He earned 1.4 WAR in ’77 and 1.7 in ’78, his age 25 season. Pedroia was worth 3.7 WAR in 2010 despite missing more than half the season with injuries, and will receive MVP votes for his 6.5 WAR campaign in 2011, the best of his stellar young career.
Big Edge: 2011

Shortstop: Rick Burleson vs. Marco Scutaro
Finally, a debatable comparison. Burleson was in the middle of his prime in ’77 and ’78, but was a better player in ’76 and ’79. He earned 1.6 WAR in ’78 and 1.3 WAR in ’78, most of which came from his defense. Scutaro is in his decline phase, and was worth 2.5 WAR in 2010, but just 1.3 WAR in 2011, in limited playing time. Oddly, Scutaro has played his best baseball in September, as the team has swooned around him. If we’re talking about expectations here, I think the 2011 team expected more out of Scutaro based on his history than the ’78 team expected of Burleson, but not by a wide margin. The edge here may go to the capable backups (Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles) this year’s team has played when Scutaro is out. ’78 backup shortstop Frank Duffy was worth negative WAR in ’77, ’78, and ’79.
Slight edge: 2011

Third Base: Butch Hobson vs. Kevin Youkilis
I’m not sure whether Clell Lavern Hobson went by “Butch” because his name was Clell or because he was a butcher at third base, but Hobson’s WAR is weighted down consistently by his horrid defense. In 1977, he hit .265/.300/.489 with 30 homers and actually got MVP votes, but WAR tells us he was a 0.2-win player (1.4 on offense, -1.2 on defense). In ’78, he was near league average at the plate, but was even worse on defense, earning just .3 WAR. Hobson’s futility makes Kevin Youkilis’s struggles in his return to the hot corner feel like a luxury. Youkilis’s injuries haven’t helped the Red Sox in September, but when he’s on the field, he still gets on base, to the tune of 4.8 WAR in 102 games in ’10 and 4.3 WAR in 120 games in 2011.
Big Edge: 2011

Left Field: Carl Yastremski vs. Carl Crawford
On the surface, these two Carls seem about as dissimilar as Carl Winslow and Carly Simon. Yaz was a legend and a triple crown winner whose bat kept him in the lineup despite his defensive deficiencies (in ’78, he played ’64 games in left, 50 at first, 25 at DH, and 7 in center). Crawford is a defensive wizard who legs out doubles and triples and wreaks havoc on the basepaths. Yaz was 38 in 1978, 10 years removed from a devastating prime in which he was worth over 48 wins in seven years. Crawford is 29 in 2011 and came to the Red Sox in his prime, his WAR rising from 2.3 to 4.4 to 6.1 in the prior three seasons. Yastremski was worth 4.5 WAR in ’77, so expectations were still high in ’78, and he delivered a serviceable year as a utility player, earning 2.2 WAR. Crawford was expected to be the best player on the Red Sox in ’11 after finishing seventh in the MVP vote in ’10, but was dismal at the plate and average in the field, netting 0.0 WAR. To be fair, Crawford was so bad in April and May that it took a strong finish to return to replacement level. By September, it’s fair to say that the 2011 Red Sox probably expected at least as much out of in-his-prime Crawford as the ’78 team did from over-the-hill Yastrzemski.
Edge: Push

Center Field: Fred Lynn vs. Jacoby Ellsbury
Fred Lynn’s career got off to an odd start. He famously won both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in 1975, led the league in OBP and slugging in ’79, but in between he was merely very good in ’76 and ’78 and quite bad in ’77. His OPS+ over that stretch (100 being league-average): 161, 132, 99, 133,176. After earning 1.0 WAR in ’77, Lynn bounced back with 4.1 in ’78. Jacoby Ellsbury, in direct contrast with Carl Crawford, was abysmal in 2010, offering little on offense or defense and playing just 84 games, resulting in a WAR of negative 0.3. While expectations of Ellsbury may have been low in April 2011, by September, he was solidifying his case as a primary MVP candidate. Sure enough, Ellsbury has been one of the best players in baseball in September, hitting .365/.408/.687 with 8 home runs and playing excellent defense.

Ellsbury has been worth 7.3 WAR according to baseball-reference, while fangraphs has him approaching the 10 WAR. However, having based my left field “push” largely on prior year success and not solely on momentum, it doesn’t feel right giving Ellsbury the edge here, even if he has been far better than Lynn was in September ’78.
Edge: Push

Right Field: Dwight Evans vs. Josh Reddick et al
So many of the ’78 Red Sox had much better seasons before and after ’78 that I’m starting to wonder how they won 99 games in ’78. Evans hit 24 home runs in ’78, but had his worst batting average (.247) and OBP (.336) of all his prime (age 25-30) seasons. In ’77, he was worth just 1.4 WAR in 73 games. He rebounded in ’78 to the tune of 2.9 wins, but wouldn’t really become a regular MVP candidate until 1981, when he started hitting home runs and drawing walks with the best hitters in the game. The Red Sox may have expected more from a right fielder in 2011, but they may not have known which one. JD Drew was worth 2.5 wins in ’10, but was injured and ineffective (-0.5 WAR) in ’11. Mike Cameron was a 3.6-WAR player in his last healthy season, but never contributed to the 2011 team. Darnell McDonald was a .3-win sub in ’10, but never found his bat in ’11. Rookies Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick fought for the backup role once Cameron was traded away, and Reddick settled into it with a big July. He had faded some by September, but still brought 1.6 WAR to the Red Sox in 2011. None of these options was Dwight Evans, even in a down year.
Edge: 1978

Designated Hitter: Jim Rice vs. David Ortiz
Here’s the matchup we’ve been waiting for. Rice was the AL MVP in ’78, hitting .317/.370/.600 with 46 home runs. He had been worth 4.3 WAR in ’77 and exploded for 7.0 in ’78, his age 25 season. Ortiz, at age 35, is strictly a DH at this point, but he still hits like Jim Rice. His .307/.397.555 slash line in 2011 is not far from Rice’s MVP line (David’s .951 OPS is 53% better than league average, while Jim Ed’s .970 was 57% better). Ortiz, though, was worth just 2.8 WAR in ’10 and 3.8 WAR in ’11. The difference between them is that Rice could run the bases (his 15 triples led the league) and played defense (he played all three outfield positions in ’78, designated hitting only 49 times).
Slight Edge: 1978

#1 Starter: Dennis Eckersley vs. Josh Beckett
I’ll rank the starters based on their WAR in ’78/’11, not their actual position in the rotation. Eckersley was 23 in ’78 and superficially had one of the two best seasons of his career, keeping his ERA under 3 despite yieldeing 30 home runs and striking out less than twice as many batters as he walked. His 6.4 WAR are largely a function of his 268 innings pitched. In ’77, he had struck out 29 more batters and walked 17 fewer, but had a 3.53 ERA and earned “just” 4.7 WAR in 247 innings. Beckett’s 2011 success has been a bit of a mirage as well, his 2.89 ERA belying peripherals more in line with his career 3.84 ERA. He was more impressive than Eckersley when he pitched, earning 6.2 WAR despite a more modern workload (193 innings). Even more, Beckett’s ERA exploded with two bad outings in late September, as the pre-September Beckett was a fringe Cy Young contender.

Eckersley’s durability in ’78 increased his value, but the Sox’s expectations of him going into September couldn’t have been as high as they were for Beckett in ’11.
Slight Edge: 2011

#2 Starter: Luis Tiant vs. Jon Lester
Tiant was the club’s ace throughout the ’70s, but 1977 had been a hiccup, as he earned just 2.5 WAR with a 4.53 ERA. His bounceback in ’78 was a large reason the Red Sox contended all year. He pitched 212 innings with a 3.31 ERA and a K/BB of exactly two to one, good for 5.2 WAR. Lester has been the club’s ace the past few years, earning 5.0 WAR in ’10 and 5.6 in each of the previous two seasons. In 2011, he’s been up and down, pitching fewer innings (185) with a higher ERA (3.49) than in any full season in his career. Still, his K/BB rate (2.49 to 1) is better than Tiant’s best season, and he’s been worth 4.7 WAR despite an ugly September.
Edge: Push

#3 Starter: Mike Torrez vs. Clay Buchholz
This one’s kind of a trick question. Torrez was not a good pitcher in 1977, walking almost as many hitters (86) as he struck out (102). A league-average 3.88 ERA in 243 innings gave him 2.5 WAR. He would pitch 250 innings in ’78, practically unthinkable for a middling starter today, but his 3.96 ERA was slightly below average, resulting in 3.2 WAR. Buchholz’s 2.33 ERA in 2010 led the American League when adjusted for park effects, but he compiled it in just 174 innings, resulting in 5.3 WAR. He pitched effectively early in 2011 (3.48 ERA, 60 K/31 BB), but hurt his back in July and has been on the DL ever since. He earned 2.2 WAR in 2011. By September, Buchholz was a nonentity, but he had been replaced by trade deadline acquisition Erik Bedard, a 1.7-WAR pitcher with a 110 ERA+ in 2011. While neither was especially durable, both were better than Torrez.
Slight Edge: 2011

#4 Starter: Bill Lee vs. John Lackey
Bill Lee had one great season in 1973 and was a serviceable, back-of-the-rotation starter for a decade. He accumulated 1.7 WAR in 1977 and 2.1 in ’78. At this point, it’s hard to believe Lackey was worth 15.6 WAR from 2005 to 2007, as his 2010 (1.8) was not good and his 2011 (a stunning -1.2) was downright abhorrent.
Big Edge: 1978

#5 Starter: Jim Wright vs. Tim Wakfield et al
Rookies Wright and Allen Ripley shared the number five spot in ’78, accumulating 1.9 and negative 0.6 WAR, respectively. The fifth starter position is a huge part of the reason the Red Sox didn’t clinch a playoff spot two weeks ago. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Alfredo Aveces, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, and Kyle Weiland took turns in this spot, none of them offering anything above replacement-level production. Wakefield was the worst of the group, but got the most starts, so we’ll use his negative 0.7 WAR in ’10 and negative 1.2 in ’11.
Edge: 1978

Closer: Bob Stanley vs. Jonathan Papelbon
The closer’s role has changed so much in the last 33 years that WAR doesn’t tell us much about two closers’ relative effectiveness. Bob Stanley earned 2.0 WAR as a hybrid starter/reliever in 1977. Then in ’78, he started three games, finished 35, saved 10, and threw 142 innings. He did all this with a 2.60 ERA despite walking almost as many hitters (34) as he struck out (38). All this netted him 3.0 WAR in 1978. Jonathan Papelbon returned to elite closer status in 2011 after a rough year (0.4 WAR) in 2010. This year, he pitched 64 innings (not even half of what Stanley pitched, but an average number for a modern closer) with a 2.69 ERA. He struck out 85 batters and walked just 10, saving 31 games and winning another four. All this was only worth 2.1 WAR, but it’s hard to ignore an 8.5 to 1 strikeout/walk ratio staring you in the face in the ninth inning.
Slight Edge: 2011

It’s hard to compare bullpens and benches, as the roles of both have changed so much over time. Jack Brohamer and Dick Drago played significant roles for the 1978 team and Jason Varitek, Daniel Bard, and Alfredo Aceves certainly deserve a mention in any discussion of the 2011 Red Sox, but I won’t try to compare the groups in terms of value.

Adding up the edges, we get five for 1978, two of them big and one slight. 2011 has seven edges, three big and two slight. If we look at just the 15 players highlighted above, the 1978 team earned 36.1 WAR in ’77 and 47 in ’78. The 2011 team earned 36.8 in ’10 and 45 in ’11.

Of course, the six pitchers mentioned above from the 1978 squad pitched a total of more than 1,150 innings, while the 2011 guys, based to some extent on injuries and ineffectiveness, but to a much larger extent on the changing role of specialized relief pitching, have thrown fewer than 850 innings. ’78 earned 21.8 of their 47 WAR from their pitchers, while ’11′s pitchers earned just 12.8.

To say that the 1978 Red Sox earned more of their success from pitching, while the 2011 team got by on offense would be stating the obvious. But it also understates how good this year’s team could have been. The offensive starters alone were worth 32.2 wins above replacement. With a replacement level bench and all replacement level pitching, they would almost have been a .500 team. Throw in Lester, a perennial Cy Young contender, Buchholz, the reigning ERA+ champ, and a great year from Josh Beckett, and this was one of the great teams in Red Sox history.

Yet, here they stand, trying to win one last game to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight season. That ’78 team was pretty great too, and they missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins.

But they got back to the playoffs. Eight years later.

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