A tale of two games.
Monday night's defeat of the Silver Spoons was a perfect example of how this team can win games - stay in it, take pitches, and get on base for Papi and Manny. Mirabelli showed why he is beloved by the fans by completing a cross-country odyssey in the nick of time to catch Timmeh, and do it well. The bottom of the lineup chipped in. Tito didn't do anything terribly stupid. When this team does what it should do, what it needs to do, it will beat anyone. On paper they are not overmatched.
Last night's debacle was the flip side of the coin, a failure of Homeric proportions. The Sox did everything wrong. Beckett (again) could not throw strikes. They let the bottom of the Jays order beat them. They sucked in some very creative and unbelievable ways. Tito made some bad decisions. And most importantly, Ortiz and Papelbon had a bad day. Watching the game, they kept battling back, but it almost seemed like they were trying to lose, that's how bad they were in key situations late in the game. It was painful.
There is a crucial difference between this team and the 2004 WC team. This team is not tough from 1-9 in the lineup. I am sticking with my assumption that Loretta is just slumping here, so really I'm talking about Gonzalez, who in the 9-hole is killing innings with regularity. The more generic issue offensively is that despite some decent skills and even some good numbers at face value, there is an inability for a lot of these guys to do good things in the right situations.
The new hot thing in baseball's statistical hemisphere is WPA or Win Probability Added. The short definition is that this statistic measures whether a player contributed to a win (positive WPA) or didn't (negative WPA). Each game has a net value of zero - the winning team gets +.5 and the losers get negative .5. There is a good layman's overview here at Hardball Times.
Fangraphs.com has been kind enough to graph the WPA values for every game, which is interesting. But the games also come with season totals, where some things really stand out. The Jays game and season stats (tabbed page) are here. The horrifying number that punches you in the nuts is Gonzalez's -89.4% total. That is simply astounding. To give you a benchmark, Kansas City, with only 5 wins all year, has two position playing starters in the -50s, and that's as low as they go. I haven't seen anywhere where WPA translates neatly into wins or even runs (although THT has AGon's Runs Created value at TWO for the season), but it is fair to say that he is offensively abysmal. On the plus side, he can't bunt either.
The other shocker (and it was worse before his key hit last night) is Lowell at -16.9%. On the face of it he's having a great season, and to be fair WPA doesn't account for all dependencies, but it is pretty obvious that Mike has been taking advantage of low-pressure situations to produce. Hopefully last night's success marks the beginning of a new age. Loretta is exactly the opposite at +35.1%. He sucks, we all know he sucks, but he has come up with some keys hits, including the walk-off shot against Seattle, and the big hit Monday against the Spanks, and they have bolstered his WPA for the season. When it boils right down to winning and losing, Loretta has found a way to mitigate his suckage. Does that prevent me from wanting to gouge his eyeballs out with a salad fork every time he hits into an inning-ending DP? No.
Just to keep things real, I should note that Gonzalez and Loretta currently have identical VORPs (Value Over Replacement Player) of -5.2. If you're not familiar with VORP, just stick with what you know of book-keeping: you don't want to be in the negative. The short story is neither of them wants to see Pedroia playing well in AAA.
One final note on WPA. Pitchers get a lot of credit for wins and losses, and rightly so, and WPA reflects this. The interesting thing to see in the Sox chart is that Timmeh, despite having a team-worst 1-4 record, looks better than Clement at 2-2. I point this out to show that how the team did is not ultimately reflected by WPA - it denotes what the player did to impact the odds that the team would win. This explains how the Sox can have a winning record in spite of AGon's -89.4%, and his sucking all light into his body at short.
So. Stats are fun, they're interesting, and they help to confirm or deny what we manage to see (or think we see) with our own eyes, but as a fan we have other considerations. For example, how do we FEEL about our team? At this point in the season it's hard to know. I know this much - currently this team is not as good as I thought they'd be. Yeah, it's early, but I don't have confidence that this team will win the games they need to. All teams have bad days, but when they need to win they find a way to do so, and thus far this team hasn't shown that, Monday's victory aside. So color me hopeful, but not confident.
When I go into that bar to watch the Sox play (as I am in SF and have no DirecTV) I want to order my first beer aggressively, not tentatively and like I'm Johnny Damon trying to hit the cutoff. Here, let me expound on how the Sox can impact that first transaction.
Scenario 1: Sox are winning more often that not. Papi and Manny are locked in, we're getting quality starts, and I know if it's close they have a good chance of drumming up some late inning heroics.
I enter the bar. I give my friends the Manny finger point, stride up to the bartender and say "I'll take a Sam Adams, and put the Sox game on that TV please. Nice shirt/haircut/cans."
Scenario 2: Sox are playing just under .500 ball. We're seeing a lot of long relief, and look to be trying to break our own single-season LOB record. Close games are an exercise in masochism, and I begin to wonder if Tito hasn't grown an extra chromosome.
I enter the bar. My friends all shake their heads - why do I do it to myself? I apologize to the bartender beforehand: "I'm gonna try it again. You can put the game on in the corner if you want. I'll take a Sam Adams please, and try to look over every so often - I might need you to turn the game off suddenly before I ram my head through the jukebox."
As you can see that is a pretty big difference. There are three big things that need to happen for the team to reach Scenario 1, and for me to appear normal in public.
First, Beckett has to be automatic. He can't be nibbling around the corners, walking guys and giving up run-scoring doubles to the #9 batter. When Schill and Beckett pitch, we should win, end of story. Clement can be a 50/50 guy if this happens, I'll just hate him.
Second, Loretta has to hit. This should be happening already, but it appears as if he may have gone crazy. Hopefully this is temporary. Maybe when Coco comes back he'll perk up again.
Third, Alex Gonzalez needs to adjust his batting stance so that the upper half of his body is horizontal across the plate. Our best chance to keep innings alive is for him to start getting pelted like an adulteress in the Old Testament.
Ok, I was kidding there. Number three of course is that everyone's favorite dynamo Coco Crisp makes his way back into the lineup. Like Damon before him, as Coco goes, so go the Sox. Of course then we have the problem of keeping WMPSG in the lineup. Wile E. is looking very good at the plate and needs to see more at-bats. Good problem to have I suppose.
There is still plenty of time for the Sox to turn this into a magical season. This team was built well. I am predicting that if the current struggles continue we will see Varitek step up and do some tough-love captaining. I look forward to that. Sometimes everyone needs a kick in the ass.