Unlikely success

One of the aspects of baseball that makes the game exciting is its unpredictability. The most rewarding experience as a fan happens when your favorite team or a player comes back from an impossible situation and triumphs against all odds. It’s what makes the 2004 ALCS, the Miracle on Ice, and Kirk Gibson’s home run some of the greatest moments in sports.

In baseball, the most statistically involved of the major professional sports, we attempt to predict and project everything. ZIPS and Steamer, for example, project stat lines for every player, and PECOTA uses its own player projections to predict win and loss totals for each team. And by using annual projections followed by actual performances to tweak their system, they’ve actually gotten pretty good at it.

But it’s often the instances in which projections are wrong that yield maximum entertainment. The most obvious example is the 2012 Baltimore Orioles. PECOTA projected they’d win 71 games and finish dead last in the AL East. Except they went on to win 93 games, finishing only two games back of the first place Yankees and earning a Wild Card berth.

A few teams are outperforming their preseason projections so far this season. The most notable is the Boston Red Sox. As a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation, I admit I’m not be the most objective observer, but the Red Sox’ success in the first half of the season has been incredibly impressive and exciting.

Coming off the 2012 season with 69 wins, the franchise’s worst record since 1965, most everyone picked the Sox to finish in the bottom of the division again this year. Instead, the team leads the AL East, has the most wins in all of baseball, and holds the franchise record for best record at the All-Star break.

But the team’s 58-39 record is even more impressive when you look at how it has been accomplished. For the first two months of the season, the Red Sox quickly rose to the top of the division on the backs of its two aces, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. At the end of May, Lester was 6-2 with a 3.52 ERA, and Buchholz was a league leading 7-0 with a 1.73 ERA. The Sox were 33-23 and in first place in the East. The key to the team’s success up to that point seemed to be the dominance of the front end of their rotation.

But not so fast. Since the beginning of June, Buchholz has been sidelined with a shoulder injury, and Lester has been the definition of terrible. Since his 6-2 start, he has two wins in his last 10 starts with a 6.15 ERA and a 1.7 WHIP.

Amazingly, in the 41 games without Buchholz and with abysmal production from Lester, the Sox are 25-16. No one would have predicted that.

There’s a story behind the Red Sox success without production from their top two starters. I am talking, of course, about John Lackey.

Lackey signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract before the 2010 season. From the very beginning of the 2010 season, he has failed to live up to his contract. Between his poor performance, his hostile demeanor during interviews, and his involvement in the 2011 “fried chicken and beer” September collapse, there’s a lot of bad blood toward Lackey within Red Sox Nation.

After missing the entire 2012 season with Tommy John surgery, Lackey has had a bounce-back 2013 campaign, especially in the last few months, when the Sox have needed him most. Since Buchholz went down with a shoulder injury and Lester’s performance has declined, Lackey is 4-1 in eight starts, with a 2.63 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP.

Like Red Sox fans, ZIPS projections did not see this coming. Lackey’s preseason projection was 127 innings over 21 starts, with an ERA of 5.24 and a WHIP of 1.51. He was projected to have a 5.53 K/9, a 3.19 BB/9, and a 4.8 FIP. A performance like this would amount to exactly one Win Above Replacement, which is 162nd of all pitchers.

But at the All-Star break, Lackey is, instead, on pace to make 27 starts with 168 innings pitched. His ERA is 2.78, and his FIP is 3.83. His K/9 is 8.34, and his BB/9 is 2.06. He has far outperformed his projections in every metric. If Lackey continues on this pace, he will finish the season with exactly 3 WAR, which would be 42nd among all pitchers. Although this is hardly the elite performance that Lackey was paid to provide, it’s a vast improvement over the first three years of his deal.

Lackey had already been paid $49.9 million of his $82.5 contract prior to the 2013 season. He is earning $15.25 million both this year and next. Also included in the contract was a club option that would pay Lackey the league minimum in 2015 if he missed “significant time” between 2010 and 2014 with an elbow injury. This option has vested as a result the elbow injury in 2012.

Over the first three years of his contract, Lackey amassed 5.6 WAR. So, the Sox have been paying him $8.91 million per win. If Lackey finishes this season with the 3 WAR that is expected, he will have made just over $5 million per win this year.

Now let’s make the assumption that Lackey will perform at his current level for the next two years. Including this year, he would be paid $31 million over three years, and be worth 9 WAR. That means he’d be paid only $3.4 million per win, less than half of what he was paid per win during the first half of his deal.

Even if Lackey continues to pitch as well as he has, he will not have lived up to his contract. But he certainly will have gone a long way toward that end. And Red Sox fans everywhere are enjoying the ride.

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  1. smoke poet said...

    Actually, based on the 5 mill per war, which was the free agent market value of 2 years ago, 3 mill would be a bit of a steal, and the 5 mill he’s finally providing this year is right on track. He’s not overpaid if he pitches like this or even a bit worse.

  2. Northern Rebel said...

    As a fellow card carrier, I’ve noticed his demeanor has improved. Winning solves a lot of problems.

    Scoring the most runs of any major league team, doesn’t hurt either.

    A valid closer, and dropping Mike Napoli to about 6th, to minimize the strikeouts he’s killing us with, would also help ensure continued success.

  3. TomH said...

    The Sox have had an amazing number of hits fall in when they bat. Iglesias has been noted, but their whole team is fueled by a batting average that appears to be unsustainable. Call it BAPIP or something else, but their superb offense is not driven by power or walks or speed or fewest KOs; they will not score as many runs in Aug and Sept.

  4. John C said...

    Lackey is healthier and in better shape than he’s been in many years. Remember, the reason they put in that clause with the extra year at the minimum is because they knew his elbow was hanging on by a thread and that he might need this surgery. The only mistake they made was not shutting him down during the ‘11 season and sending him for surgery then, because he wasn’t doing anything but hurting the team pitching hurt.

    As for the comment about the hitting, they do have some guys hitting better than their career norms, but there are others who are probably not hitting what they should. A team batting average of .277 is nothing special for a team in Fenway.

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