Sports Nut

Spend Less, Win More

Did the 2013 Red Sox create a new model for building a winning team, or did they just get lucky?

Koji Uehara, No. 19, and David Ross, No. 3, of the Boston Red Sox, celebrate after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the 2013 World Series on Oct. 30, 2013.
Koji Uehara and David Ross celebrate after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the 2013 World Series.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This essay is excerpted from Baseball Prospectus 2014, published by Wiley. Also consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus for just $39.95 per year.

“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter are sometimes every bit the equal of the former. For some reason, this is a very difficult lesson for us to learn. We have I think a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t, and think of other things as unhelpful that are.” —Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

Why must Goliath stick to a Goliath’s game? What happens if a team armed with tremendous material resources ignores the players whom it is “supposed” to sign, and instead competes for the same players sought by those who lack material resources? This was the case study offered by the 2013 Red Sox, with not merely memorable but also startling results.

The Red Sox’ one-year transformation from a 69-win catastrophe to a World Series winner represents one of the most fascinating reversals in baseball history. There are few instances of big-market teams so rapidly repudiating their own operating philosophies, and even fewer of teams so rapidly identifying a successful alternative.

From 2009 to 2011, the Red Sox—tempted by what seemed like their tremendous proximity to a championship—slowly took on one mega-contract after another that seemed out of place with the team’s proclivities of the previous seven off-seasons. In just under a year, they signed John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5-million deal, extended Josh Beckett for four years and $68 million, traded for Adrian Gonzalez and agreed to the parameters of a seven-year, $154-million extension, and signed Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142-million deal. 

These were Goliath moves, with Goliath consequences. By 2012, all four players were underperforming their expectations dramatically, and the Sox proved vulnerable both to the bigger Goliaths (the Yankees) and the more nimble, less elephantine smaller-market competitors from Tampa Bay to Oakland. The Sox were cumbersome, their considerable financial resources maxed in a fashion that made the consequences of injuries to regulars drastic. Either a punch to the face from a larger foe or a well-targeted slingshot from a smaller one could topple the club. The Sox suffered plenty of each.

With roughly $75 million tied up in four players who were being paid like superstars without performing at such a level, the Sox were in a terrible place. Their payroll was functionally maxed out, preventing the team from acquiring players who could compensate for the injuries and underperformances of regulars. Given the need to get under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million in 2014 (a pursuit intended not so much to avoid the tax as to get back millions in revenue sharing), the Red Sox faced a very real possibility of being in a bad, bad place with their roster construction for years. 

When the Dodgers liberated the Red Sox from their three most cumbersome contracts (Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett) in one swoop, the Sox were more than happy to endure the miserable end of the 2012 season in order to have a chance to start over. And start over they did, without repeating the sins of their recent past.

Instead of concentrating their resources in big-ticket items, the Red Sox steered clear of free agents who required the sacrifice of a draft pick and/or a massive long-term commitment of five or more years. The team never seriously pursued Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, or Anibal Sanchez, instead building its 2013 roster (after resigning David Ortiz to a two-year, $26-million deal) through seven free agent signings of one to three years.

Drumroll … Shane Victorino: three years, $39 million; Ryan Dempster: two years, $26.5 million; Stephen Drew: one year, $9.5 million; Jonny Gomes, two years, $10 million; Mike Napoli: one year, $5 million (with incentives that pushed the deal to $13 million); Koji Uehara: one year, $4.25 million; David Ross: two years, $6.2 million.

The team outbid the Rays for Ross (their first signing), the Athletics for Gomes (their second signing), the Indians for Victorino, the Royals for Dempster … all while identifying players who a) had identifiable on-field value; b) did not cost the team a draft pick, meaning that at no point did the present compromise the future; and c) came with formidable clubhouse credentials that, in combination with the firing of Bobby Valentine and hiring of John Farrell, would permit the team to replace the dizzying and contentious environment of 2012 with restored commitment to nightly preparation.

The result? Uehara jumping into Ross’ arms with the organization’s third championship in 10 seasons.

That recap glosses over quite a bit, and in fairness the success of the approach couldn’t be predicted (and very well might not be possible to replicate with the same group of players under the same circumstances). Indeed, Sox officials gleefully acknowledged that they, too, were damn near as surprised as the fans who had dismissed most of the free agent signings as inadequate and/or cheap.

(One team official chuckled in the last days of the season that the near-universal reaction to the signings of Ross and Gomes to kick off the offseason was, “What the f–k are they doing?”)

While the Sox avoided using the terminology of “the bridge”—the desperately misunderstood metaphor for the team’s effort to sign veterans who could win while buying time for prospects to develop—it was precisely what 2013 was supposed to be. It was a year of restoration that had some chance of modest success (perhaps even a trip to the postseason if everything broke right), but that was meant to bring the franchise closer to what GM Ben Cherington kept describing as “the next great Red Sox team.” It was a lofty ideal with an unspecified timeframe, a private acknowledgment that modest gains in 2013 could set the stage for significant ones by 2014, when prospects like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts and Allen Webster and Matt Barnes might bring Cherington’s goal closer to fruition.

The Sox’s internal preseason projections pegged the team’s likeliest outcome as 86 wins, with a roughly 30 percent chance of winning 90 or more (meaning contention) and odds little better than 1 in 100 that the team would get to its eventual 97-win outcome. When they clinched the American League East, team chairman Tom Werner acknowledged that “we’re all in a bit of shock. I had a projection but it was less than this.”

He wasn’t alone. So what now? Given that a year that was expected to serve as a prelude instead became a pinnacle, do the Red Sox—even at a time when they represent a portrait of organizational health—have anywhere to go but down?

It’s an open question, but it’s clear that the team will rely on a different formula to try to replicate the results. Consider the clash between projections and reality, and all that had to go right to make it happen. Ortiz, whom the Sox thought would sit one or two games a week in deference to a 2012-ending Achilles injury, instead remained a constant and a force in the middle of the order, hitting .309/.395/.564 in 600 plate appearances and reclaiming October as his personal showcase month. Shane Victorino—despite a succession of injuries that forced him to abandon switch-hitting and instead hit exclusively right-handed in August—shed his disappointing 2012 campaign to post the second-best WARP of his career, and became the first player ever to drive in the go-ahead run in each of three postseason clinchers. Uehara defied his reputation of fragility to make history, recording the lowest WHIP ever while becoming the first pitcher ever to punch out at least 100 batters and walk fewer than 10. Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, and Stephen Drew all performed roughly to their career track records.

In other words, the Sox got performances that were either in line with or dramatically exceeded the expectations they’d set entering the year. The health of Uehara, Ortiz, and Napoli (whose deal was renegotiated from three years to one after the discovery of a degenerative hip condition) proved better than most best-case projections. That health made the Red Sox an incredibly deep team: Mike Carp became a valuable reserve who was never asked to assume a larger role. Daniel Nava enjoyed a breakthrough in part because he could be used largely in a platoon capacity. The Sox were able to create impactful depth almost entirely through players who were not in the organization in 2012.

The Red Sox are staying committed to a depth model rather than a superstar model (or, at least, a resource-exhausting superstar model), but they hope to change the source of that depth. As the postseason performances of both Xander Bogaerts and Brandon Workman suggested, the Sox believe the end of the bridge is nigh, with impact performers ready to emerge from a loaded prospect crop.

Bogaerts certainly appears ready to be a big leaguer, with potential superstardom awaiting him. Workman is a big-league-ready depth option in the bullpen or rotation. The team believes Bradley is good enough to play in the majors now. Others—the prized arms acquired from the Dodgers in 2012 (Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa), projected Pawtucket starters Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes, Double-A left-hander Henry Owens, catcher Christian Vazquez, etc.—are close.

That wealth of upper-levels talent underscores that the Red Sox’s successes of 2013 were not limited to the big-league club. The player development system also had an impressive year, building the foundation to make that success sustainable—altering the complexion of the depth that proved such a great asset this past year by tapping into a different, less volatile source.

Or, at least, that’s the easy-to-reach conclusion at the end of 2013. The reality is that even now, with the organization seemingly positioned well for years to come, it would be foolhardy to take for granted what the Sox accomplished this past year, or their likelihood of remaining atop the baseball world.

If hubris is a temptation, then the Red Sox need look no further than their 2007 championship club, a loaded team that offered a glimpse in the World Series of what appeared to be a title-worthy foundation for years to come. Rookies Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury ran amok while Jon Lester gave a glimpse of potential greatness with a strong performance in the World Series clincher—less than two months after rookie Clay Buchholz had thrown a no-hitter.

After that title, Sox officials wrestled with the question of whether the team was more likely to achieve a dynasty by keeping its full ensemble of prospects intact or by trading Ellsbury and Lester (along with Justin Masterson and Jed Lowrie) for Johan Santana. Yet but for the improbable championship run of 2013 the core of Ellsbury, Lester, and Pedroia never would have played in the World Series again. With the benefit of hindsight, such dialogue appears less than flattering (though it’s worth noting that the Sox did reach Game 7 of the ALCS in 2008), even if its basis was understandable.

And now? At a time when team officials hope they are on the verge of achieving the sustainable vision for the Next Great Red Sox Team, they are mindful of the unlikely and somewhat unplanned arrival of a great Red Sox team in 2013, a team whose extraordinary collective success might represent the team’s most dramatic forecasting whiff.

Even so, the team believes in the merits of the methods it followed, and appears determined to avoid falling back into the Goliath trap. The willingness to avoid getting drawn into a bidding war with the Yankees on Ellsbury offers evidence of that approach. “We still prefer shorter to longer-term contracts. We have a presumption against really long-term contracts,” said team president and CEO Larry Lucchino. “A lot of things we did last year proved to be successful, at least in the short term, so I think we’re going to behave accordingly going forward.”

Will that net another championship, or at least perennial aspirations for division titles? It remains to be seen. But at a time when the market is exploding with megadeals, if the Red Sox prove successful by forgoing the most expensive free agents in favor of modest free agent deals that address a range of deficiencies, then the startling turnaround of 2013 could become the model for other clubs going forward.

This essay is excerpted from Baseball Prospectus 2014, published by Wiley. Also consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus for just $39.95 per year.