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Math vs. Gut

by Jeff Alvord

It’s clear the Red Sox went entirely for defense/run prevention this season, but it’s not clear why. It seems their greatest need is a power bat. Did they feel defense is where they needed to improve most, or did they acquire as much talent as they could, regardless of whether it was on defense or offense?

Perhaps Mr. Epstein can shed some light on the subject: “We've always taken the approach that a run prevented is as valuable as a run scored.” You might recognize that as one of the tenets of sabermetrics (i.e. Moneyball).

As a closet fan of the seldom-cited stat of run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed over the course of a season), I looked up the past seven seasons, coinciding with Epstein’s tenure in Boston. I found two surprising and illuminating pieces of information:

Care to guess which of those seven seasons witnessed the Red Sox’ best run differential? Raise your hand if you said either 2004 or 2007. Good job. ‘04 and ‘07 actually saw the Sox’ best and second-best run differentials of the Epstein era with 201 and 184, respectively. (You can put your hands down now).

The second illuminating thing I found was that ‘04 and ‘07 differed greatly in how many runs were scored and in how many were allowed. The ‘04 team allowed many more runs than the ‘07 team (768 vs. 657), but they more than made up for it by scoring more than their ‘07 counterparts (949 vs. 867). That’s 17% more runs allowed and 25% more scored.

Getting back to Theo’s quote, he threw me a curveball when he continued, “I hope that we have a better all-around club than we had last year, when our defense was really our Achilles' heel. The challenge is to score enough runs to make that count.”

It seems that after showing his Moneyball stripes, he also shows his allegiance to old-time wisdom, sometimes called the gut, which says you need to be well-rounded. I have to admit I think he’s right on both seemingly contradictory points - the first, that scoring more runs than the other team is what counts regardless of whether you do it on offense or defense, and the second, that you have to be good on both sides of the ball. I find myself agreeing with him on both counts.

I’m a mathematician by trade, so I appreciate that often numbers tell you something your eyes can’t. But I also know that sometimes your gut - by way of your eyes - tells you something the numbers can’t. In this case, it’s basically that you can’t win a game on defense alone. In fact, I’m quite sure that in the entire history of baseball, no team has ever won a game without scoring. Here’s hoping the Olde Towne Team can do a lot of that this year.

1 comment:

  1. The Sox have followed the Moneyball plan. Not alot of big bats in this year's FA market anyway. As is, this team is the Wildcard. Not to mention if Gonzalez comes over in June. This team is fine.