071913-RedSox.mp3

In April, WGBH News  looked into whether the Boston Red Sox red-hot start was likely to translate into a victory parade in the Fall. At the time, the numbers proved inconclusive. But now, with more than half the season in the books, and the Red Sox playing better than anyone in the American League, we're taking a second look at the numbers to see what they tell us. 

-----------

As the Red Sox begin the second half of their season, they find themselves sitting atop their division with the best record in the American League, and the most wins in baseball.

It’s a far cry from the Bobby Valentine-led fiasco of last year, when at this time the Red Sox were a game under .500 - about to limp through a disastrous second half en route to their worst record in more than half a century. 

Red Sox fans couldn’t have asked for a better first half. But they don’t give pennants or trophies for first halves, we're looking at what the Red Sox record at the break might tell us about the their fate come October. 

Ben Alamar, the author of Sports Analytics: A Guide for Coaches, Managers, and Other Decision Makers is one of those real “baseball numbers” guys. How does he like the Red Sox chances of making the postseason?

"If we assume that their current winning percentage is perfectly representative of how good they are then they have a roughly 86-87 percent chance of making the playoffs," he told me. 

Print the playoff tickets! Clear your October schedule! Somebody order the a few thousand pounds of confetti…

Wait a second…did he just say ”if we assume?" Why do we have to assume? Why wouldn’t the Red Sox current winning percentage be representative of how good they really are?

For starters, let’s keep in mind that Alamar is a statistician. In his world there is no such thing as certainty – only estimates. That includes winning the World Series.

"You never honestly know really the 100 percent truth. Everything is sort of an estimate of team quality," he said. "And when you get to the end of the season we have a champion and everybody says that their the best team but from a statisticians point of view that’s not necessarily true."

There are reasons for caution. While 97 games is a large sample, it’s not large enough to know whether the Red Sox will really, truly be this good after all 162 are played.

As Alamar explained, they could have had a lucky first half. And while there's no way to know for sure if a team has been unusually lucky,  Alamar said there would be a few indicators.

"Are there a lot of players playing well above your career expectations for them? 'Cause if that’s the case then you might expect them to drop in quality during the second half of the season," he said.

But, Boston Globe senior assistant sports editor Scott Thurston said that hasn’t been the case for the Sox in 2013. 

"The guys that are your core players are all having seasons that you’d expect them to have," Thurston said. "You expect Ortiz to put up some solid numbers like he always has. Pedroia’s numbers are right where they should be. And if you look at Napoli you expected him to provide some pop…he’s leveled off a bit lately but still 11 homers, 58 RBI. SO those core guys in the middle of the order are right where they should be.

Alamar said another clue can be found in their record in one run games.

If for example they’ve had 15 games where they’ve won by one run and they’ve had only two games where they’ve lost by one run. There’s a certain amount of randomness in those one run games that you’d expect to even out over the course of the season so if that’s the case that may reflect that they were getting a little bit lucky during the first half of the season.

The Sox are 12 and 9 in one run games. Good, but it doesn’t really tell us much. And besides, Thurston disagreed that one run games should even out. He said the good teams win the close ones.

"You don’t come away with the record in baseball if you don’t play well in one run games, let’s put it that way," he said. 

So what should Red Sox fans be concerned about at this point? Alamar said it’s not whether the team has had a little bit of extra good luck during the first half.  It’s whether there is a spell of bad luck looming in the second half. 

"As a Red Sox fan the biggest thing you’d be worried about is losing a key member of the team," he said. 

All it takes is one or two players two tweak an elbow or a knee for the team's true quality to suddenly drop below .500, in which case the odds of going to the playoffs also drop significantly, Alamar pointed out. 

Thurston agreed that the biggest thing for the Sox looking forward is health.

"They need Ortiz to play every game, as he has," he said. "They need Napoli to be able to play and avoid a trip to the DL. They need to get Bucholtz off the DL and have him come back and be healthy so to me health is the number one thing for this team."

And, then – for the superstitious – there is the blackest cloud of all.  In April, we suggested you circle June 29 on your calendar, the date of the Sox game number 83. Every single Red Sox team that’s made it to the World Series has won their 83rd game. The Sox lost their 83rd 6-2 to the Blue Jays.

Not to fret. Keep in mind that, with a few weeks until the trade deadline, Red Sox management still has time to make their team even better. They could have an addition to the team that could raise the quality significantly, Alamar said. 

Thurston expects that to happen – as Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington addresses the one area where they have underperformed: the bullpen.

"The bullpen has really been kind of a mess. We’ll see at the trade deadline. I expect Cherington to be very active at the trade deadline with the team where they are. If they build up that bullpen depth they’re as good as any tram in the league."

Even if the Red Sox stand pat at the trade deadline - almost every number that actually matters indicates good things for the Red Sox in the second half. And barring the catastrophic – or the supernatural – it’s a pretty good bet that October baseball is coming back to Boston.