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The Red Sox Are No Longer the ‘Loveable Losers,’ But Will Still Beat the NY Yankees

By Chris Bettinger

This new column will use statistics to analyze the Red Sox.

1918? Try 2004. The Curse? I don’t believe in cur-ses, at least not anymore. Trading away the Great Bambino? Doesn’t seem like such a bad move after all. The curse is over, and the Red Sox are World Series Champions. But soon the dust will settle, the prices of World Series merchandise will fall from ridiculously absurd to moderately absurd, and the 2005 campaign will begin.

But is all well in Red Sox Nation? Some argue that the Red Sox, having extricated themselves of the title “Loveable Losers,” have also lost their identity. They have been relegated to the level of every other major league team, right?

Wrong. The Red Sox still make up half of the greatest sports rivalry of all time. While Yankees-Red Sox games already look more like an Ultimate Fighting Championship royal rumble than America’s pastime, this rivalry keeps intensifying with no ceiling in sight due to escalating payrolls and the use of the Wild Card playoff structure. This year will be no different.

The 2005 season, which will start with the Unit versus Curt, will end with the Red Sox getting the best of the Yankees for the second year in a row. Why? Because the Red Sox simply have a better rotation.

Current theories regarding pitching suggest that pitchers are only able to control a few outcomes of a plate appearance, such as walks, strikeouts, and home runs, while statistics such as hits are left to chance. Therefore, an ideal pitcher has the ability to minimize walks and maximize strikeouts.

Curt Schilling, along with new acquisitions David Wells and Matt Clement, anchor a rotation with control pitching and the ability to limit the walks and rack up the Ks. The Red Sox feature two of the top ten active pitchers for strikeouts per nine innings (for a brief explanat- ion of statistics, visit http://www. baseball-reference.com/about/) in Schilling (5th; 8.78) and Clement (9th; 8.00). Schilling also accompanies David Wells in the top ten active pitchers for fewest walks per nine innings, at 2.041 and 1.918, respectively.

However, Schilling and Wells will both have to overcome age and injury, and there is still some doubt as to whether Schilling and his bionic (and Hall of Fame bound) tendon will be able to make his opening day start.

Questions have also arisen regarding Clement’s ability to handle pressure situations, especially in a large market such as Boston. These fears are not groundless, and the evidence lies within the statistics. Clement’s ERA jumped from 3.60 to 4.11 during 2002-2003 but returned to a more respectable 3.68 last year. The only significant difference in his performance during these years was his strikeouts per nine innings (9.44, 7.63, 9.45, respectively, from 2002-2004) while every other major pitching statistic remained relatively constant. His dependence upon his strikeout ability could be a weakness given the generally tougher lineups he will face in the American League East.

The Red Sox basically have three fourth starter level hurlers in Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield, and their newly-signed free agent, Wade Miller. Theo Epstein has brought a new element of flexibility to the rotation and minimized the potential impact of the possible injury of aging pitchers by having six starters. If there are no injuries during the season, Tim Wakefield could be used out of the bullpen as long relief. Arroyo should continue to improve under the tutelage of Jason Varitek (who, by the way, was by far the most important free agent in cementing the future success of the Red Sox).

Tim Wakefield and Wade Miller are definitely the wild cards for this season. If Wakefield can simply improve his strikeout ability, his previous performances suggest he should return to his old form and drop his ERA to around 4.00. Miller’s heavily incentive-based contract is yet another wise move by Epstein, which begs the question, “Why isn’t Theo running for president?” I mean, he already has secured the demographics of baseball fans, screaming college girls, and all of New England. Plus, unlike George W. Bush, he can actually run a baseball team.

Anyway, if I were in Theo’s shoes, I would see any positive contribution by the hard-throwing Miller as an added bonus to an already solid pitching staff. Miller, 28, is still relatively young and should benefit from being around veterans such as Schilling, Wells, and Varitek.

As long as the starting pitching staff keeps the strikeout rate high and distributes the innings to avoid injury, the Red Sox should make it through the regular season and deep into the playoffs for the third consecutive year.