As of Monday morning, the Philadelphia Phillies have the best record in Major League Baseball. The Boston Red Sox are one and a half games behind them. Yet there is no race for the best record in baseball because the All-Star game has ceremonially ruined what could be an exciting fight for home field advantage. Anyway, my point: there is a case to be made that the Red Sox, not the Phillies, are the best team in baseball.
Everyone knows the Phillies have, by scouting and by stats, the best pitching staff in the history of history. The Phils’ power starts with their top three starters, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Of the 16.3 WAR the Phillies have accumulated on the pitching side, 12.7 or almost 80 percent came from those three guys. That’s called a top-heavy rotation. Those numbers illustrate the difference between the Phillies and just about every other team in baseball. If you want to beat the Phils in a short series you’re going to have to beat Halladay, Hamels and Lee at least twice and probably more than that.
By comparison, Boston’s top three pitchers have 5.6 WAR. There are reasons for this beyond the greatness of the Phillies starters. First, the Red Sox have used 26 different pitchers this season, more than any team in baseball. The roster shuffling stems from sub-par performances, injuries and bad luck. The Sox have lost each of their projected top five starters to various injuries. Daisuke Matsuzaka had Tommy John surgery and is lost for the year. John Lackey sat out a month dealing with shoulder, elbow, and personal problems. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester have both seen the 15-day DL, and no one knows when Clay Buchholz, sidelined by back injury will return this season, if at all.
So it’s hard to pick against the Phillies’ pitching for the rest of the year. But while the hurlers are great, the club’s offense is something less than that. Philadelphia is in the middle of the pack in run scoring at 393, about 90 ahead of the sad-sack Mariners and about 100 behind the MLB-leading Red Sox.
Sometimes teams who score lots of runs are, as analysts say, getting lucky. Not to say they aren’t good, but that they aren’t that good. The Red Sox are that good. Boston leads—or is second or third—the league in just about every offensive category, from batting average to on-base percentage to wOBA, home runs, RBIs and walks. They’ve done this without big free agent signing Carl Crawford, who has alternately been terrible and hurt, and with the worst production in the league from right field tandem J.D. Drew and now ex-Red Sox, Mike Cameron.
While Crawford’s been a bust so far, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has mimicked what Boston thought they’d get from the ex-Ray. After a slow start, Dustin Pedroia is back to his MVP form, David Ortiz is hitting like it’s 2008 again and Adrian Gonzalez is hitting like everyone thought he would once he got out of the graveyard called Petco Park in San Diego.
So, who’s better, the Phils or Sox? Boston is not only a better hitting team, but they’re also superior at defense. If you look at Fielding Percentage (FG%) you’d disagree as the Phillies are second in baseball in that category, one hundredth of a percentage point behind the Chicago White Sox and one hundredth of a percentage point ahead of the Red Sox. However, fielding percentage is an awful way to measure defense. Imagine that batting average did not include strikeouts. Everyone would be a .300 hitter, right? That’s what we’re talking about with FG%. It’s missing a crucial piece of information. There are numerous stats that measure team defense much more precisely than FG% and all of them have the Red Sox as a better fielding team.
And yet the difference between the two clubs is so slight that a key injury or big acquisition could throw the balance of power to one or the other. With the trade deadline less than two weeks away, things could change quickly. But for now, these two behemoths will battle it out, one mowing down hitter after hitter, the other scoring run after run, for two more months. That’s about the time we’ll have a real answer.