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Baseball Prospectus: Best of fearless forecasters

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Here is how Steven Goldman, editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus 2011, has described his 583-page book:

“As I said in our previous edition, this book serves multiple purposes. It can be a fantasy guide or a season preview, but to us, more than anything else, it is a snapshot of state-of-the-art thought on the art of building a winning baseball team.’’

Here is how I describe it: The most entertaining, always challenging, occasionally confounding, wickedly funny preview of a baseball season that you could possibly wish for. It is not for the statistically faint of heart, but just as you don’t have to be a theoretical physicist to enjoy Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, you don’t have to be a sapling on Bill James’ family tree to learn plenty from BP’s offering.

Goldman and his team of contributors (which no longer includes the inestimable Joe Sheehan, who now publishes his own, highly recommended newsletter) live to deconstruct anything that claims to be conventional wisdom on a given subject. Like David Ortiz’s claim, for example, that Fenway Park’s distant right-field fences have cost him “around 100” home runs over the years.

Team BP collected data, watched five years’ worth of video of balls Ortiz hit to the wall, sketched a diagram of where the Sox had contemplated moving the fences in, and concluded that Ortiz lost about 10 home runs in that span, not 100, or an average of 2 a year.

They can be unsparing in their criticism of the great (here’s BP on Derek Jeter: “For years, Jeter’s bat more than made up for the singles he allowed with his leather. That is still true, but the margin is shrinking and will soon vanish altogether”) and the obscure (On Daniel Nava: “On defense, Nava is lost: If his first instinct were to fall down and then run after the ball, it would look about the same as his current outfield strategy”).

But mostly, they’re smart, informed and bold in predicting how teams, players and prospects will fare in the coming year. Put it this way: It’s an oversized paperbound book too large for me to put in my laptop bag, but it goes with me wherever I go on the road.

I just picked up my copy of this year’s book, and here’s 10 other observations the BP crew makes on the Red Sox:

* On Jon Lester: “Lester’s 3.89 second-half ERA (was) more than a run higher than that of the first half, but the cause lay not with the pitcher, but in his defense -- as the team’s injuries mounted, Lester did his hurling in front of a cast of understudies, sand-lotters, and old Muppets the late Jim Henson had rejected as being too disturbing for Sesame Street.''

* On Josh Reddick: “Reddick’s strike zone is the size of Prince Fielder’s pregame spread -- it’s been expanding ever since he was called up to the majors in 2009, and he didn’t have much patience to give away in the first place ... The Sox have attempted to make Reddick lay off bad pitches for years now, so their patience may run out before he acquires any.’’

* On Hideki Okajima: “Initially the third option out of the pen, the Japanese lefty caused more damage than any other Sox reliever thanks to the aging of his ‘Oki Doke,’ a splitter/change hybrid that has picked up fewer whiffs with each passing year.’’

* On Jonathan Papelbon: “Despite his performance problems, calls to remove him from the closer’s role are misguided -- Boston would be better served by letting Daniel Bard act as a ‘relief ace’ in the highest-leverage situations while confining Papelbon to the relative safety of the ninth, where he can remember his impending free agency before he decides to throw another predictable fastball.’’

* On Jarrod Saltalamacchia: “Salty is capable of average offense and defense, a far cry from what was expected when he was the perceived centerpiece in the Mark Teixeira deal, but enough for Boston to get by on, assuming he follows through.’’

* On Dustin Pedroia: “The Red Sox were just two games out of first place and tied for the wild card at the time of his demise, and while losing their diminutive second baseman didn’t doom their playoff pursuit to failure, it played as large a role as any other injury. Now entering his age 27 campaign, he’s looking at the potential for a monster year here.’’

* On Jed Lowrie: “His defense remains a work in progress -- at second, Lowrie looks as if he attended Todd Walker University and graduated magna non range. Scouts don’t see him at third, but the Sox believe Lowrie’s bat will carry him anywhere, including shortstop. The bar for middle infielders is set so low that the Sox may be onto something ...’’

* On Adrian Gonzalez (and how his shoulder injury altered his approach): “He compensated for the ailment by using a more compact swing and a lighter bat after the injury began to bother him in May. This allowed him to sit back and wait for pitches he could drive to the opposite field -- the longer follow-through on a swing intended to pull for power caused prohibitive pain. Using this new approach, Gonzalez hit .350/.429/.541 against southpaws, a huge jump…’’

* On Carl Crawford: “Whatever he loses in turf hits -- he hit .305/.345/.460 at the Trop, .289/.330/.430 on the road -- he should get back from Fenway Park, whose irregular outfield fences might assist him with the occasional inside-the-park home run. The only negative, if you could call it that, is how the lack of room to run in left field may marginalize his ability to cover ground.’’

* On Terry Francona: “A Sox club that should have been devastated by injuries won 89 games, thanks to Francona’s willingness to utilize a large number of players he had never seen outside of spring training -- not that his depleted roster left him much of a choice.’’