Trading Deadline 2014, Or What the Hell Just Happened?

Jon Lester

In a season of unexpected twists and turns, most of which ended up being blind alleys where the Sox got hit in the head with a pipe, last week’s trading deadline was easily the strangest. With almost a third of the roster exiting over a period of weeks, culminating in Thursday’s bloodletting, there’s a lot for Red Sox fans to process. As Chad Finn notes, the prevailing opinion isn’t as much anger or despair as confusion. Part of that is because the moves by themselves were so unanticipated, but it’s also because they suggest that they were just the beginning. To recap what just happened and reflect upon what might happen next, let’s ask and answer a few questions.

Q: The first and most obvious question is: literally, what the hell just happened?
A: Setting aside the DFA of Pierzynski, which was not particularly surprising, the Red Sox made the following moves:

  • (July 26) Jake Peavy traded to the San Francisco Giants for Edwin Escobar (Giants #2 pitching prospect) and Heath Hembree
  • Felix Doubront traded to the Chicago Cubs for a PTBNL
  • Stephen Drew traded to the New York Yankees for Kelly Johnson
  • Andrew Miller traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Eduardo Rodriguez (Orioles’ #3 pitching prospect)
  • John Lackey traded to the St Louis Cardinals for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly
  • Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes traded to the Oakland A’s for Yoenis Cespedes and the A’s competitive balance draft pick

Q: All of which means what?
A: Most obviously, that the Red Sox have officially thrown in the towel on the 2014 season – as they should have. The math says it isn’t technically impossible – yet – but also that it’s practically impossible. Which means that correct course of action was to use this year as a means to reload for future years.

The interesting thing, however, is that unlike traditional deadline trades, the centerpieces weren’t prospects. Every year the rumored trades are not the actual trades, but it’s usually because the names are wrong. This year, not only were the names wrong the entire type of player was different.

The Red Sox did acquire prospects in the Miller/Peavy deals, it’s true, but their most valuable assets in Lackey and Lester respectively were not used for the likes of the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson or the Pirates’ Josh Bell, but rather for current major league players. The $64,000 question is why.

Q: Is it because the Red Sox are playing for 2015?
A: That’s the most common narrative at this point, and there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that’s the case. Clearly the Red Sox aren’t going to commit to a full tear down and rebuild, nor should they with the roster of young, controllable talent they have assembled. And virtually every statement from Cherington, Farrell, Hazen or anyone else associated with the team has focused on the importance of 2015.

That being said, the Red Sox are both intelligent and intensely focused on value. It seems unlikely that if a a Top 30 or 40 MLB prospect was made available to them – with the six years of control attached to it – in return for Lackey or Lester the Red Sox would prefer wild cards like the deeply slumping Craig or the big time power but limited on base skills of a Cespedes. Maybe this year with all of the associated growing pains of Bogaerts, Bradley and so on has left them a little gun shy about prospects, but that seems improbable.

Which implies that the Red Sox simply were not offered that type of elite talent. Faced with a list of sub-Addison Russel type prospects who would be years away from helping in a best case scenario, the front office changed their tactics to focus on major league players, in particular what they believe to be a scarce market resource: offense.

Q: Why is offense down?
A: There are many potential explanations, and probably all of them play some role. From better drug testing to defensive shifts to an explosion of high velocity arms, offenses around the league are depressed. Not as much as in Boston, obviously, but there is no question that pitching is currently ascendant.

More problematically for the Red Sox, potential solutions aren’t exactly plentiful on the free agent market. There are decent hitters available, but nearly all come with question marks. Victor Martinez and Hanley Ramirez are old, Melky Cabrera comes with PED questions and so on. There are no true superstar hitters available.

There is, however, a lot of pitching.

Q: What kinds of pitching?
A: All kinds. Excellent starters in Lester, Scherzer and Shields. Pitchers with a few more question marks in De La Rosa, Kuroda, Masterson and McCarthy. Others with options like Anderson, Burnett, Chen (both Bruce and Wei-Yen), Cueto, Gallardo, Happ, Haren and Morrow. And so on.

Q: So the Red Sox appear to be betting that it will be easier to remedy their pitching than their hitting via free agency?
A: Or trade. Apart from Bogaerts and potentially Betts, the Red Sox lack elite talent. Owens is good, but not in the class of the Oriole’s Gausman and pitching prospects go. Swihart and Devers, meanwhile, are potentially elite but not widely regarded as being in that class yet.

All of that being said, in the wake of this week’s trades the system is now absurdly deep. Whether the Red Sox are able to package some of that quantity and return elite talent via trades remains open to question, but that’s certainly an avenue they’ll have to proceed.

Q: Why?
A: First because there are almost too many candidates. Consider the starting pitching candidates: De La Rosa, Escobar, Johnson, Owens, Ranaudo, Rodriguez, Webster, Workman and Wright. For the sake of argument, say two thirds of those fail: the Sox are still left with three potential starters.

That kind of depth is an asset, of course, but it also presents substantial roster construction challenges, as the Red Sox were reminded this year.

Q: What do you mean?
A: One of the inviolable rules of player development is that it is non-linear. Some players succeed immediately only to stumble later, others struggle for years before putting it all together. The best example of this currently playing is Mike Trout; the widely accepted best player in the game pancaked when first hitting the majors.

What this means for the Red Sox is that they’re probably not going to want to trust too high a percentage of their rotation or lineup to rookies. Youth will be an important, indispensable part of the Red Sox strategy now and moving forward, but you’re not likely to see them roll out a lineup of six rookies with four in the rotation next year.

Far more likely is that some of these assets are converted to talent with a more predictable major league performance track record.

Q: Such as?
Q: That’s the question, and it’s far too early to say. But let’s say that you offered a team a “Pick 5″ such as the club reportedly did with Seattle once upon a time:

  1. Cechinni
  2. Webster
  3. Marrero
  4. Vazquez
  5. Johnson
  6. Rodriguez
  7. Escobar
  8. Barnes
  9. De La Rosa
  10. Middlebrooks

A lower payroll team could miss on two of the five and still solve three roster spots with eighteen combined years of control attached. That’s a return everyone would have to at least think about.

Q: So how should Cherington be graded on his deadline moves?
A: It’s hard to assign anything but an incomplete. It was strange, for example, for a pitcher of Lester’s caliber – even granting the fact that he’s a rental, especially for a lower budget club like the A’s – moved for a player who A) doesn’t get on base particularly well and B) is only under contract for one more year.

But we don’t know what was available. And we certainly don’t know how Cherington plans to use the potential minor league surplus in the offseason.

At the very least, however, Cherington gets points for doing something.

Q: Meaning what?
A: Imagine being a Philadelphia fan, were Amaro Jr essentially stood pat with a club that is worse than the 2014 Red Sox, has far less prospect depth and two pitchers making north of $20M a year – one of whom may now be out for the season with an elbow injury.

While it was nice to see the brief bounce the Red Sox received coming out of the All Star break, the subsequent five game losing streak at least made the front office’s job simpler. Instead of sitting on the fence until the last minute, they were able to shift into sell mode with a week to spare. Cherington needed to take advantage of what will hopefully be a rare opportunity to sell, and he did.

How he fared is a subject we’ll likely be debating for years.

Q: What’s next?
Q: The rest of the season, obviously, will serve as an audition of sorts for Betts, Bradley, Middlebrooks, Webster et al. Bogaerts, his horrific midseason slump notwithstanding, isn’t going anywhere. But pretty much everyone else could be. Two months of at bats, particularly given that one of them will include September call ups, won’t make for a definitive evaluation, but it will at least give the major league coaching staff the chance to make their own assessments of players up close.

Entering the offseason, then, the Red Sox need to figure out what to do with their logjam of outfielders. Nava, Cespedes, Bradley, Betts, Victorino and Craig can’t all play at once. Who goes? Who stays?

The most important task, however, is figuring out the rotation. Given that it’s extremely unlikely that the Red Sox are going to roll out Clay Buchholz and four pitchers with an average of a year of service time per, where are the additional starters going to come from? Free agency? Trade? The return of Lester?

Q: Isn’t it “fanciful” that Lester returns to the Red Sox?
A: He probably doesn’t end up here, no. If they were going to retain him, wouldn’t they have already? Didn’t John Henry pretty explicitly say that the Red Sox weren’t signing big money deals for players over thirty? And when was the last time a player traded resigned with the team that traded him – apart from Cliff Lee, that is? Probably, yes, and I can’t remember.

But how many players would say, as they’re about to be traded away to another team, that they wouldn’t resign wherever they landed because their first preference would be to come back? Maybe it’s all just a clever public relations effort on the part of Lester’s agent, but the pitcher doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s going to read from a PR flack’s script. Which means that what he’s said before the season, during the season and after being traded might actually be true: he might really want to come back.

Which brings us to John Henry’s statement. Everyone seems to be assuming that if the Red Sox were unwilling to give him a hundred plus million dollars before the season, they’d be unwilling to do so after. In other words, they have a rule and that rule is never broken. What if, however, it’s more of a guideline than a rule. And what if one of the reasons they wanted to wait was to see if Lester got hurt or underperformed, or whether one of their minor league arms like De La Rosa or Webster took a big step forward? If that’s the case, then the variables in their equation have changed as Lester’s pitched brilliantly while the would be replacements have underwhelmed. And what if “The Monster” gets involved, as Lester’s PR importance and popularity increase his perceived value? And what if ownership looks at it not as Lester but Lester + Cespedes?

What if, what if, what if. That many in a row tells you everything you need to know about how likely it is that Lester returns. But the tea leaves say the chances aren’t zero, either, which in and of itself is remarkable.

Even if Lester were to miraculously return, however, Cherington has to replace Lackey as well. Which is why, even if the club is right and the pitching market is robust, he’ll have his work cut out for him.

In the meantime, I’ll sit back and see how he reassembles the pieces he’s acquired. Should be fun to watch.

5 Things I Would Do if the Red Sox Decide to Sell

As I write this before Sunday’s game has been played, the Red Sox are 10 games in back of the Blue Jays for the division. That’s bad. We’re also five back from a wild card berth, with all of the Royals, Twins, White Sox ahead of us in that race. That’s worse. If you’re looking for the bright side, well, we’re a game up on the Atros in the wild card race.

Which means that, yes, even the good news is bad.

All of that being said, it is, as I asserted to Chad Finn above, too early to write the 2014 Red Sox season off as a lost cause. Fangraphs, in fact, has the Sox’ odds of a playoff berth at 18.9%, which are actually better than they’re giving the Yankees (18.7%) who are a mere six games out. As much because the rest of the division has problems of their own as anything else – the Blue Jays are still the only team in the East with a positive run differential – the Red Sox are, improbably, not out of this thing. Which means that if you’re Cherington, you probably have to give them a few weeks yet to sink or swim.

But for the sake of argument, if they did decide to sell, how might they proceed? Finn tackled that question here, and his approach makes sense: don’t trade any real assets for duct tape and bailing wire, don’t trade John Lackey, and if you find a buyer who’s all in on Johnny Gomes’ intangibles, sell high. We differ on one important idea, but more on that shortly. Here are five things I would do if the Red Sox were to shift into sell mode.

Move Minor League Pitching

There isn’t much debate at this point, his walk rate notwithstanding, that Henry Owens is ready for Triple A. The problem is that there isn’t anywhere to put him, with that rotation to be fully stocked with Webster, Ranaudo, Barnes, maybe Wright – and soon enough, De La Rosa and Workman. Unless you think that a) all of those pitchers will end up in a major league rotation and b) you’re willing to live through their growing pains at the major league level simultaneously – much as the Braves once did, some of those arms should be moved. As to which ones, I would generally defer to the front office, but an arm like Workman would seem to have some value to other clubs, particularly in the National League. He throws strikes and has had major league success, which makes him potentially valuable. But he has never been particularly dominating, at least not in the way that Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster or, more recently, Owens have been at times. So while you can never have enough pitching, it might be time to begin converting that surplus into usable parts. The first team I’d call up, by the way, would be the Cubs. They’ve got positional prospects, but they’re light on higher end pitching talent. And Cherington does happen to know their President and General Manager.

Trade Jon Lester

This is where I break with Chad, and I do so with one big caveat. If the Red Sox are ultimately willing to extend themselves sufficiently to retain Lester – let’s say in the $120 million range, conservatively – they should do so now. If, on the other hand, their reported $70 million borderline slap-in-the-face initial offer is within hailing distance of their threshold, then they shouldn’t waste any time and find him a new home as soon as possible. The fact that he’s a pending free agent limits his value, of course, but I’d be surprised if a contending club didn’t offer value above the single pick that the Red Sox would receive in return for his departure. In short, if the club decides that a) they’re not going anywhere this season and b) that they are not in a position to sign him (regardless of whether we think they should), then the only logical outcome to me is c) trade him.

Trade a Reliever (or Two)

Of all of the asset classes that get moved at the trading deadline, none is so disproportionately valued as relievers. Clubs that feel that they’re a mere piece or two away will and do overpay for relievers who might be worth 30 innings down the stretch. Given that the bullpen, with the odd exception here or there, has been an area of strength for the club this year, this is a logical place to deal from. Add in the fact that, as discussed above, the Red Sox have something of a surplus of arms near the majors, moving a bullpen piece like Badenhop, Breslow or Miller for an outsized return while simultaneously creating an opportunity for one of the young arms to work their way into the majors seems like a no brainer.

Do Not Trade John Lackey

John Lackey has had his ups and downs over his career with the Red Sox, and as Jackie MacMullan intimated in an interview earlier this season, his personality hasn’t changed with his performance: even pitching well, he’s still prickly and ornery. But that’s not the important part. The important part is the “pitching well” bit. Fresh off his remarkable 2013 comeback campaign, Lackey has looked much like he did with the Angels: not a true ace, but durable, occasionally brilliant, and capable of delivering quality innings. Also? He’s scheduled to make $500,000 next year. To trade him, then, you’d have to receive not only the value for the type of pitcher he is at present, which is a very good one, but also for the savings he will represent next season – which is easily into the eight figures. Young stars are rarely moved these days because they represent such a unique combination of ability and a low price tag; that’s Lackey next season. So unless you get absolutely blown away, which is unlikely given his age, you’re not going to get comparable value for him. Trading Lackey, therefore, would be foolish. And that’s without even getting into the wider context, which is that – assuming Lester is not retained – a trade of Lackey would leave Buchholz and Doubront as your only major league starters under contract for next year.

Trade Stephen Drew

Somewhere Finn is shaking his fists at this notion, but I am no Drew hater. I would have him playing third instead Bogaerts, but I applauded the signing when it was announced. It’s no secret that I’ve never been much of a believer in Middlebrooks, and Drew does two things well that this team needed (and still needs): he’s solid on defense and he can hit right-handed pitching. Adding him was, in that respect, a no brainer. But he is also gone after this season, as the left side of our infield is getting crowded with potential candidates, from Bogaerts and Middlebrooks who we’ve seen to Cecchini and Marrero who we have not (or in the former’s case, seen little of). Which means that, again assuming the season comes to be regarded as a lost cause, you might as well maximize your return on assets while you’re able. What kind of package might the Tigers put together, for example, to extract both a high leverage bullpen arm and a tier one starting shortstop from us, for example? Such a move would address their two most glaring weaknesses, and could propel them to the title their owner is so desperate to achieve he’s signing Monopoly-money contracts. If you’re in the hunt, I agree that you don’t want to strengthen a rival, but if you’re not you’d hope they’ll extract every bit of value they can. Which means moving Drew.

Why Did the Red Sox Sign A.J. Pierzynski? Power

A.J. Pierzynski

It’s been an interesting day. I count four trades, two signings and one rumored signing. While I was writing this, in fact, the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury away for $150 million and change, which I need some time to process. And the night’s still young. Of those transactions, two concern the Red Sox. First, chronologically speaking, Boston has signed the most hated player in baseball, who also happens to catch, to a one year deal worth $8.25M. Several hours later, it seems that the last place Marlins have poached the World Series-winning catcher, who became a starter with us after Texas gave up on him.

The question of how all of this came to be is one that Red Sox fans are beginning to ask themselves in earnest, particularly those that were fans of Saltalamacchia’s. To answer this, let’s examine it in two parts. First, Part I: how – and when – did the Red Sox fall out of love with Salty?

Part 1

For Buster Olney, it was during the World Series:

And it’s certainly possible that he’s correct. Salty had a miserable postseason in general, putting up a .188/.257/.219 line over three series, but his 0-8 in the first two games plus a few game losing defensive gaffes put him on the bench for the duration. Which we’re told he was upset about, as if a starter angry about getting benched in the World Series counts as news. It seems exceptionally unlikely, however, that a club as progressive as the Red Sox would base any contract decisions off of a sample size of two games played. Regardless of how poorly he played. Or reacted.

One other possibility is that there is something in Salty’s medicals, as Olney had previously speculated – and his agent angrily denied. That seems at least plausible in light of the fact that the reported deal of 3/$21M is well south of the 4/$45M Fangraphs crowd-prediction, which are often surprisingly close.

In the end, however, the decision on Saltalamacchia – not to mention the hard pursuit of Ruiz – is best understood as a vote of confidence in their minor league talent. In an interview with WEEI in November, Assistant GM Mike Hazen discussed the possibility of going the minor league route as soon as this year should they not reach terms with a free agent catcher or trade for one:

I think we have three guys at the upper levels (Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez) we feel pretty strongly about. To what degree they’re ready I think is more of a question. All three have options, which certainly provides you flexibility where if one guy gets off to a pretty good start or has a pretty good spring training, you go with that guy. He starts to tail off a little, league starts to catch up with him a little bit and he’s struggling for whatever reason, and another guy is doing well in Pawtucket, you can get that guy while he’s hot.

What this tells you is that the Red Sox feel that between Butler, Vazquez, Swihart – and to a lesser extent, Lavarnway, given the way he languished on the bench – they will have a major league catcher in the next two years. The $8M+ Pierzynski signing, meanwhile, indicates that they’re just not willing to bet on the internal route in year one. How all of this plays out will obviously be determined by the performances of the four catchers this year and moving forward, but it’s easy to understand why the club would prefer to have a minor leaguer with six years of control at low dollars to a multi-year free agent contract.

What it also tells you is that they feel that not only will they find a major league catcher, they’re betting that he’ll be better than Salty. There has been much confusion about how the Red Sox could show so little interest in a catcher with 20+ home run pop, but the bet here is that the Red Sox are valuing the player based on less obvious metrics. Salty doesn’t get on base, for example, but neither does virtually every other catcher in the league. No, I suspect the Red Sox have quantified issues with his defensive performance that limit their interest. If you’re skeptical, remember that the Yankees lived with a starting catcher who put up a .566 OPS last year in part because of his pitch framing skills.

Faith in their minor leaguers coupled with a lack of same in Saltalamacchia, then, can produce but one outcome. By all accounts Salty was a good teammate and I wish him well, but I won’t lose sleep over his departure. Which brings us to Part 2.

Part 2

If we accept for the sake of argument that the Red Sox are valuing Salty properly and that their refusal to seriously engage or guarantee a third year is appropriate, the next logical question is what’s next? While that question has been hanging over the club since Uehara punched out Carpenter, we finally have our answer: A.J. Pierzynski is your new starting catcher.

The con’s to this deal are many. He’ll start next season at 37. Never a patient hitter, he appears to be getting even less disciplined as he ages. Here are the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone he’s swung at the last five seasons: 2009 (38.1), 2010 (41.7), 2011 (42.5), 2012 (43.5), 2013 (49.6). Is he cheating because his bat’s slowing down? Who knows. In any event, it’s not good. His OBP last year was an abysmal .297, and he walked unintentionally nine times last season. Nine times.

Then there’s the mileage: while many are listing his durability as a plus, with 12 straight seasons of 120+ games caught, it’s worth asking whether what’s left in the tank for a 37 year old.

So what gives? Was there simply nothing else on the market? As it happens there was. Ryan Hanigan of the Cincinatti Reds was traded to the Rays in a three team deal, as part of which Tampa inked the catcher to a 3 year, $10.75M deal. Hanigan is coming off of a miserable 2013 campaign in which he put up a .198/.306/.261 line, so why all the fuss? It’s called buying low.

Hanigan’s no Buster Posey, but he is gifted at one thing offensively: getting on base. Lifetime, he’s at .262/.359/.343. So while he’s relatively punchless at the plate, he does have a reasonable eye. Some argue this is simply an artifact of his batting in the eight spot in National League lineups, but his lifetime .382 OBP in the minor leagues suggests otherwise. Defensively, he’s the ninth best catcher in the major leagues at pitch framing according to Baseball Prospectus, and he even outlined his techniques for Grantland this past spring.

In short then, Hanigan is five years younger than Pierzynski, has 30 points of on base advantage lifetime and is better defensively. How did we end up with Pierzynski, then?

My bet is power. While Hanigan does many things well, hitting for power doesn’t happen to be one of those things. He’s giving up almost a hundred points of slugging percentage to Pierzynski, and sixty some odd points of Isolated Power (ISO). All things being equal, you’d probably still take Hanigan’s defense and on base skills, but all things aren’t equal. First, there’s the prospect cost. The named player, lefty Justin Choate doesn’t look like much with a 7.7 K/9 in low A as a 22 year old reliever. But Kevin Towers is also getting the Proverbial Player to be Named Later, which sounds more interesting than the typical PTBNL:

“Someone we value a lot as a prospect,” Towers said. “That’s not to take anything away from Mr. Choate, but I would say that probably is the key player in the deal.”

Even if the player cost ends up being neglible, however, my bet is that the Red Sox are concerned about the power up and down their roster. Ellsbury, as mentioned, is leaving for New York. ZIPS sees him slugging .425 next season. His likely replacement, Jackie Bradley Jr? He’s only forecast to put up a .375 SLG. And while Stephen Drew and his .443 number SLG may yet return given tweets like this, the Sox can’t bet on that. Instead they have to consider Xander Bogaerts their shortstop, who has considerable raw power but will also be taking his lumps as a 22 year old. ZIPS sees him putting up a .429, and that seems optimistic – though not as optimistic as his top comp, Troy Tulowitzki. Should Mike Napoli take Seattle’s money, meanwhile, or Miami’s, he and his ZIPS forecast .466 mark are most likely to be replaced by some combination of Daniel Nava (.384) and Mike Carp (.442). Even the players who are staying are expected to see some regression: Ortiz (.564 down to .552), Victorino (.451 to .420) and so on.

True, Pedroia’s expected to rebound from .415 to a more characteristic .425, but up and down the lineup the Red Sox can be expected to display less power. He’s no Ortiz, but the average major league catcher slugged .388 last year; Pierzynski has bettered that mark in 15 of 18 major league seasons, and owns a .428 mark for his career. Power isn’t everything, but with projected deficits from multiple spots versus last year’s roster, it has to be made up somewhere.
Throw in the fact that Pierzynski is left handed, and thus a better complement to the right handed Ross than right handed Hanigan, and you have a new starting catcher.

Is it the right move? Tough to say, but after last year I’m willing to go on a little faith here.

Best Red Sox (Regular) Season Ever?

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After a prolonged absence, this all that I likely need to say: this has been the most enjoyable Red Sox regular season of my lifetime. The regular season conditional is necessary, of course, because of those four days in October and what came after. But as has been covered to death, coming off the last month of 2011 and every month of 2012, from The Collapse to the Valentine Nightmare, expectations entering 2013 were at an all time low. As the end of the sell out streak, and the continuing lack of bodies in seats, indicates.

But while the Red Sox may feel compelled to give seats away for $1 in their questionable Get Beard promotions, the reality is that every Red Sox fan I know feels the same way I do. Fans have loved this season, and this team. Freed of the burden of expectations – whether they’re budget, performance or otherwise driven – it’s been enough to simply enjoy the games. Even the losses, at times. Observers of the Yankees noted for years that the regular season had become in many ways a joyless pursuit. By signing virtually every big ticket free agent, the club not only implied to its fans that the postseason was its manifest destiny, but that it was the World Series or bust. Which is an impossible expectation for any team, given that if the postseason has taught us anything, it’s that it’s a crapshoot. Any given team on any given day and so on.

By 2011, the Red Sox season was as joyless as the Yankees’, thanks to what Theo Epstein has referred to as “The Monster.”

As it turns out, however, winning when you do not expect to win is sweet indeed. And virtually no on expected the Red Sox to win. Better than three dozen ESPN analysts projected the final season standings. None picked the Red Sox to win the AL East. For my part, as the record shows, my absolute best case scenario for the Red Sox this year was a wild card berth – a chance to play a single winner take all game at the end of the 162 game regular season. Worst case, that we would lose less than 93 games. And while I will probably never be happier to be wrong, I wasn’t the only one to undersell this year’s team. The front office, in fact, had it pegged for an 86 win season – borderline wild card contender, in other words. According to their projections, the probability that the Red Sox would win 90 plus games was roughly 30%. So of course the standings show 94 wins and counting.

How did we get here? Considerable luck, not unlike the Baltimore Orioles of last year – that part, at least, I got right. It’s not every season, after all, that you come from behind 30 times and win 20 games in your last at bat. If we don’t win half of those 20 games, after all, we’d be having a very different conversation today. But the games were won, and thus was the division won.

It wasn’t all luck, however. When Ben Cherington wasn’t trading for more relievers to blow up in his face, he was actually doing pretty well – Amherst grad or no. Rejecting the comically bad ideas from local media to replicate the Carl Crawford debacle after just having escaped from it by signing Josh Hamilton, the second year Red Sox GM instead pursued a strategy similar, again, to those moneyballing A’s. Rather than concentrating your assets – and your risk – in a few star players, Cherington used the money that some would have had us deploy towards Hamilton to instead acquire Dempster, Gomes, Napoli, Victorino and, later, Peavy. Unless you’re a fan of $123M players with four years left on the contract who put up a .245/.301/.431 line, you’re probably going to argue that Cherington did the right thing. And given the standings, the other AL East teams are likely to back you up.

What does all of the above mean as we head into the postseason? Absolutely nothing, of course. In the second season, everybody’s win count is reset to zero and, more importantly, anything can happen. Just as they over-react to failure, many in the media are over-rotating on our divisional success. Which is a mistake, because it’s far from clear that the Red Sox are, in fact, built for postseason success. For all that their depth served them well for the long regular season, it’s equally possible that their lack of star power on offense could be exposed when facing high end pitching in the playoffs. For example: the Red Sox have tied or losing records versus seven teams this year: five are potential playoff opponents (BAL, DET, KCR, OAK, TEX). And even against the teams they beat more often than not, the numbers point to challenges. Of the 19 games against Tampa this year, we won 12 of them. That’s good. The fact that we hit .208/.280/.333 in doing so, on the other hand, is less good.

But there’s time to worry about all of that later, and besides, the playoffs are a crapshoot. Right now, all that we have to do is enjoy the last days of the best regular we’ve seen these many years past. Because it’ll be over before you know it.

The Five Claims of the #KeepJBJ Reporters

Russia_2244 - Rasputin

One of the more interesting aspects to the #KeepJBJ campaign is the degree to which reporters – ostensibly impartial observers – have been sucked up in the frenzy to start the 23 year old in the major leagues. Or at least wish to give that appearance; Pete Abraham, for example, who gives every appearance now of being fully on the bandwagon, earlier implied it was something of an act:

Maybe they’re just trying to sell papers by siding with the masses, maybe they’re legitimately convinced it’s the right thing to do. It’s difficult to say with any certainty, which in my opinion is a failure on the part of the reporter, but that’s a subject for another day.

Should Jackie Bradley Jr end up making the club tomorrow – as is widely expected – it would not be, as Marc Normandin put it, the end of the world. It would, however, be a mistake.

The #KeepJBJ subset of media covering the Red Sox are building their case using a few different claims that are worth examining in more detail.

Claim #1: “This isn’t about Spring Training statistics”

See, for example, Rob Bradford’s denial here:

While it’s true that in the piece mentioned, not to mention all of the other pieces written in favor of keeping Bradley on the roster, Spring Training statistics are rarely if ever mentioned, there’s one important question none of the reporters (to date, anyhow) have cared to answer: if Bradley was hitting, say, .215, would we be having this conversation?

The answer, of course, is no. It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine a grassroots #KeepJBJ campaign if the outfielder wasn’t putting up numbers reminiscent of Bonds in his prime. The glove is great, undoubtedly, but so was Che-Hsuan Lin’s.

As Curt Schilling (of all people) outlines here, however, these numbers are utterly meaningless. Unfortunately, as Keith Law observes, it is very difficult for some to accept the fact that Spring Training statistics are useless.

While none of the reporters in question will admit it, then, the fact remains that each and every one of them is basing their belief that Bradley should remain with the team on his spring numbers. Even if they say they are not.

Claim #2: “Service time shouldn’t be an issue”

Rob Bradford argues this explicitly here, and Pete Abraham (among others) has made the same argument on Twitter.

In this, at least, the #KeepJBJ party is technically correct. Assuming that Bradley Jr is kept, he could be sent down for 20 days later in the season to gain the additional year of service time.

There are a few problems here, however:

  1. Injuries could make it impossible for him to be sent down. If there’s any team that should know this, it’s the Red Sox. Know how many games Ellsbury played in 2010, March through May? Nine. Say he gets hurt again (he’s already jammed an ankle). Or Victorino. If you leave Bradley in the minors for nine games, this is not an issue. If you’ve started him in the majors, on the other hand, it’s extremely unlikely he would be sent down for the required 20 games, and thus you lose a year of Bradley in his prime.
  2. What if his performance prohibits you from demoting him, either because his agent (Boras, remember) would file a grievance as Rob Neyer suggests or because he’s playing well enough he can’t be sent down. If you’re Pete Abraham, you say, essentially, so what? Personally, I think we need to be smarter than that.

Claim #3: “The Red Sox can’t afford to start slow”

This is easy to address: the Red Sox can, in fact, afford to start slow. Even after their horrific start in 2011, it took a historically unprecedented collapse to keep them on the outside looking in. In a perfect world, of course, they get off to a hot start. If they don’t, however, baseball is, as they say, a marathon, not a sprint. This is basically an opinion masquerading as a fact that reporters are using to justify another opinion. So we can toss it.

Claim #4: “We need to have the best team on the field”

If we assume for the sake of argument that the Red Sox need to have their best nine players on the field for the first nine games, the question is whether Bradley’s part of that best nine. To argue that he is the “best choice” for the roster spot, you have to assume that he’ll hit – which is certainly possible. It’s equally plausible, however, that he doesn’t. Everyone cites Mike Trout, for example, as justification for starting Bradley in the majors. Know what he did in his first 40 games at the major league level? .220/.281/.390. Pedroia’s another common comparison. In 2006, he hit .305/.384/.426 at Pawtucket. The 31 games after his promotion to the majors? .191/.258/.303.

The single most consistent truth of player development is that it is rarely linear. This particular claim assumes – with essentially no evidence but his spring training numbers – that Bradley will be an offensive asset to the major league roster rather than a liability. While it’s certainly possible that that’s the case, taking it as a given – as the reporters are – is a mistake.

Claim #5: “The Red Sox need Bradley to put people in the seats”

Let’s say that the Red Sox send Bradley to Pawtucket for the requisite nine games. Know how many home games he’d miss? Three. The Sox’ first two series are on the road. They can probably expect to sell out their home opener, so even if they keep Bradley down we’re effectively talking about the gate for two games. It seems a little silly to justify a year of service time for two gates, particularly so early.

The Net

Viewed dispassionately, this is a simple decision. Even if Bradley was the second coming of Mike Trout, the Red Sox could survive without him for nine games. More to the point, if they can’t, the season is lost anyway and there’s even less incentive to start him in the majors. Even Trout couldn’t make that big a difference in a mere nine games.

Trading nine games from a 23 year old Bradley for one hundred and sixty two from a Bradley in his peak years is nothing less than folly. It pains me to make the case against Bradley, because even setting the talent aside he seems like a personable, poised kid who gets it. But his performance this spring – which is to his credit, to be clear – has seemingly cast a spell over everyone in Florida. My hope is that Cherington has maintained his distance, and sees the risks associated with an immediate promotion clearly. It’s one thing for reporters to get swept up in the performance and cavalierly dismiss the financial implications; it would be quite another for the man who’s charged with balancing the short and long term health of the organization.

Years from now, no one’s likely to remember the names of the reporters who agitated on behalf of starting Bradley in the majors. The General Manager who made that decision, however, and cost the club a year of service time in exchange for nine games, well, he’s likely to be raked over the coals by the same media personalities that are campaigning for his promotion.

Jackie Bradley’s Time is Not Now

2012-07-02 18.11.30

The case for Bradley is simple: He’s been the best player in camp since the day he arrived. After going 3-for-4 with a homer on Monday and adding another hit in his lone at-bat yesterday, he finds himself hitting .536 (15-for-28). Add flawless outfield defense, the fact that he’s homegrown, and the lack of compelling alternatives, and this decision should be a slam dunk.” – John Tomase, “Jackie Bradley’s Time is Now

Like many fans and reporters alike, John Tomase of the Herald has apparently been swept up in the Jackie Bradley Jr hysteria that is sweeping Boston at the moment. Even implying that the Red Sox should send JBJ to the minors elicits reactions like these:

It’s easy to see why people are excited. From his appearances on everyone’s top prospects lists to his .423 OBP over two minor league seasons to his defense to his personality, it’s hard not to like the kid. As Chad Finn suggests, he might be “the fun story of camp.”

While it’s ok to get excited, however, it’s important not to get carried away. ZIPS, for example, believes that Bradley would produce something like a .249/.329/.367 in the majors right now. Given his defense and speed on the bases, that might actually still be a useful player. A savior, however, it is not.

“But,” you say, “he’s hitting .536/.629/.714 this spring!” Well, let’s talk about Spring Training statistics for a minute. Working as far back as MLB’s statistics allow us to go – 2006 – here are other notable Spring Training performances.

  • 2012: Putting up a .447/.512/.816 for a 1.327 OPS over 18 games, Darnell McDonald outhit Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks and Adrian Gonzalez. His closest competitor amongst regulars is Cody Ross who slashed a .370/.431/.826.

    McDonald’s final numbers over the 38 games before the Red Sox released him? .214/.309/.369.
  • 2011: Amongst players with a minimum of 14 games in Spring Training – three more than Adrian Gonzalez played – Oscar Tejeda hit .360/.407/.640. That was better than Ellsbury, Gonzalez, Pedroia, JD Drew and Marco Scutaro.

    His final 2011 line? He never appeared in the majors, and split last season between the Pirates and Red Sox AA systems.
  • 2010: For players appearing in a minimum of 16 games, Jeremy Hermida was the best hitter on the roster, posting a .450/.500/.650 line.

    In the 52 games before his release, Hermida put up a .203/.257/.348 for the Red Sox.
  • 2009: Filtering to a minimum of 40 at bats, Jeff Bailey’s 1.055 OPS narrowly edged out Chris Carter’s 1.038 and Nick Green’s .938, but easily bested Pedroia’s .913, Jason Bay’s .909 or David Ortiz’ .892.

    Jeff Bailey’s final line in 2009? .208/.330/.416. It would be his last as a big league player.
  • 2008: Over a minimum of 35 at bats, Joe Thurston’s .874 OPS was enough to eclipse Drew, Manny Ramirez and Ortiz.

    How did Thurston do in 2008? He played four games for the Red Sox and hit .000.111/.000.
  • 2007: Do you remember Eddie Rogers? If so, you probably live near Pawtucket. He still managed to outhit Ortiz and Ramirez, however, with a .922 OPS.

    After appearing in a handful of games for the Orioles the year before, Rogers never played for the Red Sox in 2007 and hasn’t appeared in a major league game since.
  • 2006: Dustan Mohr might be a more familiar name, as he appeared in more than a 100 major league games from 2002-2004. With the Red Sox in the spring of 2006, he hit .350/.422/.650 for a 1.072 OPS. Ortiz only put up a .970, Ramirez a .944, Mike Lowell a .916 and Kevin Youkilis an .880.

    In 21 games for the Red Sox that season, Mohr put up a .175/.233/.350 line. He would appear in the majors for 7 games the following year, and that was it.

The point here, of course, isn’t that Bradley Jr is Darnell McDonald, Oscar Tejeda, Jeremy Hermida, Jeff Bailey, Joe Thurston, Eddie Rogers or Dustan Mohr. He’s better than all of them. In terms of their accumulated WAR totals, he’s exceedingly likely to end up being better than all of them combined.

No, the takeaway here is simple: spring training stats are meaningless. Basing decisions off of them, therefore, is foolish. And if you take away the spring numbers-based belief that he’ll be a well above average offensive player, the case for starting him in the majors collapses.

Having never played above AA – and having slumped noticeably in the second half there last year (.350/.424/.463 vs .228/.346/.423) – the 23 year old is likely to benefit from more consistent at bats in the minors. Just as important are questions of service time. While some dismiss these as minor issues, if you believe that Jackie Bradley Jr is the second coming, exposing him to free agency a year earlier than you have to is silly.

The only rational course of action for the club is to start him in the minors, likely at AAA. If he struggles, as could easily happen (development is rarely linear, remember), he would do so in an environment where the focus is on development rather than wins and losses. And if he puts up a 1.343 with Pawtucket, you’ve sacrified a few weeks of playing time to gain a year of service time. In a year where even the most optimistic forecasts have the Red Sox competing for one of the two wild card berths, that’s not only the logical choice, it’s the only choice.

Jackie Bradley Jr is a true prospect, and has done nothing in his career to argue that he won’t be an adequate successor to Ellsbury, but please, skip the Mike Trout comparisons. As a 20 year old, Trout put up a .326/.399/.564 line in the American League. When he was 20, Bradley was hitting .368/.473/.587 – for the University of South Carolina.

Trout couldn’t wait, but Bradley Jr can. So can we.

An Open Letter to Joe Sullivan, the Assistant Managing Editor of the Boston Globe

boston.com

Dear Mr. Sullivan,

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I only criticize because I care?” If you have, you’re probably aware that in most cases it’s little more than an excuse to take some pot shots from the cover of feigned sincerity. In my case, however, it’s genuine. I really do care.

Fifteen years ago when I lived in Manhattan, I would get up every Sunday morning, rain or shine, and walk four blocks east and two blocks south to News of the World, just below Columbus Circle, to purchase a Boston Sunday Globe – the only day they carried the paper. This might not seem like a major sacrifice, but for a twenty-something fresh out of college enjoying the bright lights and late nights of New York City with some of his closest college friends, I can assure you it was a challenge. And the markup was 150% of the cost of the actual paper.

Later on, of course, there was the internet – and boston.com/sports has been my browser homepage ever since I first bought a boxed copy of Netscape Navigator. But back in those days, you had to actually walk somewhere to buy the newspaper. I wouldn’t have my first cellphone, a Motorola Star Tac that didn’t get the internet – or text messages – for another year.

I was willing to make that trek every Sunday, however, because it was worth it. Actually, that’s understating things. I had to visit News of the World every Sunday because not reading Peter Gammons’ Sunday Notes column was simply not an option. For any serious baseball fan, and particularly a Red Sox fan living behind enemy lines, Gammons’ column was the type of addiction that I assume smokers would understand perfectly.

Times have changed, however. Your site is still my browser homepage, but if I’m being honest, that’s more of an artifact of my loyalty than an expression of my interest. There is next to no chance I would walk anywhere to buy a copy, even if you weren’t on the web. The simple fact is that your content is less relevant, in part because you don’t have anyone covering baseball at the moment who’s a must read as Peter Gammons was (and is).

Which you’re probably thinking is understandable: there is only one Gammons, after all. There’s a reason he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a bit like criticizing Matt Clement for not being Pedro Martinez. And that’s fair. But the simple fact is that what Gammons represented has been, as far as I can tell, lost at your newspaper.

Think back to the days before the Sunday Notes columns ran. Coverage was generally regional, and carefully preserved the us and them dichotomy of fan and club. Every GM was Oz, only there was no Toto to pull back the curtains. Until Gammons did, of course. His Sunday Notes column not only expanded a fan’s field of view to something beyond the local nine, it erased the barrier between us and them. It wasn’t like ‘inside baseball,’ it was inside baseball.

It was also groundbreaking and innovative. These days, however, the innovation at your paper seems to be limited to inventing new ways to artificially inflate pageviews, an effort which has yielded those unfortunate “slideshows.”

Remember the heady days of Gammons, or Bud Collins, Will McDonough, Leigh Montville, and Larry Whiteside reinventing how sportswriting was done? What Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Armstrong has called the greatest sports staff ever? Those days are gone. The last man standing from that group, sadly, the otherwise estimable Bob Ryan, is now reduced to churning out columns that are the rough equivalent to “get off my lawn, you kids!”

All of which is bad enough. What’s worse is that your writers not only seem to understand that they aren’t innovators, they actually take pride in it. Your senior baseball writer, as an example, is not only prone to frequent, basic factual errors, he’s aggressively outdated in both his thinking and analysis.

He is, in short, the type of writer ESPN’s Keith Law was talking about in a post-MVP vote podcast here (MP3):

“The problems of old media, that there’s this refusal to change, this reluctance to embrace not statistics but new ways of looking at the game.”

And while some would argue that this is just another “new school / old school” divide, the fact is that there are quote unquote old school writers who have had no issue updating their views of the game. Writers like your own alumnus, Peter Gammons. Here’s Law again:

You know I always took a lot from Peter Gammons. If you look at his writing over the last ten years, I’m not sure if I could name another established, highly respected baseball writer who has revolutioned the way that he looks at the game, and he had a ton of experience. You watch his writing now and how he talks about players, and it’s totally different from 10 years ago, cause he was open minded, and you have to be willing to learn and willing to change your opinions, and let your opinions evolve over time as you talk to other people, particularly people in front offices who look at the game differently.

The divide here, then, is not simply age: it’s a willingness to innovate, to learn, to challenge assumptions in search of more fundamental truths. It’s Journalism 101, in other words. A class that some of your writers, unfortunately, seem to be failing.

None of this would be a problem, of course, if other outlets followed your lead, as they once did. If the market only offered traditionalist viewpoints like Cafardo’s or the bitter-faux-populist columnist schtick like your Dan Shaughnessy, your paper would be in fine shape. Certainly your distribution alone guarantees you relevance, at least in the short term.

But the problem for you is that the market hasn’t remained static. Other properties, competing for the same attention your writers appear to take for granted, have kept up with the front office revolution so well documented in Moneyball that it’s become a cliche. There’s a reason why General Managers, when asked what they read, do not answer “The Boston Globe” as they certainly would have when Gammons was on staff, but Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs. And there’s a reason that major media properties like ESPN have begun to either hire writers from these properties (like a Keith Law) or license their content (as is done presently with both Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs). That reason is that they, like the front offices they have learned from and might end up working for, are the future of the sport. The future that your writers are not only unfamiliar with, but disdainful of.

Lest I lose you with all of the doom and gloom, it’s not all bad. Chad Finn, for one, is a brilliant and regrettably rare combination of “accessible rationality.” Peter Abraham, when he’s not flashing back to his days on the Yankees beat, has grown into his role and brings a lot to the table. Never mind. But in outlets like WEEI with Alex Speier – easily the best and most informed writer in the market, at present – the Globe is facing increasingly stiff competition not just nationally but locally as well.

I know, as does pretty much everyone these days, that this is very probably the worst time in history to be in the newspaper business. Your job isn’t easy. I don’t know this for sure, because you and I have never spoken, but my guess is that you like those Zedo pop-under advertisements on your site even less than I, the reader, does. You’re probably not a big fan of those silly slideshows, either. The cost of talent is going up, while people’s willingness to pay for the content they produce is in free fall. The New York Times has put your organization up for sale. Life is tough.

But I’m sure, like so many of the athletes your staff covers, that you’re a competitor. I take as a given that you’re not happy with the graph above, and want Sports to do whatever it can to help right the ship. To do that, however, you’ll need to understand why so many of us baseball fans are reallocating our precious free time from Boston.com to Fangraphs.com or WEEI.com. We’re leaving, in part, because your reporters are telling us that they don’t care enough about the sport they cover to learn what they have to to cover it properly. Surely you can understand the frustration of readers who are better informed on changes in the game than the professionals who cover it?

In closing, I hope you’ll remember what I said above: I criticize because I care. It was the Boston Globe, in the person of Peter Gammons, that made me the baseball fan I am. For that, I feel that I owe the paper a debt I can never repay. But there’s only so much my one Boston Globe home page can do. To win back your audience, you’ll need to make some changes. Some of these changes will be painful, particularly for those who are dead set against changing.

Your paper built the best sports staff in the country once before: there’s no reason you can’t do it again – if you can keep an open mind to notes like this one.

Sincerely,

Stephen O’Grady

What Would Nick Do

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In today’s Boston Globe, senior baseball writer Nick Cafardo questioned the approach taken by Ben Cherington in the offseason towards constructing the 2013 roster. Specifically, he focused on the $60M freed up in the Dodger transaction – which is looking more and more like a coup, incidentally. Instead of pursuing the more measured approach of finding credible but second tier free agents to fill the multiple holes on the roster, Cafardo would have had us pursue higher profile talent. Here’s what he would have done.

Sign Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal [Cafardo’s error: the actual contract value is $123M] (which he got from the Angels). Sign Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million deal (which he got in Washington). Re-sign Cody Ross to a three-year, $26 million deal. Sign David Ross and Dempster.

That comes to about $62 million for 2013.

Instead of signing Drew, they could have used Jose Iglesias at shortstop. He is the superior defensive player, and the Sox actually would have been playing one of their prospects in the majors.

This approach proved popular with the segment of the population that calls into talk radio this morning; as one caller put it, “I look at that potential lineup and say WOW.” For both Cafardo and those who like his proposed roster, a few observations:

Josh Hamilton

  • Josh Hamilton’s first and second half splits last year: .308/.380/.635 vs .259/.323/.510
  • Hamilton’s average games played the past four seasons: 123
  • Hamilton’s salary as a 35 and 36 year old: $30M

Adam LaRoche

  • Adam LaRoche’s OPS the past three seasons: .788, .543, .853
  • LaRoche’s age for the contract: 33 and 34 years old
  • The draft choice LaRoche would have cost the Red Sox: #44 (valued at $1.16M in 2012)

Cody Ross

  • Cody Ross’ OPS the last four seasons: .790, .735, .730, .807
  • Ross’ line away from Fenway Park in 2012: .232/.294/.390
  • Ross’ line against right handed pitchers: .256/.308/.422

Jose Iglesias

  • Jose Iglesias’ projected line for 2012 (ZIPS): .251/.289/.311
  • Iglesias’ actual line for 2012: .118/.200/.191
  • Iglesias’ lifetime stats for AAA (189 games): .251/.302/.287

In other words, what Cafardo would have the Red Sox do:

  • Sign a 32 year old high ceiling player who fell off dramatically in the second half and has a history of both injury and substance abuse to a contract that would pay him $30M in his 35 and 36 year old seasons.
  • Forfeit a million dollars of draft budget and the 44th selection for a 33 year old first basemen who’s had an OPS below .800 two out of the last four seasons.
  • Commit three seasons at an above market rate to an outfielder who can’t play defense, can’t hit righthanded pitching and can’t hit away from his home park.
  • Install as the starting shortstop a player who is, for all intents and purposes, an automatic out at this point in his career.

Reasonable minds may differ, obviously, on the wisdom of the Red Sox’s course of action this offseason. But for all that I question Cherington’s valuation of players such as Gomes or Victorino, I’m very glad he rather than Nick Cafardo is responsible for putting together the roster.

The 2013 ZIPS Red Sox Projections: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Will Middlebrooks

In the wake of the 2013 blizzard that dumped two plus feet of snow on most of New England at velocities upwards of 60 MPH, one could be forgiven for failing to notice that Fangraphs had finally released the entirety of Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections for the Boston Red Sox. But given that plenty of words have been written touting PECOTA’s 86 win, tied-for-second place in the AL East forecast for the club, it seems reasonable to assume more than the storm is at work. Specifically, Red Sox fans might be underreporting ZIPS because it forecasts a great deal of underperformance from our roster.

ZIPS is conservative by design, which is a useful counter to overly optimistic forecasts such as Bill James’ projections. Even so, the future ZIPS anticipates is not one kind to the Red Sox. If ZIPS projections for the starting rotation hold, in fact, it’s likely that the club will struggle to reach .500. It’s not all bad, but it’s definitely not good. Here then are the highlights and lowlights from the ZIPS 2013 numbers.

The Good

The good news from ZIPS is easy to summarize.

  • Pedroia will remain an effective, star-caliber player, putting up a .289/.357/.456 line from second base. That plus his defense makes him the only 5 win player on the roster.
  • Ortiz will remain an elite offensive force at .294/.288/.558, although the optimism here is tempered by ZIPS belief that Ortiz will be limited to 418 at bats. In spite of his DH status, ZIPS expects Ortiz to be the second most valuable position player at 3.4 wins. Which is a compliment to Ortiz and a criticism of our roster at the same time.
  • Napoli, though not projected to rebound to his 2011 levels of performance, will easily best the .275/.325/.425 line our first basemen put up last year at .248/.347/.488. Even so, the combination of his defense and limited playing time – presumably due to injury – leaves him just shy of a two win player (for context, Adrian Gonzalez was worth 2.6 wins to us last year, in spite of the fact that he was traded in August).
  • The playing time forecast for new shortstop Stephen Drew is actually relatively positive: ZIPS sees him accumulating 450+ at bats. The problem is that his expected offensive performance (.250/.322/.396) is a far cry from his 2010 peak (.278/.352/.458). Still, given that our shortstops hit .234/.272/.359 last year, Drew represents a considerable upgrade – assuming he’s healthy enough to field the position adequately.
  • David Ross was told that he would play more than a typical backup with the Red Sox, but ZIPS sees him getting fewer at bats, in fact, than last season: 163 versus 196. When he plays, though, he’ll be much better than a typical backup, getting on base 31.5% of the time and slugging .414. Given that our starting catcher (until he’s traded, anyway) didn’t get on base even 30% of the time last year and isn’t forecast to this year, I’ll take it.
  • ZIPS doesn’t love Koji Uehara’s health, calling him for to contribute a mere 39.7 innings, but it loves his performance when he’s on the field, anticipating a 2.72 ERA/2.80 FIP with 49 strikeouts against 6 walks. The fact that he’s the only pitcher ZIPS really likes is the real problem here.
  • One quick aside: ZIPS thinks Jackie Bradley Jr. could put up a .249/.329/.367 line in the majors right now, which would be more than adequate if the reports on his defense are even partially correct. He won’t make anybody forget Ellsbury’s 2011 season, but that’s not too far from what Ellsbury was when he came back last year. Good depth to have.

The Bad

  • Ryan Lavarnway already has questions as to whether he’ll stick at the catcher position – at least outside of the Red Sox organization – and his 2013 ZIPS forecast makes it improbable that he’d have a career at anywhere else on the diamond. Here’s hoping his .243/.311/.388 projection is light across the board, particularly because ZIPS sees him getting 500+ at bats. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, it seems at least possible that ZIPS is overweighting his major league numbers from last year; Lavarnway’s average on base percentage in five minor league seasons is .376.
  • If you were wondering whether Iglesias would ever hit, ZIPS is not likely to inspire much confidence. Last season, ZIPS forecast an anemic .251/.289/.311 line for Iglesias, which he actually underperformed – subtantially – with a .118/.200/.191 in 77 plate appearances. This season ZIPS expects little change with a .254/.298/.304. Everyone is rooting for the kid because his glove is that good, but the chances that he’ll ever be adequate at the plate are growing dimmer.
  • It’s easy to expect Jon Lester to improve this season, because established major league pitchers of his age do not typically drop off a performance cliff that quickly barring injury. Even if you buy into the regression to the mean theory, however, there are some alarming trends in his numbers that act to throttle expectations. Here are his K/9 numbers the past four years: 9.96, 9.74, 8.55, 7.28. And his average fastball velocity over that same span: 93.5, 93.5, 92.6, 92.0. Add it all up and ZIPS forecasts an improvement, but a modest one: a 3.97 ERA and a 3.91 FIP over 188.3 innings (which would be his lowest innings total since 2007). If Lester doesn’t throw something close to 200 innings, at a better rate than that, we’re likely in trouble.
  • If ZIPS is low on Lester, it’s lower on Buchholz. Which is certainly understandable given his early season struggles last season. What’s interesting about ZIPS is that it holds with Buchholz’ historical ability to outperform his FIP – often substantially so. Five out of his six seasons in the majors, Buchholz has underperformed his FIP. ZIPS continues this trend, forecasting an ERA of 4.16 against a FIP of 4.43. It also doesn’t expect Buchholz to exceed the 150 IP threshold, which he’s done two out of the last three years (2011’s back fracture held him to 82 IP). Like Lester, the Red Sox need him to outperform this projection if they are to contend.
  • ZIPS actually expects Doubront to improve somewhat from 2012. While the left hander started strong last year – and was actually the club’s best starter in stretches – his overall line was impacted by late season fatigue. In 2012, he put up an ERA of 4.86 and a FIP of 4.37. ZIPS expects a 4.59 and 4.36 this season. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s forecasting only 120+ IP from Doubront, down from last season’s 160+. Given the already existing concerns about his innings jump last season and the fact that he reportedly showed up to camp overweight, the ZIPS projected innings mark could be more accurate than the Red Sox would like.
  • One of the few bright spots last season, Junichi Tazawa was stellar after his call up posting a 1.82 FIP over 44 IP with 9.20 K/9 and 1.02 BB/9 rates. It’s hard to expect a pitcher to improve on those numbers, but ZIPS forecasts a substantial regression. Specifically, it calls for a 3.94 FIP over 80 innings, with 74 strikeouts but a spike in walks to 30. Still a useful reliever, but hardly the revelation he was last season.

The Ugly

  • If there was one forecast it would be reasonable to question, it might be Lackey’s. Like all projection systems, ZIPS is based off on performance metrics, and Lackey’s are compromised at least in part by the fact that the last season he was on the field he was pitching with a damaged elbow ligament. It’s reasonable to expect a bit more upside, then, than projection systems will anticipate. The problem is that Lackey’s numbers are so poor, even outperforming them will leave him significantly below average. To begin with, ZIPS expects very little in the way of innings pitched: 127, or twenty starts or so. Over that span, ZIPS expects an ERA of 5.24, a FIP of 4.86 and a K/9 of 5.53 against a BB/9 of 3.19. ZIPS expects Lackey, ultimately, to be worth less than a win, to be less valuable than Rubby De La Rosa, Craig Breslow, Franklin Morales and Brandon Workman. If all of that is true, the Red Sox will have a serious hole to fill in the rotation.
  • The good news for Bard is that ZIPS expects him to throw 65+ innings at the major league level. The bad news is that it doesn’t expect him to throw well. ZIPS sees Bard putting up a 4.50 ERA / 4.68 FIP, which are not the numbers of a premier reliever. And while it projects something of a recovery in his strikeout rate – 8.05 K/9 (8.81 career) – it believes he’ll continue to have a problem with walks. Specifically, it expects him to walk 41 batters over those 66 IP (5.59 BB/9) – an entirely unacceptable number for a high leverage relief pitcher. If true, Bard’s going to be toiling in middle relief if he’s lucky, and more likely to be living in Pawtucket for a few months.
  • There was a great deal of skepticism in the industry following Cherington’s signing of Jonny Gomes, and ZIPS shares it. For the player commonly assumed to be the regular left fielder, ZIPS expects only 391 plate appearances. Which would be a blessing if his line approximates the forecast .240/.332/.423. That’s acceptable if you’re a catcher; it’s not a starter in left field – at least for a contender.
  • Perhaps the player that ZIPS is hardest on is the sophomore third baseman Will Middlebrooks. SBNation’s Marc Normandin, among other writers, believes that Middlebrooks is an anomaly that projection systems are ill-equipped to handle. As written here in December, I’m highly concerned about his approach at the plate. If ZIPS is correct, those concerns are appropriate. ZIPS expects Middlebrooks – whose 2012 line of .288/.325/.509 masked signs the league was adjusting to the rookie – to regress to .255/.292/.434. His defense and a projected 19 home runs make him almost a two win player, but a third baseman who can’t get on base even 30% of the time (the average major league third baseman last year had a .323 OBP) is not a positive. As indeed so little of the 2013 ZIPS projections are for the club.

The Most Unforgivable Sin of Baseball Writing

Old School Google

There are many reasons that sabermetrically inclined writers and fans are frustrated with their old school counterparts. The Hall of Fame voting debacle is probably Exhibit A, in which the very same people whose job it was to report on issues like steroids but failed to do so for decades now sit in self-righteous judgement of the “cheaters” who ruined the game by increasing attendance and inflating revenue. But for me personally, their most unforgiveable sin is their intellectual laziness.

Consider modern metrics such as FIP or WAR. As combinatorial, and more importantly – evolving – metrics, there are legitimate questions to be asked about their relative importance, design and efficacy. Handed down by God to Moses, these were not. And if the legacy sportswriters had considered them carefully, and discarded one or all for failures they perceived after studying them in detail, few if any in the sabermetric world would complain. These types of criticisms, after all, are relatively standard in sabermetric communities, where debates still rage on the merits of Baseball Reference’s WAR versus Fangraphs’ version.

Instead, however, the old school (with notable exceptions like Peter Gammons) treats them with disdain, undeserving of legitimate consideration – where they will deign to acknowledge such measurements at all. The origins of this attitude are variously attributed to fear, ignorance and arrogance, but whatever the cause the manifestation is laziness. A failure to study the latest research in your field – whatever field that might be – is nothing more or less than an intellectual failure. This is bad enough.

What is worse, however, is that many long tenured baseball writers don’t seem to be motivated to do even basic research – forget the advanced metrics. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, an unfortunate successor to Peter Gammons’ Notes column at that paper, is a case study in this behavior. Here’s Fire Joe Morgan, six years ago, on a piece of Cafardo’s:

Would like to just make note of some ordinary, run-of-the-mill shoddy research in a major metropolitan newspaper, The Boston Globe.

If this was a one time event, so be it. It’s a bit unexpected to see at a major media outlet, which has editors in place to catch such things, but mistakes happen. This is, however, something of a habit for Cafardo.

  • In September his Sunday column suggested that BJ Upton could be a trade candidate this offseaon. Upton was, in fact, a free agent, and eventually signed with the Braves. A simple check of Cot’s Contracts provides information on current contractual status for any player in the league.
  • In this past Thursday’s mailbag, when questioned about potential pitching project signings to complement the major league staff, he answered with “You have guys like…Ben Sheets out there as well.” Which would be fine, except that Ben Sheets retired in October after a brief comeback attempt with the Braves. A Google query of “Ben Sheets” returns the retirement story in the top five results, assuming one missed the announcement at the time.

But it was an answer about Rick Porcello that grated the most. In the mailbag, Cafardo was asked about a potential Detroit/Boston swap involving Andrew Bailey and Porcello. And in the interest of full disclosure, this was a trade I myself had proposed:

Detroit is rumored to be willing to trade the young starter, who has been negatively impacted by the club’s poor defense, and having lost Valverde to free agency they’re currently projected to enter the season as a division favorite backed by a rookie closer who throws hard but has little idea of where the ball is going. Match that to our current bullpen surplus, which includes two capital C closers, and it would seem that there’s at least the basis for a conversation between the two teams. Which, to his credit, Cafardo agrees with. But then he went on to say:

Don’t know how good Porcello will be as he seems to be declining.

Declining? Based on what? Here are Porcello’s FIP numbers for the four years he’s been in the league:

  • 2009: 4.77
  • 2010: 4.31
  • 2011: 4.06
  • 2012: 3.91

So, the exact opposite of a decline. What about his strikeouts (K/9)?

  • 2009: 4.69
  • 2010: 4.65
  • 2011: 5.14
  • 2012: 5.46

Low enough to be concerned overall, but certainly not indicative of a decline. Maybe his walks are spiking? Here’s his BB/9:

  • 2009: 2.74
  • 2010: 2.10
  • 2011: 2.27
  • 2012: 2.25

That’s not it: he didn’t walk that many his rookie year, and he’s never again walked even that many. And as far as declines go, this year was better than last. Has he become home run prone, perhaps? How many is he giving up per nine?

  • 2009: 1.21
  • 2010: 1.00
  • 2011: 0.89
  • 2012: 0.82

So he’s been given up fewer home runs on a rate basis every year he’s been in the league, in other words. Not that Cafardo would trust it, but what do Porcello’s WAR numbers look like?

  • 2009: 2.0
  • 2010: 2.0
  • 2011: 2.7
  • 2012: 2.9

According to the advanced metrics, then, Porcello’s value is climbing rather than declining. As a traditionalist, however, Cafardo is probably most concerned with ERA. Maybe that points to a decline?

  • 2009: 3.96
  • 2010: 4.92
  • 2011: 4.75
  • 2012: 4.59

It is true that Porcello has never again equalled his rookie ERA (which advanced metrics indicated was unsustainable), but it is categorically untrue that his ERA indicates a decline. It’s evidence of the contrary, in fact. After a sophomore slump, Porcello has improved in every year since, in nearly every measurable statistic. Which you would never know if you read – and relied upon – Nick Cafardo. Undoubtedly, there are conversations being had in Boston right now about how it would be unwise to trade for Porcello in light of his “decline.”

This to me is a fundamental violation of the trust journalism depends on. Shouldn’t a reader be able to trust that a simple declarative statement from a senior writer at the newspaper with maybe the best history of sports journalism in the country roughly corresponds to the known facts? How can readers take anything Cafardo says at face value at this point, when his history demonstrates conclusively that neither he nor his editors are doing even basic research? This seems to be the definition of contempt for the reader.

When old school writers claim, then, that newer fans or writers are angry about being stuck in the proverbial “mother’s basement,” then, don’t buy it. We’re frustrated because the people charged with informing the public about the game of baseball – and who style themselves as its gatekeepers – have become too lazy to even use Google, and are proud of that.