Why the Red Sox Front Office is Doing What it's Doing

If not for the good folks from Baseball Prospectus – via ESPN – I’m not sure who would be putting our front office into context. It seems clear that the Boston writers, with but a few exceptions, can’t be trusted with the task. Witness their breathless, hysterical escalation of the non-news of Theo’s “bridge” comment. Or, more importantly, their continuing inability to explain the big picture of how the front office operates.

For the casual, and perhaps not-so-casual fan, then, I offer the following question and answer series. Cribbed in part from conversations I’ve had with people less interested in obsessed with the club than yours truly, it attempts to answer that simple question: what is the front office is doing, and why?

Q: Ok, so what is the front office’s plan? Mazz says it’s “pitching and defense.” Is that true?
A: The truth is that there is no plan. Or more correctly, there is no single plan. The front office seems to recognize that the composition of championship clubs varies, as the material differences between our 2004 and 2007 clubs demonstrate quite adequately. Rather than have a fixed view of roster construction, then, the front office will dynamically readjust their plans based on the players on hand, those available via trade or free agency, and perhaps most importantly, inefficiencies in the current marketplace.

Q: So it’s not always going to be “pitching and defense?”
A: No. Bill James told us as much.

“I believe it’s accurate to say that it was our perception that that was where the value was in this year’s market, in this year’s set of conditions. It also had to do with the needs of last year’s team. Last year’s team needed some defense, we had to invest in some defense, and the market seemed pretty good for it. But to say that’s the new thing and it will be that way from now on, I wouldn’t do that…

I think we understand we’ve had good defensive metrics now for five or six years. When I started with the Red Sox we didn’t have them, we had kind of primitive ones. We’ve got pretty good ones now for several years. It has reached the point at which not only us but a lot of teams are confident about that now and are starting to let the money flow toward gloves, which is a good thing…

So I wouldn’t say it’s a one-year correction at all. But I also think next year’s market will be entirely different. It may well be that next year, we’ll look at our team and say we need to put our money in thunder.”

Q: They’ll adapt, in other words?
A: Precisely. The Lackey signing is Exhibit A here. As Theo has acknowledged, the Red Sox did not head into the offseason with the intent of pursuing that pitcher. When the opportunity presented itself, however, the Red Sox considered it, and layered it into a series of other moves that took the club in a different direction. It might have been Plan C or D, rather than Plan A.

Q: How is this different than what other clubs do?
A: Well, it’s not that different from what enlightened clubs might do, but it’s certainly not what the writers expect.

Q: How do you mean?
A: Consider how many times writers talked about our offensive shortcomings this winter. What was their expectation? That we would sign either Jason Bay or Matt Holliday – had to, in fact – because our needs were clearly on offense. That was their expected result. And what was the actual result? We signed neither, allocating our dollars instead to the best free agent pitcher available, strengthening an area of the club that wasn’t terribly weak to begin with.

Q: Why not pursue offense?
A: It’s not that they didn’t. We know that they bid for Bay, and we’re told that they were in on Holliday as well. But the front office doesn’t let artificial perceptions of need impact their judgments about player value. Meaning that they’ll pay Bay or Holliday this season, or a Teixeira last season, what they believe he’s worth – no more than that. Rather than overpay a Bay or Holliday, they’ll improve the club in other ways that they believe represent better value.

Q: So there’s really no plan?
A: If anything, the front office seems focused on what Theo talks about above: balance. They want to have good pitching, good defense, and good offense. But they appreciate the reality that all of those areas factor into winning, not just offense, so if they can’t improve in one area at a reasonable cost, they can improve in others and still achieve the goal of improving the club. Ultimately, they want to get good value for their investment, whatever that may be.

Overpaying an offensive player just because you may need offense doesn’t represent good value.

Q: But aren’t there times when they can’t improve in other areas? Where they’ll be desperate and have to, say, field a shortstop?
A: Certainly. That’s when you end up with a Julio Lugo on a four year deal. After that debacle, I’d guess that the front office will do everything in its power to avoid finding itself over a barrel in that fashion again. Even the Mike Lowell deal can be viewed similarly: without any good internal third base candidates and a poor market, they didn’t have much choice but to commit more years to Lowell than was prudent. And now, like Lugo, they’re likely to be paying him to play elsewhere.

In a perfect world, the Sox development system over time has viable candidates at multiple positions, so that they’re more frequently dealing from a position of strength when it comes to negotiations. But building that complete a system takes time.

Q: Let’s go back to value: how does the club measure that?
A: Based on their statistical analysis and their scouting assessments, presumably. But the Red Sox are also very cognizant of market influences on value.

Q: What impact does the market have on value? Isn’t a player universally valued? A 30 homer guy is a 30 homer guy, right?
A: Not at all. Market perceptions of value vary consistently, and the Red Sox front office, like their more enlightened counterparts with other clubs, look constantly for inefficiencies in the valuation process.

Q: Can you provide an example?
A: Sure. Moneyball is the canoical reference point here.

Q: Right: OBP is undervalued, right?
A: Wrong. First of all, Moneyball was not about OBP. Moneyball was about nothing more or less than the inefficiency of markets. Specifically baseball. The idea that it’s a book about OBP has been propagated by the less open-minded of the mainstream baseball media. Which is to say, most of them. As one of the exceptions, Chad Finn, observes:

There is an element of mean-spirited giddiness among those who didn’t much approve of [Billy Beane] being awarded the “smartest man in baseball” title belt after the success of Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball.” Not coincidentally, those who dismiss or discredit Beane typically tend to be the same shortsighted wretches who believe the book’s theme is about acquiring players who walk a lot. Must be easier to pick at the perceived smartest guy in the room and cheer for his comeuppance than it is to open your own mind and overcome those preconceived notions.

But more importantly, OBP isn’t undervalued, OBP was undervalued. Big difference. Prior to the publication of that book, and for a few years after its release, players that got on base were not properly valued by the marketplace. But, the Kansas City Royals aside, OBP players, in general, are getting the money they deserve. According to the market, at any rate.

This means that there are fewer inefficiencies to be exploited there, versus a few years ago. The days of getting high OBP players for pennies on the dollar are, in all likelihood, over.

Q: So, what, we don’t want high OBP players anymore?
A: Not at all. The ability to get on base is one of the single most important offensive skills players can have, so the Red Sox will continue to try acquire players with those skills, and cultivate it in the players that they draft and develop. What they won’t be able to do any longer, because the valuation of OBP is better, is acquire those players as efficiently (read: cheaply) as they have in the past.

Q: What do they do, then? What kind of player represents the new value?
A: That won’t be clear for a year or two, but the early indications are that the club believes that defense is currently undervalued. As the signings of Beltre, Cameron, et al would indicate. As Dave Cameron explains, this is why clubs like ours look more old school, than Moneyball.

Epstein and James have traded on-base percentage for ultimate zone ratings, believing that the market has over-corrected and is now undervaluing a player’s ability to save runs in the field. They aren’t the only ones — the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, and yes, even Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics are also on the bandwagon.

The question is, particularly with newer and better defensive performance data about to be available, how much longer defense will be undervalued. When defense is properly valued, what’s next? Cameron’s guessing older players, which makes sense, because the value of younger players has never been higher, and older players are finding it a more and more difficult economic environment.

But we’ll see.

Q: Where does budget come into this? Mazz, CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty and others have argued in the past that the Red Sox are a big market club behaving as if it’s only got small market dollars. Is that fair?
A: I don’t think so, no. The Red Sox are, to be sure, applying the prinicples that have made small market teams competitive to their larger organization, but they are not at all shy with the dollars when – and this is the important part – it represents good value, in their opinion. They won’t spend just to spend, even if that’s what people want.

Q: Example?
A: Sure. Holliday was a player that the Red Sox liked, by all accounts. But they recognize that he isn’t a great player, just a very good one. So when he expected to be paid like a great player, they moved on. And when the dollars they had budgeted for Teixeira proved unnecessary because that player signed elsewhere, they didn’t simply throw that money at a player of lesser ability. That’s not being cheap, that’s not being stupid.

Q: But can’t the Red Sox, as a big market club, afford a couple million extra here and there?
A: Absolutely. But quite often the discrepancies between the player and agent’s opinion of his value and the Red Sox’s aren’t off by a couple of million – they’re off by tens of millions. Think of Pedro Martinez who wanted a fourth year, and got it – bless him, delivering about 1.5 seasons worth of performance for that. That’s a significant difference, in capital terms. Holliday, more recently, got $122M from the Cardinals. The Red Sox were prepared to pay him Lackey’s money, or $82M. The differences, then, aren’t small. And while the Red Sox, as a large market team, might not be sunk if a $120M player gets hurt or underperforms, it would unquestionably negatively impact the product on the field and, more importantly, it’s just not a good way to spend your money.

Better to take that extra money and plow it back into more efficient marketplaces, from the club’s perspective, such as the draft.

Q: So the philosophy, then, is to acquire the best players you can at the most reasonable cost?
A: That’s it in a nutshell, yes. Whether you’re the Marlins or the Yankees, you want to assemble the best possible roster at the lowest possible cost. Because every dollar you overpay is a dollar that can’t be invested, elsewhere. Money is not infinite, even for the Yankees. True, the marginal values of players, wins and such differ based on context – a good reliever likely has more value to a contending club than to one in last place, for example – but overpaying is bad business. And as Steinbrenner discovered, or rather Michaels and Cashman have educated him on, bought teams correlate weakly with success.

Q: Let’s go back to the draft: are there market inefficiencies to exploit there?
A: Absolutely. First, it’s an artificially constrained marketplace, unlike the free agency foreign born players have access to. Second, the draft dynamics introduce certain inefficiencies that have been heavily exploited by clubs like the Red Sox. MLB has recommended acquisition costs for slots in the draft; the first pick should get X, the second Y, etc. Unsurprisingly, the players and agents often have differing opinions on the player’s value. The question for a club, then, is whether you will pay above slot bonuses to talent, or whether you will rigidly follow MLB’s guidelines. The Red Sox have, for several years, ignored the recommended slotting, and have done well in the draft. Clubs like Houston Astros, however, have stuck to the slotting guidelines, and their minor league system is barren as a result.

In essence, the draft is just another market inefficiency that the Red Sox – and other clubs, to be sure – have identified and are actively exploiting. To their benefit, and to ours.

Q: All of this just sounds like economics.
A: Probably because it is. It’s essentially Econ 101: asset valuation, exploitation of market inefficiencies, etc.

Q: So can we expect a playoff berth every year running the team on economic principles rather than traditional baseball practices?
A: Annual playoff berths actually are an unrealistic expectation. Better to judge by the process than the outcome, on balance. If we fail to make the playoffs in a given year – as in 2006 – this doesn’t mean the process is flawed.

That said, in a small sample size – Theo’s only been in charge since November 2002, remember – the results have been generally positive. Two more World Series titles than in the previous eighty years combined, and a playoff berth every year but one.

Q: Why don’t fans understand all of this?
A: Mostly because casual fans only have so much time to follow the team, and leave the big picture contextualizing to those who follow it professionally. And those professionals are letting the fans down. The media can’t explain what the front office is doing to the fans because they don’t understand it themselves. It’s easier to write a story about how the Sox are cheap for “replacing” Bay with Cameron and Hermida. It takes a little more time, effort and education to put the economics and statistics into context, because you’d have to actually study, you know, economics and statistics. And most of the writers in our market have put about as much effort into learning those subjects as they have learning Spanish to communicate more effectively with an increasingly Latin heavy population of baseball players.

The good news is that with sites like Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Sons of Sam Horn and others, the general level of discourse and discussion about baseball is rising quickly. More and more fans appreciate the better understanding we have of today’s game, which means the audience for the kind of uneducated and sensationalistic coverage typical of the Murray Chass’ of the world is smaller by the day. And not a moment too soon.

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5 thoughts on “Why the Red Sox Front Office is Doing What it's Doing

  1. Awesome post.

    Writers in all sports tend to approach the off season with the idea there are two or three big name free agents that can help any team equally. Boston writers are this way especially when it is someone the NYY covet. I follow NBA teams as well where a blended statistics/age/cost approach to managing teams is in its nascence. Teams look for "character" or "length" instead of concrete variables.

    (This study published in The Sports Journal is an interesting but crude attempt at identifying the independent variables predictive of utility: http://www.thesportjournal.org/article/relationsh

    I have to confess I was an OBP person.

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