The Five Claims of the #KeepJBJ Reporters

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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

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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

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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.