Red Sox Trading Deadling Performance by WAR

Every year the non-waiver trading deadline generates fierce debate on the merits of a given trade. From talk show callers to prospect experts, everyone has an opinion on the winners and losers, the GM’s approach and the wider industry context on what’s being over or undervalued at that particular time.

Post-trade, however, most of the retrospective analysis is superficial and non-quantitative. Rarely do we see coverage of the longer term value differential of a particular trade, let alone the patterns of a particular GM over a period of time.

Curious then about what Theo Epstein’s return was against the trading costs, then, I ran the WAR numbers for the deadline trades made during his tenure. The list of traded parties was obtained from this excellent piece by Alex Speier.

The WAR calculations are derived from Fangraphs and counted the wins accumulated by players only for the teams involved in the transaction; Jason Bay, for example, is credited only for his WAR numbers with the Red Sox. His subsequent performance for the Mets is not considered. This analysis does not take into account the contract status of the players involved, importantly; Manny Ramirez’ entire tenure with the Dodgers, therefore, is considered.

It is also important to note that this is a snapshot; the longer term value of some of the traded assets – Nick Hagadone, for instance – is not yet determined and thus not part of these calculations. 2011 was omitted, in fact, because we have next to no data on the value contributed by either the pieces acquired or those traded.

With those caveats, here’s the data.

Red Sox Net Trading Deadline WAR

It may surprise some to learn that we have traded away approximately thirty wins (to date) in the last eight seasons. But it is actually the most probable outcome: even if we perfectly rate our prospects, we are – with rare exceptions such as last season – buyers at the deadline. Buyers, almost by definition, will be trading more value than they receive in return. The deadline represents the last time to acquire without restriction assets to improve your roster, and the marginal value of even fringe major leaguers can be magnified in tight races for a berth in the postseason. A half a win player could be, in fact, the difference.

This assertion is supported by the data. There is an obvious correlation between traded value and postseason performance; two of the top three years from a value traded perspective coincided with World Series wins. Half of the years where the net WAR total was non-negative, meanwhile, were years without a postseason appearance (2006, 2010).

The only thing that did surprise, ultimately, was the value of some of the players traded. His inability to get on base notwithstanding, Freddy Sanchez was, as Theo said, a pretty good player: he generated almost 12 wins for the Pirates during his time there. David Murphy, meanwhile, has been worth as much to Texas as Manny Ramirez was to the Dodgers, albeit in two more seasons. Erstwhile Red Sox reliever Joel Pineiro generated better than 6 wins for the Cardinals after leaving town, while Matt Murton was just shy of that number with the Cubs before heading for Japan. And so on.

Without comparing his performance to his peers – a task I don’t have time for at present, it’s difficult to quantitatively assess Epstein’s performance in context. And it’s true that it’s facile to point to the results – two World Series titles – because they may obscure fundamental flaws in the process.

But it’s worth observing that with rare exceptions like Justin Masterson (7.8 WAR and counting), the players Theo has resisted trading – but each of whom has been sought – are delivering much higher value than those that have departed.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that Epstein’s performance at the deadline seems more than adequate, the net 30 wins lost notwithstanding.

(Link to the source data I compiled in case anyone’s interested or wants to check it)

Knights of the Keyboard: Ranking the Boston Sportswriters

Smith-Corona Typewriter

My parents made me a Red Sox fan, but it was Peter Gammons that made me a baseball fan.

That’s what I planned to say if I got the chance to meet him at the Hot Stove, Cold Beer event in April. What actually came out when I had the honor of shaking his hand was, well, a bit less eloquent. Not to mention comprehensible. As my wife can relate, given that she had to step in and do the talking once I trailed off, stammering. And for the record, he was very gracious about my verbal implosion. It’s not every day that one of your heroes not only lives up to, but exceeds your expectations.

All of which is to say that I owe Peter Gammons a debt that cannot be repaid. His Sunday Notes column, penned by Nick Cafardo these days, introduced me to the wider world beyond Boston, a game whose nuances I had to that point been missing. It was inside baseball before there was inside baseball: the behind the scenes of major trades, the trends shaping the game, insights on players never before even whispered. One single writer – and the subtle, self-contained perfection of the game itself, of course – was all it took to turn a rooting interest into a lifetime of obsession.

Respect for the profession of sportswriting, then, I do not lack. But sad to say, the quality of the current scribes is uneven. There is willful mediocrity alongside innovative brilliance, with the inevitable faux-populist vitriol bubbling to the surface every so often.

To help you sort the rational from the irascible, here are our Boston Writer Rankings for 2010.

A few notes before we begin:

  • Peter Gammons isn’t officially ranked here, because that exercise would be pointless. He’s forgotten more about this sport than most of us will ever know, and as such he remains the once and future #1.
  • In case it wasn’t already apparent, this is a focus on Boston market writers. National writers (Law, Olney, etc) are excluded from this ranking, though I may do a similar national list at a later date.
  • Priority on this list, with a few exceptions, is given to writers focused exlusively on the Red Sox. As an example, I’m not including those who divide their time between baseball and hockey like Joe Haggerty (CSNNE) or Joe MacDonald (ESPNBoston).
  • A note on bias: I lean towards statistics, clearly, but not exclusively. I appreciate, as does the front office, a balance between statistical and human based analysis. I have little patience, however, for those overtly displaying hostility towards numbers or the sabermetric side of the game.

With that context, herewith are the rankings.

  1. Alex Speier (WEEI):
    An easy choice for the top spot, and not simply because Peter Gammons himself holds him in high regard. Speier displays everything I’d like to see in a modern sportswriter: a willingness to consider and incorporate statistics, a compassion for players that’s tempered by his journalistic integrity, and, perhaps most importantly, the drive to innovate.

    Case in point, his recently launched Minor Details podcast. In it, he leverages his strengths well. Too many media members, both locally and nationally, are doing things simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done. Rehashing games, for example, is something that can be done by a variety of third parties: it’s non-differentiating for writers. What still sets them apart is access, which Speier uses brilliantly, getting everyone from Anthony Rizzo to Keith Law to Mike Hazen on his podcast.

    Simply put, Speier’s as good as you’ll find in this market at present, and if comments like Gammons’ are to be believed, would stack up well across the pool of national writers. It’s a pleasure having him cover the Red Sox.

    Strengths: A versatile reporter adequately conversant in modern baseball statistics, one with contacts that bridge the traditionalist / new school divide in front offices. Leverages his strengths and advantages well. Best Red Sox minor league coverage this side of the excellent soxprospects.com, and easily the best amongst mainstream media outlets.

    Weaknesses: Occasionally gets bogged down in metrics, losing the forest for the trees. Occasionally over-rotates, a la Olney, on human interest stories. His media outlet, meanwhile, has its share of technology issues, from frequent bad links from Twitter to mobile redirection issues.

  2. Chad Finn (Boston Globe):
    Chad Finn, who like Speier and national writers such as Will Carroll, has enjoyed favorable attention from Gammons, is one of the remaining bright lights for me at the Boston Globe. The Globe has as proud a history in sportswriting as any paper in the country, from the aforementioned Gammons to Ryan to Montville to MacMullan. From this reader’s standpoint, however, the section has been in decline for years. Dan Shaughnessy – not ranked because I haven’t been able to read him for five years or more – has effectvely become a caricature of the angry, ill-informed Bostonian. Tony Massarotti, who we’ll get to, appears headed in the same direction. Ryan is still periodically excellent but loses me when, as last year, he spells Jed Lowrie as Jed Lowery.

    Finn, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. He’s opinionated, but rational. He’s an exception on this list because he covers all of the major teams, not just the Red Sox, but he’s included because I value his thoughts on the team. Alone amongst colleagues like Cafardo and Massarotti, Finn is at least not against statistics, even if they’re not a focus for him. True, it’s more often basic metrics like OPS+ rather than, say, xFIP or WAR, and he remains skeptical when it comes to the accuracy of modern statistics. But that’s probably as it should be, and the relevant point is that he’s not afraid of numbers, or of learning more about them. Which is to his credit.

    Better, he’s genuinely funny in an understated way: think the Sports Guy less Vegas humor, reality show references and sexist jokes.

    Overall, he’s a tremendous asset to the market and one that I look genuinely forward to reading, even if I don’t really appreciate the baseball cards.

    Strengths: Finn’s a writer first, which means content well above replacement value. Humor is one of his stronger tools, and his self-effacing brand plays well in the market. Engaging and open to dialogue; he’s responded to a couple of mentions on Twitter, which in my experience is rare.

    Weaknesses: The opposite of prolific, the cost of Finn’s higher quality content is less of it. His analysis – e.g. his willingness to back up the truck for Gonzalez – occasionally skews towards fan and away from hard evaluation. His property, Boston.com, is amongst the most egregious abusers of pop-under advertisements of any property on the web.

  3. Godon Edes (ESPN Boston):
    Edes, the pride of Lunenburg, is back on the Boston beat after a stint as a national writer for Yahoo Sports. A veteran of the Boston scene after his years covering the Sox for the Globe, Edes brings immediate relevance to ESPN’s new local property, ESPN Boston. He’s been covering the team for a long time, and it shows. For better, and for worse.

    On the plus side, he’s got excellent context for the market, having covered it for so long. Not only are his relationships within the organization extensive, his understanding of the clubs history relative to individual players is of real benefit, because much of what’s happening with the Red Sox at present is the product of multi-year planning cycles.

    On the minus side, Edes can be a bit of a traditionalist. His defense of the “gamer” – the post-game writeup which is about as useful as an appendix these days – is one example of his affection for the way things used to be done. And while he’s not in the camp attacking statistics, neither has he embraced them the way that peers like Speier have.

    One thing worth noting that I’ve always appreciated from Edes has been his respect for the privacy of the players. He’s mentioned a few times that he feels obligated to cover off the field issues only to the extent they affect play on the field; as someone with no desire to hear about the pecadilloes of wealthy grown men, I appreciate this. I don’t need the players sugar coated, but neither do I want to be besieged by sordid little details, daily. You never get this with Edes, which is a bonus as far as I’m concerned.

    It’s good to have him back from the national beat.

    Strengths: Edes doesn’t let his ego get in the way of the story, which can be a rarity in this market. Diverse approach at the keyboard, with good coverage that blends a focus on local events with national context. Remains rational and grounded, which history and his peers tell us is difficult.

    Weaknesses: Leans towards the traditionalist, and apart from his periodic video work has shown little inclination to evolve his approach. Hasn’t really added modern statistics to his arsenal. The ESPN Boston property is sadly afflicted with autoplay video, one of the least popular inventions of the modern web.

  4. Sean McAdam (CSNNE):
    Sean McAdam, who I’ve followed since his Providence Journal days, is one of the more respected writers on the beat. As a piece of trivia, I sat next to his daughter during Game 1 of the 2004 ALCS, after which Schilling had his famous surgery. And no, we didn’t discuss her father.

    For my part, I’ve always appreciated the measured tone which hasn’t, for the most part, been impacted by the impatience and urgency of Red Sox Nation. Whether it’s been in print or as a guest on WEEI and such, McAdam has exuded calm in a sea of irrationality. The product hasn’t been remotely Polly Anna-ish, but the criticism and concerns were always grounded in fact. By advantaging data at the expense of overheated speculation, McAdam’s voice has always been one to listen to and look forward to.

    Marring this reputation, if only slightly, was an incident last season in which Okajima essentially ducked commentary following an ugly appearance, which is reportedly his custom. McAdam and several of his colleagues publicly called him out on this behavior, justifying their actions with claims that it was affecting Okajima’s teammates. McAdam was perhaps the most strident critic, at one point calling Okajima “cowardly.” The obvious question is whether this needs to be reported. Reporters will almost universally argue that it does, but what they typically don’t address is how much of the need to report it is driven by frustration with or dislike for the player at issue. And from a fan’s standpoint, I don’t particularly care one way or another, and frankly tire of reading such claims from reporters which at some point come across as vindictive. The phenomenon of reporters seeking revenge on players through the pen is hardly new, especially in Boston. This isn’t to say that this was the case with McAdam, but the context here is important: fans by and large do not care nearly as much about players not talking to the media as the media do, for obvious reasons.

    Setting the larger question aside, however, there remains the issue of McAdam’s tone and language following the Okajima incident. I can’t speak for other fans, but I can say that his conduct there dented his reputation in my view. He’s better than that, I believe, regardless of what Okajima did or did not do.

    Strengths: Tenured reporter with excellent contacts. Solid reputation in the market both for integrity and rationality. Excellent radio voice, as well.

    Weaknesses: The move to CSNNE has lowered his visibility for this fan. Comcast Sports hasn’t made the same effort that WEEI has to establish relevancy, and because Comcast competes with other media outlets McAdam’s ability to make relevant market media appearances is limited. Like his more experienced colleagues, has not actively embraced statistical analysis although he has not taken a line against them, either.

  5. Peter Abraham (Boston Globe):
    Give Abraham credit: jumping from a Yankees publication (LoHud Yankees Blog) to a Boston outlet (Globe) could not have been an easy transition. Subsets of the Yankees community felt betrayed, and the new market was hardly waiting with open arms. Even if you argue, as he did on his exit, that beat writers don’t root for teams, you are writing for people who root for those teams and building relationships with people around them. I respect Abraham, then, for taking this on.

    His work, fortunately, commands the same respect. More perhaps than any of the other writers on this list, Abraham gets the difference in tone between traditional outlets and blogs. It’s little things like his dispatches from airports that allow readers to identify with him in ways that they can’t with traditional beat writers, whose columns and even blog entries are typically sanitized and overedited.

    As for numbers, Abraham will use them, but perhaps not to the extent he should: his dismissal of Miguel Cabrera’s value, for example, was curious. Likewise, a bit more depth of metrics in the Buchholz vs Wakefield decision would have benefited his analysis.

    If I have a concern regarding Abraham, it’s his New York ties. Accepting at face value his contention that beat writers don’t root for teams, it’s nevertheless unreasonable to expect that they don’t root for people on those teams. Nor that they would not build relationships with fans of same. All of which is fine, and none of which is my concern: it would be absurd to suggest that because Abraham took a new job, he should sever all ties from his years on the Mets and Yankees beats. But while his relationships are none of my business, his coverage, to some extent, is. I finally unfollowed Abraham on Twitter because I didn’t really want to read about Yankees on a Boston beat writer’s Twitter feed.

    There’s little question that Abraham brings a lot to Red Sox coverage generally and the Globe specifically. What’s equally apparent is that his former ties rub some fans the wrong way. We don’t need our writers to root for the Sox, but it would be nice if they didn’t actively encourage Yankee fans.

    Strengths: Well adapted to modern baseball coverage, both in tone and approach. Voice is balanced, neither strident nor fawning. Constructs arguments rather than arguing opinions.

    Weaknesses: Shallow use of statistical analysis, though the extent to which that is by choice versus dictated by an editor is unclear. The Yankee ties – which may well have abated, as I haven’t followed him for some months – can be grating. Like Finn, Abraham’s outlet – the Boston Globe – is unfortunately aggressive with its late 90’s, AOL-style pop-under ads.

  6. Rob Bradford (WEEI):
    Ironically, Bradford’s place on the bottom half of this list is to his credit rather than otherwise. Historically one of the better beat writers – I’m a long time fan – Bradford seems to be consciously stepping back from his duties as a Red Sox writer to take on larger roles as the architect of the ascendant WEEI content machine and media host.

    While this is probably good for Bradford’s career, the decline in coverage is bad news for Red Sox fans. It’s partially offset by his discovery of the asset that is Alex Speier who heads this list and is clearly cut from the same cloth, but less Bradford cannot be spun as a positive for Red Sox fans. Particularly those that trace him back through the Herald to the Eagle-Tribune.

    When he does write, however, it’s worth reading. Always.

    Strengths: An original innovator in the Boston media landscape, brought an evolved approach to the market, properly leveraging his access to provide differentiated coverage. Good usage of both historical precedent and numbers to form and/or supplement his arguments.

    Weaknesses: His diverse responsibilities have led to an inevitable decline in production.

  7. Ian Browne (MLB):
    Ian Browne is the Red Sox beat writer for MLB.com. On the one hand, that means he has access to some amazing media assets; MLB Advanced Media is pretty much the best in the world at what they do. On the other, Browne has considerably less room to maneuver than everyone else on this list. Remember the Twitter dictum?

    Browne’s coverage is credible if non-differentiated. His mailbags are enjoyable, and his columns are informative, but there’s little that sets him apart in the way that, say, Finn’s humor or Speier’s diversity does.

    Strengths: With MLB resources behind him, enjoys a substantial multimedia advantage over his peers, if not a similar local relevance and immediacy.

    Weaknesses: Doesn’t stand out in a crowded market place, lacks a clear niche advantage versus the competition.

  8. Nick Cafardo (Boston Globe):
    Currently responsible for the high profile Boston Globe Sunday Notes column, Cafardo is among the best sourced writers on this list. His Sunday column, while not in the same ballpark as Gammons’ version, remains a must read for local Red Sox fans but also fans of the game on a wider basis. Cafardo has probably the widest scope in terms of baseball of any of the reporters currently working, and he largely delivers.

    Which is why his inability to adapt remains a tragedy. Like Murray Chass and other traditionalists, Cafardo is aggressively old school, with his antipathy towards modern analysis regularly on display. Case in point is his focus on pitcher wins as the metric by which pitchers should be judged. In 2007, the year in which Sabathia won the Cy Young, Cafardo gave him a fourth place vote, with Beckett getting the nod for #1. In that year, Sabathia threw 40 and a third more innings than Beckett with a better ERA and a better strikeout to walk ratio. Why did Cafardo give Beckett the edge?

    “The 20 wins, the consistency, the toughness, and what is generally regarded as absolutely nasty stuff put Beckett slightly over the top.”

    Sabathia’s win tally? 19.

    But at least Cafardo’s consistent. He wouldn’t vote for Felix Hernandez this year because he believes that wins “still matter.” Which might be fair if Hernandez’ team score more than two and a half runs for him per game, but they didn’t.

    Cafardo’s willfull ignorance, then, is regrettable. He’s got the talent to do the job, clearly, but is either unable or unwilling to reconsider his perspectives in light of new teachings.

    Strengths: Excellent national context with broad coverage across the league. Differentiated content within the local market.

    Weaknesses: Stubborn and hostile to non-traditionalist thinking. Not an industry innovator. Demonstrates an overreliance on certain friendly sources (e.g. Kapler). Prone to substantial, unacknowledged factual errors.

  9. John Tomase (Boston Herald):
    Tomase, persona non grata in many parts of New England due to his role in the Patriots Spygate debacle, has appeared on the Red Sox beat. Like Ian Browne, his work is competent but largely undistinguished, though his salary deconstruction as one example was a creditable piece of work.

    Apart from the benefit it saw as an outlet for one of the rival factions during the Red Sox front office schism, the Herald Sports Section’s fortunes have been in decline for years. Tony Massarotti’s defection set it back, as did Sean McAdam’s abbreviated stint and subsequent departure for CSNNE. At present, the Herald looks to be largely treading water, doing just enough to keep from drowning but not enough to adapt itself to an increasingly competitive market.

    Witness the limitations of its technology infrastructure. In 2010 going on 2011, the Boston Herald’s content management system is still producing stories with a second page that consists of one sentence. It’s bad enough that media outlets still overpaginate their content in an attempt to articifically inflate viewership metrics, but when the payoff for that click is a few words, well, you become the definition of a poor customer experience.

    Strengths: Tomase shows some creativity, rather than just rehashing news that has already been covered by one of the dozen other media members in market.

    Weaknesses: Undifferentiated in the marketplace, and likely to lack the resources of more aggressive and committed outlets moving forward. For some audiences, tainted by his mistake in moving forward in publishing spygate claims without proper substantiation.

  10. Tony Massarotti (Boston Globe):
    Tony Massarotti is, somewhat unexpectedly, the obvious heir to Dan Shaughnessy’s throne. Which is to say both a writer I will not read and one whose schtick, if it can be termed as such, is fear mongering, irrationality and vitriol. To be fair to Massarotti, this may well be what he was hired for. If the Globe’s mandate in bringing him aboard was to stir the pot, they can consider it mission accomplished.

    While controversy does little for me personally, however, I’m cognizant of its role in selling newspapers. I’m not naive enough to expect something erudite and grounded to ever sell well on a volume basis; Mencken, better than any of us perhaps, understood this. But the least I would expect from a sportswriter, particularly in an age where the commentary is growing more sophisticated at an accelerating rate, would be some basic logic to offset the emotionally driven opinions. A professional sportswriter should be speaking to the talk show callers rather than arguing as one of them, in other words.

    Massarotti, however, is less than grounded by facts. From his flawed valuation of Clay Buchholz to his contrived and misleading assessment of the Jason Bay contract to his interminable crusade against our failure to sign Teixeira, Massarotti has shown little inclination to let the facts get in the way of a good argument.

    Chad Finn tells us that Massarotti is no dummy, and I believe that. Which leads to the logical conclusion that he understands exactly what his place is in the market, and is filling it intentionally. The truth is that Massarotti’s primary role, at present, is to generate controversy. And he’s certainly competent at doing so. If that’s what you like reading, enjoy. My time will be spent elsewhere, on writers with more substantive agendas to pursue.

    As an aside, Massarotti in the past has requested that critics not hide behind anonymity:

    Somewhere along the line, someone needs to devise a system in which people who post comments on the internet are required to provide their real names and, perhaps, places of employment. This would help eliminate the legions of nitwits and cowards who shred anything and everything in their path while hiding in their mothers’ basements.

    In that spirit, everything he might want to know about me can be found here.

    Strengths: Perfectly embodies and argues the voice of the angry talk show caller. Long experience in the market.

    Weaknesses: Perfectly embodies and argues the voice of the angry talk show caller. Cherrypicks and prooftexts facts to buttress arguments that would otherwise be unsupportable. Diversity of responsibilities – writer, radio host, etc – have negatively impacted his quality of coverage. Analysis is frequently emotionally driven.

Slicing up Simmons' Puerile Analysis

a stubborn guy

The thing to remember is that Simmons goes through this periodically. He gets disenchanted with baseball, drifts away, gets hooked up to his “juvenation machine,” and hops right back on the bandwagon. If there’s room for him.

That, I can live with. What I have a much tougher time with is his willful ignorance. His celebration of the uneducated. Case in point his piece “Finally Joining the Revolution.” While it’s to his credit that he eventually got over his irrational fear of numbers, the most important piece of data you’ll get from that piece is the date: April 2, 2010. It took Simmons – someone who writes about sports, professionally – decades to acknowledge that statistics not only have a place in baseball, but can actually increase your enjoyment of the game. In some ways, however, the Sports Guy is no less backward than he was last year. Slicing up the Red Sox’s boring pie shows you why.

The ostensible justification is the ratings drop for both NESN and WEEI. The Sports Guy’s got his take on why less people are watching and listening, and it’s offensive.

His tally goes like this:

INJURIES: 10 PERCENT
FRONT-OFFICE PARALYSIS/INADEQUACIES: 5 PERCENT
THE HANGOVER: 15 PERCENT
THE BANDWAGON EFFECT: 5 PERCENT
THE STEROID ERA HANGOVER: 5 PERCENT
THE DECLINE OF BASEBALL IN GENERAL: 5 PERCENT
THE TIME OF THE GAMES: 55 PERCENT

There’s a lot to quibble with. The injuries are massively under-represented, in my view. For all of the charm of the stories of Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald, nobody wants to see an outfield made up of those two and Eric Patterson any more than we wanted to watch Jason Johnson start a game against the Yankees in 2006. Nor do I believe that fans really care that much about the steroid era; with virtually every other professional sport infected by PEDs, baseball’s gone from black sheep to honor student overnight. And his contention that the time of game issues indicate that the DH should be retired are the product of a simplistic analysis of the problem. Might not the NL’s advantage in that context, for example, have something to do with the fact that the teams in that league just aren’t as good? No, it’s the DH? Oh, ok.

And so on.

The genuinely frustrating bits for me come in his section on the front office, however. Lord knows they’ve had their share of mistakes – hello, Julio Lugo – but Simmons is sadly beginning to read like a budding Shaughnessy. The kind of writer that can’t be bothered to understand the depth of thinking common to our front office and others because it’s a lot easier to cater to the common denominator. The common denominator whose sole purpose in life is bitching.

Consider the following section on our minor league system.

The bigger issue: For all their bluster about building a monster farm system, the Red Sox aren’t exactly teeming with can’t-miss prospects. Yeah, they suffered a horrible blow when Ryan Westmoreland, their best hitting prospect, underwent life-threatening brain surgery. But take it from a guy in an obsessive, ultradorky AL-only keeper league with a 25-pick minor league draft and a full farm system: Boston’s pool of minor leaguers, while deep with yeah-he-might-make-it guys (Ryan Kalish, Stolmy Pimentel, Anthony Rizzo and Julio Iglesias, to name four), has only one certified stud, pitcher Casey Kelly (although he’s not on the uber-stud level of Tampa’s Jeremy Hellickson or Texas’ Martin Perez). Only one Boston prospect made the 2010 Futures Game (Pimentel), and only Kelly cracked Baseball America’s midseason top 50. For a franchise that devoted so much money and energy these past few years toward invigorating its farm system — and struck oil with the Pedroia/Ellsbury/Papelbon/Bard/Lester class a few years ago — the 2010 results have been sobering so far.

(Note: ESPN’s Keith Law had Boston ranked as his No. 2 farm system in February. When I e-mailed him for a July update, he wrote back that many of its top guys were underperforming and added, “They’re not No. 2 anymore. Definitely still top-10.” I’m not pumping my fist.)

Really, I’m not even sure where to start with this. The last sentence seems to anticipate criticism from the direction of our farm system’s rankings this winter. As well he should have, given our number two spot on the board. How did we get that high? Because the Red Sox had seven players on Law’s Top 100. How about vaunted systems like Tampa’s or Texas’? Six and four respectively. Maybe it’s me, but that doesn’t seem that bad.

With respect to our horrifying descent from #2 to “definitely still top-10,” what’s gone wrong? Well, Ryan Westmoreland, a legitimate stud prospect was felled with a cavernous malformation on his brain stem. Call me crazy, but I have a tough time blaming Theo for that. Iglesias, for his part, was putting up a .306/.340/.408 line in Double A, then suffered an “occult fracture of his right index finger.” I don’t even know what that is, but I have a hard time seeing how it’s the fault of the front office. Tazawa, meanwhile, had Tommy John Surgery. With three kids out for all or part of the season due to injuries then, yes, we’re underperforming a bit.

What about the rest?

Kelly’s not exactly lighting it up at Portland, but he’s holding his own as a 20 year old, striking out 80 in 88.1 IP on the way to an unimpressive 5+ ERA. He’ll be fine. Rizzo, also young for AA at 20, isn’t embarrassing himself with a .256/.314/.444 line, while Anderson is doing more or less what he did last year, taking time to adjust at the new level (.247/.338/.411). Kalish, meanwhile, is following up two impressive minor league stops with your basic major league 1.149 OPS. Oh, and the kid’s got an absolute rifle.

Any of them world beaters? Probably not; Simmons is right about that, at least. But they’re hardly chopped liver, and more than one of them has the potential to be an All Star. My guess, frankly, would be that the overwhelming majority of clubs – with obvious exceptions like Tampa – would trade their systems for ours in a heartbeat. Because they acknowledge – even if Simmons is reluctant to – that one of the major reasons that our system is less than impressive is the folks that aren’t in it. You know, folks like Bard, Buchholz, Ellsbury, Lester, Papelbon, Pedroia, or Youk. You might have heard of them. Think any of those would be worth keeping in an ultradorky AL keeper league?

As an aside, I can’t tell if this bit – “the Pedroia/Ellsbury/Papelbon/Bard/Lester class” – is intended to mean that those players were drafted together, or that they all came up together. Not that it matters: neither is correct. Bard was drafted in 2006, Ellsbury in 2005, Lester in 2002, Pedroia in 2004, and Papelbon in 2003. Nor did they come up together. Pap was the first to arrive in 2005, while Bard’s the Johnny-come-lately, arriving on the scene in 2009. And you know I’m going to point out the Buchholz omission.

In any event, if I were Simmons, then, hammering the farm system probably isn’t where I would start. Particularly since Law liked our draft more than a bit. The farm system has already produced two top five starting pitchers, a top five closer, first and second basemen, a 70 steal outfielder and one of the most dominant setup men in the league. With more on the way. That sound like a problem to you?

But it’s not just the farm that he’s concerned about. Equally problematic is the WEEI-like lack of stars.

I can’t blame Epstein for watching the July carnage with the same blank look that deadbeat dads have on the “Maury” show as Maury Povich opens the manila envelope. At the same time, you can blame Epstein (and Boston’s owners) for ignoring a simple law of entertainment these past two seasons: Just like you can’t open a blockbuster movie without a star, you can’t expect a nine-figure baseball team to capture the daily imagination of a big market without a player who passes the Remote Control Test (when you don’t flip channels because you know Player X is coming up) or the We Can’t Go Get Food Yet Test (when you don’t make a food/drink run at a game because Player X is coming up) or even the Every Five Nights, I Know What I’m Doing Test (when you have a transcendent pitcher who keeps you in front of the television every five days).

What correlates with attendance: winning, or stars? It’s an impossible question, of course, because the two conditions are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. My suspicion, however, is that Simmons is unduly influenced here by his first love, basketball. The NBA is indisputably a league of stars, but baseball is different. The Yankees were living proof of that for many years, and even last year’s edition which featured big ticket items of the free agent shelves like Burnett, Sabathia, and Teixeira was simultaneously populated by kids from the system. Kids you’d never heard of.

Most of the research I’ve read on the subject indicates that winning has a strong correlation with attendance. Here’s one study by Michael C. Davis from the Department of Economics at the University of Missouri-Rolla:

The three-variable VAR presented here suggests that winning has a substantial and long-lasting effect on attendance, as all ten teams showed a significant increase in attendance. However, there is little support for the idea that shocks to attendance lead to future success on the field for the team, as only one team (Cleveland Indians) showed a significant increase in winning following a shock to attendance. There is also some indication that attendees at sporting events exhibit habit formation in their behavior, as shocks in attendance last for years after the shock.

The above results are useful for researchers examining sports attendance. They suggest that the direction of causation runs from winning percentage to attendance and researchers can proceed under that assumption.

It’s great – and almost certainly helpful to attendance – to have Pedro Martinez starting for you every five days. But to suggest that attendance is more strongly correlated to throwing him or having Manny Ramirez in the lineup than whether or not the good guys win seems a questionable assertion at best. That smacks, frankly, of the kind PR-driven roster management that has doomed big market clubs like ours for years. You know that the 2009 Red Sox hit more 46 home runs than the 2007 World Series winning edition, right? Maybe we didn’t have enough stars that year, but I’ll take the World Series.

Would I like to have a few more big names on board? Sure, who wouldn’t? But as long as the club is putting runs on the board – and in spite of the fact that our starting outfield has played together for less than ten games, we’re second in the AL in runs per game at 5.20 – I’ll watch. And so will most people.

Neither baseball nor the Red Sox is perfect. That much goes without saying. If you’re going to speculate on the causes for a decline in attendance, however, you can certainly do better than Simmons’ piece. Which I suspect he knows.

It’s nothing more or less than the rantings of an admittedly talented writer (the A-Rod joke in particular was excellent) whose writing shows that he still spends most of his time on basketball. Which is his prerogative, of course. Read it for the jokes, if you want, but if you’re looking for real substance I highly recommend you pass on by.

It's Not That Early Anymore

twilight at fenway

Cast your mind back to 2008. The Rays were really good, ending up in the World Series. We played pretty well ourselves, winning 95 games and taking the kids from Florida to seven games in spite of starting an obviously damaged Beckett in the postseason. The Yankees, meanwhile stumbled out of the gate and could never quite recover. They won 89 games in a transitional year, missing the playoffs. The Yankee’s record after 25 games? 12-13. Games back? 4.

Where are we on this not so fine Monday, heading into a stretch where 20 of 23 games will be played against the Angels, Yankees, Rays, Twins, Tigers and Phillies? 11-14, 7 games back. It’s far, far too early to throw in the towel on 2010, as some are already doing. We’ve got 85% of the schedule left to play. But if we don’t turn things around in a major way, pretty much immediately, the history is not on our side.

Give me a reason to hope, guys. Please. I don’t want articles like this one to be the highlight of my day.

Have Faith…in Regression to the Mean

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The Red Seat, originally uploaded by Starving Photographer.

If I’d told you before the season that 21 games into the season that Buchholz would be our best starter – easily, that Darnell McDonald would have played more games that Ellsbury and be second in OPS to Varitek…on the team, what would you have said? What if I also told you that we would have scored 95 runs, but given up 113? That our vaunted defense would be -14 in defensive runs saved, tied for worst in the league with the Brewers? That our last six wins were one run affairs, against Baltimore, Texas and Toronto? That they’d leave us still one game under .500?

You’d figure we’d be further than 3 back from the Yankees, right? And that the Yankees would be in first place, not the Rays, correct?

But that’s why they play the games. This game is weird. I mean, how else do you explain Beckett’s identically terrible numbers this April to last?

In the wake of Buchholz’ gem tonight, you’d think I’d be leading the cheerleading squad. Not so much. We’ve stacked the deck against us, what with all this playing like shit. FanGraphs says we’ll finish in third, and frankly there are nights when it’s been tough to argue the point.

Still, the most important thing to remember is – as we talked about last week – is that the mean catches up with everyone in the end. For better, and for worse. So just like these folks with The Greater Good (and incidentally, if you haven’t seen that movie, you need to), I ask you to repeat after me: Regression to the Mean. Looking for evidence of that, I took a quick look at our BABIP figures for the season. And found it.

You know how hot JV’s been? Well, it just so happens that his batting average on balls in play is .400. Meaning that when he makes contact, he’s hitting about .110 better than is normal. Or in layman’s terms, he’s been pretty lucky, and is likely to get worse. Which is bad for us.

Good for us, however, are the BABIP’s posted by two of our coldest hitters: Drew and Ortiz. As it happens, they are 2 and 3 for lowest figures on the team Drew at .227 and .233 respectively. Meaning that they are likely to get better. Which is good for us.

As you might suspect, with the pitching, defense and offense all pretty awful in the early going, a regression to the mean would be just what the doctor ordered for us.

Will it be enough to make the playoffs? Who knows. It’s way too early to be writing off our chances on account of a six game deficit, but there’s no getting around the fact that the Rays and Yankees are good. Really good.

But have faith, my friends. We’ve had the second worst starting ERA in the league, two thirds of our starting outfield hasn’t seen the field in two weeks, and Beltre’s got close to one third of last year’s errors one eigth into the season. These too shall pass. It’s a long summer, and all we need is for our guys to start being our guys. Which we’re seeing signs of already.

In the meantime, buckle up and try and enjoy the ride.

Listening to the Sox in New England: Red Sox Affiliates, Mapped

New England Red Sox Affiliates
New England Red Sox Affiliates

Like a lot of people, I catch a large number of the Sox games from the car each summer. Whether it’s visiting family, a long weekend away, or traveling for work, few things pass the time more effectively than a ballgame. At least for me. But nothing is more frustrating than getting to a critical part of the ballgame and losing the signal and then the game because you can’t find the local affiliate.

The last time we had this problem, the fiancée found and bookmarked the Wikipedia list of Red Sox affiliates here. This weekend found us traversing the green and white mountains, however, where neither of us knew from the list what cities or towns were actually close enough to pick up. In spite of being wicked clevah, I’d never considered that this was a problem with a solution. Fortunately, my fiancée is quite a bit brighter than yours truly and suggested that I map the affiliates.

So I did. I’ll see if I can tweak this a bit going forward to improve the usability, but in the meantime, if you find yourself in New England short of a Red Sox radio affiliate, we hope the above is of use to you.

Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves: Buchholz versus Wakefield

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Peter Abraham is right to be asking the question, because even the average fan at the game last night was asking the same question: who goes to the pen when Matsuzaka returns? My suspicion is that his answer – Wakefield – is also correct.

And to his credit, he looked at the issue from a number of angles. I wish, however, that he’d gone just a bit further with metrics he used. So let’s do that here.

Buchholz easily wins if ERA’s the metric, 1.80 to 6.38, but as Abraham noted ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. So let’s look at FIP, which normalizes the ERA to account for variances in league, defense and so on. Buchholz’ FIP is 4.51, which certainly feels more like how he’s pitched. Wakefield, meanwhile, is at 4.54. Translated, this indicates that Buchholz may have gotten a bit lucky, Wake a bit unlucky. And that even adjusting for luck, Buchholz has pitched more effectively. The ratios are a bit more mixed: Buch has the edge in K/9, 7.20 to 5.40, but Wake is walking fewer at 3.44 BB/9 to 5.40.

One could make the argument, I suppose, that Wakefield has been profoundly unlucky when it comes to BABIP. In 2010 hitters are averaging .340 on balls in play. Given that his career average is .282, they’re hitting about fifty points better than they should.

But while that’s likely to regress to the mean, resulting in a statistical improvement, it’s not likely enough to make him a better choice than Buchholz. According to the stats, anyway.

Because as much as it might be easy to run a club by the numbers, Francona – bless him – knows better than that. There are a myriad of factors that will go into his decision, the numbers being but one of them. I think he’ll end up with Wake going to the pen, but it’s not as if the situation is cut and dry so there’s room for disagreement.

All that I wanted to do here was add some context to Abraham’s statistics argument, which seemed to me to be lacking.

WTF?

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opening day, originally uploaded by sogrady.

You’re thinking it, I’m thinking it, and you can be damn sure Tito’s thinking it. If I’d known that the only home game we would have won to date would be the one I attended – that’d be Opening Day, for those who haven’t been keeping up with current events – I probably would have made an effort to get to more games.

But seriously, who would – could – have called this? 4-9, 6 games back of the division leading Rays. I sure didn’t. To try to ground the discussion, let’s look at where we are, and where we might expect grounds for improvement.

What’s Gone Wrong?

In a word, everything. And no, that’s not hyperbole. There is quite literally nothing we’re doing right at the moment.

The offense? Being 17th in the league in average is bad enough, being 20th in OBP is worse. Far worse. When the bright spot in your offense is a 9th place finish in slugging percentage, you’ve got problems. Frankly I was surprised we were only 15th in the league in strikeout percentage; Drew and Ortiz are between them striking out in 42.5% of their at bats. As an aside, I do find it interesting that everyone’s written off Ortiz while it’s just a slump for Drew, just as I find it curious that Lester’s just not good early while Buchholz is again being popularly consigned to the bullpen or someone else’s roster. The psychology of player evaluation is a really fascinating phenomenon. But we’ve got bigger problems to look at at the moment.

So the offense is not good. How about the vaunted defense? If anything, it’s worse. We’re 27th in Defensive Runs Saved, 18th in Fielding Percentage and we’re in such desperate shape at throwing out runners that there’s already talk of bringing up Mark Wagner, whose CHONE projected line is .232/.298/.341.

But at least the pitching is good, right? I wish. Our ERA could be worse, I guess, at 18th in the league, and actually our 25th ranking in FIP suggests that we’re actually lucky it isn’t worse. Not surprisingly, given those numbers, we’re bad at striking people out (27th in K/9) but much better at walking them: 10th best team in the majors at issuing the free pass. In case it’s not clear, being good at walking people is not a desirable skill.

Nor was there, as I had hoped before looking, any indications that the above numbers, both offensively and pitching-wise, are flukes. Our hitters’ BABIP is .287, and our pitchers’ is .279. Meaning that we have neither been exceptionally lucky or unlucky.

We are what we are, in other words. Except that we’re not.

What’s Likely to Go Right?

All of the above. The most plate appearances anyone on the club has is Pedroia at 57. That’s not as small a sample as the two games that had the writers penning Papi’s obit, but it’s statistically not significant.

It’s early. I know that’s hard to believe when we’re a few weeks into the season, already back by six games and with our offseason plan looking as intelligent as real estate investing circa 2010.

But before you take a leap from the Zakim, consider the following:

  1. Our hitters and pitchers alike will regress to the mean. For better and for worse. Pedroia’s sadly not going to put up a 1.159 OPS for the year, but neither is Drew going to put up an OBP of .233, V-Mart a SLG of .367, or Youk an average of .238. These things will fix themselves over time.
  2. No one likes to make excuses because of injuries, but remember that that two thirds of our starting outfielders this weekend were bench players. So when you see Hermida butchering balls in left, remember that he is not the starting left fielder, Ells is. And thankfully, he’ll be back because Beltre didn’t kill him. As will Cameron, after his current senior ailment – kidney stones – remedy themselves. Will that fix Scutaro’s jitters or V-Mart’s tendency to sail throws “just a bit outside?” Nope. But again: they’ll regress to the mean. Although in V-Mart’s case that’s not good news.
  3. A couple of folks have bitched that this is all the front office’s doing; if only we signed Jason Bay, we’d be right there with the Rays and Yankees. Setting aside the question of how a single player could fix all that has gone wrong thus far, there is the problem with the numbers. Namely, Bay’s. Thus far in a Mets uniform, he’s putting up a .217/.321/.283 line, while leading both leagues in strikeouts with 18 (narrowly edging our own Drew). Our left-fielders, meanwhile, have put up an unimpressive and still superior .240/.255/.400. So not only is Jason Bay not walking through that door, it probably wouldn’t help much if he did. Like everyone else, he’ll regress to the mean – which in his case means he’ll get a lot better – but in the early going, it doesn’t appear as if he’d be a difference maker.

What’s Not Likely to Improve?

I am worried with a capital W about the pen. The starters, I think, will ultimately be fine. Beckett’s been better, Lester’s history says he’ll be better, Lackey just had a bad start today, and between Wake, Buch and Matsuzaka – throwing well in Pawtucket, from reports – I feel pretty good. One through five (or six), we’ll have a chance to win most days, however much it doesn’t feel that way right now.

Likewise, our offense will hit. It’s looked brutal in the early going, but it is always does when 70% or 80% of your lineup isn’t hitting. Moreover, I think the front office will be aggressive if it looks like that’s a problem, and adding offense in season is always easier than adding pitching.

But we may be forced to give something away to get some help in relief, because there’s no real help available on the farm. Tazawa’s out with Tommy John. Richardson isn’t exactly lighting it up with a 1.80 WHIP at Pawtucket, and Kelly – for all of his poise – was born in 1989 (though I find his innings limits intriguing). I’ve been worried about our pen since the offseason, not least because our PECOTA projections were terrifying. And yes, I’m aware that PECOTA’s had its issues this offseason.

ESPN’s Jeremy Lundblad has the best breakdown of the issues out of our pen that I’ve seen. You really should read it, but the short version for the link averse? Delcarmen’s lost about three miles an hour off his fastball since 2008, and his usage reflects that. Ramirez Uno’s K rate is in sharp decline, and his walk rate is up. Also not good.

Oki’s still great versus lefties, but he’s become mortal versus righties. Which probably explains why he’s given up the 8th inning to Bard. And speaking of, while Lundblad’s not particularly worried about the young fireballer, I am. His K rate is down sharply in the early going, never a good sign, although that could just be a blip. His HR rate is higher as well. Like Keith Law, I’ve struggled to understand how people who watch him pitch right now think he’s ready to take Papelbon’s place. He just doesn’t command well enough yet.

Which brings us to Pap. You might recall that last season I, along with a great many other people, worried about the fact that Pap had basically reverted to a one pitch pitcher. Well, the good news is that he is indeed throwing the split more: 17.9% thus far, well up from last season’s 9.3%. The bad news is that his pitch selection may be impacting his performance – negatively. As Lundblad put it,

Papelbon has issued four walks in four appearances so far this season. In 2008, he didn’t issue his fourth walk until June 22, his 33rd appearance. Factor in just one strikeout, and this is the first time in Papelbon’s career that he has more walks than strikeouts.

Add it up, and I think the pen will be this team’s weakness.

Big Picture?

We’re going to play better, and things will turn around. I’m not going to guarantee 95 wins like a lot of people – the BP guys’ latest simulations are currently predicting an 80 win season and 24% chance of the playoffs, but we’re clearly better than that. Just as we’re better than this.

Will it be enough to make up six games in the toughest division in baseball? Who knows. But we can’t worry about that right now. Our only concern should be getting these guys playing better.

Meaning don’t boo them, it’s not going to help anything.

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.

Pondering the PECOTA Projections

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baseball for baby bob, originally uploaded by Shutter Daddy.

You may not have realized, but today is Christmas. For baseball fans, anyway. Baseball Prospectus just published its PECOTA projections, as well as the anticipated team records. I’ll have a lot more on this later, but some highlights for you in the meantime.

BP has the Red Sox finishing 2nd. Not to the Yankees, the Rays. They have the empire finishing third. Projected records for the clubs: Tampa 96-66, Boston 95-67, and New York 93-69. Not that I relish the idea of finishing 2nd, but given that they don’t have another AL club cracking 90 wins, that would mean a playoff berth.

And before you scoff at these rankings, remember that BP predicted the Rays success in 2008. Yeah. Before they were good.

How’d We Get There?

As expected, BP has the Red Sox staff and defense much improved, giving up the second fewest runs in the league (737 runs to the Rays 729). But the offense is no slouch either. BP expects a cumulative .275/.356/.448 line, good enough for 882 runs. The only clubs in the AL projected to best that number are the Yankees (917), the Rays (885), and the Rangers (883).

Add it up and you have what the front office is clearly shooting for: a club that keeps the score down, but can put enough runs on the board to win consistently. Here’s hoping they’re right.

Player Highlights

Notable aspects of the projections for our roster.

THE LINEUP:

  1. Ellsbury: BP sees more power in ’10; from .415 last season to .431.
  2. Pedroia: .866 projected OPS for the little guy; the 18 HRs would be a career high.
  3. Youkilis: 24 HR, .500 SLG, but a .387 OBP that would be his lowest since ’06.
  4. Ortiz: Mild rebound anticipated: .238/.332/.462 to .265/.369/.486
  5. Drew: Declines in OBP and SLG, from an ’09 OPS of .914 to .813
  6. Beltre: They see 19 HR and a .773 OPS from the 3B – Lowell was 17/.811
  7. Cameron: 18 HR in 515 AB, only 8 SB
  8. Martinez: it’s really nice to forecast a .798 OPS from the catching spot
  9. Scutaro: his anticipated .753 OPS is almost a hundred point improvement over ’09’s .655, and then there’s the defense

Comments: the offense is deeper than you’d think, particularly when you consider Hall (.244/.310/.413) and Hermida (.269/.352/.455) off the bench. For the Lowrie fans, PECOTA is not optimistic: .253/.333/.397. If that holds, we’ll be glad Scutaro’s on board.

THE ROTATION (note the IP):

  1. Beckett: 195 IP, 170K, 49B, 3.52 ERA
  2. Lester: 178 IP, 140K, 62BB, 3.66 ERA
  3. Lackey: 199 IP, 144K, 52BB, 3.55 ERA
  4. Matsuzaka: 107 IP, 92K, 52BB, 4.35 ERA
  5. Buchholz: 164 IP, 141K, 62BB, 3.71 ERA
  6. Wakefield: 97 IP, 55K, 38BB, 4.63 ERA

Comments: who wouldn’t like that rotation? I’m particularly pleased at the projections for Buch. If those hold up, we’ll be very glad that Cafardo, Mazz and co aren’t in charge, because he’d be throwing for another club. It would appear, also, that PECOTA is anticipating that we’ll make liberal use of spot starters in Wake and Bowden, who they project for 24 starts between them.

THE BULLPEN:

  1. Papelbon: slightly better WHIP, higher ERA – HR rate up as well
  2. Okajima: 3.41 ERA, 19BB/46K in 55 IP
  3. Delcarmen: 3.64 with an unpleasant 1.3 WHIP
  4. Ramirez: 3.55, with peripherals similar to MDC’s otherwise
  5. Bard: kinda scary, 4.23 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and a poor 49/36 K/BB ratio

Comments: If there’s one area we might prioritize for help – barring a trade for Cabrera or Gonzalez, of course – it’d be here. Maybe one of Bonser, Atchison, Castro, Bowden et al pan out, but PECOTA doesn’t think so.