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.

Hitting the Links

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Stretching the Arm, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

‘I had no idea we got [John] Lackey until [trainer Mike] Reinold came down to see me, just a few days ago,’ [Papelbon] said. ‘I swear to you. I don’t know anything about the ballclub, but I know the words to the ‘Mickey Mouse Clubhouse’ song.’

Adrian Beltre deal? He hadn’t heard. Casey Kotchman about to be traded to the Mariners? Nope. Mike Cameron? ‘Cameron, Mike Cameron?’ he said. “We got him? I swear to you, I didn’t know.’” – Gordon Edes, Papelbon’s recurring nightmare

Me neither, Paps, me neither. What, that’s less than plausible? Fine, blame the back to work crush.

Anyway, there’s way too much news to cover quickly, so for now I’m just going to hit you with a couple of links you might be interested in. I’ll follow up with a review of the macro offseason plan later, and tackle Beltre/Lackey/Cameron following. Suffice it to say I’m happy, relatively speaking, with the way things are going. Now, to the links!

First, one on – who else? – Buch. The esteemed Eric Van of SoSH fame on wicked clevah’s pet project:

Let’s compare Clay to Sabathia.

At the exact same age, Sabathia had established himself as an MLB workhorse starter. He already had five full years of MLB pitching under his belt and had a career 106 ERA+ and was coming off a 104 season. Folks looking at his stuff thought he’d get better, sooner than later, and they were right. He had a 139 ERA+ the next year and has been 140 starting then.

Clay Buchholz’s age 24 half-season is probably more impressive than Sabathia’s full year. Under any other circumstances he would have been recalled after just a few starts in Pawtucket, and from what we know about MLE’s he could have been expected to put up excellent numbers had he made those AAA starts for the Sox. When he was recalled, he put up a 111 ERA+ in his half-year.

But wait, you say … Sabathia had been doing this forever! How can you compare the two?

Exactly.

C. C. Sabathia graduated HS at age 17. Who knows how many innings he pitched in HS? Presumably quite a few.

By the time he was 19 plus a few months, C.C. had thrown 234 additional innings in the minors.

What was Clay Buchholz doing at the same age? Mostly playing the OF. The guy is faster than Jacoby and apparently a pretty good hitter. While (as amarshal points out) he did pitch in HS, it wasn’t his sole focus and apparently not even his emphasis, since it hasn’t been widely reported. And he didn’t pitch an inning his freshman year in college.

During the summer he turned 20, C.C. threw 180 innings in the majors. Clay Buchholz went back to the mound as a JuCo sophomore — still splitting time in the OF, though — and threw 86 insane innings, got drafted by the Sox, and threw another 41 IP.

By the time they were both 24, C.C. had been pitching full-time since he was, what, 14? And had all his HS innings and 234 in the minors and 776 in the big leagues. Clay Buchholz had been pitching full-time since he was 20 and had fewer HS innings (in all likelihood), 86 college, 344 in the minors, and 99 in the majors. That’s 1010 versus 529 plus a likely edge in HS. And six more years of concentrating full-time on his craft.

Given the incredible advantage Sabathia had in experience, what do you make of the fact that Buchholz was better at age 24?

Jon Lester had 474 professional innings when he was derailed briefly by cancer, very close to the 529 Clay had in college and pro ball coming into this year. In this comparison Lester’s a year younger than Clay but he again has the advantage of having been dedicated to pitching since high school. His 2007, like Clay’s 2009, was split between Pawtucket and Boston, but Clay was better at both levels. You know what happened to Lester starting in 2008.

Tim Lincecum had a ton of HS and 342 college innings under his belt when he split his first pro season between the minors and the show — and put up a 112 ERA+ for the Giants. Admittedly, again, he was almost two years younger, but again, he’d been focusing on pitching (rather famously in his intensity) years longer than Clay.

Felix Hernandez had 581 pro innings coming into his second full season with the M’s. And he then had, you guessed it, a 112 ERA+. People were starting to get impatient with him, but the next year (after another 200 IP) he went to 122 and then this year he skyrocketed. Granted, he did all this at ages 3 years younger than Clay at a comparable point in post-HS experience — but, again, Felix became a full-time pitcher at a much younger age than Clay.

Verlander is the only guy that phragle mentioned who was better than a 112 ERA+ with a significantly fewer amount of post-HS innings (and sustained it; Greinke had a 120 his rookie season but that’s a more complicated story, of course).

Buchholz has been unbelievably good given his lack of experience.

If you care to, find us a prospect who was just as heralded in terms of stuff, and who had as much success at a comparable point in post-HS experience, and didn’t get hurt, but stalled and never got much better. Only if there are a bunch of guys like that can you argue that Clay is not an excellent bet to become an elite pitcher. Because there are certainly a whole bunch of guys like that who did get much better.

So yeah, I’m still a believer.

Dave Cameron, of USS Mariner fame (and if you haven’t heard of that, trust me, he’s tremendous), on the new sabermetrically inclined Sox:

The age of the Giambi brothers is over. Sure, these teams would still love to have a middle-of-the-order thumper who can get on base and hit the ball 500 feet with regularity, but they aren’t going to pay the market price for power when similar value comes at a discount in another package. The value purchase now is to re-create the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, a tremendous defensive team led by speed merchants who ran their way into the World Series despite a glaring lack of home run hitters.

Whitey Herzog, who managed that Cardinals team, would never be mistaken for a “Moneyball” disciple. But if Herzog were still putting together rosters in 2010, the teams that would most resemble what he would want are the teams that use statistical analysis to help inform their decisions. What was old is new again, and 2010 will be the year that the scouts and statheads finally come to an agreement on how a team should be built.

We use a bunch of statistics around here that some of you may not be familiar with. So, in case you’re curious, explanations of UZR and WAR.

And now on wicked clevah, the Gammons section.

Over on EEI, the Commish predicted we’d be better because of – you guessed it – our defense and pitching:

I think they’re better this year. I’ll tell you why. The whole run-scoring thing, I’m not that worried about. I think that the depth of the lineup will be very good. I think the depth of the roster is much better. It’s amazing to me they finished second, they had the second-best record, the second-best run differential, and they had 55 games started by [Brad] Penny, [John] Smoltz, [Paul] Bird, a bad [Daisuke] Matsuzaka, [Michael] Bowden and [Junichi] Tazawa. In 55 games, more than one-third of their games, their starting pitchers had a 6.28 earned run average, and they still had the second-best run differential and record in the league. They could change that a lot.”

For his old employer the Glober, he talked about the possibility of adding a bat:

If they need somebody I think they will. Right now they don’t seem very worried about it. If Ellsbury continues the progress he made getting to fastballs in the second half of hte season, they believe the top third of the order will produce more runs than any time in the recent past. They have a lot better left/right balance and they believe the defense will make up for any difference between the HR totals of Jason Bay and Beltre. People talk about their lack of power last year but they hit almost 50 more homers and scored 5 more runs than they did when they won the WS in 2007.

At his new home on MLB.com, @pgammo reiterated the pitching-and-defense mantra:

I think Boston has won, because of the immense difference their defense will make. They are pitching-oriented, and they added Lackey. They think Clay Buchholz could be a No. 2 or 3 starter. So you’ve added all that defense with Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron, and you’re also able to get Beltre on a one-year deal. I think it’s a great deal by Scott Boras to get Beltre into a ballpark where he might hit 30 to 35 home runs and win a Gold Glove and give him a chance to really make some money in free agency, but it’s a great short-term deal for Boston. They’ve really improved themselves.

And speaking of defense, ours is projected to be a lot better. How much better? 84 defensive runs saved better, according to the respected John Dewan. The SoSH gang has more on that piece here.

Meanwhile, the not respected Dan Shaughnessy embarassed himself – again – as articulated by Rob Neyer. Who also, every so subtly, eviscerated Nick Cafardo here.

And at least until we get to the players, that’s all I have for you at the moment.

Untouchable Ellsbury?

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Confirming the Catch, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Obviously, we are sensing the proverbial next shoe is about to drop. If it is Adrian Gonzalez (with an outside shot at Miguel Cabrera), which would be a ginormous move by the Red Sox to cap what would be an eye-popping offseason, then what is there not to like? Well, one thing: if one of the players going to San Diego is Jacoby Ellsbury.

If Ellsbury is the hot name from the San Diego side, then Theo Epstein should just say no.

Give up Ryan Westmoreland, and include a better prospect or two at the end of the deal. Ellsbury is a special player who hit .301, stole 70 bases, and scored 94 runs last season, and one who plays a very good center field and is just 26 years old.” – Nick Cafardo

Chad Finn and I might not agree on much with respect to a potential trade for Adrian Gonzalez, but we at least see eye to eye on this much: “If you think Jacoby Ellsbury is untouchable in a deal for Adrian Gonzalez, we’re gonna have to fight.”

Which is not to say that I want to trade Ells. Lord knows I love watching the kid play as much as the next guy, because when was the last time the Sox had a guy who was literally fast enough to run down a deer? But he is what he is, as the cliche says, and what he is is a player who’s good, but unlikely to develop into a star.

You might assume a deconstruction of the Jacoby-is-untouchable argument would begin with his defense, which recently become the subject of much discussion after he won an award as the best defensive player in the majors after posting the single worst UZR/150 at his position. But I won’t. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that his terrible -18.3 UZR/150 in ’09 was statistical noise; he put up a 6.9 at the position in ’08, albeit in less than half as many innings, and the good folks from SoSH at least raise some reasonable questions about the statistical assessments of his play in the field.

But what about his offense? Here’s what Aaron Gleeman, who is very good, said about Ells when the Twinkies were contemplating trading for him as part of a Santana package:

Ellsbury essentially does everything well except hit for power and looks likely to be a very valuable player for a long time, but the question is whether the Twins should build a trade package for the best pitcher in baseball around someone who may never reach double-digit homers in a season. Ellsbury batted .365 with a .157 Isolated Power during his metal bat-wielding college career at Oregon State and has hit .318 with a .116 Isolated Power in 1,282 plate appearances a pro.

At 24 years old Ellsbury will probably develop some additional pop as he matures, but with 29 homers in 1,300 plate appearances dating back to college it’s unlikely that his Isolated Power will rise much beyond .125 or so. For comparison, Luis Castillo’s career Isolated Power is .064, so Ellsbury is far from powerless. On the other hand, major-league hitters as a whole posted a .155 Isolated Power in 2007, which would make it tough for him to possess even average power.

Of course, plenty of hitters with below-average power are still able to be very good players by providing some combination of outstanding defense, speed, and on-base skills. Those are all areas where Ellsbury figures to thrive given that he’s an excellent defensive center fielder who’s hit .300 everywhere he’s gone and has stolen 114 bases at an 81-percent clip in 283 pro games. However, there’s some question about exactly how good his on-base skills can be.

Ellsbury has drawn a non-intentional walk in 8.8 percent of his pro plate appearances, which puts him solidly above the major-league average of 7.8 percent and works out to around 50-55 walks per 600 plate appearances. If he maintains that walk rate along with a batting average at .300 or so, Ellsbury’s on-base percentage would be around .360-.370. That’s well above the MLB average of .335, but is it enough to make him a star when it comes along with a .125 Isolated Power?

If things go well for Ellsbury, he looks capable of hitting around .300/.370/.425 on a regular basis. Toss in good defense with 50-steal speed and that’s an extremely good player. In fact, it’s essentially Kenny Lofton. Like Ellsbury, Lofton is a slight, incredibly fast, lefty-hitting center fielder who was drafted out of a Pac-10 college and made his big-league debut as a 24-year-old. Despite showing even less power than Ellsbury in the minors, Lofton has hit .299/.372/.423 with 622 steals during his 17-year career.

However, while Lofton certainly seems like a good comp for Ellsbury on any number of levels, in reality he’s probably more like a good best-case scenario comp. There’s no guarantee that Ellsbury can maintain his .300-hitting ways in the majors long term, even his modest minor-league power may not fully translate to the big leagues, and walking in nine percent of his trips to the plate could prove difficult if pitchers aren’t afraid to throw him strikes.

At this point Ellsbury looks capable of putting together a Lofton-like career, but with sub par power and non-great plate discipline most of his offensive value is tied to hitting .300. If he instead bats .275 while seeing his Isolated Power drop into the .100 range and walking just seven percent of the time, then Ellsbury goes from Lofton-like to hitting .275/.330/.375. Strong defense and great speed would still make him a solid player, but that’s not someone to build a package for Santana around.

None of us wanted to hear that, at the time, coming off the the kid’s spectacular 2007 late season run, during which he put up a .353/.394/.509 line with his eye popping speed.
But what’s he done since? .291/.346/.405 and an isolated power of .114. Pretty much exactly what Gleeman predicted, in other words. He’s a good player, but he’s not a great player. Even with the steals, which it will be interesting to see if he can sustain.

Some will claim he improved down the stretch, and that’s true: he did. But by how much? He numbers from September on have him at .305/.388/.415 for an .803 OPS. That’s better than his cumulative .301/.355/.415/.770 line, for sure: it would tie for the 5th best CF OPS in the majors, if he could hold that up. But arguments that that represents “improvement” seem to be largely the product of aspirational projections. The simpler explanation, easily, is that it’s a small sample size statistical variation explainable by, say, an influx of September pitching callups.

Nor is Ells a spring chicken at 26. He’s not done improving as a player, but he’s not 24 anymore either. Which the major projections recognize: Bill James has him at .302/.360/.420 (.780 OPS), CHONE .300/.358/.410 (.768 OPS) and ZIPS .290/.344/.398 (.742 OPS). Unless they’re all wrong – and their collective average OPS margin for error last year was .034 (Bill James was the farthest off, optimistically projecting a .843 for Ells) – he’s no star. No matter what Cafardo and his “veteran National League executive” think about Ells being “special” and a “rare talent.”

And for the Ellsbury defenders that want to point to his admittedly impressive 41.4 VORP score, good for second among centerfielders and 38th in the league, we need to acknowledge that the man he could be traded for – Gonzalez – is the owner of a 57.6 VORP, which would be easily the best on our team and good for 13th in the league.

But if he’s not a star player, Ells is cheap and team controlled, at least. Isn’t he? Well, not really. Here’s Olney:

I would respectfully disagree with Nick [Cafardo] about whether Ellsbury would be a great catch for the Padres. In a vacuum, sure, you’d love to have him. But Ellsbury is going to be eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2010 season, and in 2011-12, he could make as much or more than Gonzalez will make over the next two seasons. In other words: His salary would become almost an immediate problem for the Padres, and given that he is represented by Scott Boras, the Padres would have to assume there would be no hometown discounts. Ellsbury would be a nice player for San Diego, but he would be a money pit.

So while I certainly wouldn’t trade an asset like Ells for just any player, the notion that he should be untouchable in a transaction for a talent like Gonzalez is absurd. If Hoyer would take him as the centerpiece for a deal, that’s an easy decision to make. Both purely on the players’ merits as well as in the context of our ability to replace Ellsbury on the major league roster.

Unfortunately, however, the Padre’s new GM is much better at player value assessment than Cafardo – who once recommended playing Shelley Duncan over Jason Giambi because of his “energy”, remember – so the chances of us getting Gonzalez for a package headlined by a good but not great player that’s about to get expensive are minimal. Cafardo’s got that going for him, at least.