On Dave Dombrowski: I Have Some Concerns

When you’re on track for a third last place finish in four years, World Series sandwiched in there or no, it’s not surprising that the popular reaction to the front office’s regime change is positive. For the casual fans that read, say, Dan Shaughnessy, patience and a bigger picture perspective are in short supply, so the reality that last place finishes or no, Ben Cherington is leaving behind a solid foundation is not well understood. Or appreciated, at least. But he has.

Last winter’s major signings are disasters today, no argument. The free agent acquisitions of Pocello, Ramirez and Sandoval were so unsuccessful, in fact, that they are unmovable absent either major financial or prospect sweeteners attached. Sweeteners that make dealing them highly impractical. And as Cherington said, while the responsibility for those signings may not rest entirely with him, as it’s impossible to know where the ideas behind those deals originated and the degree to which ownership was or was not involved, the accountability is, or rather was, Cherington’s alone. Just as Cherington is rightly hailed as the architect of the 2013 World Series win, he is equally the person on the hook for those signings and the third last place finish they contributed to.

But this isn’t the place to debate Cherington’s tenure. Amherst alum or no, I’m more positive on Cherington’s work than most, and I think it’s easily possible to build the case that he didn’t deserve his fate, but even his supporters must acknowledge that the arguments for his removal and replacement are not particularly difficult to marshal.

It’s unfortunate that the process played out the way it did, of course. Under normal circumstances, ownership may have had no responsibility to keep Cherington informed of the process of hiring someone up the chain of command such as Dombrowski. But given both the public support offered for Cherington and more importantly the conversations he reported having with Henry and Werner about the process of improving the front office, Cherington was seemingly well within his rights to expect to be looped in to any such plans. When blindsided about the hire, then, ownership had no right to expect Cherington to do anything other than what he did. Why, for exanple, would ownership give Cherington the go ahead to bring on DiPoto in an advisory capacity one week and then hire Dombrowski the next? As Peter Gammons asks, why was Cherington lied to? Ownership has the right to make whatever decisions they like regarding they fate of their front office, but it’s a shame that they keep bungling the people side of things because they’re uncomfortable with confrontation.

None of which has anything to do with Dombrowski, of course. How they handled communications with Cherington up to and subsequent to their recruitment of Dombrowski has little bearing on whether bringing him on board was the correct decision, or whether Cherington could have righted the ship on his own.

If nothing else, Dombrowski offers value to ownership from a PR perspective. To the legions of frustrated, impatient fans, they can point to this change as a sign that they’re not standing pat, that losing is unacceptable, et cetera, et cetera. What could be more impressive than hiring the man who Jonah Keri calls “one of the best front-office guys in the sport?”

It would silly to argue that an executive with Dombroski’s pedigree had nothing to add beyond PR cover, of course. From the Expos to the Marlins to the Tigers, Dombrowski has amassed an impressive track record of success. It’s not without blemishes or missteps, of course, but there have been no perfect baseball executives to date, Branch Rickey included. Dombrowski also brings, as did DiPoto when he was brought on, a fresh set of eyes, one that is less personally attached to the individual prospects and – theoretically, at least – more disposed to view them dispassionately as assets to be used for the betterment of the Red Sox organization, whether that’s as players or trade fodder.

All of which makes it sound like the hiring of Dombrowski is a positive development, and it may well be. Personally, however, I have some concerns. The problem isn’t as much Dombrowski versus Cherington, but rather what specifically, organizationally, that means.

Most objections to Dombrowski are relatively superficial. “He can’t build bullpens!” “He’s going to trade away our entire farm system!” These aren’t entirely without substance, of course, but they’re not the real worry. Detroit’s consistent lack of a bullpen obscures the fact that other clubs he’s managed have produced elite relievers: Robb Nen, for example. And while I very much hope that our farm system – which Cherington has built into what is widely regarded as the best in the game – isn’t gutted, there is little argument that we have areas of redundancy from which to deal. As much as I love Manuel Margot, for example, we have three (in my view) young, talented centerfielders are on the major league roster already. We also have an emerging talent two levels behind Margot in Benintendi. So if Dealin’ Dave turns some of these talented but blocked players into young talented players at other positions, well, that’s what the farm system is for. If we drop from #1 to, say, #10 in an effort to acquire young, elite and major league-ready talent, then so be it.

No, my issue is what Dombrowski’s hiring means for the Red Sox organization. There are two ways this can go, in my view. Behind door number one is Frank Wren. Behind door number two is Mike Hazen. The former would be a disaster, in my view, while the latter offers hope that this could actually make the organization stronger. Here’s why.

Frank Wren

According to Ken Rosenthal, a “rival executive” will be shocked if Dombrowski hires anyone other than Wren. Here’s what ESPN’s Keith Law had to say about that idea:

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but why? What’s the problem with Frank Wren?

There are many, but for me it’s not the obvious problems like his free agent errors – if you think Ramirez and Sandoval are bad deals, check out BJ Upton or Dan Uggla. Issues like that could and would be mitigated by having Dombrowski as the final decision maker. No, my issue with Wren is his ability – or rather, lackthereof – with people.

Whatever one thinks of Cherington and his front office at present based on their track record the past four years, the fact is that the Red Sox are an extremely bright, progressive organization. In a podcast with the Globe’s Alex Speier, Law calls the front office “if not the best, one of the best” in baseball. It’s easy to forget now in the wake of another lost season, but this a front office that delivered us three titles in less than a decade. It’s a front office that is sufficiently well regarded so as to be periodically raided for talent by other major league clubs. Hell, the Cubs president and general manager are both products of the Red Sox front office. The front office is also responsible for the drafting and international signings that have left the club as the consensus best farm system in the game.

The very intelligent – and thus, valuable – collection of individuals is very loyal to Cherington, a man whose critics even go out of their way to acknowledge as posessed of exceptional integrity, honesty, and accountability. The same man who was just treated in a less than ideal fashion by ownership.

If the perfect world is one in which the Red Sox complement their existing well regarded front office – one, importantly, that is exceptionally capable in an area where Dombrowski’s successor in Detroit acknowledged the club to be behind, analytics – with his traditional scouting acumen, the nightmare is one in which Dombrowski’s hire leads to a massive exodus of the best and brightest of baseball minds. Minds that it’s taken this Red Sox ownership group over a decade to accumulate.

What then would be the simplest method of setting this nightmare in motion? By introducing into this already unsettled situation a general manager who’s bad with people. Which brings us back to Wren. Here’s what Atlanta writer Mark Bradley said about the Braves’ ex-GM Wren in a piece ostensibly recommending the hire entitled “Frank Wren to Fenway? Why this could actually work.”

Wren wasn’t fired because of wins and losses. He was fired in part because he whiffed egregiously on Dan Uggla’s contract extension and especially on the free-agent signing of B.J. (now Melvin Jr.) Upton, but mostly he was fired because he ran the organization but made almost no allies. Nobody disputed that he was smart and hard-working. He just wasn’t very good with people.

If the best arguments in favor of your hiring include phrases like “made almost no allies” and “just wasn’t very good with people,” let’s just say you have issues. If I’m Red Sox ownership, and I want to preserve any semblance of continuity with the organization that I’ve spent a decade building and is both well regarded externally and has delivered more world championships over the span than any other organization in the game, I make clear to Dombrowski that under no circumstances is Wren to be considered, let alone hired.

If not Wren, though, then who?

Mike Hazen

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that some measure of organizational continuity is valued. How does an incoming leader build bridges into this new organization? By elevating one of its own.

In his reaction to the Dombrowski hiring, Peter Gammons floated the idea of Mike Hazen as the new Red Sox GM under Dombrowski. This is a decision that almost certainly won’t happen because it makes too much sense. Among the justifications:

  1. Hazen is ready for a General Manager’s role, having been a candidate for and interviewed for openings such as the Padres
  2. Hazen comes from the heavily analytical Red Sox front office tradition, and thus would mitigate Dombrowski’s weakness in that area
  3. Hazen would be much better for the retention of key Red Sox front office personnel than a candidate like Wren
  4. Hazen’s retention would be a signal, internally and externally, to the front office that Dombrowski’s hiring is not the repudiation of the Red Sox analytical philosophy that it is currently being made out to be
  5. Hazen’s institutional knowledge and experience will be important given Dombrowski’s minimal window to evaluate minor league talent prior to this offseason’s trading opportunities

The only real downside to Hazen’s hiring, unless Hazen has significant professional shortcomings that have not been made public, is that he hasn’t worked with Dombrowski previously. If I’m the Red Sox ownership group, however, I would strongly “encourage” Dombrowski to look beyond that, because the upside to a candidate like Hazen stands in stark contrast to the downside of one like Wren.

The Net

The decision to hire Dombrowski, or at least the way in which the ownership group went about the move, is reminiscent of what I’d argue is the worst decision of their tenure, the dismissal of Tito Francona. In the wake of the disastrous 2011 collapse, ownership essentially assigned Francona the blame for a starting rotation that was so desperate that Kyle Weiland was run out every five days. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and Francona took the fall. In similar fashion, Cherington was effectively held accountable for a perfect storm of mistakes, whether these could have reasonably been foreseen or not.

Whatever mistakes were made in this process, however, do not need to be compounded further by the addition of a candidate like Wren. It is entirely possible for the Red Sox front office to emerge from this transition better and stronger than it was previously, because the addition of an evaluator like Dombrowski to an organization with already elite analytical capabilities is intriguing.

But for this marriage to work, Dombrowski needs to let the existing front office employees know their talents are valued, and the simplest way to do that is by hiring one of their own as his General Manager. If he’s not interested in preservation, but instead wants to work with only those he’s known like Wren, well, let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the future.

The Red Sox 2013 Plan

Fork in the road

Having reset the roster in late August, the Red Sox effectively had two paths open to them for 2013. The first path, best described as Win Now, would have entailed bidding heavily on free agents like Greinke, Hamilton or Sanchez, and in all three cases offering contracts of five or more years. This was never likely, given that it was not even six months ago that the Red Sox pulled the ripcord with a first-time-in-major-league-history $250M trade in an attempt to dig us out from just these sorts of contracts. But you’d never know it from the baseball writers, who are disappointed in the Red Sox for not pursuing one big ticket item or another.

The second option available to the club – “Compete Now, Win Later” – was probably the only realistic one given John Henry’s feelings on free agency risk. The basic idea is to overpay in the short term for middle tier free agents – smaller contracts that individually represent fractional risks – in an effort to buy time for the farm system. While Keith Law among others had the Red Sox organization in the bottom half of minor league talent entering 2012, it was a good year for many players in the system. From Barnes to Bogaerts to Bradley Jr, several Red Sox prospects took steps forward last season – some quite significant. Add to that two legitimate, high ceiling arms in De La Rosa and Webster, acquired via the Dodgers trade, and the Red Sox farm system looks better than it has in recent memory, particularly at the upper levels of the system.

The club cannot hope for much help in 2013, however. The roster will see contributions from a variety of prospects next season, of course, but the bulk of the real pitching and positional talent is at least a season away. Lavarnway is probably major league ready now, at least offensively, but Bogaerts, Bradley Jr, Brentz, Iglesias, Shaw, et al need consistent at bats. Both for the player to grow and for the club to assess whether they’re pieces for the roster or pieces with which to acquire talent for the roster. Likewise, our potential crop of starting pitchers is either young and inexperienced (Barnes, Owens), coming off of injury (De La Rosa) or both. It’s probably realistic for the club to hope that of Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster and possibly Owens, Workman and Ranaudo, they’ll find a young starter or two.

Just not this year.

If we assume that the Big Ticket Free Agent plan was never an option, both because the club’s been burned by it recently and because this year’s crop of free agents all came with question marks, Cherington’s course was clear. After last year’s implosion, bottoming out in 2013 by betting everything on the likes of Kalish, Iglesias and Lavarnway wasn’t in the cards. Which meant plugging holes with pieces like Dempster, Napoli, Victorino and Stephen Drew. None are superstars, but neither are any of them being paid like it. Thirteen million might seem like a lot to you, and it sure as hell sounds like a lot to me, but in today’s game that’s the going rate for a mid tier free agent – just ask 37 year old Torii Hunter.

Rather than place all of their financial eggs in one or two baskets, then, the Red Sox front office has obtained bona fide major league candidates for left field, right field, first base (assuming Napoli is finalized), shortstop, catcher, set up man and the fourth spot in our rotation. The aggregate cost has us back within hailing distance of the luxury tax threshold, but it seems inevitable that a few bodies will yet be moved along (my bets would be Salty and at least one reliever). For around $13M less than what Greinke will cost the Dodgers, then, the Red Sox added Dempster, Drew, Gomes, Napoli, Ross, Uehara and Victorino. While I might quibble with some of the individual signings, or their terms, it’s difficult to build the case that Cherington’s dollars would have been better invested in Greinke given the number of holes he had to fill. You pay the cost for a Greinke or a Hamilton or a Dickey if you’re a win or two away from contention; you don’t if you gutted your roster coming off of a 69 win season.

It remains to be seen what the “Compete Now, Win Later” strategy yields in 2013, but Cherington’s approach to the roster is as logical as it has been unexciting. Worst case, they’re improved from last season, best case they’re the 2012 Baltimore Orioles and challenge for a Wild Card spot. Either way, they’re better in 2014 than if the Red Sox had spent like drunken sailors – in dollars or prospects – seeking a quick fix to a long term problem.

It may not be popular, and it will mean the end of the sellout streak, but it’s the sensible approach.

In Case You Haven't Been Keeping Up With Current Events

Papi on Deck

We just got our asses kicked, pal. The 2012 Red Sox were 69-93. Anyone see that coming? Admittedly the “just” is a bit of a leap, as the end of the season is a month plus behind us, but you wouldn’t know it from this space: the last post here was September 2nd. And a few things have happened in between now and then. Herewith is a brief examination of a few of said things.

Bobby Valentine

There was no comment here on Valentine’s exit because, really, what commentary was necessary? While the talk show hosts will claim that everyone is stunned that Valentine didn’t work out, that’s not accurate. It was obvious to a great many people – including yours truly – that Bobby V was a bad fit for this job even before he’d really gotten to work. The only real surprise was how swift and total his failure was. All of the anticipated flaws – his inability to relate to players, his need to communicate via the media, his BobbyV-ness – were on permanent display last year, which will presumably be the last time we’ll see them in a dugout. As was said in this space in April, Valentine was nothing more or less than a classic management blunder: an emotion driven over-rotation away from a manager perceived to be a problem, in spite of eight years of unprecedented success.

The only good news about the damage he did during his tenure is that it was so extensive that bringing him back was completely untenable. And so, mercifully, he’s gone.

John Farrell

I have no idea whether Farrell is going to be a good manager: Keith Law, at one point, implied that the Red Sox had dodged a bullet after watching Farrell throw away a game for the Blue Jays. But he’s got one very important thing going for him: he’s not Bobby Valentine.

Given the higher quality of the managerial candidates this time around, it is a bit perplexing that Cherington and company felt compelled to pay the Blue Jay ransom of Mike Aviles (and don’t even get me started on the rumor that Bailey was the other potential trade item). Aviles is quite clearly a player with significant limitations – his liftime OBP is .308, and he missed that by 20 points last season – but in a market bereft of legitimate shortstops, he was an asset with value. His subtraction leaves Iglesias as the only realistic starting shortstop candidate, a season after ZIPS projected him to put up an Ordonez-an line of 251/.289/.311 and he underperformed that, hitting .118/.200/.191 in 77 at bats.

But with Cherington’s job reportedly on the line in the wake of last season’s disastrous finish and two deals that blew up in his face (the Reddick and Lowrie trades), paying Toronto’s premium for an asset they themselves appeared to have mixed impressions of apparently became more palatable. Ausmus et al may have dazzled in their interviews, but all ultimately lacked what Farrell offered: familiarity. Having worked with him extensively for years, they knew who Farrell was. With the would be contenders, they would be guessing.

So while I’m ultimately ambivalent about Farrell’s prospects, it is simutaneously difficult to fault the process. And at the very worst, he’s not Bobby V.

Juan Nieves

The one thing that everyone agrees on with respect to the upcoming season is that the starting rotation is, as ever, the key. And the best improvements that Red Sox can make in that area aren’t likely to be in external additions – although Cherington has said those will be necessary – but in restoring their pitchers under contract to past levels of performance. Farrell’s clearly expected to play a role in that, having been the pitching coach when both Buchholz and Lester enjoyed their finest seasons. But ultimately, the responsibility ultimately will be the new pitching coach’s.

It’s difficult to assess new hire Juan Nieves in that regard, because he’s been the bullpen coach for the White Sox. But the White Sox join the Cardinals as one of the clubs commonly regarded to have the ability to repair and restore pitchers on the decline. So if the Red Sox believe a little of Cooper rubbed off on Nieves during his tenure with the White Sox, this decision has my full approval.

David Ortiz

This exchange on WEEI last week summed up at once my frustration with sports radio in general and fan ignorance of contracts specifically.

sports radio caller: this ortiz signing is awful. it’s just too much risk: the achilles injury changes everything.

sports radio host: ok, but let me ask you: if he hit free agency and the rangers signed him for 2 years @ 24M, would you crush the red sox next august for not signing him?

sports radio caller: [long pause] yeah, well, that’s why i’m just a fan.

Besides trying to have it both ways, this misreads both the market and Ortiz’ actual value. According to Fangraphs, Ortiz was worth $13.3M in 2012, playing 90 games. His contract for the next two years is that times two. Tough to fault the front office for the move. In a perfect world, of course, the Red Sox would go year to year. And writers have (comically) implied that if Theo were still here, Ortiz would not be handed this two year deal. They base this assertion on the fact that Ortiz has been year to year for a few years now. This conveniently ignores both the realities of the market – there was a much greater scarcity of power threats on this year’s market relative to his previous periods of free agency – as well as his actual performance. It was natural to be cautious with Ortiz in 2009 or 2010, because he was not far removed from a period in which it looked like his career was nearly over. In 2012, Ortiz is coming off of two consecutive years of putting up an OPS better than 900.

There are risks to this deal, as with every deal, but they are more than acceptable – particularly given the short duration of the contract. This fits with the new Red Sox mantra: pay the premium for contracts of shorter duration. Kuroda will be an interesting next test of this philosophy.

David Ross

Boston’s best beat writer Alex Speier summed up the consternation following the signing of David Ross best:

The Red Sox need a starting pitcher, first baseman, two corner outfielders and perhaps a shortstop this winter. So naturally, their first move of the winter was … to sign a catcher, David Ross.

But as he explains, it’s a deal that actually makes a great deal of sense. Although the speculation by Ken Rosenthal and others in the wake of the signing was that this meant that Lavarnway was headed back to Pawtucket, count me among those who believe that this is a prelude to a trade of one of our two catchers.

And if pressed on which would be headed elsewhere, my bet would be on a transaction involving Salty. Neither Lavarnway nor Ross could reasonably expect to approximate Saltalamacchia’s power – 25 home runs last year – but both would project to be an upgrade on one of the biggest problems our offense had last year: getting on base. The Red Sox were 22nd in OBP in 2012, one season after being first. Salty’s lifetime OBP is .302, and in 2012 he was at .288. Ross’ lifetime OBP is .324 (.321 in 2012), and while Lavarnway was abysmal in 2012 at .211, Assistant GM Mike Hazen was stressing this week on WEEI’s excellent weekly Hot Stove show that it was important for the club to trust its player development personnel and the player’s minor league performance. Lavarnway’s OBP over five season in the minors? .376.

Add in the fact that Ross was apparently told he would be “more than a backup,” and the tea leaves seem to forecase the end of the Salty era in Boston. Potential trading partners would include the Mets and White Sox, and theoretically even the Braves who just lost Ross and have McCann coming off of surgery.

All in all, what seems initially a surprising move is actually more likely to be the Red Sox creating an artificial surplus in an area of league need at a reasonable cost from which to deal for required assets. Which seems like sound strategy here.

So the Red Sox Should Just Hand the Cubs Their Savior…Why?

“CSN Chicago quotes a source saying, “Larry Lucchino is one of the most unreasonable people I have ever dealt with and because of his frayed relationship with Theo Epstein he is looking to make a point at the expense of Theos happiness and his desire to go to Chicago. I didnt believe that ownership group for one second when they said that they wouldnt stand in Theos way if he wanted out of Boston. They are furious that he wants out and they are trying to make a point.

Two things:


2. Business is business. Epstein has a year left on his deal and is walking. That means compensation. Epstein is considered one of the best GMs in the game and was signed to do his job through 2012. The Sox have every right to be compensated for his loss and to make it hurt if they want.The “Theo and Larry dont get along” narrative is an old one. Lucchinos job is to represent the interests of the Red Sox.As was written here yesterday, the Sox have all the cards. Ben Cherington is running the baseball operations department and appears to have the full confidence of ownership. They can let Epstein and the Cubs stew as long as they want.In the end, a deal gets made. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts would lose all credibility in Chicago if he cant get his franchise savior in place.

via Report: Sox-Cubs talks turn contentious – Extra Bases – Red Sox blog.

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:


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.

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.

Mazz vs the Strawman

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Not My Hat!, originally uploaded by cogdogblog.

If the length of contract was an issue for Bay and the Sox — he wanted five years, they stopped at four — why couldn’t such a clause have satisfied all parties? As it is, the Red Sox will be paying Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida somewhere in the neighborhood of $10.5 million this year when Bay might have cost them $15 million. Who would you rather have?” – Tony Massarotti

I despair for the state of professional sportswriting in this town, I really do. Thank the great spirit that Gammons is back: maybe he could tell Mazz what’s going on.

Anyway, here’s the deal Mazz: you get to pick one from a) criticizing the Sox for paying players to play elsewhere or b) implying that they’re cheap for not going the extra year on contracts. One. You can’t have it both ways. Because the former is the inevitable outcome of the latter, which is what you believe should happen.

The answer to the question of the above is simple: the Red Sox cannot protect themselves from an extra year of long dollars to Jason Bay with an injury clause because they don’t believe he’ll decline simply because of an injury. Their position – and the opinion of a lot of other smart, educated writers out there – is that Bay will not be worth the money he’s owed towards the end of his contract.

The end of the contract that Mazz, conveniently, ignores in his strawman “Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida somewhere in the neighborhood of $10.5 million this year when Bay might have cost them $15 million. Who would you rather have?” nonsense. Bay may or may not be worth more than Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida next year, but last I checked Jason Bay is not looking to sign for one year. So the difference isn’t $4.5M million, as Mazz implies, but – conservatively – probably something closer to $45 million. Bay turned down $60 million, remember, while Cameron’s package is $15.5M and Hermida’s 2010 money is probably something around $3M. But maybe I’m just being uncharitable to Mazz, assuming he’s willfully ignoring the total contract obligations in service of his myopic point? Could be he just misplaced a decimal point.

Sportswriters – particularly the ones that write about baseball – talk incessantly about “accountability.” They expect players to stand up following poor performances and be accountable, and generally argue that it reflects poorly on the player when they do not.

But how many sportswriters hold themselves to that same, elevated standard? How many of the writers, for example, have acknowledged that their calls last winter to sell low on Buchholz were foolish? By the logic above, Mazz is entitled to criticize the club coming and going. If Mazz wants to argue that the Red Sox, as a club with substantial financial resources, should spend more liberally than they do, fine. I disagree, but we can have that conversation. But when Mazz then turns around and docks them for the byproduct of long term contracts, the logic begins to break down.

Do I expect sportswriters, living as they are in the moment, to be perfectly analytical? No. But I do expect them to be, at a minimum, logically consistent in their positions, and that’s just not the case here. As Mazz said the last time he let his emotions carry him away, “I messed up here.”

I think we’re due another one of those any day now.