The Five Claims of the #KeepJBJ Reporters

Russia_2244 - Rasputin

One of the more interesting aspects to the #KeepJBJ campaign is the degree to which reporters – ostensibly impartial observers – have been sucked up in the frenzy to start the 23 year old in the major leagues. Or at least wish to give that appearance; Pete Abraham, for example, who gives every appearance now of being fully on the bandwagon, earlier implied it was something of an act:

Maybe they’re just trying to sell papers by siding with the masses, maybe they’re legitimately convinced it’s the right thing to do. It’s difficult to say with any certainty, which in my opinion is a failure on the part of the reporter, but that’s a subject for another day.

Should Jackie Bradley Jr end up making the club tomorrow – as is widely expected – it would not be, as Marc Normandin put it, the end of the world. It would, however, be a mistake.

The #KeepJBJ subset of media covering the Red Sox are building their case using a few different claims that are worth examining in more detail.

Claim #1: “This isn’t about Spring Training statistics”

See, for example, Rob Bradford’s denial here:

While it’s true that in the piece mentioned, not to mention all of the other pieces written in favor of keeping Bradley on the roster, Spring Training statistics are rarely if ever mentioned, there’s one important question none of the reporters (to date, anyhow) have cared to answer: if Bradley was hitting, say, .215, would we be having this conversation?

The answer, of course, is no. It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine a grassroots #KeepJBJ campaign if the outfielder wasn’t putting up numbers reminiscent of Bonds in his prime. The glove is great, undoubtedly, but so was Che-Hsuan Lin’s.

As Curt Schilling (of all people) outlines here, however, these numbers are utterly meaningless. Unfortunately, as Keith Law observes, it is very difficult for some to accept the fact that Spring Training statistics are useless.

While none of the reporters in question will admit it, then, the fact remains that each and every one of them is basing their belief that Bradley should remain with the team on his spring numbers. Even if they say they are not.

Claim #2: “Service time shouldn’t be an issue”

Rob Bradford argues this explicitly here, and Pete Abraham (among others) has made the same argument on Twitter.

In this, at least, the #KeepJBJ party is technically correct. Assuming that Bradley Jr is kept, he could be sent down for 20 days later in the season to gain the additional year of service time.

There are a few problems here, however:

  1. Injuries could make it impossible for him to be sent down. If there’s any team that should know this, it’s the Red Sox. Know how many games Ellsbury played in 2010, March through May? Nine. Say he gets hurt again (he’s already jammed an ankle). Or Victorino. If you leave Bradley in the minors for nine games, this is not an issue. If you’ve started him in the majors, on the other hand, it’s extremely unlikely he would be sent down for the required 20 games, and thus you lose a year of Bradley in his prime.
  2. What if his performance prohibits you from demoting him, either because his agent (Boras, remember) would file a grievance as Rob Neyer suggests or because he’s playing well enough he can’t be sent down. If you’re Pete Abraham, you say, essentially, so what? Personally, I think we need to be smarter than that.

Claim #3: “The Red Sox can’t afford to start slow”

This is easy to address: the Red Sox can, in fact, afford to start slow. Even after their horrific start in 2011, it took a historically unprecedented collapse to keep them on the outside looking in. In a perfect world, of course, they get off to a hot start. If they don’t, however, baseball is, as they say, a marathon, not a sprint. This is basically an opinion masquerading as a fact that reporters are using to justify another opinion. So we can toss it.

Claim #4: “We need to have the best team on the field”

If we assume for the sake of argument that the Red Sox need to have their best nine players on the field for the first nine games, the question is whether Bradley’s part of that best nine. To argue that he is the “best choice” for the roster spot, you have to assume that he’ll hit – which is certainly possible. It’s equally plausible, however, that he doesn’t. Everyone cites Mike Trout, for example, as justification for starting Bradley in the majors. Know what he did in his first 40 games at the major league level? .220/.281/.390. Pedroia’s another common comparison. In 2006, he hit .305/.384/.426 at Pawtucket. The 31 games after his promotion to the majors? .191/.258/.303.

The single most consistent truth of player development is that it is rarely linear. This particular claim assumes – with essentially no evidence but his spring training numbers – that Bradley will be an offensive asset to the major league roster rather than a liability. While it’s certainly possible that that’s the case, taking it as a given – as the reporters are – is a mistake.

Claim #5: “The Red Sox need Bradley to put people in the seats”

Let’s say that the Red Sox send Bradley to Pawtucket for the requisite nine games. Know how many home games he’d miss? Three. The Sox’ first two series are on the road. They can probably expect to sell out their home opener, so even if they keep Bradley down we’re effectively talking about the gate for two games. It seems a little silly to justify a year of service time for two gates, particularly so early.

The Net

Viewed dispassionately, this is a simple decision. Even if Bradley was the second coming of Mike Trout, the Red Sox could survive without him for nine games. More to the point, if they can’t, the season is lost anyway and there’s even less incentive to start him in the majors. Even Trout couldn’t make that big a difference in a mere nine games.

Trading nine games from a 23 year old Bradley for one hundred and sixty two from a Bradley in his peak years is nothing less than folly. It pains me to make the case against Bradley, because even setting the talent aside he seems like a personable, poised kid who gets it. But his performance this spring – which is to his credit, to be clear – has seemingly cast a spell over everyone in Florida. My hope is that Cherington has maintained his distance, and sees the risks associated with an immediate promotion clearly. It’s one thing for reporters to get swept up in the performance and cavalierly dismiss the financial implications; it would be quite another for the man who’s charged with balancing the short and long term health of the organization.

Years from now, no one’s likely to remember the names of the reporters who agitated on behalf of starting Bradley in the majors. The General Manager who made that decision, however, and cost the club a year of service time in exchange for nine games, well, he’s likely to be raked over the coals by the same media personalities that are campaigning for his promotion.

An Open Letter to Joe Sullivan, the Assistant Managing Editor of the Boston Globe

boston.com

Dear Mr. Sullivan,

Have you ever heard the phrase, “I only criticize because I care?” If you have, you’re probably aware that in most cases it’s little more than an excuse to take some pot shots from the cover of feigned sincerity. In my case, however, it’s genuine. I really do care.

Fifteen years ago when I lived in Manhattan, I would get up every Sunday morning, rain or shine, and walk four blocks east and two blocks south to News of the World, just below Columbus Circle, to purchase a Boston Sunday Globe – the only day they carried the paper. This might not seem like a major sacrifice, but for a twenty-something fresh out of college enjoying the bright lights and late nights of New York City with some of his closest college friends, I can assure you it was a challenge. And the markup was 150% of the cost of the actual paper.

Later on, of course, there was the internet – and boston.com/sports has been my browser homepage ever since I first bought a boxed copy of Netscape Navigator. But back in those days, you had to actually walk somewhere to buy the newspaper. I wouldn’t have my first cellphone, a Motorola Star Tac that didn’t get the internet – or text messages – for another year.

I was willing to make that trek every Sunday, however, because it was worth it. Actually, that’s understating things. I had to visit News of the World every Sunday because not reading Peter Gammons’ Sunday Notes column was simply not an option. For any serious baseball fan, and particularly a Red Sox fan living behind enemy lines, Gammons’ column was the type of addiction that I assume smokers would understand perfectly.

Times have changed, however. Your site is still my browser homepage, but if I’m being honest, that’s more of an artifact of my loyalty than an expression of my interest. There is next to no chance I would walk anywhere to buy a copy, even if you weren’t on the web. The simple fact is that your content is less relevant, in part because you don’t have anyone covering baseball at the moment who’s a must read as Peter Gammons was (and is).

Which you’re probably thinking is understandable: there is only one Gammons, after all. There’s a reason he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame. It’s a bit like criticizing Matt Clement for not being Pedro Martinez. And that’s fair. But the simple fact is that what Gammons represented has been, as far as I can tell, lost at your newspaper.

Think back to the days before the Sunday Notes columns ran. Coverage was generally regional, and carefully preserved the us and them dichotomy of fan and club. Every GM was Oz, only there was no Toto to pull back the curtains. Until Gammons did, of course. His Sunday Notes column not only expanded a fan’s field of view to something beyond the local nine, it erased the barrier between us and them. It wasn’t like ‘inside baseball,’ it was inside baseball.

It was also groundbreaking and innovative. These days, however, the innovation at your paper seems to be limited to inventing new ways to artificially inflate pageviews, an effort which has yielded those unfortunate “slideshows.”

Remember the heady days of Gammons, or Bud Collins, Will McDonough, Leigh Montville, and Larry Whiteside reinventing how sportswriting was done? What Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Armstrong has called the greatest sports staff ever? Those days are gone. The last man standing from that group, sadly, the otherwise estimable Bob Ryan, is now reduced to churning out columns that are the rough equivalent to “get off my lawn, you kids!”

All of which is bad enough. What’s worse is that your writers not only seem to understand that they aren’t innovators, they actually take pride in it. Your senior baseball writer, as an example, is not only prone to frequent, basic factual errors, he’s aggressively outdated in both his thinking and analysis.

He is, in short, the type of writer ESPN’s Keith Law was talking about in a post-MVP vote podcast here (MP3):

“The problems of old media, that there’s this refusal to change, this reluctance to embrace not statistics but new ways of looking at the game.”

And while some would argue that this is just another “new school / old school” divide, the fact is that there are quote unquote old school writers who have had no issue updating their views of the game. Writers like your own alumnus, Peter Gammons. Here’s Law again:

You know I always took a lot from Peter Gammons. If you look at his writing over the last ten years, I’m not sure if I could name another established, highly respected baseball writer who has revolutioned the way that he looks at the game, and he had a ton of experience. You watch his writing now and how he talks about players, and it’s totally different from 10 years ago, cause he was open minded, and you have to be willing to learn and willing to change your opinions, and let your opinions evolve over time as you talk to other people, particularly people in front offices who look at the game differently.

The divide here, then, is not simply age: it’s a willingness to innovate, to learn, to challenge assumptions in search of more fundamental truths. It’s Journalism 101, in other words. A class that some of your writers, unfortunately, seem to be failing.

None of this would be a problem, of course, if other outlets followed your lead, as they once did. If the market only offered traditionalist viewpoints like Cafardo’s or the bitter-faux-populist columnist schtick like your Dan Shaughnessy, your paper would be in fine shape. Certainly your distribution alone guarantees you relevance, at least in the short term.

But the problem for you is that the market hasn’t remained static. Other properties, competing for the same attention your writers appear to take for granted, have kept up with the front office revolution so well documented in Moneyball that it’s become a cliche. There’s a reason why General Managers, when asked what they read, do not answer “The Boston Globe” as they certainly would have when Gammons was on staff, but Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs. And there’s a reason that major media properties like ESPN have begun to either hire writers from these properties (like a Keith Law) or license their content (as is done presently with both Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs). That reason is that they, like the front offices they have learned from and might end up working for, are the future of the sport. The future that your writers are not only unfamiliar with, but disdainful of.

Lest I lose you with all of the doom and gloom, it’s not all bad. Chad Finn, for one, is a brilliant and regrettably rare combination of “accessible rationality.” Peter Abraham, when he’s not flashing back to his days on the Yankees beat, has grown into his role and brings a lot to the table. Never mind. But in outlets like WEEI with Alex Speier – easily the best and most informed writer in the market, at present – the Globe is facing increasingly stiff competition not just nationally but locally as well.

I know, as does pretty much everyone these days, that this is very probably the worst time in history to be in the newspaper business. Your job isn’t easy. I don’t know this for sure, because you and I have never spoken, but my guess is that you like those Zedo pop-under advertisements on your site even less than I, the reader, does. You’re probably not a big fan of those silly slideshows, either. The cost of talent is going up, while people’s willingness to pay for the content they produce is in free fall. The New York Times has put your organization up for sale. Life is tough.

But I’m sure, like so many of the athletes your staff covers, that you’re a competitor. I take as a given that you’re not happy with the graph above, and want Sports to do whatever it can to help right the ship. To do that, however, you’ll need to understand why so many of us baseball fans are reallocating our precious free time from Boston.com to Fangraphs.com or WEEI.com. We’re leaving, in part, because your reporters are telling us that they don’t care enough about the sport they cover to learn what they have to to cover it properly. Surely you can understand the frustration of readers who are better informed on changes in the game than the professionals who cover it?

In closing, I hope you’ll remember what I said above: I criticize because I care. It was the Boston Globe, in the person of Peter Gammons, that made me the baseball fan I am. For that, I feel that I owe the paper a debt I can never repay. But there’s only so much my one Boston Globe home page can do. To win back your audience, you’ll need to make some changes. Some of these changes will be painful, particularly for those who are dead set against changing.

Your paper built the best sports staff in the country once before: there’s no reason you can’t do it again – if you can keep an open mind to notes like this one.

Sincerely,

Stephen O’Grady

What Would Nick Do

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In today’s Boston Globe, senior baseball writer Nick Cafardo questioned the approach taken by Ben Cherington in the offseason towards constructing the 2013 roster. Specifically, he focused on the $60M freed up in the Dodger transaction – which is looking more and more like a coup, incidentally. Instead of pursuing the more measured approach of finding credible but second tier free agents to fill the multiple holes on the roster, Cafardo would have had us pursue higher profile talent. Here’s what he would have done.

Sign Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal [Cafardo's error: the actual contract value is $123M] (which he got from the Angels). Sign Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million deal (which he got in Washington). Re-sign Cody Ross to a three-year, $26 million deal. Sign David Ross and Dempster.

That comes to about $62 million for 2013.

Instead of signing Drew, they could have used Jose Iglesias at shortstop. He is the superior defensive player, and the Sox actually would have been playing one of their prospects in the majors.

This approach proved popular with the segment of the population that calls into talk radio this morning; as one caller put it, “I look at that potential lineup and say WOW.” For both Cafardo and those who like his proposed roster, a few observations:

Josh Hamilton

  • Josh Hamilton’s first and second half splits last year: .308/.380/.635 vs .259/.323/.510
  • Hamilton’s average games played the past four seasons: 123
  • Hamilton’s salary as a 35 and 36 year old: $30M

Adam LaRoche

  • Adam LaRoche’s OPS the past three seasons: .788, .543, .853
  • LaRoche’s age for the contract: 33 and 34 years old
  • The draft choice LaRoche would have cost the Red Sox: #44 (valued at $1.16M in 2012)

Cody Ross

  • Cody Ross’ OPS the last four seasons: .790, .735, .730, .807
  • Ross’ line away from Fenway Park in 2012: .232/.294/.390
  • Ross’ line against right handed pitchers: .256/.308/.422

Jose Iglesias

  • Jose Iglesias’ projected line for 2012 (ZIPS): .251/.289/.311
  • Iglesias’ actual line for 2012: .118/.200/.191
  • Iglesias’ lifetime stats for AAA (189 games): .251/.302/.287

In other words, what Cafardo would have the Red Sox do:

  • Sign a 32 year old high ceiling player who fell off dramatically in the second half and has a history of both injury and substance abuse to a contract that would pay him $30M in his 35 and 36 year old seasons.
  • Forfeit a million dollars of draft budget and the 44th selection for a 33 year old first basemen who’s had an OPS below .800 two out of the last four seasons.
  • Commit three seasons at an above market rate to an outfielder who can’t play defense, can’t hit righthanded pitching and can’t hit away from his home park.
  • Install as the starting shortstop a player who is, for all intents and purposes, an automatic out at this point in his career.

Reasonable minds may differ, obviously, on the wisdom of the Red Sox’s course of action this offseason. But for all that I question Cherington’s valuation of players such as Gomes or Victorino, I’m very glad he rather than Nick Cafardo is responsible for putting together the roster.

The Most Unforgivable Sin of Baseball Writing

Old School Google

There are many reasons that sabermetrically inclined writers and fans are frustrated with their old school counterparts. The Hall of Fame voting debacle is probably Exhibit A, in which the very same people whose job it was to report on issues like steroids but failed to do so for decades now sit in self-righteous judgement of the “cheaters” who ruined the game by increasing attendance and inflating revenue. But for me personally, their most unforgiveable sin is their intellectual laziness.

Consider modern metrics such as FIP or WAR. As combinatorial, and more importantly – evolving – metrics, there are legitimate questions to be asked about their relative importance, design and efficacy. Handed down by God to Moses, these were not. And if the legacy sportswriters had considered them carefully, and discarded one or all for failures they perceived after studying them in detail, few if any in the sabermetric world would complain. These types of criticisms, after all, are relatively standard in sabermetric communities, where debates still rage on the merits of Baseball Reference’s WAR versus Fangraphs’ version.

Instead, however, the old school (with notable exceptions like Peter Gammons) treats them with disdain, undeserving of legitimate consideration – where they will deign to acknowledge such measurements at all. The origins of this attitude are variously attributed to fear, ignorance and arrogance, but whatever the cause the manifestation is laziness. A failure to study the latest research in your field – whatever field that might be – is nothing more or less than an intellectual failure. This is bad enough.

What is worse, however, is that many long tenured baseball writers don’t seem to be motivated to do even basic research – forget the advanced metrics. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo, an unfortunate successor to Peter Gammons’ Notes column at that paper, is a case study in this behavior. Here’s Fire Joe Morgan, six years ago, on a piece of Cafardo’s:

Would like to just make note of some ordinary, run-of-the-mill shoddy research in a major metropolitan newspaper, The Boston Globe.

If this was a one time event, so be it. It’s a bit unexpected to see at a major media outlet, which has editors in place to catch such things, but mistakes happen. This is, however, something of a habit for Cafardo.

  • In September his Sunday column suggested that BJ Upton could be a trade candidate this offseaon. Upton was, in fact, a free agent, and eventually signed with the Braves. A simple check of Cot’s Contracts provides information on current contractual status for any player in the league.
  • In this past Thursday’s mailbag, when questioned about potential pitching project signings to complement the major league staff, he answered with “You have guys like…Ben Sheets out there as well.” Which would be fine, except that Ben Sheets retired in October after a brief comeback attempt with the Braves. A Google query of “Ben Sheets” returns the retirement story in the top five results, assuming one missed the announcement at the time.

But it was an answer about Rick Porcello that grated the most. In the mailbag, Cafardo was asked about a potential Detroit/Boston swap involving Andrew Bailey and Porcello. And in the interest of full disclosure, this was a trade I myself had proposed:

Detroit is rumored to be willing to trade the young starter, who has been negatively impacted by the club’s poor defense, and having lost Valverde to free agency they’re currently projected to enter the season as a division favorite backed by a rookie closer who throws hard but has little idea of where the ball is going. Match that to our current bullpen surplus, which includes two capital C closers, and it would seem that there’s at least the basis for a conversation between the two teams. Which, to his credit, Cafardo agrees with. But then he went on to say:

Don’t know how good Porcello will be as he seems to be declining.

Declining? Based on what? Here are Porcello’s FIP numbers for the four years he’s been in the league:

  • 2009: 4.77
  • 2010: 4.31
  • 2011: 4.06
  • 2012: 3.91

So, the exact opposite of a decline. What about his strikeouts (K/9)?

  • 2009: 4.69
  • 2010: 4.65
  • 2011: 5.14
  • 2012: 5.46

Low enough to be concerned overall, but certainly not indicative of a decline. Maybe his walks are spiking? Here’s his BB/9:

  • 2009: 2.74
  • 2010: 2.10
  • 2011: 2.27
  • 2012: 2.25

That’s not it: he didn’t walk that many his rookie year, and he’s never again walked even that many. And as far as declines go, this year was better than last. Has he become home run prone, perhaps? How many is he giving up per nine?

  • 2009: 1.21
  • 2010: 1.00
  • 2011: 0.89
  • 2012: 0.82

So he’s been given up fewer home runs on a rate basis every year he’s been in the league, in other words. Not that Cafardo would trust it, but what do Porcello’s WAR numbers look like?

  • 2009: 2.0
  • 2010: 2.0
  • 2011: 2.7
  • 2012: 2.9

According to the advanced metrics, then, Porcello’s value is climbing rather than declining. As a traditionalist, however, Cafardo is probably most concerned with ERA. Maybe that points to a decline?

  • 2009: 3.96
  • 2010: 4.92
  • 2011: 4.75
  • 2012: 4.59

It is true that Porcello has never again equalled his rookie ERA (which advanced metrics indicated was unsustainable), but it is categorically untrue that his ERA indicates a decline. It’s evidence of the contrary, in fact. After a sophomore slump, Porcello has improved in every year since, in nearly every measurable statistic. Which you would never know if you read – and relied upon – Nick Cafardo. Undoubtedly, there are conversations being had in Boston right now about how it would be unwise to trade for Porcello in light of his “decline.”

This to me is a fundamental violation of the trust journalism depends on. Shouldn’t a reader be able to trust that a simple declarative statement from a senior writer at the newspaper with maybe the best history of sports journalism in the country roughly corresponds to the known facts? How can readers take anything Cafardo says at face value at this point, when his history demonstrates conclusively that neither he nor his editors are doing even basic research? This seems to be the definition of contempt for the reader.

When old school writers claim, then, that newer fans or writers are angry about being stuck in the proverbial “mother’s basement,” then, don’t buy it. We’re frustrated because the people charged with informing the public about the game of baseball – and who style themselves as its gatekeepers – have become too lazy to even use Google, and are proud of that.

Nick Cafardo: Defender of Bobby Valentine

J.J. Hardy, Mike Aviles

The Boston Globe’s senior baseball writer Nick Cafardo, you might recall, suggested in October that the Red Sox should have their “hearts set on [Bobby] Valentine.” How does he feel today, with even aggressively neutral parties like WEEI’s Alex Speier now calling for the dismissal of Boston’s manager? What is Cafardo’s opinion in the wake of Valentine’s showing up at the ballpark less than three hours before a start, his “mistake” that put cast-off Scott Podsednik in the three hole, an embarrassing 20-2 loss, his flippant “who cares?” response to a reporters query, and – most problematically – his apparent vendetta against Alfredo Aceves that led to that pitcher throwing 143 pitches over four appearances in five days and post-rehabilitation Rich Hill warming up for three innings? What does Nick Cafardo think in light of these developments?

Ownership is fair-minded and realizes that this mess was not Valentine’s fault. Most managers get more than one clean year to show what they can do.

While it’s absolutely true that the club’s record this season is not Valentine’s fault any more than last September’s was Francona’s, Cafardo’s seeming inability to acknowledge Valentine’s mistakes is appalling, and if I worked for the Boston Globe, professionally embarrasing. This is a theoretically senior writer of their staff so hopelessly compromised by his bias for the manager – and against the players, it must be said – that he is fundamentally unable to do his job.

Other interesting tidbits from today’s piece:

The outfield trade market will include Justin Upton and B.J. Upton, and Nick Swisher is one of the intriguing possibilities as a free agent.

B.J. Upton is actually a free agent this offseason.

Mike Aviles, SS, Red Sox — He could buy himself another season with the Red Sox with the jury still out on Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts still a couple of years away. The Sox were correct in their assessment that Aviles would give them what Marco Scutaro gave them a year ago. It was surprising that two teams in need of shortstops in late August — the A’s and Cardinals — didn’t pay a price to obtain Aviles.

Two things. First, this is probably why the A’s, at least, declined to trade for Aviles.

In two starts since coming off the DL, Anderson is 1-0 striking out 11 and walking 2 over 12 innings giving up a single earned run in the process. Even while the A’s couldn’t be certain what he would give them coming off of injury, Anderson for Aviles would be the definition of an overpay. Assuming that the price was similarly high for the Cardinals, it isn’t hard at all to imagine why they declined to trade for the player.

Second, concerning the assertion that Aviles gave them what Scutaro did a year prior, defensively this is more or less the case. Credit the Red Sox for accurately projecting that Aviles was a reasonable substitute for the traded Scutaro in the field. Offensively, however, the players are not close. Aviles has more power than Scutaro of 2011 – .143 ISO to .124 – but his inability to get on base has hurt the club all year. Scutaro’s OBP last season was .358; Aviles at present is .286. If we look at their total offensive contributions via wOBA, Scutaro of 2011 destroys the Aviles of 2012, .343 to .296. There’s a reason that the Red Sox of 2012 are ninth in OBP, and while it’s not all on Aviles, he’s a big part of it. Which is why I’m not surprised he wasn’t traded for that price and why I would be surprised if the Sox give him another year at short.

But bigger picture, I remain unable to understand why a paper of the Globe’s stature believes that Nick Cafardo is the best it can do.

Knights of the Keyboard: Ranking the Boston Sportswriters

Smith-Corona Typewriter

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

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

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

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

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

A few notes before we begin:

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

With that context, herewith are the rankings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sabathia’s win tally? 19.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slicing up Simmons' Puerile Analysis

a stubborn guy

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

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

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

His tally goes like this:

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

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

And so on.

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

Consider the following section on our minor league system.

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

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

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

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

What about the rest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

image courtesy Erik Dasque

(image courtesy Erik Dasque)

We just got our asses kicked, pal.

Spare me the “we scored as many runs as they did” arguments: the Yankees just savaged us with a plastic hamster. If you are lucky enough to score four runs off an in-form CC, you need to take advantage of that. Instead, Beckett was completely unable to stop the bleeding, surrendering runs in six of the eight innings he pitched. The bludgeoning was so bad, in fact, that I’m kind of surprised to see that no one is speculating along the same lines as yours truly. The first pitch dongs were one thing, but the curveball Cano hit out last night was not a bad pitch: decent break, caught the outside edge of the plate, and yet was crushed. I have to believe the Sox are at least asking the question of whether he was tipping (the Cardinals, apparently, believe that Smoltz was), but none of the media thought of it so maybe he did just pitch that badly. Or, more accurately, has been pitching that badly.

Because while it was bad that our ace got his teeth kicked by our most hated rivals while the offense managed to scrap together a few runs off their #1, what’s worse is that this, in some respects, it’s not a surprise. The big Texan’s had a distinctly odd season. The fiancee and I – oh, did I not mention that? yeah, I got engaged, it’s awesome – saw him dominate the Rays in the season opener. He followed that gem with four starts in which he gave up 4,3, 8 and 7 runs, respectively. That was good for a 7.22 ERA in April. And who’d he give up 8 against, you ask? I’ll give you a hint: they wiped the floor with him last night as well.

Anyway, since the start of May, Beckett’s generally been excellent (ERA’s by month: May 2.38, June 1.51, July 3.35). Or rather he had been, until his last start at Toronto, a 5 and a third, 7 run clunker. Throw in the start previous, in Detroit, and Beckett’s given up 10 home runs in his last three starts, after giving up 10 in his first 22 starts combined. That, my friends, is what we in the business call a problem.

So what’s the problem? Damned if I can tell. PitchFX tells us his velocity seems ok: 94.5 and a half on the fastball, topping out at 96.5. Nor is there anything obvious in the plots. We know he’s throwing strikes – they were the balls leaving the park at a high velocity. But he’s also out of the zone enough that they can’t tee off. No, I don’t know what’s wrong. I haven’t done a deep look at the numbers, but nothing jumps out at me from what I’ve seen.

Which makes me wonder – based also on the approaches the Yankees took to the plate last night – if he isn’t tipping his pitches. If that seems implausible, think of it this way: it’s either that, or he’s suddenly and inexplicably pitching very, very badly. I prefer the former.

Either way, I’m sure Farrell and company are hard at work on the issue as I write this, which is good. We need Beckett to be Beckett, because we’re going to need everybody performing to get to the postseason. Speaking of…

The Postseason

My problem with the folks that pronounce definitely that we’re either out of the division race or still in it is that they’re both wrong. We’re not technically out of it, but we’re not in it, really, either. As of this morning, the Monte Carlo simulations run by Clay Davenport and the fine folks from BP, we’ve got a 3.09% chance of winning the division. Let’s be generous and round that up to 3.1%: we’re still not likely to win this thing, although mathematically, it’s still possible. Yes, we’ve played the Yankees well – this weekend and the last series notwithstanding, we’re 9-6 against them. But they’re destroying everyone else, and we are most certainly not. Hence the seven and a half game lead.

The obvious question then is whether we can secure the wild card, and the answer is that we can, but that our competition is stiff. The same projection has us at a 52% probability to win the wild card, with the Rays at 24% and the Rangers at 15%. That sounds good, but a.) that’s only a 1 in 2 chance of making the playoffs, and b.) we’re one bad week – and sweet Jebus knows we’ve had plenty of those – away from being where the Rangers are now.

So yes, we can make it, but our margin for error is effectively non-existent. We can’t have any more team wide slumps, no major injuries, and our rotation can’t afford any more Smoltz-esque starts. And speaking of Smoltz…

Smoltz

As could have been predicted, Smoltz’s generally awful performance coupled with the team’s coincidental malaise led to a bunch of “Theo screwed everything up this offseason” commentary. Smoltz, like Penny, was – in my view – a good bet that just didn’t pan out. Nor would it have, I don’t think. Yes, as Nick Steiner gleefully covers – he’s a Cardinals fan – the ex-Brave’s first outing for the Redbirds was a gem: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, and 9 K’s. But as he acknowledges, this is a.) the NL west, b.) the worst team in the NL west, and c.) the best pitcher’s park in the game.

Were there positive signs when Smoltz was throwing for us? Absolutely. He was striking people out, not walking too many and his velocity was acceptable, if not overwhelming as in the past. But, as I said on the fangraphs blog, we just couldn’t afford to keeping losing games while he got himself straightened out. If we were sitting in the Yankee’s seats right now, with a comfortable margin in the division, I have little doubt Smoltz would still be here, and maybe pitching more to his peripherals. But in the meantime, he was getting crushed and killing our bullpen.

So I was fine with the signing, just as I’m fine seeing him go. Because one of the kids is, at this point, probably a better choice for a rotation spot.

Buchholz

To answer your first question, no, I do not feel “vindicated” about my assessment of one Clay Buchholz. While I am, of course, please that he’s pitched very credibly and kept us in games against – in succession – Sabathia, Verlander and Halladay, the simple facts are that his performance is not going to be sustainable unless he improves. When you’re walking almost as many as you strike out per nine – 4.7 vs 5.6 – you’re going to have problems. So he needs to at least quit putting guys on base, and it would help – his new two seam, groundball machine notwithstanding – if he struck a few more guys out.

But am I exceedingly glad that the media – or at least the Cafardo and Mazz contingent – isn’t running things? You bet. Cafardo? “I make the Clay Buchholz-Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal right now.” Forget the nerve damage – that couldn’t have been foreseen. But Salty’s line this year? .236/.293/.375 for a .668 OPS. And remember, it’s not clear that he’ll be able to remain a catcher. Mazz, you might recall, was rather in favor of a Clay Buchholz and Jason Bay for Matt Holliday swap. Holliday’s numbers in the big boys league? .286/.378/.454 for an .831 OPS, which is right in line with 2005-2007 numbers away from Coors Field.

Or maybe you remember when Cafardo said this: “With Justin Masterson making a solid impression in the majors and Buchholz down in Triple A, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of the two starters the Sox are higher on at the moment.” Even while he followed that with a caveat that the Red Sox valued him too highly to trade, the statement made zero sense to anyone who views a player’s potential beyond what they are doing right now.

Masterson’s a good player, and one that I was sorry to see go. But in three starts with Cleveland, he’s had two decent starts and one very bad one, and – more troubling – he still can’t get lefties out (.323/.401/.463 in ’09, numbers which have declined from his .238/.365/.422 in ’08). This was apparent last year when Cafardo wrote those words – all you had to do was look at the numbers – but the media seemingly can’t be bothered to look beyond what they see on the field that day, that minute.

Is Buchholz as valuable as Stephen Strasburg? Not even close. But am I glad that the front office viewed him with a bit of perspective that the media apparently can’t be bothered with? Hell yes. Just as I’m excited they improved the defense behind the kid. Which brings us to Josh’s question.

A-Gon

Like the Globe’s Adam Kilgore – who’s doing a very nice job, incidentally – I was curious, initially, to see whether Gonzalez would be an actual upgrade in the field. At the time, A-Gon’s UZR/150 was below that of Nick Green. But it’s apparent to both of us that this move had delivered as expected, and the math agrees: A-Gon’s up to 6.5 runs above average, better than Green’s 5.2. Interestingly, the forgotten Lowrie’s at 21.3.

Anyway, while age the knee surgery may – undoubtedly has, actually – subtracted from Gonzalez’s once exceptional range in the field, he’s at least been surehanded in the field. It might be that Green’s errors stick out all the more because they’ve been so brutal and ill timed, but I’m happy to have Gonzalez back, particularly considering the cost. Shortstop prospects, we have, and we didn’t give up any of the good ones. We did, however, give up some talented kids to get us a new catcher.

Martinez

Much attention has been paid this past week to Martinez’ role, as his insertion at catcher had – until Saturday and Sunday – welded Varitek to the bench. Which is, frankly, where he needed to be, given what he was bringing to the table offensively and – it must be said – defensively. Johnny Bench, Martinez is not, but the kid can hit, and as Schilling said on WEEI the other day, he caught the last two Cy Young award winners, so he’s no idiot.

Were Hagadone and Masterson a steep price to pay for the transaction? Indeed. Hagadone, coming off Tommy John surgery, is the rare high velocity lefthander, and if he can add a third pitch to the slider, has upper rotation written all over him. Masterson, his lefty difficulties notwithstanding, is a hugely versatile pitcher, capable of seamlessly shifting back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation and back.

What we got back, however, as Keith Law covers, is versatility and flexibility going forward:

For Boston, he could replace Jason Varitek, or could fill in at multiple positions, playing every day but splitting time across catcher, first base and DH, especially the last when a left-hander is on the mound. He’s a legitimate switch-hitter and controls the strike zone, so at worst the Red Sox just got a catcher who can get on base and who’s under contract for a reasonable $7.5 million next year.

This is, as Theo might put it, a move made with both today and tomorrow in mind. Which makes it tough to argue with, in spite of the cost.

As for the Kotchman deal, don’t look at me: I still don’t get that one. I know he’s controllable for two more years, but LaRoche must have made himself very unpleasant to get turned around inside of two weeks.

Before I close, two quick items: one good, one sad.

I, like the rest of Red Sox nation, would like to wish Jerry Remy a fond welcome back following his return to the booth Friday night. I also give him a lot of credit for speaking publicly about his depression. This can be a shameful affliction for many under the best of conditions, and the baseball industry is, well, how do we say it: not terribly progressive. While I haven’t, fortunately, suffered from it, a lot of people that I know have, and it’s my hope that revelations like Remy’s will act to destigmatize depression for those who have it. So welcome back, and thank you.

On the sad news front, my sincere condolences to the family of Greg Montalbano, one time Northeastern pitcher (and Carlos Pena teammate) and Red Sox prospect (and Kevin Youkilis teammate). After suffering for cancer for several years, Greg succumbed last week. From everything I’ve read, he was a good man with a very healthy perspective on his lot in life. He will, like all good people, be missed.