What’s Worse Than the 2015 Red Sox Season?


If anything is certain in this bizarre Red Sox season, it’s that everyone has lost their fucking minds. Yes, this season has been one shot to the groin after another. First the pitching was terrible. Then that got better, as the numbers suggested it might. Which is when the offense, initially buoyed by an unsustainable spike in unearned runs, disappeared. Every night, the Red Sox seem to find new ways to lose. Starter goes 8 and gives up 2 runs? Our offense comes up empty against a rookie starter with unimpressive stuff. Offense puts an eight spot on the board? Pitching staff implodes and gives that away in an inning. When we get decent pitching and score a few runs? Well, the defense is happy to do its part to throw away games. And on and on and on and on and on.

I still watch and listen to the games more or less daily, so I get that things are miserable – I’m living it. But here’s the thing: this is baseball. There is a reason that cantpredictball is a Twitter account with over 28,000 followers, and that reason is that you can’t predict baseball. Or maybe you expected that the Rays, Royals and Astros would be atop their respective divisions?

For all that analysts like Curt Schilling are currently quick to remind everyone of their skepticism of this winter’s signings of Ramirez and Sandoval, I’m not aware of anyone who predicted that by June the Red Sox would be nine games under .500 and have the third worst record in the American League. And when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Not everyone picked the Red Sox to win the American League East like Fangraphs’ projections, but no one expected them to be this bad.

But they are. Which is bad because the math now says that our chances of making the playoffs are less than one in five. Back on April 5th they were better than sixty percent. So the Red Sox are losing – frequently – in brutal fashion, and every day we wake up less likely to make the playoffs than yesterday. Can’t get any worse, right?

Wrong. As if it’s not bad enough to watch the on the field product at the moment, off the field the average fan is now besieged by angry fans and media who have completely gone off the rails. It’s one thing for the jaded Peter Abrahams of the world to claim that the team is “immensely screwed” for the long term, but as noted by the essential Red Sox Stats, when the normally fair Ken Rosenthal starts arguing that it’s time to jettison your largest offseason signings less than three hundred at bats into their first season with the club you know people aren’t thinking clearly anymore.

So let’s try and do that for a second. Let’s look at the big picture questions and take them apart rationally.

Q: Should the Red Sox really try to trade Ramirez and Sandoval so soon?
A: First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: they’ve both been terribly disappointing. Below replacement level for forty or so million collectively, in fact. The question, however, isn’t whether they’ve been bad, but whether they can be expected to perform closer to expectations.

Let’s take Sandoval first because his case is easier. His stupidly overblown Instagram infraction notwithstanding – the third baseman has been acceptable offensively. When a right-hander is throwing, at least. The average major league third baseman this season has put up a .260/.317/.412 line. Sandoval’s a tick above average, then, with his .274/.326/.416 numbers. And that looks even better when you realize that last season’s third baseman, Will Middlebrooks, is at .230/.260/.397. His issues against left handers are concerning, but lifetime he’s hit left handed pitching adequately, so that seems like something that should regress to the mean.

The bigger problem is his defense. Since 2008, Sandoval has four seasons in positive UZR/150 territory and three in red, with his worst clocking in at -6.3 by that metric. This season he’s at -26.6. There are two ways to look at the data. One, he has, as of this season, not only lost the ability to play the position,he’s now among the worst in the league there. Two, he’s having early season jitters because of the contract, the city or both. I know which seems more likely to me.

Q: And what about Ramirez?
A: As for Ramirez, well, as I said, I’ve been watching the games. He is one of the worst defensive outfielders I have ever seen. I expected him to be better than this, and in fact I expect him to be better than this moving forward. But let’s assume he doesn’t get better, or not much better: can the Red Sox live with that? At least until Ortiz retires and you make him the DH?

To answer that question, let’s look at some numbers. From the start of the season through May 4th, Hanley Ramirez was rocking a .283/.340/.609 line with 10 home runs. To put that into context, if he’d kept up that pace, a .949 OPS would place him 8th in the league, just behind Mike Trout (.962) and Giancarlo Stanton (.951). On May 4th, however, he hit a wall. Again, literally. Since he took on Fenway Park and lost, he’s hit .260/.301/.377. Correlation doesn’t prove causation of course, and you can’t assume he’d keep up his original pace. But let’s assume he was somewhere in the .900 OPS range and the club was in contention for first place. Would the fever pitch for paying a lot of money for him to play somewhere, anywhere else be so high? Seems doubtful.

Shorter version of the above: trading either player right now would be idiotic. First, you’d be trading them at an absolute nadir in their value, which is bad, and you’d be dealing from a position of desperation, which is worse. Second, there are reasonable chances for improvement in both cases, in which case they’re both assets. And in Sandoval’s case in particular, you don’t have a viable alternative (no, Brock Holt is not a full time third baseman). The smart play here is to be patient, hope for rebounds for both players, either because it helps your team, because it boosts their trade value, or both. It’s also worth noting that Rosenthal has essentially no suggestions for who, if anybody, would take either player.

Q: Are the Red Sox really “immensely screwed” for the long term?
A: I’m not even sure where to start with this one. Let’s assume, conservatively, that you think the Red Sox winter trades/signings of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are total losses at this point – that none of the above will be better than what they are right now. Collectively they’ll make $67 million dollars next year. If we were the Rays, then, we would indeed be existentially doomed. Per Cot’s Contracts, however, we entered this year with a payroll of $184 million. Next year’s obligations? $112 million. Even after accounting for the potential Ortiz option and raises via arbitration, the Red Sox are not the Bruins, with many needs but no room under the projected budget ceiling. Does anyone want to be spending money on replacement level players? Obviously not. But the Red Sox do have the ability to recover from financial mistakes.

Second, those crying that sky is falling usually fail to acknowledge that the Red Sox minor league system is relatively deep, even after the recent promotions – both planned and otherwise. Obviously the introduction of new players is not without risks as the club learned first with Jackie Bradley Jr followed by Xander Bogaerts and most recently with Mookie Betts. But most clubs would kill to have a collection of young, borderline-major league ready talent like Betts, Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Christian Vazquez and Eduardo Rodriguez, with Brian Johnson, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes and Pat Light waiting in the wings. Several of those players will fail, of course. But the Red Sox will very likely have several major league roster spots filled by young players, some of whom have All-Star potential, that will be making pennies on the dollar for the next three to six years.

Even if, however, you’re the type of fan or writer that is convinced that the Red Sox are uniquely unable to integrate young players, there are assets up and down the roster that can be converted into proven major leaguers. Further down the system, for example, any of Rafael Devers, Manuel Margot, Yoan Moncada or even potentially Michael Kopech could be the centerpiece in a major acquisition at some point.

At worst, then, the Red Sox may have some dead money on the roster for a few years. Existentially doomed, they are not.

Q: Should the Red Sox fire Ben Cherington, John Farrell or both?
A: For me, it’s no. And if you’re going to do it, there’s essentially no upside to doing it in season.

Of the two, the manager is easier because his role is theoretically more limited. Unlike football, the manager’s on the field tactical impact is relatively minimal over the course of a season. There are big picture concerns – is a given manager likely to Joe Torre-his favorite reliever into the ground, for example – but generally speaking baseball games are won by baseball players, not baseball managers. Which means that a manager’s primary contribution is outside the lines. How they manage to keep 25 very different competitive personalities from killing each other over the course of a season, for example. And in Boston, working with the media is a significant part of the job.

Asinine brushfires like the Sandoval-Instagram incident or Miley’s comically inappropriate blowup or no, Farrell seems to be managing both the clubhouse and the media about as well as can be expected given the circumstances. He’s no Tito – dismissing him was the worst move of this ownership’s tenure, in my opinion, other than replacing him with Valentine – but he seems to understand both stick and carrot.

The obvious caveat to the above is that we don’t really know what’s going on in the clubhouse. During the Valentine era we all try and pretend didn’t happen, for example, the local beat writers were eventually revealed as hopelessly compromised when the national writers came in and to a person diagnosed ours as “toxic.” So maybe it’s that bad right now and we just don’t know, in which case Farrell has to go. But I’d bet not.

As for Cherington, addressing his situation in full would require a post of its own, and maybe we’ll get there. But in general, two last place finishes going on three notwithstanding, it’s not clear that he’s the problem. He has made mistakes, certainly, and should probably not be allowed to trade for relievers anymore, but overall he’s navigated the complicated environment that is Boston as well as can be expected. Consider the problems facing him.

  • First, he has a rabid fanbase with very high expectations; the Astros’ strategy is simply not an option for the Red Sox general manager.
  • Second, ownership has seemingly prohibited him from doing some of the things the media wants him to do: sign an ace, for example – we’ll come back to that.
  • Third, he has to somehow ascertain remotely whether incoming players will be able to handle Boston, like Napoli or Victorino in 2013, or whether they’ll implode á la Crawford or Renteria. I believe the operative phrase there is good luck with that.
  • Lastly, he’s not great with the media and not much of a self promoter, so he’s not likely to find allies from the fourth estate. They run around asking Cherington to pay a 35 and 36 year old outfielder with a history of drug problems $30 million a year; instead he goes out and signs Koji, Napoli and Victorino with that money. When you win a World Series with that approach, reporters can’t say much. When you don’t, as with the non-signing of Lester, you leave yourself open to criticism. The more rational members of the media get this, and on detailed reviews of the track record build the case that Cherington’s not the problem. But there just aren’t that many rational members of the media. Alex Speier and Chad Finn from the Globe. Brian MacPherson and Tim Britton from the ProJo. Peter Gammons, always. There are a few others, but it’s a short list.

Q: Do the Red Sox need an ace?
A: I went on record prior to the season as saying no, and this trainwreck of a season has not altered that position. Would it be nice to have an ace-caliber starter? Of course. Would the season look much different if we had one? It’s hard to make that case. Unless we’re talking about someone like Ruth, who can hit a bit as well.

Q: So you don’t think they should have signed Lester, then?
A: If they had him here for the insulting $70 million they offered him last season, of course. Or if they could have gotten him on something closer to Porcello money, even, yes you want him on your staff. But consider that twice in his last four starts he’s given up at least five runs, and that his strikeout rate is down this year while his walk and home run rates are up. And that he’ll play next season as a 32 year old. Do I want that pitcher? Yes. Do I want to be on the hook to pay him over $150 million? No I do not.

One other interesting tidbit. Everyone talks about how the Red Sox need an ace, and how the club should have matched or outbid the cubs for Lester. Understandable, because he is sporting a 3.80 ERA and 3.57 FIP, good for almost a win and a half (1.4) by Fangraphs’ WAR. But how does that compare to Buchholz, who the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo is still trying to run out of town, all these years later? The pitcher every media member wants gone has a nearly equivalent ERA at 3.87 and is substantially besting his former rotation mate with a 2.81 FIP. This makes him worth better than two wins (2.1) by Fangraphs’ metric. In a league where there are no pitchers hitting.

Q: So the Red Sox shouldn’t trade Buchholz, then, as Cafardo recommends?
A: With the necessary caveat that everyone is available if the price is right, the idea is dumb enough it’s not even worth discussing.

Q: What about Rusney Castillo? Is he a $70-plus million dollar bust?
A: The media’s treatment of Castillo has been hilarious, when you think about it. First, they killed Cherington daily for having a “millionaire” playing the outfield in Pawtucket to see what they had, if anything, in Victorino. Now, Cherington’s taking fire for giving all that money to a player that everyone is convinced can’t play because he’s 28 and has a .551 OPS. You want to point out to writers like Silverman that the player has had less than 80 at bats this season, but, really, what’s the point? The it’s-way-too-early-to-make-judgements narrative isn’t going to generate the controversy the media lives off of. Anger sells. Patience, not so much.

Q: The farm system was talked about above very positively, but some believe our minor league talent is questionable, with Nick Cafardo quoting a scout as saying “Not as much there as you would think.” Should we be worried about the vaunted Red Sox farm system?
A: For a few Red Sox prospects, it hasn’t been a great year. Garin Cecchini, once viewed as a third base prospect with questionable defense who would at least hit for average and control the strike zone has done neither of those things with a .204 batting average and .278 OBP. He’s not hitting for any power, either, with a slugging percentage of .316. Henry Owens, meanwhile, who ranked ahead of current Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez on many prospect lists coming into the season has simply not performed. He hasn’t imploded to the degree that Cecchini has, as he’s still basically impossible to hit with a batting average against of .191, but his walk rate has soared and strikeout rate is down 10%. When a pitcher who’s never had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of less than 16% suddenly is in the low single digits, well, let’s just say he’s not on a fast track to the majors.

But looking beyond subpar performances like those, the future of the Red Sox system seems bright. Besides the graduated prospects currently maturing at the major league level and potentially helpful if not star caliber pieces at Pawtucket, the lower levels of the Red Sox system have a number of very interesting names – many referred to above.

Asked about the NL scout’s opinion about the Red Sox system, in fact, ESPN Prospect Analyst Keith Law said “he’d be wrong about that.”

Q: So if things aren’t all bad, why does it seem like they are?
A: Because when you’re not winning, at least in a town that cares about its team, this is what happens. Negative results breed negative sentiment which breeds negative stories which breed negative sentiment in a vicious cycle.

Q: But overall you’re positive on the Red Sox prospects?
A: Not for this season. I’m with the math; I think they miss the playoffs. They’re much better than they’ve played, but they’ve dug themselves too big a hole, in all probability. It’s very unlikely that a Wild Card will come out of the AL East, so they have to win the division. And while you never know how things will play out – injuries could hit any of the clubs, and none of them are exactly world beaters – even optimistic fans would have to acknowledge that the team is a long shot at this point.

But if we zoom out a bit and take a deep breath, I’m fine with where the Red Sox are at the moment. They have very talented positional prospects in Betts, Bogaerts, Bradley Jr and Swihart, they have young starters either with the club already (Rodriguez) or on the cusp (Johnson, Owens) and they even have a few of the highly coveted, hard throwing bullpen arms that the team has lacked in recent years on the way (Barnes/Light). After a precipitous dip last year, Pedroia’s power appears to be back. Buchholz has had his ups and downs, but is outproducing many so-called aces this season. Hell, even Allan Craig is hitting at Pawtucket – and his money is officially off the competitive balance books because he cleared outright waivers.

If you think then that each of Miley, Porcello, Ramirez and Sandoval are better than they’ve shown, and that some benefit of the doubt must be extended because of the new city/big contract factor, the roster looks that much better.

And even if they’re not, the club should have money available next year to improve. How much? Probably something close to what Houston’s paying their entire roster in 2015. Which is why we appear to be pretty far from “immensely screwed” looking beyond this year.

Predictions for the 2015 Red Sox

Alejandro De Aza, Christian Vazquez

By now every baseball writer has written up their predictions for the 2015 season, from divisions to the world series to cy young and mvp awards. Which means that every baseball writer has also told us, in so many words, to ignore their predictions because they’ll be wrong.

Which is inevitable, because if accurately forecasting the outcomes of a major league season were simple what would be the point of playing the games? As simple as things can look on paper, there are always surprises. A pitcher tries a new grip on a cutter and takes a step forward. A catcher blows out his arm. Two front offices make bold trades: one succeeds and the club goes to the playoffs. The other has everything blow up in its face.

You just never know. But while that’s true, some predictions are easier to make, either because we have more data, because they’re narrower in scope, or both. Instead of making predictions about who’s going to the playoffs, then, I have tried to set down here general trends that I feel will impact the 2015 Boston Red Sox. They may or may not be more accurate than your average sportswriters predictions on the final standings, but they at least seem more reliable to me than trying to project a 2015 win total.

These, then, are my predictions for the 2015 Red Sox season.

The Red Sox Do Not Need an Ace

Everyone talks about how much the Red Sox need a high caliber pitcher to front their rotation. Typically, they’ll point to Madison Bumgarner as evidence of same. What most of those who make this argument will fail to acknowledge is that the Dodgers had one of these pitchers – one that every general manager in the league would pick over Bumgarner, in fact – and it didn’t work out that well for them. The Nationals, for their part, went out and paid Max Scherzer something between $185 and $210 million dollars in present day value, depending on how you account for things like inflation, to acquire a pitcher of this type. Unfortunately for the Nats, Scherzer actually went to the playoffs as part of a rotation that featured three former Cy Young award winners – and got knocked out in the first round. Oakland, meanwhile, acquired such an ace from our Boston Red Sox for the express purpose of winning games that matter. How did our former number one, Jon Lester, fare? Six runs allowed over seven plus innings to the Kansas City Royals. Those same Kansas City Royals, meanwhile, rode their number one pitcher, “Big Game” James Shields all the way to the World Series. Except that’s not exactly right, because over 25 innings pitched Shields gave up 17 runs, good for a 6.12 ERA – with one of the best defenses in Major League Baseball behind him. Which is one reason the market gave him around a third of what Scherzer got from the Nationals, in spite of the fact that his team went further in the playoffs. As did Baltimore, who beat Sherzer’s Tigers. Baltimore’s ace? Well, Tillman, probably? By default?

And this is just last season’s examples.

The lesson here is simple. Everyone wants an ace, and everyone expects them to roll through the playoffs á la Bumgarner. The reality is that an ace is not necessary to get to the playoffs, and doesn’t guarantee much if you get there.

So if someone tells you the Red Sox need an ace, don’t believe the hype.

The Red Sox Will Acquire Pitching

All of that said, the truth is that Red Sox need and will acquire pitching during the season. The best bets from the rotation are Porcello and Miley, and between them it’s reasonable to expect close to four hundred average innings. Porcello is likely to be a bit above average, Miley a bit below. But at least one of Buchholz, Masterson and Kelly is going to be ineffective if not unavailable this season. Which means, like every other team in the major leagues, they’ll need more than five starting pitchers. Steven Wright is next in line, but while the idea of him as a Joe Kelly alternative is interesting, he’d be a much less impressive selection for the kind of innings Buchholz is theoretically capable of producing.

Which is why that the Red Sox are likely to acquire pitching. It’s possible – even likely – that if one of Johnson, Owens or Rodriguez gets off to a hot start at Pawtucket they’d be given the first shot at replacing whichever member of the rotation fails. But it’s equally likely that the Red Sox package some of their offensive surplus along with one of the aforementioned minor league starters to acquire a free agent arm. Cueto, one imagines, will become available. If predictions of the Tigers demise come true, possibly Price. And given the modest return for free agent aces these days – a year and a half of Price only fetched Tampa Drew Smyly, Willy Adames and Nick Franklin – it’s logical that the Red Sox would pursue this avenue in 2015.

Victorino Will be Moved Before Craig

A lot of people in Boston want to run Allen Craig out of town, and no wonder: his 2014 season was absolutely horrific. Granted, it was only a 29 game sample, but miserable doesn’t even begin to describe his .128/.234/.191 line. With him hitting even a little bit then in Spring Training – .250/.333/.404 – the conventional wisdom was that he’d be shipped out.

Here’s the thing though: as Jonah Keri says when evaluating trade value, contracts matter. Craig is owed $5.5M this year, then $9M next, $11M the year after that and $13M in 2018. The question then if you’re a team other than the Red Sox is whether you’re willing to bet close to $40M he comes back from last year. The answer to that is maybe, if the acquisition cost is effectively zero. Which is why, along with Craig’s ability to play both the infield and outfield, I’m betting the Red Sox end up trading Victorino before Craig.

True, the Hawaiian outfielder is coming off a lost season, having played in only 30 games thanks to a scary back injury. And it’s not as if he’s ever been the picture of health. But Victorino is also only a season removed from a 6 fWAR season and being a World Series hero. Just as importantly, he’s owed only $13M. So if he shows he can play to start the season, he may fetch something useful in return due to his history and lack of contract obligations. If, on the other hand, it looks like he can’t play, the Red Sox are likely to trade him for minimal return.

Castillo Starting in the Minors Will be the Right Call

Speaking of Victorino, there are a great many people in Boston unhappy with the rightfielder, because they think he wants Mookie Betts out of town, because they correctly believe he’s blocking Cuban import Rusney Castillo, or both. Which, naturally, means that there are those on the Boston beat upset with fans not showing the appropriate deference and respect to their one-time fan favorite.

The reality is that Castillo starting in the minors is the logical decision for everyone. In a perfect world, Victorino would have been healthy in Spring Training from start to finish, attracting the attention of a club who needs his blend of offense and defense. Instead, he hurt himself his first game back.

From the Red Sox perspective, this is pretty simple. There are two possible outcomes. Option A, they move Victorino while the player is devalued, having not proved he is healthy or can still play, to make room for Castillo. Option B, they stash Castillo in the minor leagues until both they and the rest of the market figures out what Victorino has left.

Option A gives the Red Sox no options other than minimal return. In Option B, if Victorino plays well, he can be traded for a return. If another outfielder gets hurt in the interim – Ramirez or God forbid, Mookie – Castillo has their back. And if Victorino can’t in fact play anymore, he’s released or traded for minimal return and Castillo takes his place – at the cost of a couple of weeks of Castillo at bats.

This is not a terribly complicated equation, and the club is doing the obviously correct thing.

Mookie Will Not Play Like a Hall of Famer

Speaking of Mookie, he is not going to play like a Hall of Famer. He might not even play like an All Star this season.

People are assuming because of his preternatural poise and seemingly inhuman ability to make contact that there will be no bumps in the road. As evidence, they point to his .291/.368/.444 mark in the majors last year. Here’s the problem with that: most of the damage was done in September, which is a notoriously difficult time to evaluate players because of expanded roster call ups, thinned rosters and more. In the October 2013 playoff run, against some of the best pitchers in the major leagues, Bogaerts put up a .296/.412/.481 line. He was almost a full year younger at the time than Mookie was when he debuted last summer.

We all know how that turned out for the can’t miss Bogaerts last season, don’t we?

Now it’s possible, of course, that Mookie’s skills, development path or neurological makeup will make his transition to the majors seamless where Bogaerts’ was rocky. But from this vantage point, it seems as if expectations for Betts have gotten a bit out of hand – I expect him to take some serious lumps this year.

And if Mookie proves me wrong this year, as he has his doubters ever since his recovery from a shaky professional debut? I will be absolutely delighted.

We’re Not Going to Miss the Pieces We Traded

It’s certainly true that we dealt Will Middlebrooks at something close to the nadir of his value. And it’s possible that pitchers like De La Rosa, Ranaudo or Webster could emerge at least as bullpen weapons. But the guess here is that Cherington bet correctly on all four. Middlebrooks has always had problems with contact, and his power will be suppressed at Petco. De La Rosa and Webster for their part showed zero improvement in their control this spring, and Ranaudo couldn’t even crack a decimated Rangers rotation.

None of these deals were the definition of selling high, but it seems likely that Cherington got the best of each one of these transactions.

Barnes’ Role in 2015 Will be in the Pen

One of the major criticisms of the Red Sox bullpen headed into 2015 is their lack of velocity. Which is understandable, because out of the 30 major league clubs, the Red Sox last year ranked 30th in terms of their velocity. Velocity isn’t everything, of course, as Boston’s own Koji Uehara proved over and over until the wheels came off late last August.

With the two year contract, Boston is obviously betting that August was an anomaly, and that Koji’s command and movement will continue to offset his pedestrian velocity in 2015. But the reality is that while velocity isn’t everything, it’s certainly something. Something important.

Looking around the Red Sox bullpen, however, velocity is tough to come by. Tazawa’s the hard thrower, averaging just under 94. Varvaro’s a tick above 92. Mujica and Ross are right around 90 MPH, Layne just under. Breslow was below 89 last year. As for newcomer Alexi Ogando, at his peak he’d run it up there over 96. By last year, however, he was more around Tazawa’s velocity. Also, there’s a non-zero chance his arm simply flies off his body at some point this season.

The Kansas City Royals we are not, in other words. But given how frequently Cherington and Farrell both talk about the emergence and importance of elite, hard throwing bullpens, it’s almost a given that Barnes will be up sometime as a harder-throwing option out of the bullpen. He averaged just under 94 last season, but this was Farrell on Barnes this spring:

“I don’t have a whole lot of history with Matt Barnes but that was a different guy than even what we saw in September…I’ve never seen that kind of velocity from him. He was a different guy last night.”

This is presumably why Farrell had a long look at him as a bullpen option in Spring Training, and why you should expect to see Barnes sooner rather than later out of the bullpen.

Swihart Will be the Red Sox Starting Catcher by September

This is how good Christian Vazquez is defensively: more than one credible analyst – Keith Law, for one – has asserted that the loss of Christian Vazquez to surgery could be the difference between the Red Sox making the playoffs and not. And they may well be correct.

At least on paper, the Red Sox have put together one of the better offenses in the league. With the exception of catcher – Vazquez or no Vazquez, it’s reasonable to project average to above average offensive performances at every position on the field. But just as the 2014 Red Sox went into the year with question marks in its lineup, the 2015 Red Sox will head into the year with a lot of uncertainty in its pitching staff.

Part of the reason to expect individual pitchers to outperform their expectations was Vazquez, who is an elite framer – critical for a staff that will be working the lower half of the strikezone – with a huge arm. He’s not Yadier Molina, but he was on his way to being in the same conversation. Hanigan is a solid framer and catch and throw catcher, but he’s not on Vazquez’s level. Worse, he’s only played a 100 games in a season once.

That being said, the bet here is that Swihart will be catching for the Red Sox by September. Calls for him to start the season with the major league club were misguided. The player’s had less than 80 at bats at Pawtucket, and didn’t fare particularly well at the level. More importantly for the club, while Swihart’s athleticism has led to conclusions that he can be above average to well above average defensively, by all accounts he remains a work in progress – particularly in terms of pitch framing and game calling.

As with the Victorino/Castillo situation, the Red Sox have followed the path here which maximizes their options. By bringing in Sandy Leon, they at once increased their catching depth, bought Swihart time to develop and gave their pitchers an option with an excellent defensive reputation. Leon probably won’t hit, but he can throw and is reported to be an adept framer as well. Humberto Quintero, meanwhile, can be stashed at Pawtucket as insurance in case of injury, underperformance or both.

Swihart, meanwhile, gets time to adjust to pitchers with better command and control, the time to refine his swing from both sides of the plate, and most importantly additional months of instruction and experience at the most difficult position on the field. If he performs at an even reasonable level offensively, and continues to make strides defensively, he’ll be the Red Sox starting catcher by September.

Which, incidentally, sets up an interesting dynamic for 2016. In a perfect world, Vazquez would have established himself as a starter this year with Swihart getting the benefit of an entire year at the minor league level, leaving the Red Sox entering next year with two potential starting catchers. Now, one of them loses a year of on the field experience while the other may have his apprenticeship cut short. Not an ideal outcome for anyone involved.

Can Speier Save the Globe?

A week ago, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with baseball, I switched browsers, dropping Chrome and making the jump to Safari. I don’t switch browsers all that often, and this experience was a good reminder why. Export your bookmarks. Import your bookmarks. Realize how many browser extensions you use without thinking about it. Try to find equivalents. And last but not least, set up your browser homepage.

At the time in my life when I started using a browser regularly, I was a Boston sports fan. Which I still am, of course, even if the Red Sox and an increasing scarcity of free time eventually transitioned me to mere casual fan of the Bruins and Celtics. Anyway, this is why my browser homepage has always been boston.com/sports. From Netscape to Internet Explorer to Firefox to Chrome, one of the first things I’d do with a new browser as I moved in and got settled was resetting the homepage over to the familiar, comfortable Boston Globe Sports page.

When I moved over to Safari, I thought about it briefly but decided, not without sadness and regret, that I was done with the Globe. After all these years.

There was no final straw, no last disappointment. And in truth, if I hadn’t switched over to Safari, I probably wouldn’t have made the change. This is more like an old couple that wakes up one day and discovers that they no longer have anything in common. The Globe and I have just drifted apart over the years.

The sport of baseball, as is well understood by now, is in the midst of its own Age of Enlightenment. Fueled by massive net new sources of data, more intellectually rigorous executives and easily the best technical capabilities of any modern professional sport, the game is being remade and refashioned at a pace we’ve never seen before. As in the original Age of Reason, however, there are those open to new ideas and approaches, and those who are not.

Once upon a time, the Boston Globe had one of, if not the best, sports desks ever. From Bud Collins to Will McDonough to Leigh Montville to Larry Whiteside to Bob Ryan to Peter Gammons – the biggest reason that I am a baseball fan, the Globe was the epicenter of sports journalism. Today, it’s a shadow of what it was, and – with one notable exception I’ll come back to – populated by anti-enlightenment types.

Ryan’s career demands respect, but pieces like this are the equivalent of shit your grandparents say.


Massarotti, Shaughnessy and Wilbur, meanwhile, are essentially just Screamin A Smith and Skip Bayless from an earlier, bygone era. Extreme opinions result in extreme reactions, which is their only priority. Substance and credibility are frivolous luxuries, apparently, in a post-truth era.
Senior baseball writer Nick Cafardo, meanwhile, is everything the BBWAA looks for, which is to say someone who thinks of himself as a traditionalist but whom the game has, in fact, passed by. Intent on defending the way things were from heretical new ideas they do not, and choose not to, understand, the BBWAA’s ideal member believes that the earth is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth and that Curt Schilling is a genius.

And while Cafardo’s presumed heir apparent Peter Abraham unquestionably brings a more modern style to the table and is at least willing to entertain the modern perspectives of the game his colleagues ignore, he is prickly and in questionable command of his facts. Case in point the following exchange.

To recap: on October 21st in game 1 of the World Series, the Royals erstwhile ace Shields threw a clunker. He coughed up three runs in the first and was gone by the third. Madison Bumgarner was sublime, on the other hand, holding the Royals to three hits over seven, striking out five and walking one. San Francisco would go on to win the opener 7-1, in large part due to their respective starting pitchers.

Abraham chose this occasion to make three points: first, that aces are important, second that Lester is an ace and third, that the Sox should have signed Jon Lester back in March. The ace-required narrative is debatable by itself; the Giants essentially won the World Series because of theirs, but the Tigers threw three former Cy Young winners and were swept by Baltimore. Also, there’s Kershaw who you’ll see referenced in just a moment. But the odd thing about Abraham’s example of needing aces like Lester for these big games is that Lester had actually just pitched in one. And was a big reason his team was no longer playing.

The good news for Lester was that he got through the seventh. The bad news was that he coughed up a run in the first, two more in the third and would be charged for all three runs in the eighth when two singles and a walk sent him to the showers. Dan Otero would eventually get tagged with the loss, but Lester’s six runs compute to a 7.36 ERA. This was September 30, less than a month from Shields’ implosion. Which is why I thought it odd that Abraham used him as an example.

Abraham, predictably, disagreed.

Just as predictably, so did I.

And then things really went downhill:

As Ron Burgundy might put it:

The question is why? It seemed like a reasonable enough question to ask. If you’re arguing that the Red Sox needed a particular pitcher for a big game, it’d be helpful if said pitcher hadn’t given up six runs and lost a big game less than a month prior. But pushback and discussion aren’t hallmarks of the Globe today any more than an understanding of advanced metrics is.

It’s not all bad at the Globe, however. Chad Finn’s unique blend of rationalism and sentimentality neatly transcends fan demographics, appealing to metrics and BBWAA-types alike. He’s the only must read on the staff at this point, and unlike his colleagues, he’s also perfectly willing to debate. This tweet, for example:

Elicits this reponse:

Finn’s one of the good guys, then, but here’s the problem: Finn’s just one man. Or at least he was.

Fittingly enough, Finn was the one to welcome current WEEI writer Alex Speier to the Boston Globe. For any serious Red Sox fan, Speier has been easily the best writer covering the team for several years now. He is deeply versed in statistics and modern metrics, well connected with both local sources as well as prominent national writers such as ESPN’s Keith Law, and creative in his approach. Where other writers might mention budget limits, Speier breaks down the budget down to the last dollar, including projected arbitration costs, and provides it with full historical context. He’s one of the best baseball writers in the country, and the market is lucky to have him. The Globe is luckier still, because a sports desk that was looking to be in permanent decline has added an asset well above replacement level, a legitimate superstar. And much like with the Red Sox / Yankees rivalry, the addition here is doubly beneficial since Speier’s subtraction from WEEI substantially weakens a direct competitor.

The Globe has issues remaining, clearly, and it will be interesting to see if the Speier hire leads to other changes. The paper already has a national notes-style writer and a beat reporter, leading to obvious speculation about whether there’s another shoe about to drop. But whatever his ultimate role, the combination of Speier and Finn is enough to get at least one former Globe fan back on board.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to reset my browser homepage.

2014: The Indictment and Validation of the Red Sox Minor League System

Xander Bogaerts

In his first 25 games last season, Xander Bogaerts got on base at a .387 clip. He didn’t show much pop, hitting one home run and slugging a mere .378, but that was good enough for a 119 OPS+. He was twenty percent better than the average player at the position offensively, in other words. Over the next 28 games he played in May, he was even better. The OBP climbed, the power made an appearance and all of a sudden he wasn’t 19% better, he was 52% better than the average shortstop. Given that we all know what happened after that, there’s no need to document his implosion. And I’ll leave the post-mortem to the better qualified; there are many looking to deconstruct his slide with an eye at determining his current value.

The more interesting question to me at the moment is what if it had never happened?

It’s obviously not reasonable to assume that he’d keep putting up a 152 OPS+, but what if Bogaerts had put up a line closer to his first month? What changes this offseason? Are Ramirez and Sandoval still acquired?

To make that question harder to understand, as long as we’re talking hypotheticals, what about Jackie Bradley Jr? The best centerfielder I’ve ever seen in person set new records for futility at the plate, and if Bogaerts’ slump was an implosion JBJ’s season at the plate was a post-apocalyptical nuclear wasteland. Over 127 games and 423 plate appearances, Bradley put up a 53 OPS+, making him almost 50% worse than the average regular. His defense is sublime, but nothing can make that up.

And then there’s Middlebrooks. I’ve never been much of a believer: the power is clearly there – or was, until last season – but I’m unconvinced he’ll ever make enough contact or have the plate discipline to get to it. ZIPS was not optimistic, forecasting a .255/.292/.434 line for the third baseman. The result? He didn’t come close. Even granting that injuries played a part, his .191/.256/.265 (48 OPS+) was not only completely unacceptable but a serious regression even from his miserable prior season (87 OPS+).

Middlebrooks was a risk, obviously, based on his erratic track record. But the odd thing about Bogaerts and Bradley’s performances is that they were difficult to see coming. Both players are young, true. And young players struggle – maybe now more than ever with all of the advances in scouting, the ubiquity of velocity, a larger strike zone and an unprecedented volume of defensive shifts. Certainly Bogaerts and Bradley weren’t the only highly touted rookies to struggle.

But last year’s roster didn’t include much in the way of safety nets, unless you count what’s left of Grady Sizemore. Bogaerts and Middlebrooks started out of the gate, and Bradley started 23 games the first month. Even after stumbling, they were run back out there day after day after day until Bradley was mercifully sent down, Middlebrooks got hurt and Bogaerts was concussed. Collectively they were worth a negative half win: Bogaerts was 0.4, Bradley -0.1 (which tells you just how good his defense was), Middlebrooks -0.8 (-0.5 total). Their respective ZIPS forecasts, meanwhile, were 0.9, 1.6, 1.8 (4.3 total).

Between them, then, you’re looking at effectively a five win swing. The bad news for the Red Sox is that as bad as the three were, they weren’t the only problem. They weren’t an 85 win team that finished just outside a 90 win playoff threshold; they were a 71 win team that even with the benefit of an additional five wins would be well under .500, and out of the playoffs.

Still, it’s difficult to see recent signings as anything other than indictments of players and roster alike. If Bradley Jr even came close to his forecast, do the Red Sox hand $72M to a 28 year old Cuban who runs well but like his countryman Cespedes, may or may not get on base? Seems unlikely. Likewise with Sandoval. Even if you buy fully into the “insensitivity to the opposition theory” theory about this signing – and it’s not clear how his swing-first-and-ask-questions-later approach will age – if the team believed Middlebrooks was or would become what some once thought he might, again, that’s probably money the club deploys elsewhere. As for Ramirez, well, we’re looking at a club whose outfield collectively hit 26 home runs last year. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Whatever the explanations, then, whatever the cause, the Red Sox offseason to date is in effect one long indictment of our ability to produce major league caliber offensive players. The kids failed, so we dropped $255M on two outfielders and a third baseman. So much for being a draft and development-oriented organization that eschewed major free agent spending.

The funny thing, however, is that the Red Sox 2014 offseason is at the same time a validation of the Red Sox minor league system.

The same $255M figure that serves as a stark reminder of the difficulty of transitioning players from the minors to the majors ensures that the club will be heavily reliant moving forward on young, cost effective players. In other words, to use the much beleaguered turn of phrase, this can be seen essentially as a bridge year. The club cannot bear the risk it did last year, coming off a title, of relying too heavily on its prospects, so by investing in Castillo/Ramirez/Sandoval, it hopes to both provide them with the cover they need to develop, or in the case of players like Bradley, Cechinni or Middlebrooks, rebuild their value such that they can be converted into talent at areas of need.

As Cherington said today on MLB Radio, the team does have a budget, and even if they were somehow able to plug the gaping hole in their rotation cost effectively via trade rather than dropping big dollars on Lester, the premium attached to free agents makes it an unsustainable long term strategy. You can plug holes with the likes of Ramirez or Sandoval, but you certainly can’t field one at every position. The only way the money works is if Bogaerts and now Betts are able to assume positions of importance while making a relative pittance. It may not be comfortable to be paying Sandoval $19M a year, but you feel better if the combination of he and Bogaerts costs you $20M.

In a perfect world, of course, none of the above is necessary, and Middlebrooks would be looking at another three years of hitting bombs and we could all look forward to watching Bradley Jr teleport himself to the precise spot a sinking liner lands. But it’s not a perfect world, and the 2014 Red Sox offseason seems to be trying to make the best of the minor league system’s failures while counting on its successes moving forward.

5 Things I Would Do if the Red Sox Decide to Sell

As I write this before Sunday’s game has been played, the Red Sox are 10 games in back of the Blue Jays for the division. That’s bad. We’re also five back from a wild card berth, with all of the Royals, Twins, White Sox ahead of us in that race. That’s worse. If you’re looking for the bright side, well, we’re a game up on the Atros in the wild card race.

Which means that, yes, even the good news is bad.

All of that being said, it is, as I asserted to Chad Finn above, too early to write the 2014 Red Sox season off as a lost cause. Fangraphs, in fact, has the Sox’ odds of a playoff berth at 18.9%, which are actually better than they’re giving the Yankees (18.7%) who are a mere six games out. As much because the rest of the division has problems of their own as anything else – the Blue Jays are still the only team in the East with a positive run differential – the Red Sox are, improbably, not out of this thing. Which means that if you’re Cherington, you probably have to give them a few weeks yet to sink or swim.

But for the sake of argument, if they did decide to sell, how might they proceed? Finn tackled that question here, and his approach makes sense: don’t trade any real assets for duct tape and bailing wire, don’t trade John Lackey, and if you find a buyer who’s all in on Johnny Gomes’ intangibles, sell high. We differ on one important idea, but more on that shortly. Here are five things I would do if the Red Sox were to shift into sell mode.

Move Minor League Pitching

There isn’t much debate at this point, his walk rate notwithstanding, that Henry Owens is ready for Triple A. The problem is that there isn’t anywhere to put him, with that rotation to be fully stocked with Webster, Ranaudo, Barnes, maybe Wright – and soon enough, De La Rosa and Workman. Unless you think that a) all of those pitchers will end up in a major league rotation and b) you’re willing to live through their growing pains at the major league level simultaneously – much as the Braves once did, some of those arms should be moved. As to which ones, I would generally defer to the front office, but an arm like Workman would seem to have some value to other clubs, particularly in the National League. He throws strikes and has had major league success, which makes him potentially valuable. But he has never been particularly dominating, at least not in the way that Barnes, De La Rosa, Webster or, more recently, Owens have been at times. So while you can never have enough pitching, it might be time to begin converting that surplus into usable parts. The first team I’d call up, by the way, would be the Cubs. They’ve got positional prospects, but they’re light on higher end pitching talent. And Cherington does happen to know their President and General Manager.

Trade Jon Lester

This is where I break with Chad, and I do so with one big caveat. If the Red Sox are ultimately willing to extend themselves sufficiently to retain Lester – let’s say in the $120 million range, conservatively – they should do so now. If, on the other hand, their reported $70 million borderline slap-in-the-face initial offer is within hailing distance of their threshold, then they shouldn’t waste any time and find him a new home as soon as possible. The fact that he’s a pending free agent limits his value, of course, but I’d be surprised if a contending club didn’t offer value above the single pick that the Red Sox would receive in return for his departure. In short, if the club decides that a) they’re not going anywhere this season and b) that they are not in a position to sign him (regardless of whether we think they should), then the only logical outcome to me is c) trade him.

Trade a Reliever (or Two)

Of all of the asset classes that get moved at the trading deadline, none is so disproportionately valued as relievers. Clubs that feel that they’re a mere piece or two away will and do overpay for relievers who might be worth 30 innings down the stretch. Given that the bullpen, with the odd exception here or there, has been an area of strength for the club this year, this is a logical place to deal from. Add in the fact that, as discussed above, the Red Sox have something of a surplus of arms near the majors, moving a bullpen piece like Badenhop, Breslow or Miller for an outsized return while simultaneously creating an opportunity for one of the young arms to work their way into the majors seems like a no brainer.

Do Not Trade John Lackey

John Lackey has had his ups and downs over his career with the Red Sox, and as Jackie MacMullan intimated in an interview earlier this season, his personality hasn’t changed with his performance: even pitching well, he’s still prickly and ornery. But that’s not the important part. The important part is the “pitching well” bit. Fresh off his remarkable 2013 comeback campaign, Lackey has looked much like he did with the Angels: not a true ace, but durable, occasionally brilliant, and capable of delivering quality innings. Also? He’s scheduled to make $500,000 next year. To trade him, then, you’d have to receive not only the value for the type of pitcher he is at present, which is a very good one, but also for the savings he will represent next season – which is easily into the eight figures. Young stars are rarely moved these days because they represent such a unique combination of ability and a low price tag; that’s Lackey next season. So unless you get absolutely blown away, which is unlikely given his age, you’re not going to get comparable value for him. Trading Lackey, therefore, would be foolish. And that’s without even getting into the wider context, which is that – assuming Lester is not retained – a trade of Lackey would leave Buchholz and Doubront as your only major league starters under contract for next year.

Trade Stephen Drew

Somewhere Finn is shaking his fists at this notion, but I am no Drew hater. I would have him playing third instead Bogaerts, but I applauded the signing when it was announced. It’s no secret that I’ve never been much of a believer in Middlebrooks, and Drew does two things well that this team needed (and still needs): he’s solid on defense and he can hit right-handed pitching. Adding him was, in that respect, a no brainer. But he is also gone after this season, as the left side of our infield is getting crowded with potential candidates, from Bogaerts and Middlebrooks who we’ve seen to Cecchini and Marrero who we have not (or in the former’s case, seen little of). Which means that, again assuming the season comes to be regarded as a lost cause, you might as well maximize your return on assets while you’re able. What kind of package might the Tigers put together, for example, to extract both a high leverage bullpen arm and a tier one starting shortstop from us, for example? Such a move would address their two most glaring weaknesses, and could propel them to the title their owner is so desperate to achieve he’s signing Monopoly-money contracts. If you’re in the hunt, I agree that you don’t want to strengthen a rival, but if you’re not you’d hope they’ll extract every bit of value they can. Which means moving Drew.

Two Teams Enter, One Team Leaves

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ALCS 2008 logo – Fenway Park, originally uploaded by misconmike.

Two teams enter, one team leaves. Baseball is rarely that simple, but the series of events that led us here is as rare as they come.

Questions abound, as usual. There are lots of questions to be asked about Lester, for example, beginning with the sudden loss of velocity in the second inning of his last start. But I feel good about him, and I feel good about our team, because I believe.

There is a difference, a crucial one, between believing and knowing, but I believe nonetheless. And after the past two games, don’t you too?

Two teams enter, one team leaves. Let’s be that team. Talk to you tomorrow.

Get Up You Son of a Bitch, Because We Love Ya

Line Drive to Right Field...(credit: Boston Globe)

Line Drive to Right Field…(credit: Boston Globe)

And here we are again, you and I. Against all odds, we lived to fight another day. Which comes today.

I won’t lie and tell you I believed down seven with seven outs to play. But I will tell you that I didn’t leave, that I didn’t quit, and that I didn’t give up. Like Gammons’ fan who slapped his hand bleeding, I pounded, screamed and prayed. To what, to whom doesn’t really matter now – the fact is that we’re still alive, and we’ve got a game to play.

The “statistical numbers,” frankly, don’t give us much chance of winning another; one reason there are no numbers here. But if tonight’s odds are long, what do you imagine they were at the precise moment that game turned and we pulled off the greatest single game postseason upset since 1929? Or in that split second before Roberts pushed off for second? You see? The numbers are just that…numbers. Informative, educational, but emphatically not determinative. As Exhibit A, I present you with Wednesday night. What have you got?

Yes, I still think Beckett is hurt. And yes, Shields is an excellent pitcher. Blah blah blah blah.

But we’re here, and we’ve got a little fight in us yet. That was what threatened to break my heart on Wednesday; losing was one thing, being embarrassed – at home – quite another. But suddenly, improbably, we woke up, picked ourselves up off the canvas, and hit us to Saturday.

Speaking for many of us, me anyway, Simmons reached back and found the old fastball, with:

More importantly, the champs decided they were going down swinging. Win or lose this weekend, that’s all we wanted. Show some pride. Show some heart. Show us last season meant something. And they did.

And they did, indeed.

I cannot promise that they’ll win tonight, and how fun would it really be if I could? I can promise that, after Game 5, they made me proud. Proud to be a fan, proud to care, proud to schedule my life around them, and proud to call this my team. All over again.

They also made me believe. Talk to you in the morning.