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.

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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.

We're In

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No explanation necessary. As soon as we’re mathematically eliminated from the Division, I’ll start working on the matchups for a full blown playoff preview.

For now, I’m just going to savor another postseason.

Enjoy.

Hankenstein is Back, and Dumber than Before

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Yanked my Johnson, originally uploaded by greggoconnell.

I’ll leave the Blue Jays wild card chat for later; for now I’ll merely point you to Hankenstein’s latest verbal salvo. One that warms my heart, and is likely to horrify any serious Yankee fan.

What’s his plan for the offseason?

“Suffice to say, there’s not going to be any more, on my part, of trying to keep everybody happy. If I want somebody, I’m going to go after him,” Steinbrenner told The Record by phone this afternoon.

Treee-mendous. Nothing would make me happier than a repeat of the 80’s era Steinbrennian approach of signing a bunch of aged, high priced free agents. In that respect, Mussina’s resurgence may be the best thing that could have happened to us.

What’s his philosophy with respect to the value of prospects?

“I want more.”

Very sophisticated. Very nuanced. Volume will be key, as he’ll trade them at each and every opportunity for “established stars.”

His reactions to the Yankees season?

“Even besides injuries, certain players didn’t perform. Certain things didn’t get done. It was somewhat the result of things that had been done over the last five years, and now I plan on fixing them…I’m very disappointed in this team.”

Wonderful. Couple the above with the his intended “more opinions the better” approach, and I for one am looking forward to Hankenstein’s tenure.

I hope, for our sake, he’s able to keep his smarter brother Hal at bay.