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.

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.

Valentine at the Break

In his eight year tenure with the Boston Red Sox, the clubs that Terry Francona managed averaged a .592 winning percentage over the first half. They won almost 60% of the games they played in, in other words. His worst record at the All Star break, oddly enough, came in 2004, when the club went 48-38 en route to a .558 winning percentage.

His replacement this year, Bobby Valentine, would presumably have jumped at the chance to trade for Francona’s worst year, because his club enters the break at .500, with the same record as third place Oakland: 43-43.

Injuries, of course, have played a major role in the club’s malaise. Just as they did last year, the year before and the year before that, when Francona’s winning percentages at the break were .614, .580 and .611.

For his performance en route to the .500 record, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo handed out an “Honorable Mention” to Valentine this morning for his “Best Manager” half season award.

This might seem inexplicable in light of the record, the “toxic clubhouse,” the “widespread disdain” the players have the for manager or all of the above – until you remember that Valentine was Cafardo’s first choice as manager. In October, Cafardo said of Valentine:

He’s exactly what this organization needs. If you want a man who is considered one of the best in-game managers and who has control of his team and the clubhouse, there is no one better available.

In that light, today’s recognition of Valentine can be seen for what it is: a simple inability to admit a mistake.

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.

Untouchable Ellsbury?

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Confirming the Catch, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pedroia at Short: Desperation or Due Diligence?

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redsox 255, originally uploaded by h8rnet.

The moment Peter Gammons elevated the talk of Pedroia moving from second back to short from rumor to fact via a couple of quotes typical for last year’s MVP, it was on. Cafardo, scooped, effectively dismissed the suggestion. To Mazz, it predictably was read as a sign that the club was a “little desperate“. Edes – and I’ll get to his return to the scene eventually – characterized the conversations as “casual.”

Among the national media, Law was skeptical he could handle the position and Neyer intimated that the Sox wouldn’t consider the move if they didn’t believe – based on the data – that he could potentially handle it. Also, that it meant Pedroia was a great teammate.

Myself? I think this is posturing. Nothing more.

Did the Sox talk to Pedroia? I’m sure they did. Did they consider the option of moving him? Undoubtedly. As they should.

Consider the infielders we’ve been linked to this offseaon: Scutaro, Kennedy, Everett, DeRosa and Crosby. And those are just the ones we know about. Who’s to say how much time Theo’s spent on the phone talking Stephen Drew, Yunel Escobar or someone really cool we don’t even know about.

Point being: the Red Sox are doing, in talking to Pedroia and pretty much every available free agent, what they always do, and what they should always do: explore every option. Every option. Trades. Signings. New training regimens. Coaching staff alterations. And yes, positional shifts.

It doesn’t mean that every option is actually on the table, let alone a probable outcome. Just that the club’s done its due diligence and are aware of the implications of the choices available to them.

This has the obvious benefit is that the front office is not guessing. If the Marlins call and offer Uggla for a reasonable acquisition cost, they know that Pedroia’s game for short if need be. They don’t suspect he is, they don’t think he is, they know he is. Because they’ve been proactive, and they asked. Does that make it likely? Hardly. I’d bet a pretty reasonable chunk of change that when we open next spring, Pedroia’s not at short. But it can’t hurt to ask. If anything, it can only help.

The less appreciated benefit to this news, and likely one of the reasons the front office is probably happy with the interview (assuming it wasn’t a plant), is that it improves their negotiating position. Even if Scutaro’s advisors suspect that the front office doesn’t want to move their second baseman, they can’t be certain it won’t happen. Which improves, if only slightly, the Red Sox negotiating position.

The interesting question, to me, isn’t whether or not Pedroia can play short. I’m sure he could play the position passably, if not at the level he can handle second or one that we’d be happy with.

The interesting question is whether or not Pedroia knows all of the above; that, effectively, his interview was a negotiating tactic. Because if he knows that and was still so genuine, he’s an even better teammate that Neyer and company think he is.

Is A-Gon – The Other One – Really The Solution?

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Adrian Gonzalez, originally uploaded by SD Dirk.

The one thing the Red Sox must do to bridge the gap between them and the World Series champion Yankees? Acquire Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Losing out on Mark Teixeira in the offseason – losing him to the Yankees – seemed to be the biggest difference between the teams. The Yankees piled on with CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, but the Sox had comparables in Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.” – Nick Cafardo, Why the Sox should be going, going . . . going after Gonzalez

There is a school of thought – epitomized by Nick Cafardo above – that says that Adrian Gonzalez is the cure for what ails the Red Sox. That he’s the answer to the Yankee’s Mark Teixeira.

On one level, it’s easy to understand why. Over the last three years, his age 25, 26, and 27 seasons, he’s put up a cumulative .279/.371/.519 line, good for an .891 OPS. Not bad. This past season, he put up a .958 cumulative line, good for sixth in the majors of OPS from the first base position. That’s one spot behind Youk, who checked in at .961 (in sixty odd fewer ABs) and one spot ahead of the aformentioned Teixeira, whose slow start kept him to a .948 line in almost sixty more ABs.

And he did all of the above playing in a park that kills hitters: Petco has a batting park factor of 89 (100 is neutral, > 100 is good for hitters). Contrast that with Youk (BPF of 108) or Tex (BPF of 100).

But for all of the analysis that leads the professionals to conclude that A-Gon is what this team needs, I’ve seen precious little attention to a troubling aspect to his performance: his splits.

Not the home road ones: if you can put up an .859 at Petco, you should be fine pretty much everywhere else, and he is – 1.045 OPS away from home last year. No, the thing I’m surprised no one’s focusing on is his L/R numbers.

Last year, Gonzalez put up a .305/.448/.629 against RHP, which is obscene. But lefties didn’t just contain him, they erased him: .234/.339.431. That comes out to a .770 OPS, which is good for 102nd in the league. To put that in terms we can all understand, from the left hand side, Gonzalez is – offensively – Colorado’s Dexter Fowler or, closer to home, Ellsbury. Presumably without the stolen bases.

He’s so good against RHP that this gets overlooked, but it would presumably matter a lot more when we faced, say, CC at Yankee Stadium.

Elite players in the league will show some platoon split, but typically nothing that drastic. Youk, for example, put up a .953 OPS vs lefties last year, .964 vs righties. Teixeira, a .940/.952. You need to produce against both left and right handed pitching to be counted among the best. Gonzalez, meanwhile, has never shown the ability to do that. 2009 was no fluke; his three year splits are .744/973.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t go after him? No. As mentioned, he’s so productive against right handed pitching that he’s a serious asset at the plate, and with a UZR/150 of 3.4, he’s no slouch with the glove.

But should Theo simply throw prospects at San Diego to get him? No. He’s good. Really good, in fact. He’s just not as perfect as a lot of people seem to think he is.