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.

Why the Red Sox Front Office is Doing What it's Doing

If not for the good folks from Baseball Prospectus – via ESPN – I’m not sure who would be putting our front office into context. It seems clear that the Boston writers, with but a few exceptions, can’t be trusted with the task. Witness their breathless, hysterical escalation of the non-news of Theo’s “bridge” comment. Or, more importantly, their continuing inability to explain the big picture of how the front office operates.

For the casual, and perhaps not-so-casual fan, then, I offer the following question and answer series. Cribbed in part from conversations I’ve had with people less interested in obsessed with the club than yours truly, it attempts to answer that simple question: what is the front office is doing, and why?

Q: Ok, so what is the front office’s plan? Mazz says it’s “pitching and defense.” Is that true?
A: The truth is that there is no plan. Or more correctly, there is no single plan. The front office seems to recognize that the composition of championship clubs varies, as the material differences between our 2004 and 2007 clubs demonstrate quite adequately. Rather than have a fixed view of roster construction, then, the front office will dynamically readjust their plans based on the players on hand, those available via trade or free agency, and perhaps most importantly, inefficiencies in the current marketplace.

Q: So it’s not always going to be “pitching and defense?”
A: No. Bill James told us as much.

“I believe it’s accurate to say that it was our perception that that was where the value was in this year’s market, in this year’s set of conditions. It also had to do with the needs of last year’s team. Last year’s team needed some defense, we had to invest in some defense, and the market seemed pretty good for it. But to say that’s the new thing and it will be that way from now on, I wouldn’t do that…

I think we understand we’ve had good defensive metrics now for five or six years. When I started with the Red Sox we didn’t have them, we had kind of primitive ones. We’ve got pretty good ones now for several years. It has reached the point at which not only us but a lot of teams are confident about that now and are starting to let the money flow toward gloves, which is a good thing…

So I wouldn’t say it’s a one-year correction at all. But I also think next year’s market will be entirely different. It may well be that next year, we’ll look at our team and say we need to put our money in thunder.”

Q: They’ll adapt, in other words?
A: Precisely. The Lackey signing is Exhibit A here. As Theo has acknowledged, the Red Sox did not head into the offseason with the intent of pursuing that pitcher. When the opportunity presented itself, however, the Red Sox considered it, and layered it into a series of other moves that took the club in a different direction. It might have been Plan C or D, rather than Plan A.

Q: How is this different than what other clubs do?
A: Well, it’s not that different from what enlightened clubs might do, but it’s certainly not what the writers expect.

Q: How do you mean?
A: Consider how many times writers talked about our offensive shortcomings this winter. What was their expectation? That we would sign either Jason Bay or Matt Holliday – had to, in fact – because our needs were clearly on offense. That was their expected result. And what was the actual result? We signed neither, allocating our dollars instead to the best free agent pitcher available, strengthening an area of the club that wasn’t terribly weak to begin with.

Q: Why not pursue offense?
A: It’s not that they didn’t. We know that they bid for Bay, and we’re told that they were in on Holliday as well. But the front office doesn’t let artificial perceptions of need impact their judgments about player value. Meaning that they’ll pay Bay or Holliday this season, or a Teixeira last season, what they believe he’s worth – no more than that. Rather than overpay a Bay or Holliday, they’ll improve the club in other ways that they believe represent better value.

Q: So there’s really no plan?
A: If anything, the front office seems focused on what Theo talks about above: balance. They want to have good pitching, good defense, and good offense. But they appreciate the reality that all of those areas factor into winning, not just offense, so if they can’t improve in one area at a reasonable cost, they can improve in others and still achieve the goal of improving the club. Ultimately, they want to get good value for their investment, whatever that may be.

Overpaying an offensive player just because you may need offense doesn’t represent good value.

Q: But aren’t there times when they can’t improve in other areas? Where they’ll be desperate and have to, say, field a shortstop?
A: Certainly. That’s when you end up with a Julio Lugo on a four year deal. After that debacle, I’d guess that the front office will do everything in its power to avoid finding itself over a barrel in that fashion again. Even the Mike Lowell deal can be viewed similarly: without any good internal third base candidates and a poor market, they didn’t have much choice but to commit more years to Lowell than was prudent. And now, like Lugo, they’re likely to be paying him to play elsewhere.

In a perfect world, the Sox development system over time has viable candidates at multiple positions, so that they’re more frequently dealing from a position of strength when it comes to negotiations. But building that complete a system takes time.

Q: Let’s go back to value: how does the club measure that?
A: Based on their statistical analysis and their scouting assessments, presumably. But the Red Sox are also very cognizant of market influences on value.

Q: What impact does the market have on value? Isn’t a player universally valued? A 30 homer guy is a 30 homer guy, right?
A: Not at all. Market perceptions of value vary consistently, and the Red Sox front office, like their more enlightened counterparts with other clubs, look constantly for inefficiencies in the valuation process.

Q: Can you provide an example?
A: Sure. Moneyball is the canoical reference point here.

Q: Right: OBP is undervalued, right?
A: Wrong. First of all, Moneyball was not about OBP. Moneyball was about nothing more or less than the inefficiency of markets. Specifically baseball. The idea that it’s a book about OBP has been propagated by the less open-minded of the mainstream baseball media. Which is to say, most of them. As one of the exceptions, Chad Finn, observes:

There is an element of mean-spirited giddiness among those who didn’t much approve of [Billy Beane] being awarded the “smartest man in baseball” title belt after the success of Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball.” Not coincidentally, those who dismiss or discredit Beane typically tend to be the same shortsighted wretches who believe the book’s theme is about acquiring players who walk a lot. Must be easier to pick at the perceived smartest guy in the room and cheer for his comeuppance than it is to open your own mind and overcome those preconceived notions.

But more importantly, OBP isn’t undervalued, OBP was undervalued. Big difference. Prior to the publication of that book, and for a few years after its release, players that got on base were not properly valued by the marketplace. But, the Kansas City Royals aside, OBP players, in general, are getting the money they deserve. According to the market, at any rate.

This means that there are fewer inefficiencies to be exploited there, versus a few years ago. The days of getting high OBP players for pennies on the dollar are, in all likelihood, over.

Q: So, what, we don’t want high OBP players anymore?
A: Not at all. The ability to get on base is one of the single most important offensive skills players can have, so the Red Sox will continue to try acquire players with those skills, and cultivate it in the players that they draft and develop. What they won’t be able to do any longer, because the valuation of OBP is better, is acquire those players as efficiently (read: cheaply) as they have in the past.

Q: What do they do, then? What kind of player represents the new value?
A: That won’t be clear for a year or two, but the early indications are that the club believes that defense is currently undervalued. As the signings of Beltre, Cameron, et al would indicate. As Dave Cameron explains, this is why clubs like ours look more old school, than Moneyball.

Epstein and James have traded on-base percentage for ultimate zone ratings, believing that the market has over-corrected and is now undervaluing a player’s ability to save runs in the field. They aren’t the only ones — the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, and yes, even Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics are also on the bandwagon.

The question is, particularly with newer and better defensive performance data about to be available, how much longer defense will be undervalued. When defense is properly valued, what’s next? Cameron’s guessing older players, which makes sense, because the value of younger players has never been higher, and older players are finding it a more and more difficult economic environment.

But we’ll see.

Q: Where does budget come into this? Mazz, CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty and others have argued in the past that the Red Sox are a big market club behaving as if it’s only got small market dollars. Is that fair?
A: I don’t think so, no. The Red Sox are, to be sure, applying the prinicples that have made small market teams competitive to their larger organization, but they are not at all shy with the dollars when – and this is the important part – it represents good value, in their opinion. They won’t spend just to spend, even if that’s what people want.

Q: Example?
A: Sure. Holliday was a player that the Red Sox liked, by all accounts. But they recognize that he isn’t a great player, just a very good one. So when he expected to be paid like a great player, they moved on. And when the dollars they had budgeted for Teixeira proved unnecessary because that player signed elsewhere, they didn’t simply throw that money at a player of lesser ability. That’s not being cheap, that’s not being stupid.

Q: But can’t the Red Sox, as a big market club, afford a couple million extra here and there?
A: Absolutely. But quite often the discrepancies between the player and agent’s opinion of his value and the Red Sox’s aren’t off by a couple of million – they’re off by tens of millions. Think of Pedro Martinez who wanted a fourth year, and got it – bless him, delivering about 1.5 seasons worth of performance for that. That’s a significant difference, in capital terms. Holliday, more recently, got $122M from the Cardinals. The Red Sox were prepared to pay him Lackey’s money, or $82M. The differences, then, aren’t small. And while the Red Sox, as a large market team, might not be sunk if a $120M player gets hurt or underperforms, it would unquestionably negatively impact the product on the field and, more importantly, it’s just not a good way to spend your money.

Better to take that extra money and plow it back into more efficient marketplaces, from the club’s perspective, such as the draft.

Q: So the philosophy, then, is to acquire the best players you can at the most reasonable cost?
A: That’s it in a nutshell, yes. Whether you’re the Marlins or the Yankees, you want to assemble the best possible roster at the lowest possible cost. Because every dollar you overpay is a dollar that can’t be invested, elsewhere. Money is not infinite, even for the Yankees. True, the marginal values of players, wins and such differ based on context – a good reliever likely has more value to a contending club than to one in last place, for example – but overpaying is bad business. And as Steinbrenner discovered, or rather Michaels and Cashman have educated him on, bought teams correlate weakly with success.

Q: Let’s go back to the draft: are there market inefficiencies to exploit there?
A: Absolutely. First, it’s an artificially constrained marketplace, unlike the free agency foreign born players have access to. Second, the draft dynamics introduce certain inefficiencies that have been heavily exploited by clubs like the Red Sox. MLB has recommended acquisition costs for slots in the draft; the first pick should get X, the second Y, etc. Unsurprisingly, the players and agents often have differing opinions on the player’s value. The question for a club, then, is whether you will pay above slot bonuses to talent, or whether you will rigidly follow MLB’s guidelines. The Red Sox have, for several years, ignored the recommended slotting, and have done well in the draft. Clubs like Houston Astros, however, have stuck to the slotting guidelines, and their minor league system is barren as a result.

In essence, the draft is just another market inefficiency that the Red Sox – and other clubs, to be sure – have identified and are actively exploiting. To their benefit, and to ours.

Q: All of this just sounds like economics.
A: Probably because it is. It’s essentially Econ 101: asset valuation, exploitation of market inefficiencies, etc.

Q: So can we expect a playoff berth every year running the team on economic principles rather than traditional baseball practices?
A: Annual playoff berths actually are an unrealistic expectation. Better to judge by the process than the outcome, on balance. If we fail to make the playoffs in a given year – as in 2006 – this doesn’t mean the process is flawed.

That said, in a small sample size – Theo’s only been in charge since November 2002, remember – the results have been generally positive. Two more World Series titles than in the previous eighty years combined, and a playoff berth every year but one.

Q: Why don’t fans understand all of this?
A: Mostly because casual fans only have so much time to follow the team, and leave the big picture contextualizing to those who follow it professionally. And those professionals are letting the fans down. The media can’t explain what the front office is doing to the fans because they don’t understand it themselves. It’s easier to write a story about how the Sox are cheap for “replacing” Bay with Cameron and Hermida. It takes a little more time, effort and education to put the economics and statistics into context, because you’d have to actually study, you know, economics and statistics. And most of the writers in our market have put about as much effort into learning those subjects as they have learning Spanish to communicate more effectively with an increasingly Latin heavy population of baseball players.

The good news is that with sites like Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Sons of Sam Horn and others, the general level of discourse and discussion about baseball is rising quickly. More and more fans appreciate the better understanding we have of today’s game, which means the audience for the kind of uneducated and sensationalistic coverage typical of the Murray Chass’ of the world is smaller by the day. And not a moment too soon.

Mazz vs the Strawman

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Not My Hat!, originally uploaded by cogdogblog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

image courtesy Erik Dasque

(image courtesy Erik Dasque)

We just got our asses kicked, pal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Postseason

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

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

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

Smoltz

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

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

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

Buchholz

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

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

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

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

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

A-Gon

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

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

Martinez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The "Pursuit" of Hanley Ramirez Proves…What?

Hanley at The Stadium, originally uploaded by ohad*.

I know this wasn’t what you were looking for, and believe me, it’s not what I intended to write, but I can’t help myself. I just can’t fathom how Mazz – a professional writer of some distinction – can make some of the arguments he does. Today’s piece is yet another exhibit in my ongoing case against him.

I won’t even bother with his assertion that the signing of Bard makes it more likely – not less – that we resign Varitek. I’ve already said my piece there; you can choose which of us you believe, as I’m on record as arguing the exact opposite. According to Mazz, several years of not catching a knuckleball pitcher for San Diego has adequately prepared Bard for doing what he could not do last time: catching Wake.

Or something.

No, what really amazes me is how consistent Mazz is at not letting the facts get in the way of a good argument. Maybe you’d argue that’s a columnists job; I prefer to call that willful ignorance.

Mazz is using the rumored exploration of a trade for Hanley Ramirez to buttress his Teixeira [Nuclear] Fallout piece. Yes, the same one I was less than impressed with.

His basic thesis is this: the fact that we pursued the Marlins shortstop proves that the front office has grave concerns about our offense and is scrambling for other options. In Massarotti’s own words, “As for the news that the Sox approached the Florida Marlins about Hanley Ramirez, it only magnifies just how costly the Teixeira fallout is.”

Fine. In a vacuum – one where you knew nothing about H-Ram’s contract status – that would probably fly. But consider what Mazz wrote just after that.

Ramirez isn’t going anywhere after signing a six-year, $70 million extension that begins next year, meaning that the Marlins have him locked up at average salary of $11.67 million over the next six years. Further, because Ramirez’s annual salaries do not begin to explode until 2012 — his base climbs to $15 million that season — there is little or no reason for the Marlins to deal him before that time, at the earliest.

My question, then, is this: if I know this, and you know this, and even Mazz knows this, isn’t it safe to assume that our front office does as well? They are many things, Theo and his minions, but stupid generally isn’t one of them. If they knew, like everyone else in baseball, that Ramirez was going to stay put, why the hell would they even bother placing the call?

Mazz answers this question…poorly.

For the same reason they pursued Teixeira. They know their offense is going to slip in 2009. They know that shortstop, more than catcher, is the position where they can make the greatest offensive upgrade. And they know that they need a productive young hitter for the middle of their lineup after breaking up the tandem of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez that served as the nucleus for their entire roster for nearly six years.

Translation: they attempted to acquire a player that they know to be unattainable…because, uh, they really need him.

I see. Mazz, in other words, is arguing that the Sox panicked.

Personally, I’m more aligned with Shysterball’s Craig Calcaterra, seeing as his explanation actually, you know, fits the facts. If indeed the Red Sox did pursue Hanley Ramirez – the simplest explanation here is still that this is yet another substance-free Hot Stove rumor – I wouldn’t be surprised if this was why:

The more I think about it, the more I believe that it’s a leak, the sole purpose of which is to make those Red Sox fans who care about such things think that their team is actually doing something this offseason besides being lapped by the Yankees.

But that’s just me and Calcaterra. You should, as always, make up your own minds. As you do, I recommend keeping the following in mind:

  1. The Red Sox front office is smart enough to know that Ramirez was likely to be unavailable
  2. Tony Massarotti has almost singlehandedly waged a campaign for Teixeira since the early offseason
  3. Tony Massarotti has a vested interest in not believing that the press was – or could have been – manipulated by the Red Sox front office in this situation

I know what I think. How about you?

Mazz: Still Pissed at the Sox

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Rangers vs Mariners 9-29-06 104, originally uploaded by Mark Sobba.

If it seems like all I do is rage against the Boston sportswriters these days, that’s probably because all I do is rage against the Boston sportswriters (Sean McAdam being the notable exception) these days. Things were not always thus; don’t even get me started talking about those halcyon days when Gammons was hurtling towards the Hall of Fame, cranking out his must read Sunday Notes columns that got me out of bed – hangovers notwithstanding – to walk six long blocks down to Columbus Circle to pick up the Globe.

Scott Berkun’s piece might explain to you why presumably smart people like Tony Massarotti defend bad ideas, but I can’t. I can offer no rational explanation for why the professionals make some of the arguments they do, when the evidence is stacked against them.

But then I’m not a professional, merely one of those Mom’s basement bloggers Tony doesn’t have time to read.

Anyway, because I think Mazz is entirely wrong – again – with his latest piece discussing the Teixeira deal, I felt duty bound to give him the FJM treatment, as those worthies have sadly hung up their swords.

Teixeira fallout


The Mark Teixeira obviously struck a nerve in all of us, but let’s make something clear here: The Red Sox had a chance. Any suggestion that the Sox could not (and can not) compete for free agents with New York is utter nonsense because the Sox have signed free agents in the past.

No one, to my knowledge, is suggesting that we can’t compete. The Red Sox are a club with significant financial resources that can aggressively pursue the type of free agents that other clubs are simply unable to. What I, and others, have argued, rather, is that we cannot go punch for punch with the Yankees when it comes to contract offers. Because while we have substantial financial resources, we’re not even in the same ballpark as the Empire.

For a moment, let’s look at the cases of Daisuke Matsuzaka and J.D. Drew, the former of whom, admittedly, was not a true free agent.

And the latter of whom was not a target of the Yankees, and is thus more or less irrelevant to this discussion.

Still, when the Sox bid for Matsuzaka’s rights, they blew away the field with a bid of $51.11 million that was 30-40 percent higher than any other offer. Why is this relevant? Because the Sox did the same for Drew, flattening him with a $70 million offer that left him with little choice but to sign.

I say we discard the Drew example here, for the simple fact that as just discussed, the Yankees were not involved in contract discussions with the player. Which leaves us with Matsuzaka, and the difference between our bid for the posted player and theirs.

My read on that delta is that the Red Sox “blew away the field” (read: overbid) because they a.) valued the player more highly than did the Yankees (consider that the Mets also outbid the Yankees for Matsuzaka) and b.) were willing to pay a premium for the posting fee to gain the rights to negotiate with the player absent competition. Competition like the Yankees.

In other words, the Red Sox felt compelled to go all in in the posting phase, because they felt that they could ammortize the cost of the fee over a multiple year, below market contract (which is more or less what’s happened).

Not to mention the ancillary marketing benefits.

To put all of this more simply, Mazz’s two examples – 1.) a player who was not subject to an open market bidding process and 2.) a player in whom the Yankees had essentially no interest – do little to convince me that the Red Sox are on equal footing with the Yankees when it comes to dollars.

With Teixeira, the Sox were not nearly as aggressive.

Personally, I would hope that they wouldn’t be 30-40% more aggressive when the total contract value is greater than 3X what the posting fee was. 40% of $30M being different than 40% of $170M and all that.

The bottom line is that other teams (excluding the Yankees) were in the same neighborhood, which allowed Teixeira to drag out the process. Had the Sox come out of the gate with, say, an eight-year offer for $184 million, maybe they could have gotten the deal done.

You know – because Boras has a history of taking the first offer that comes his way, and little inclination to talk to the Yankees in an effort to obtain top dollar for his paying clients.

Maybe it would have taken $192 million. But if the Sox came out strong — very strong — and gave Teixeira a short window to accept, their chances might have been better.

$192M, $170M – what’s the difference? Who doesn’t want to pay a first baseman whose OPS last year was .004 better than Youk’s $24M per? For 8 years.

If Teixeira then had balked, the Sox would have had their answer: Teixeira never wanted to come here.

If Tex had balked, I think it would have said more about him assuming he could get more money elsewhere than him not wanting “to come here,” but maybe that’s just me.

And if he didn’t, we’d be paying him $24M per year, or 1/6th of our payroll last year (vs 1/9th of the Yankees’). I find it interesting that Mazz accounts for only two possibilities: Tex accepts the offer, or he doesn’t. No mention of said offer being shopped to, say, the Yankees to match.

Instead, the Sox left the door open for the Yankees to swoop in, which created an array of issues. Most notably, by the time Teixeira made his decision, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett both had signed with New York, making the Yankees a more attractive destination; earlier on, that was not the case. By allowing the process to drag, the Sox enhanced New York’s position.

Obviously a deadline would have worked. It clearly did for the Angels. Right?

When you want a free agent, you knock him over. You give more than anyone else to eliminate all doubt. If he doesn’t accept, he doesn’t want to play for you.

That, or you determine ahead of time what you believe a player’s value is, and you bid until you reach that threshold, and then move on to Plan B when said threshold is exceeded so that you don’t wind up paying more for a player than the budget can sustain.

Indeed, there is always the possibility agent Scott Boras used the Sox here.

Of course he did. That’s his job. As Gammons so eloquently put it:

Boras doesn’t want to be the good guy, and doesn’t care who gets burned as long as his clients get the best deal; didn’t Edward Bennett Williams do the best he could for Joe McCarthy and Sirhan Sirhan?

To give you an idea of what Team Boras can be like to deal with, a source on Boras’ side of the negotiations recently suggested that the Red Sox had a chance to close the deal with an offer of $176 million, a mere $6 million more (over eight years, meaning $750,000 per season) over the Sox’ final offer of $170 million.

If Boras took that offer without giving the Yankees the opportunity to outbid – which they did – when his client wanted top dollar, he would have (and should have) been fired.

What Boras’ side failed to disclose was that the same offer included vesting options that would have taken the deal to $220 million over 10 years, something that scared off Sox owner John Henry, in particular. (Pretty sneaky, eh?)

Wait. Doesn’t that contradict Mazz’ whole argument thus far?

As for the Sox, it will be interesting to hear how this story evolves over time. Certainly, the Red Sox had the money to make this work. (Unless, of course, Henry or ownership has financial difficulties of which we are not aware.) There is certainly reason to wonder whether general manager Theo Epstein had difficulty convincing ownership to increase the offer to Teixeira, which went from $168 million to $170 million at the very end.

Is it possible that the Red Sox have some financial difficulties? Sure. But I think it’s far more likely that they didn’t want to pay Mark Teixeira what the Yankees would and could. As Mazz himself put it, the “[Yankees] spend more than the Sox only because they have more to spend.”

At least Mazz and I agree on something.

To suggest that the Red Sox never had a chance here is terribly simplistic and nothing more than an attempt by fans (and the Sox) to rationalize their failure in acquiring Teixeira. Nothing is ever that cut and dried — at least not when people are involved.

Did the Red Sox have a chance? Absent context, sure. Teixeira’s a Boras client, which roughly translated means he’s going to the highest bidder. Had the Sox bid more money than the competition, then, it’s likely that he’d be calling Fenway home. $200 million would probably solve whatever problems his wife had with my pseudo-hometown.

But $170M+ decisions are not made absent context. What Mazz doesn’t really discuss is what the player is actually worth, to us or to the Yankees. Whether he ignores that deliberately or by accident is unclear; either way, it’s a startling omission. The simple, inarguable fact is that $24 million means something different to their club than it does to ours. If the Yankees valued him highly, therefore – and there are 180 million reasons to conclude that they did – he was theirs for the taking. All the more so if his wife preferred New York all along.

To argue anything different is, dare I say it: “terribly simplistic.”

Why I Still Believe In Buchholz (No, It's Not a Mancrush)

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Welcome to the Major Leagues, Clay, originally uploaded by cardamom.

Following my continuing defense of Buchholz – and my best efforts to expose the incompetent efforts of his detractors – even a few friends have begun to question whether there might not be an ulterior motive at work. Perhaps even an unhealthy mancrush.

To which I’d reply: nonsense. No one can unseat Pedro in that regard.

I’m not even opposed to trading the kid, actually. All that I want is for the player to be valued properly. Which, as even a reluctant Nick Cafardo seems to have conceded, he is, thanks to our front office.

Asked in a Boston.com chat yesterday by Dave M, “Why are the Sox so unwilling to trade Clay?” Tony Massarotti replied, “No idea. I’d do it in a minute.” Which I would characterize as a stupid, uneducated answer; not that he’ll ever know, because as we know from the good folks at Over the Monster’s interview, Tony doesn’t have the time to read blogs.

Why do I keep making that argument, however? Because young players – young pitchers, in particular – often struggle. It’s so common that I find it at least mildly horrifying that our current staff of professional writers seems fundamentally unable to remember it when forming opinions on our players.

Consider the cases of two players that we all now accept as regulars.

Pedroia

Few remember it now, in the wake of his MVP award, but El Caballito struggled mightily upon not just his first but his second introduction to the major leagues.

  • In 2006, in 31 games played, Pedroia put up a less than sparkling .191/.258/.303 line. That’s right; this year’s AL MVP OPS’d .561. To put that in contrast for you, the Mets’ Luis Castillo’s OPS this past year was .660. Who’s Castillo, you ask? Exactly, I answer.
  • In 2007, for the first 19 games to open the season, Pedroia was worse, putting up a .182/.308/.236 line for a .544. You may remember that that was when the media – and some fans, to be sure, was calling for Dustin to be replaced as the everyday second baseman by Alex Cora.

In short, over his first fifty games in the majors, Pedroia was awful, and the media was leading the charge to run him out of the yard. Fortunately, they don’t run the show, and we now have an MVP at second.

How many games has Buchholz played in the majors to date, you might reasonably wonder? Twenty. And his minor league track record is significantly more impressive than Pedroia’s.

Lester

But maybe you think that the struggles of pitching and positional player prospects are too apples to oranges. Surely Cafardo, Mazz and the rest of the crew that’s dismissed Buchholz as a flash in the pan couldn’t have missed similar prospect struggles from players that play the same position?

Well, actually they have.

Most of us have likewise forgotten that Lester’s first year in the majors was…less than impressive. To be fair, it was cut short by cancer, but I’ve read nothing to indicate that the illness directly impacted his performance. Here’s what Lester did in his first 80+ innings.

IP H BB SO ERA K/9 BB/9
81.3 91 43 60 4.76 6.64 4.76

Some bumps, some bruises, but all in all that’s not a bad line for a young pitcher adjusting to the majors. And we all saw how Lester pitched this season, with more innings under his belt. Before faltering in his first start in the ALCS, he was dominant.

And now, how about that bust Buchholz?

IP H BB SO ERA K/9 BB/9
79.8 83 39 80 4.62 9.02 4.40

Yes, you’re reading that right: at a similar major league innings mark, Buchholz had a lower ERA, was striking out 2+ more batters per nine innings, while walking fewer.

And yet the media, in their infinite wisdom, has concluded that Buchholz has nothing to offer us, and is best kicked out of town for whatever return we can get.

Because no young player’s ever struggled to make the jump to the majors, after all. And especially not here in Boston. If that had happened, and kids that struggled went on to win MVP’s and to pitch like aces, we’d remember.

Wouldn’t we?

Buchholz…One More Time

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In case it was less than obvious, I was driven insane some months ago by the media’s complete inability to grasp even the basics of player evaluation; most acutely with respect to Clay Buchholz.

But while reading Over the Monster’s interview with the Globe’s Tony Massarotti – kudos to OTM on that, BTW – I really think I’ve had a breakthrough in my comprehension of how Massarotti and his colleages can look at the same set of data and come to such different conclusions: we’re not looking at the same data.

Everything about the media’s evaluation of our players begins to make sense if you do one, simple thing: discount their minor league performance and scouting reports. If you base your analysis off of nothing more than their performance with the big club, Tony, Nick and the rest of the gang are exactly right. Phrases like, I still think “Buchholz’ greatest value is on the trade market,” or “Masterson seems like the best of the lot,” are not controversial, obtuse or perplexing, but simple statements of fact. Well, maybe not so much the former, because it flies in the face of basic precepts like “sell high/buy low,” but you get the point.

Try it. Just look at the major league numbers for a minute. Not the ones that provide context like BABIP, and not the ones are decent indicators of ceiling like K/9. Don’t look, in fact, any further than ERA, because that’s all you’ll need. Buchholz’ ERA last season was 6.75 (ignore the 1.59 over 22.1 IP in ’07). Masterson’s was 3.16. Who’s the better pitcher? Masterson. Who’s expendable? Buchholz.

Simple.

What makes life hard for me, I can see now, is that I actually consider their minor league histories, and factor them in when evaluating the player. To make matters worse, I view ERA as slightly more important than a pitcher’s W/L record – which is effectively irrelevant for the purposes of evaluation, as far as I’m concerned – but significantly less useful than, oh, BABIP, K/9, HR/9, and K/BB. And the nail in the coffin? I’m reluctant to project too much on the basis of sample sizes of less than a hundred innings at the major league level.

If I didn’t have those problems, none of the following would trouble me when I concluded that Buchholz was a bust and should be shipped for the first available need:

  • Buchholz’ BABIP – career – is .343. The average typically allowed on balls in play for pitchers of virtually any type is .290, which in English means that hitters have an average 50+ points higher against Buchholz than they should.

    One of two conclusions, therefore, is supportable: a.) Buchholz has found some new way to uniquely allow a higher average on balls in play, or b.) he’s been unlucky in a small sample size and will inevitably revert to the mean.

  • In 344.1 IP in the Minor Leagues, Buchholz has struck out 417 guys while walking 95. His ERA over that span? 2.43. In case you’re fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, those numbers are good. Exceedingly good. For the sake of comparison, Masterson – who, in spite of being the media’s flavor the month, I really like – has struck out 193 while walking 59 in over a hundred fewer innings (233.1). His ERA? 3.78. What do those numbers mean? Buchholz – per nine innings pitched at the minor league level – has struck out roughly three more guys, while walking .2 more. It’s always difficult to predict pitchers, but the ability to strike men out while walking as few as possible is one of the best indicators.
  • Aside from the statistical arguments that Buchholz is a pitcher with a higher upside than Masterson (and Bowden, in my view, isn’t even in this conversation yet), there’s the scouting report on their respective arsenals. Buchholz has two pitches that are considered plus – his curveball and changeup – and his fastball is, when he can locate it, more than adequate, with good to plus velocity. Masterson has one pitch that is considered plus – his fastball – and two that are not: his changeup and slider. Thus, while both pitchers have suggestive platoon splits in their major league history to date, the scouting reports indicate that Buchholz has more weapons than Masterson to attack left handed hitters.

Ignoring all of that, it’s easy to see why Buchholz is on the media’s shit list at the moment. Not living up to the impossible expectations created by the no hitter would be enough on its own, but carousing with Victoria’s Secret models and Penthouse pets? You’re done in this town, kid: no matter what your minor league numbers say.

Well, except for the fact that Theo’s running things. Thank Jebus.

Maybe Bucky pans out, and maybe he doesn’t: he’s a pitching prospect, after all. But to regard him, as the media quite obviously does, as done after 98.2 innings is, to me, the real insanity here.

On Trading Buchholz…Again

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Lester Delivers to Holliday, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

From the same team that brought you Nick Cafardo, the Boston Globe is pleased to introduce…ex-Boston Heralder Tony Massarotti. Or Mazz, as he’s known around the Fens. And, the logo.

In a Friday chat, Mazz – like his esteemed colleague Cafardo before him – speculates on the possibility of the Rockies’ Matt Holliday ending up with the Red Sox.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad deal. We could use some power, and he’s putting up a .950 OPS this season, with a lifetime of .939. That edges Bay’s .893 season, .891 lifetime. And surprisingly – to me anyway – Holliday is even Bay’s superior in the field in virtually every metric: fielding percentage (.988 to.984), range factor (1.81 to 1.77), and zone rating (.902 to .788). Even better, Holliday’s two years younger than Bay at 28.

While Bay’s a fine player, Holliday’s better. If the Rockies would trade them one for one, you take that deal walking away.

But at what cost?

Mazz thinks adding Buchholz to Bay makes a fine deal. Which shouldn’t surprise me, as the media absolutely lives in the now, with little sense of past or future. Personally, I think that’s an absolutely terrible deal. Here’s why:

  1. Bucholz’s minor league numbers indicate the ability to not just pitch successfully at the major league level, but to be dominant. That’s among the rarest of commodities in the game, and trading it for a relatively one dimensional player – accomplished as he might be – is foolish. To defend the idea of trading Buchholz, as Mazz does, by reminding readers that we have Bowden in the fold indicates that Mazz is unable to distinguish between potential #1 starters and potential #3 starters. Buchholz is the former, Bowden the latter. You trade the Bowdens, while keeping the Buchholz’s, if you’re smart. Even if the rookie got shelled early and lost his confidence.
  2. But let’s just say – for the sake of argument – that you would contemplate trading Buchholz. Maybe you have concerns about his off the field lifestyle, or whatever. Why would you trade him now? In his career, his value has never been lower, coming off a season in which he posted a 6.75 ERA over 76 innings. You and I and Theo might look at the fact that he struck out 72 hitters over that span and see signs that he’s coming out of it, but potential trade partners will incessantly point to the runs surrendered. As they should. So a trade of Buchholz now would be selling low. Not a habit of our front office, fortunately.
  3. Worse than selling low, you’re trading a premium asset to solve a problem that you don’t have. Holliday is Bay’s superior, agreed, with the possible exception of the splits I’ll get to in a moment. But he’s not that superior. We’re talking ~60 points of OPS. Would it be nice to get more offense out of left field? Sure. But would it be nicer to have a shiny new catcher? I think so. When the front office hits the offseason and looks to next year, my guess is that left field will not be first and foremost amongst the problems they set out to solve.
  4. Then, there’s the splits. Mazz says he’s aware of them, which is good, but that he’s also aware that Holliday would be playing half his games at Fenway. Where, in a very small sample size (13 ABs), he’s been very good: .385/.429/.769. Fine. But the fact is that from 2005-2007, he was an .809 OPS player away from Coors field. This year he’s up to .895; right around Jason Bay territory, in other words. For that you want to spend 15M per or more? Buster Olney said it best: “he’s worth more to the Rockies than he is to any other team.”
  5. Oh, and he’s a Boras client. Not that we can’t or won’t sign those – there half a dozen or so just on the current roster – but it means that Holliday will only come at top dollar.

For the life of me, I really can’t fathom why the media – like the casual fans they are so quick to dismiss and disdain – insists on living only in the moment. Why they remain unable to view players in context, as does – thankfully – the front office (with the exception of Julio Lugo). And so on.

But that’s the Fourth Estate for you.