Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Red Sox Press Release Monster Strikes Again (Updated)

Ahhh, sports journalism at its finest.

If PeteAbe has any opinions about the Red Sox that differ from whatever the team tells him to write in the Globe, tweet, or say on NESN, then I'm certainly unaware of it.  In the matter of Jackie Bradley Jr., a fan looking at this objectively would think that the logical reply to this Red Sox official's statement is "Why?"

At a very basic level, why would the team not want the best 25 men in the organization on its opening day roster?  Going a little farther, why would placing a talented prospect, who's ready to play in the big leagues, on a farm team be, in any way, good?  Is there a risk here of retarding a prospect's attitude when he plays as hard as JBJ has this spring training but Mike Carp is picked over him for a roster spot?

And, venturing into the realm of cognitive dissonance, for a team that has used its chosen mouthpieces in the press -- people like PeteAbe -- to say that they are changing the culture of the clubhouse, why wouldn't leaving one of the organization's best players off the 25 man roster effect the clubhouse culture?  This shows that the Red Sox front office is more concerned about making money rather than winning games.  If this is noticed by the players, how will it effect the attitude in the clubhouse?*

All of these are very reasonable queries that could open up some interesting discussions about the 2013 Red Sox.  But don't expect anyone in Boston's esteemed sports press corps to open up this conversation.  If they aren't just outright daft, then they're too busy making sure they don't say anything controversial since the team controls much of what they see in their paychecks.

* Afterthought - This situation isn't a hypothetical.  In Toronto, they demoted Ricky Romero -- and the $5 million he's going to make this season -- off to their High A farm team.  The example of the Dodgers not pinching every penny has been overused, but this Blue Jays move to essentially eat $5 million this season to keep a player who isn't good enough to play for the big club off the roster sends a message throughout the organization that they mean fucking business -- the objective is winning.  So if the Red Sox don't leave camp with Jackie Bradley Jr. heading for Fenway, what does that say?

Monday, March 25, 2013

How Lacking a Core Philosophy Created the JBJ Problem

One team issue I've touched upon in recent posts is how schizophrenic decisions made by the Red Sox front office feel.  We're seeing this confused attitude displayed again in how the team handles their Jackie Bradley Jr. problem, but it's come up in the recent past, too.

In 2011, for example, the front office spent a boatload of money in 2011 to construct "The Best Team Ever", yet they refused to place John Lackey on the DL in the second half of the season when he was pitching with, what should have been obvious to them, an injury.  It should have been obvious because Lackey sucked in every start, and the former manager later complained that he didn't have the backing of the front office or medical staff to get Lackey on the DL.  So, in 2011 the Red Sox created this gaudy multiyear, 9-figure contracts to win -- yet they wouldn't send an injured starter to the DL and find a replacement who was in good health.

Now in 2013, the Red Sox spend a boatload of money on veterans like Shane Victorino, Ryan Gomes and Stephen Drew.  But when it comes to Jackie Bradley Jr., suddenly the front office is clutching their purse strings with a super kung-fu grip rarely seen outside of a 12 year old boy's bedroom after he just discovered the joys of self-pleasure.

Does this make sense to anybody?  Please tell me that I'm not crazy.

The front office only has themselves to blame for this mess, because they've effectively admitted that Jackie Bradley Jr. is Major League ready.  They could have diffused the decision to place JBJ on the roster a month ago by clearly outlining a path for him as a prospect continuing to develop, setting the expectations of not only the prospect but the fan base, and shuffled him off to minor league camp.  Instead, JBJ is still on the major league squad, and the debate over whether he should break camp on the 25 man roster isn't about his ability -- it's all about the money.

Given that Red Sox fans pay the highest ticket prices in baseball, many of us don't want to hear complaints about money.  Especially after the team just spent money on another member of the Drew family.

We've come to a point where, on one hand, the Red Sox are penny pinching paupers; yet they are more than willing to spend big money in the free agent market on the other hand.  In the meantime, one young prospect who's good enough to be in the big leagues is caught between the two opposite directions that the front office is trying to move toward.

This mess was created by a Red Sox front office that lacks a core philosophy for building and running this team.  If any lesson can be taken from this JBJ situation, it's that a core philosophy is needed.  They can't claim you're building the best team by spending money one minute, then claim poverty the next minute -- fans sniff that bullshit out in a millisecond.  The Red Sox need to pick a plan and stick with it, or continue to miss the playoffs and all the revenues they could be collecting from those games.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Jackie Bradley Jr. and the True Meaning of "Moneyball"

While some probably predicted that David Ortiz would be injured at the beginning of spring training, no one could have predicted the performance of Jackie Bradley Jr.  JBJ has been tearing the cover off the ball, and this would be a welcome sight at Fenway -- especially since the injuries to Ortiz and Drew open up a spot on the 25 man roster for him -- but we probably won't see him in Boston until May at the earliest; if at all.

Which is stupid.

The biggest argument against bringing Bradley up to Boston immediately to start the 2013 season is that, if he's held in the minors until May, the Red Sox gain an extra year of control over him; extending their contract with the prospect until 2018.  Therefore, if we're patient with Bradley, we'll be rewarded in the long run.

This argument forgets the short run, though, and the importance of placing the best team possible on the field at all times.  As any first year Economics major knows: In the long run, we're all dead.

If your primary concern is the short term, though, then there should be an argument postulated to bring Bradley up to Boston immediately -- which might return benefits to the club in the long run.  Consider this hypothetical situation: Bradley comes to Boston in May and plays well for the rest of the season, but the Sox fall a couple games short of making the playoffs.  Tough shit, right?  Well, that's a lot of lost potential revenue for the Red Sox, too.  Fenway sold out for two to, potentially, 11 games?  Gone.  Playoff merchandising opportunities?  Gone.  A share in television revenues?  Gone.  That's gotta be a few million dollars of potential profit lost.

But, if Jackie Bradley Jr. had started his season with the big club in April, the Red Sox would have won those games and made the playoffs.

Like I said, that situation is totally hypothetical.  Could it happen?  Yes.  Could the Red Sox have another injury riddled campaign; similar to 2010 and 2012?  That's also possible, we just don't know yet.

But why can't the Red Sox start this season with the best team that they can put forward?  The team that has the best chance to make it to the playoffs?  Because if they make it to the playoffs, then revenues that the club sees will increase.  And if revenues increase, they'll pull down more profits in return, and have more money to spend on players like Jackie Bradley Jr. when contract time comes a few years down the road.

The formula here is simple: Place the best team on the field, and make more money.

Besides, if budget is such a concern, why did the Red Sox just give $9.5 million to Stephen Drew?  His last good season was in 2009.  Why did they give a three year, $39 million deal to Shane Victorino?  Even the Dodgers wouldn't spend that kind of money on him, and they willingly ate Carl Crawford's contract just to get Adrian Gonzalez.  Why pay any money, at all, to Ryan Dempster?

To me, this behavior is schizophrenic.  On one hand, the Red Sox are so concerned with penny pinching that they want squeeze everything they can out a prospect -- potentially to the detriment of the quality of the final product on the field at Fenway.  But, on the other hand, they'll spend wildly by giving $9.5 million to risky veterans like Stephen Drew.  The Sox believe in the ethos of Moneyball for a couple days, then shout "Fuck it! Let's get another old veteran!"  It's like a little kid trying to concentrate on the Legos they just got for their birthday before getting distracted by a new shiny object.

The Red Sox appear to lack a core philosophy for building a team right now.  So, I have a suggestion to fill in this important gap: Place the best team on the field at all times.

This proposition for a new philosophy may seem like an expensive investment in the short run, but when this team actually starts winning, the money will roll in.  The Sox front office and fans worry so much about Jackie Bradley Jr's contract now, but this kind of short term thinking only perpetuates the lessons you learned from all of those stuffy Economics courses in college -- they'll be dead in the long run if they continue to be cheapskates with the future of their franchise.

Red Sox need to play for the short term now, because that will better prepare them for the long run.  Right now, Jackie Bradley Jr. is the hot hand and the one of the best players for the short term.  If he's not on the 25 man roster at the beginning of the season and the Red Sox miss the playoffs by a couple of games, then their attempt to save a few million in the future will look incredibly stupid since they would have just lost a few million in the present.

Play JBJ now, all the financials will fall into place later.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Not having Ortiz = Here comes Jackie Bradley?

Red Sox playing without Ortiz sitting in the meat of the batting order, ready and able to mash, might not be as bad as we think.  The loss of Ortiz leaves the DH open for a revolving cast of players that the Sox can keep off the field due to injury risk (Napoli, Ellsbury), or because they aren't great defensive players (Gomes).  Indeed, giving Napoli at-bats as DH may help increase the amount of games he can play in this season and help him be a full time player; a task that has challenged him throughout his entire career.

It also helps that the Red Sox already have a left handed hitter who can hit 30+ homers and drive in 100+ runs -- Jacoby Ellsbury.  Ells produced on an elite level in 2011 as a leadoff hitter, where he enjoyed the projection that having someone like Ortiz hit behind you provides.  

Should Ellsbury move into the Ortiz's place in the batting order, the real test will be for Napoli.  Will Napoli be enough of a threat to pitchers that they are willing to challenge Ellsbury?  If so, Ellsbury would then receive a pitch selection similar to what a leadoff hitter gets (ie: more fastballs), and he'll have a better chance to reproduce his 2011 numbers.  But, if Napoli isn't seen as a threatening slugger, all bets are off as pitchers will just pitch around Ellsbury instead of challenging him.  Ellsbury certainly doesn't carry the same threatening presence and gravitas that Big Papi enjoys, so Napoli could really earn his contract money by providing that threat and letting Ellsbury benefit from it. 

If Ellsbury takes Ortiz's place in the batting order, though, this creates another problem: Who will replace him in the leadoff spot, get on base and swipe bags to get into scoring position when Ellsbury comes to the plate? 

Easy answer: If Jackie Bradley, Jr. ends spring training batting over .400 (he's hitting .519 right now), I don't see how you can't play him.  No more of this "He's too young", no more "He hasn't had enough time in the minors", no more bullshit.  JBJ is hot right now, making him a better option than any castoff veteran who can be brought in. 

The Red Sox are not the Yankees, and they're not begging Chipper Jones to come out of retirement.  The Sox have a decent options here and they should take advantage of them.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Big Papi: Just another victim of the medical staff?

When David Ortiz was given a new contract in November, I liked the deal.  At the time, Brandon League signed a 3 year, $22.5 deal with the Dodgers -- money for a reliever that isn't especially great -- and sluggers that can produce on the same level as Ortiz were being signed to gaudy multi-year deals.  Big Papi is older than those sluggers, but a short term deal worth the salary of a couple standard relievers per season?  If Ortiz is healthy, that's a pretty good deal.

You know, if.  He's healthy.  If.

Ortiz's contract isn't heavy on incentives, but he does stand to lose a few million dollars if he spends too much time on the DL.  That being the case, I doubt that Ortiz dogged it in his workouts this offseason and didn't put in a good effort to be ready by opening day.  He came into spring training larger than the slimmer Papi we saw in February, 2012, but that's natural -- Ortiz's presence at the plate is dependent on how strong he is.

If his heels have been inflamed since July, 2012, then putting in cardio workouts to keep weight down is difficult to impossible.  But to keep his strength, Ortiz can't curb his diet.  Right now, Ortiz is caught in a Catch-22 because he doesn't look like he trained hard this offseason.  However, the fact that Ortiz kept weight on while not being able to do cardio workouts is a good sign because it means that he kept his strength at a healthy level.

As I mentioned, giving Ortiz a two year contract was a good deal for the Red Sox if he was healthy.  Before that contract was offered and signed, the Red Sox medical staff had plenty of time to exam Ortiz and gauge his health.  He was injured in July, 2012 and stayed with the team for the rest of the season.  He flew back to Boston in November and went to Fenway to sign the contract.  I'll assume that Ortiz was given a few medical examinations in that time period, and the results were deemed positive enough for the team to make a sizable investment in him.

So, what happened?  The media, with fans following, will point the finger at Ortiz -- but I point the finger at the Sox medical staff.  It's time for them to be held responsible for their actions.  I'll give them credit for stopping the team from making a large investment in Mike Napoli, but the list of their prior sins is still daunting... Carl Crawford, John Lackey, (most likely) Adrian Gonzalez; the injury marred campaigns of 2010 and 2012.

Now David Ortiz?

Exactly what the fuck is going on with the medical staff?  Can these people even spot the Plague?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Shades of Padre: Gonzalez returning to form?

Despite Adrian Gonzalez's uber-gaudy numbers with men on base, his time on the Red Sox will be remembered for the loss of his power at the plate -- which led the media and fans to become overly critical (one might say "fickle") of anything he said.  When Gonzo was traded to the Dodgers, instead of thanking him for all the runs he produced, most fans wished that the door would hit him on the ass on his way out.

But fans never actually know what injuries a player is suffering from unless it becomes big news.  Looking to gain every advantage possible over opposing hitters or pitchers, players try to hide injuries even from their other teammates.  In Gonzo's case, we know that he had a right shoulder injury when he was traded to the Red Sox.  And last year, Gonzo's power continued to dwindle despite an increase in the amount of fly balls he was hitting.  We got Gonzo because, in 2009, 22.9% of the fly balls he hit became home runs -- but in the middle of 2012, that percentage dropped to 6.1%.  While Gonzo was still good enough as a hitter to plunk a single in the outfield to get a run home, his loss of strength to generate home runs was alarming.  At the time, I said that I wouldn't be surprised to hear about Gonzo "having some sort of latent injury".

A couple days later, as if on cue, we saw this headline: "Adrian Gonzalez sidelined with a sore back after greeting child at mall."  That headline is just comical; it's so Ted Williams-esque, so Boy Scout, so goodie-two-shoes, and so generally unbelievable that whichever Red Sox PR flak pulled it out of his ass should have been canned on the spot.

The more likely case is that Gonzo was nursing a back injury all season, most likely playing through pain, and when the pain became too much and he had to be removed from the lineup, Red Sox brass needed to think of some excuse to feed to the fans.  Indeed, it makes more sense for Gonzo to have had a back injury -- that's what will sap a hitter's power.  That's what drops the rate of a hitter's fly balls becoming home runs from 22.9% to 6.1%.

But 2013 is a new season, Adrian Gonzalez is on a new team, and Gonzo put on a display of power last night that should be encouraging for Dodgers' fans:

Let's dissect Gonzo's homer to see what actually happened: Dickey hung a knuckleball out over the plate, where it becomes just another batting practice pitch.  Those are easy enough to hammer, but Gonzo launches that 73 mph pitch to 415 feet away from home plate.  For a hitter to smack a slow, 73 mph pitch that far, the need to provide much of the strength behind the ball -- therefore, only a strong hitter with a lot of power is able to take 73 mph pitch that far out to centerfield.

Gonzo hit this homer on March 8, and the season starts on April 1.  Team USA walked Gonzo on his next three trips to bat, and they didn't dare give Gonzo an offering that he could hit.  The only out Gonzo made was in the first inning when he grounded out to second base -- but he hit the ball to the left side of the infield, allowing a runner on third to score.

So, if Gonzo is showing this much power and ball control -- the ability to hit it deep or ground it out while allowing a baserunner to score -- on March 8, what kind of season could he have for the Dodgers in 2013?

And all of this could happen in Los Angeles because the Red Sox weren't perceptive enough wait out an injury.  Will there be any backlash against Ben and Larry if Gonzo has a monster year?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Judgement of WAR

What makes WAR a judgement, and not a statistic, is the favorable rating it gives to variables that may have little to do with what a particular hitter is supposed to be doing.  WAR, at its own peril, eschews the roles that, historically, hitters have been given.  Instead, WAR judges hitters on a level that’s absent of roles.  Given how much a hitter’s role plays into his statistics, though, I don’t see how judging hitters on a plane that’s absent of role could possibly be fair.

Since WAR is biased against fat sluggers, let’s use them as an example against a leadoff hitter.  According to WAR, if a slugger is to have as much value as a leadoff hitter, then they must play great defense in, say, centerfield or second base; and they must steal bases.  If a slugger cannot do these things, then their WAR will be decreased.

The biggest problem here is that, in the history of baseball, fat sluggers were never asked to fulfill the duties of a leadoff hitter.  They are never placed at the top of a batting order and expected to steal a base -- because you want them to hit homers.  They are rarely placed in centerfield or shortshop and expected to make spectacular diving catches or picks -- because you want them to hit homers.  How many home runs does a fat slugger hit for you when he’s sitting in the DL because he injured himself crashing into the wall to save a bomb from leaving the park?  None, and that’s why managers like to play fat sluggers at first base.  The fat slugger can stand there, catch the ball, and be in better shape to be productive when they come to the plate.

Now, suppose a WARhead became manager of an MLB and wanted somebody like David Ortiz or Prince Fielder to prove their worth in the lineup by placing them at the top of the order and forcing them to steal bases.  When that player quickly lands on the disabled list, do you know what their WAR is?  Zero.  I think we can all agree that getting zero out of a player is counterproductive.

Such a move would be counterproductive to everyone who hits ahead of a fat slugger in the batting order, too.  Typically, fat sluggers receive more breaking balls because pitchers try to pitch around them, while pitchers will challenge the hitters ahead of fat sluggers because they don’t want those hitters to get on base and become potential additions to the fat slugger’s RBI total should he homer.  This baseball strategy has a couple of consequences: 1) The OBP of leadoff hitters is increased because the pitcher’s fear of the fat slugger gives them a better selection of pitches to hit, and 2) The fat slugger will hit into more double plays because they receive more breaking balls, in addition to their placement in the batting order dictating that they will often come to bat with runners on base.

According to the judgement of WAR, though, having a lower OBP and hitting into a lot of double plays takes value away from a hitter -- therefore leading to a bias against fat sluggers.  But WAR does not take into account the fact that, as a hitter, the fat slugger has the most difficult job in the batting order because they generally see the least amount of good pitches to hit.  So, yes, this means that the fat slugger will ground into more double plays.  But it’s the fat slugger’s job to swing the bat, and it’s the fat slugger’s job to help get hitters ahead of him on base by being the hitter that pitchers are most apt to pitch around, therefore giving the hitters ahead of him better offerings since a pitcher doesn’t want to issue a walk before the fat slugger steps to the plate.  In my view, seeing a fat slugger ground into double plays is often a necessary evil borne out of a situation that they helped create, since their presence helps hitters ahead of him get on base.

But in the judgement of WAR, this situation is a Catch-22 -- the fat slugger is given no credit for helping improve the OBP of hitters above him, but he’s given all of the negative attention for grounding into a double play.  WAR is calculated to judge the fat slugger’s worth based on what he can do as a leadoff hitter without taking into account that he’s not a leadoff hitter, he’s a fat slugger.

This role-absent judgement of hitters has led to some laughable judgements from WAR, like rating 1995 John Valentine above 1995 MVP Mo Vaughn, and giving 2002 David Eckstein a nearly equal rating to 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada.  Such judgements may fly in fantasy baseball, but in reality if you have a lineup full of David Ecksteins or John Valentines, then your team is going to lose.  Hard.  You need that fat slugger to drive these players across home plate.

I don't want to take value away from the roles of hitters placed above the fat slugger in lineups, but the harsh judgement WAR gives to players like fat sluggers isn't right, and it ignores basic baseball strategy.  Then to see WAR postulated as a hard "statistic" that isn't up for argument, that's just incredibly annoying.  Many baseball fans, like myself, are sick of having Sabermeticians talk down to us.  WAR is a judgement, not a statistic.