Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Serious Man

Below is a long, rambling, musing on a player most of you don't want to read about. Kind of like one of his at bats.

I once read an article by a "stat-head" blogger (I can't remember the blogger or the article now) that said something like, "if I want to know a person's understanding of baseball, I just ask their opinion on J.D. Drew."

J.D. Drew is in the final season of 5 year, $70 million contract with the Boston Red Sox. In the almost 5 years he has been here, this quiet, above average baseball player has become the most reviled athlete among Boston fans of any sport that I can remember in my lifetime. Whether you are an alcoholic (Vin Baker), a narc (Nick Kaczur), a police beater (Randy Moss), a wife beater (Wil Cordero), an old man beater (Manny Ramirez) or just straight up lunatic (Carl Everett, Delonte West), you are more well liked in Boston than J.D. Drew. All because he specializes in the most important thing a hitter needs to do.
In baseball, an offense receives 27 outs to score as many runs as possible. The teams who score the most runs are (usually) the teams who send the most players to the plate before making those 27 outs (you can see a deeper study of the correlation between not making outs and scoring runs in the book Baseball Between the Numbers). Whether a player bats 1st, 4th or 9th, his ultimate job is to not get out. Let me repeat that: no matter where you bat, the ultimate goal of a hitter is to not get out. It is not to move the runners along and it is not to drive in runners (except maybe in the instance of a close game in the final couple innings). As long as a team is not making outs, the other team cannot come to the plate to attempt to not make outs themselves.

This is a simple concept that I am sure most of you get. Obviously you don’t want your hitters going up to the plate trying to make an out (except for the sacrifice bunt, which is an overused tactic that we can get into at another date). When they step to the plate, you want your hitters trying to get on base by any means necessary. So if this is a concept that most of you get, why the unabashed hatred of J.D. Drew?

Drew ranks 142nd all time and 17th among active players in on base percentage (OBP) with a mark of .384. OBP is the measure of how often a player doesn’t make an out. He ranks above Willie Mays, Derek Jeter, Mike Schmidt, Vlad Guerrero, Duke Snider, Carl Yastrzemski, David Ortiz, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and a host of other Hall of Fame ballplayers. 

Ok, some of you may be thinking, “here we go again, another stat-head pimping on base percentage as the be all, end all of baseball.” He also ranks 133rd all time and 36th among active players with a .490 slugging percentage (SLG), the measure of a hitter’s power. He is tied with Reggie Jackson and ahead of George Brett, Yogi Berra, Andre Dawson, Kirby Puckett, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield and many more. He ranks just 667th in batting average at .278, but is ahead of guys like Cal Ripken, Ernie Banks, Dwight Evans, Joe Morgan, Mathews, Willie McCovey and Carlton Fisk. He is also widely regarded as a very good outfielder and he has been to the playoffs with every team he has played on (a total of 8 times). 

Ok, so now you are willing to admit that he has had a very good career overall, "but he has SUCKED with the Red Sox and they completely overpaid him." I am going to have to cheat just a little bit here because, admittedly, he has been terrible and overpaid this year. So what I am going to do is look at his first four years with the team because it's not like this is a new sentiment this year; Drew has been hated since he took his first called third strike in the bottom of the first inning in the third game of the 2007 season. From 2007-2010 among players with at least 2000 plate appearances (500  per season), Drew ranks 21st in OBP, 45th in SLG, 30th in on base plus slugging and 31st in Wins Above Replacement. Another way to look at this would be if all non-pitchers were removed from their roster and the teams had a draft based on performance from 2007-'10, J.D. Drew would arguably be the first pick in the second round. Also, Fangraphs.com shows that over those 4 years, Drew was valued at $58.4M while earning $56M. So now that we've established that he was one of the 30 or 40 best non-pitchers over his first 4 years with the Sox and about properly paid I'll ask again, why the unabashed hatred of J.D. Drew?

Since there are so many people close to me who feel this way (despite my repeated attempts to convince them otherwise) I can actually break this down to five easy answers.

1) His contract: In 2006, Drew opted out of a 5-year, $55M contract with the LA Dodgers and everyone thought he was crazy to do so. Of course that was until Theo Epstein swooped in with a 5-year, $70M offer. Everybody thought the contract was insane because people didn't understand the value he provided at the plate and in the field. No matter what happened with Drew, fans were going to always be skeptical of him because of the seemingly bloated contract. It also didn't help having...

2) A "bad" first season: It actually wasn't that bad of a season. It was a little above average with the bat and very strong in the field. But he only hit 11 HR, drove in 64 RBI and his batting average was only .270. "We paid $70M for this?" was the collective thought. In actuality he still got on base a lot, had 30 doubles and played stellar defense, but none of this mattered. Things were amplified when people were able to derisively cheer for what is now dubbed the "$14M grand slam" that he hit in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians and...

3) Trot Nixon: Ah Trot. The original Dirt Dawg. Enemy to the Snuggle bear, hero to Red Sox Nation. Nobody embodied the type of player that Boston fans like to root for better than Trot. He loved to play in the mud. He was as close to a hockey enforcer as you can get. He also did not do the things that help baseball teams win as well as J.D. Drew did. His AVG, OBP and SLG were all a little worse (.274/.364/.464 vs. .278/.384/.490). His defense was more exciting because of all the dirt, but all the dirt was a product of him not being able to get to balls as cleanly as Drew did. And what did all that rolling around in the dirt get Trot?

4) Injuries: In Trot's last 4 years with the Red Sox he played 420 games. In Drew's first 4 years with the Sox he played 525 games. Trot was far more injury prone than Drew and yet Drew gets the label of being soft. Granted, some of the stories that have come out about him asking out of games do paint the picture of a guy unwilling to play through injuries. Besides 2008 he has never had any serious injuries, which seem to be acceptable, but they are always nagging ones that sound like something we all think he should play through. However, when it comes to injuries 1) we don't know how severe the pain is from player to player, 2) the media can spin the severity however they please and I bet with Drew they have been overly unflattering and 3) I think playing through injuries is very overrated and usually detrimental to the team. Just look at the last few years of Cal Ripken's consecutive games played streak. From '92-'98 he was a below average hitter. He was not nearly as valuable as he probably could be had he taken a few games off. But nobody seemed to really care as he flashed that winning smile around Baltimore whether he popped out to second or doubled to left. Which brings us to the last point...

5) Attitude: I want to go back to what the since forgotten blogger said from my opening paragraph, "if I want to know a person's understanding of baseball, I just ask their opinion on J.D. Drew." When I first heard this I thought it was funny and brilliant. I know for a fact that Drew is a really good baseball player and most fans in Boston say that he sucks, therefore those people that say he sucks do not understand baseball. Now that I've thought about it some more, though, I don't think it rings as true. In this post I think I have clearly shown that until this season Drew did not in fact suck as a baseball player. So when people scream from the rooftops that Drew sucks, I'm not really sure even they think he's a bad ballplayer (again, besides this year).

The thing is that Boston fans are some of the most passionate (crazy) in all of sports. We live and die with every pitch and we expect the players to do the same. Guys like Nixon, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz wear their emotions on their sleeves so we can all see ourselves in them. We imagine that if we were lucky enough to make it to this level we wouldn't squander any opportunity to do our best. We also believe that if a guy is so lucky to make it this far that he should savor every moment of the game and give it his all, which are all acceptable feelings.

Unfortunately, sometimes we expect a little too much from these guys. It is extremely difficult to play 162 games a year with all the traveling, injuries and rabid fans. Guys do different things to cope with all the rigors of being a major league ballplayer ("ya but they get millions of dollars to do it!" That's economics my friend. If you'd like to discuss why these players generally earn what they make or in most cases are underpaid, I'd be happy to teach you.) Some guys pop amphetamines. Some guys drink. Some guys act like maniacs. J.D. Drew acts like Even Steven because he knows in baseball there is always the next pitch. Misread a fastball down the middle for called strike three? That's ok, get 'em next time. Make a diving catch to save a no-hitter? Time to jog back to the dugout to get ready to hit. Stroke a walk-off home run? Ok, that was pretty sweet, here's a fist pump. And this is why everyone hates the guy.

It's not the called third strikes and the fact that his best skill is walking. Like I said earlier, Trot Nixon was a similar but slightly worse player, but since he acted like a crazy person every now and then, every body loved him. Since it seems like Drew doesn't care people say he sucks, when what they really mean is that he is not a fun player to watch.

Therein lies the real problem with J.D. Drew. To me and probably most fans the most important thing in sports is winning games. Drew is arguably one of the best 200 hitters in baseball history as far as helping his team win games. He definitively does not suck at baseball. Unfortunately there are nearly 500 hours of baseball played in the regular season that some of us watch and sometimes we need more than just winning. Sometimes a great 8 pitch at-bat that ends in a walk putting runners at first and second with two out is just not something the fans want to see. And sometimes even a well-timed home run isn't as exciting as it could be when it looks like the player enjoyed it less than the fans. The only thing that Drew owes Boston fans is playing his best. Some would argue that he hasn't done that, but I think his record speaks for him. However, in the curious case of J.D. Drew, the fans wanted more and he evidently wasn't willing or able to give them that.

These are the mental gymnastics one must take to declare that a very good baseball player sucks.

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