The Boston Red Sox signed Shane Victorino, 31 year old switch hitting outfielder, for 3 years and $39 million yesterday. The Boston Red Sox confused the shit out of me yesterday. Victorino is not a bad player and has a lot of positive qualities including the ever important "intangibles", but this type of money for this player in the role he looks to be fulfilling right now is baffling. Let's take a look at all the reasons this deal made me hope it was April Fools and then I will close with what few positives I can find.
Victorino was not a good player in 2012, statistically or visually. He had career lows in batting average (.255), OBP (.321) and slugging (.383) and a career high in strikeouts (80). He was a below average offensive player for the first time since 2007. If you want to say that he suffered from some bad luck, then I wouldn’t say you are completely wrong. Victorino’s batting average on balls in play (BABiP) was .278 on the year, which is below his career average of .296 and MLB average of about .300. BABiP is a good measure of whether a player had a lot of “atom” balls (balls hit well right at the defender) or a lot of seeing eye singles. However, going beyond the stats we turn to former Toronto Blue Jays front office man Keith Law of ESPN.com: “his bat speed was noticeably slower in 2012, especially later in the season.” So this makes me think that this is not just a bout of bad luck, but a decline in skills.
Despite what the Mayans claim, we can’t predict the future. 3 years from now (assuming the world doesn’t end on December 21), Shane Victorino could go down as one of the most beloved members of the Red Sox of all time. He could be a high performing mentor for the wave of young talent set to come to Fenway. He’s a dynamic personality with a great nickname and he was a really really good player in 2011 so it is possible that this becomes a completely moronic post (wouldn’t be the first). More likely though, is that he follows the career path of players who had similar careers up to their age 31 season. Baseball-Reference.com lists the top 10 similar players for Shane Victorino and it is not an inspiring group (see the list here). Crisp and Dejesus are still playing so we can’t tell much from them, but that leaves 8 players with which to guess how the next three years might go for Victorino. Landreaux, Skinner, Bradley and Gonzalez were either out of the league or done as full time players by the time they reached age 34. Winn was an average hitter who actually maintained his value on defense (this is what I would say the Red Sox are expecting, and it would validate the contract they gave him). Kelly and Finley started to show some decline in their hitting and a significant decline in fielding. Then they joined new teams in the late 90s and saw a big jump in offense. These teams (Texas and Arizona, respectively) had noted steroid cultures and lots of veterans with late career spikes. The final player is Jose Cruz, who maintained offensive and defensive value until he turned 38 and is by far the best case scenario; however I don’t know if I would compare Cruz to Victorino as Cruz is a much bigger guy whose body could hold up better over time. I am not sure if this list is all that instructive since we have to remove 2 active players and discredit 2 potential steroid users, leaving us with only 6 players: 1 really good outcome, 1 average outcome, 4 scary outcomes. But if there is even a little predictive power in this list, we should all be very nervous.
Right now it appears Victorino is set to be the Red Sox’s every day right fielder. I will talk about the positives in this positioning later, but since people know me as a negative person, let’s start there. Right field is a position where I look for my team to get at least good offense. Cody Ross, J.D. Drew and Trot Nixon (the last 3 regular right fielders for the Sox) all provided above average offense for the majority of their time with the team. They either had 20+ home run power (Ross), the ability to get on base (Nixon), or both (Drew). Victorino has never hit 20 home runs (he tops out at 18) and while he has a decent walk rate (about 8% in his career, just slightly better than Ross), he’s not the type of guy to work deep into counts and keep a pitcher working (he ranked 105 out of 143 in pitches per plate appearance last year). Offense is down around the board in baseball, but I still would have preferred a guy with some pop in right field. Another smaller qualm with his position is that he can only play outfield. I was looking forward to the team signing Nick Swisher (which I'll discuss later) who could play outfield and first base so the team could mix and match players a little more and allow Mike Napoli to catch more frequently.
Why am I bringing up the Red Sox short stop in a post about Victorino? I believe that if the team is serious about playing Iglesias at short stop this year, they have to have no holes at any other spot in the lineup. Iglesias is most likely going to be a terrible hitter, not much better than a pitcher. He is going to make outs in close to 75% of his plate appearances. If Victorino repeats what he did last year, this offense will be really shallow. I really like Will Middlebrooks going forward, but I would not be surprised if we see a slight step back this year and he is not someone who gets on base a lot anyway. I like whatever group of catchers the team ends up with, but they can definitely be pitched to. In my opinion there are only 4 sure thing hitters on this team right now: Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Napoli. Even among that group there are significant injury and age risks. I was really hoping the team would sign someone that they could count on for offense and lengthen the lineup some to make up for the black hole at the bottom.
Switch hitter in name only
Victorino takes at bats from both sides of the plate. Notice I didn’t say he “hits” from both sides of the plate. In his career, from the right side against left handed pitchers he has posted an .881 on base plus slugging (OPS) and from the left side against right handed pitchers he has a .732 OPS; over the last three years this has dropped to .701 (thanks again to Law for this stat). The guy can’t hit right handed pitching and is getting worse. If this were reversed and he couldn’t hit left handed pitching I would not be so worried, but last season the Sox faced right handed starters in 69% of their games. This means that Victorino will be a well below average hitter in over 2/3 of games for the next 3 years. And for those of you who say he should just stop switch hitting and only hit from the right side: in 91 plate appearances from the right side against right handed pitchers, Victorino has a .563 OPS.
Right handed pitching
This warrants two paragraphs. The Red Sox are going to struggle against right handed pitchers next year unless they sign or trade for some more left handed hitters. We already covered Victorino’s struggles there, but there are a lot of other right handed hitters on this team who also have decent sized splits:
Napoli (.911 OPS vs. Lefties/.845 OPS vs. Righties)
Jonny Gomes (.974/.715)
Pedroia (.853/.821 not bad but much more pronounced in his last 2 seasons)
Gomes will not be playing against many righties, but that still leaves 4 players with worse numbers in 69% of games in addition to Iglesias who can’t hit anyone. David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury are going to need to really step up in these games.
Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher
Basically this entire post could be reversed to talk about why the Sox did a great job signing Hamilton or Swisher. They both had strong seasons in 2012. They hit with power and get on base (Swisher especially so). They play good enough defense for the large Fenway right field and can fake it in center on a short term basis. Barring injuries, they are sure thing hitters that lengthen the lineup. They both hit right handers well (Hamilton really, really well). They project to age reasonably well (Hamilton’s case there is a lot of risk, but at least he has a higher baseline of talent so there is more room for him to regress). The only reasons I can think why the Sox signed Victorino instead of these two guys are price, length of contract and surrendering a draft pick. Hamilton is said to be looking for a deal for 7 years and around $25 million a year and Swisher is looking for something for 6 years and over $100 million total. I would not want to pay these prices either, but I think the team jumped the gun going for plan C here. I think both players will eventually have to drop their demand and end up being within what the Sox would be willing to pay them. As for the draft pick, the Sox would lose their second round pick if they signed either guy. I know they want to build through their farm system, but a second round pick turns into a big league regular less than 10% of the time and this is supposed to be a really weak draft, so this likelihood is even less. I am going to be really upset when Hamilton signs a 4 year deal somewhere.
That is a whole lot of negatives and a whole lot of words. I hope you didn't think that just because I haven't posted in a long ass time that I couldn't still fill it up. To spare all of you, I will bullet point the potential positives here:
· Defense in right: Victorino’s defense in center has been about average lately, but a move to right (especially combined with Ellsbury in center) gives the Sox some good outfield defense. Despite his size, Victorino’s got a really strong arm that is made for right.
· Ability against lefties: This team is going to murder left handed pitching and the AL East has quite a few lefties: CC Sabathia, Andy Pettite, Wei-Yin Chen, Zach Britton, Mark Buehrle, Ricky Romero, David Price, Matt Moore. That’s 2 per team, so the Sox may actually see more lefties this year than in years past.
· Trading Ellsbury: I am not 100% certain that I want to trade Ellsbury, but he is unlikely to sign here long term so it would be smart to get something for him before he leaves. Adding Victorino gives the Sox the option to trade Ellsbury for pitching, an outfield bat, or both and slide Victorino to center.
· Hamilton/Swisher: If the Sox trade Ellsbury for pitching, I would think this allows them to re-open discussions with Hamilton or Swisher, rendering the millions of words I wrote in this post moot.
· Chemistry: Every player the Sox have added this year is supposed to be great in the clubhouse and Victorino is no different. I don’t place a lot of value in this, but given how the last two years played out, maybe I am not giving chemistry enough credit. I’d still prefer talent any day of the week, but Victorino’s attitude and hustle are certainly good things.
· Value of a dollar: The value of a dollar in baseball is skyrocketing right now due to massive TV contracts bringing in more and more revenue. While $13 million seems like a ton of money, that is about the rate of an average player. It is not impossible to imagine Victorino remaining an average player, with his ability to hit lefties, field, run and throw, for most of this contract.
· 2007-2011: In these years, Victorino was really a very good player. He averaged 3.8 Wins Above Replacement (if you are into that sort of thing) including his best season in 2011. If you look at 2011 and 2012 as outliers instead of 2012 being his new ability, he maintains that 3.8 WAR average. If Victorino is even a 3 WAR per year player over the course of this contract, then it is a really good deal.
I still think the negatives far out weight the positives here. I also think the team could have either found better value for the dollar or waited a little longer for the market to play out. With the previous signings (Gomes, Ross, Napoli) I have been asking people to be patient and wait to see the rest of the moves the Sox make this offseason. It appears they have a plan and until Victorino I thought I knew what it was. But maybe for now I should take my own advice and wait and see.