Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Path to The Playoffs

*Warning: This post is completely based on Wins Above Replacement. If you hate this or don't understand the concept then I understand if you want to skip this one, but I plan to keep this at the most basic levels of the concept.

The Boston Red Sox were a long way away from a playoff spot last year. In fact, they finished closer to the worst record in the league (the 55-107 Houston Astros) than they did to a playoff spot. At 69 wins, the Sox would have to realistically add about 21 wins to their roster to get back to the playoffs. Though Baltimore and Texas tied at 93 wins apiece last year for the two Wild Card slots, I would guess that most years, 90 wins would be enough to claim the final Wild Card spot. So how do the Sox get those 21 wins and head back to the promise land? It’s all about being average and avoiding terribleness.

Before we get into how the team will get there, let’s talk a little bit about Wins Above Replacement (WAR), specifically the concept of a replacement player. The replacement player is not tangible. According to Baseball Prospectus (one of the earliest proponents and creators of the concept), “replacement-level players are of a caliber so low that they are always available in the minor leagues because the players are well below major-league average.” Sources differ on this, but most say that a team full of replacement players would win about 50 games in the Major Leagues (only slightly worse than the Astros last year and actually better than the Detroit Tigers in 2003). So when a player has a WAR above 0 they are incrementally improving that hypothetical replacement team by that many wins. 

A great illustrator of this concept is last year’s Red Sox. Using Baseball-Reference (this site and are the two main sources of WAR, but they differ because each uses different defensive stats for the final tally. WAR is far from perfect, but it gives a good data  point and it is a good tool to use in discussions like this) we see that the Red Sox got 18.9 WAR out of their roster last year (17.7 from the offense and a putrid 1.2 from the entire pitching staff. Yikes). If you round that up to 19 WAR and add that to the 50 win baseline you get 69 wins, or exactly as many as the team won last year*.
*Please note that this does not always work out so nice and tidy. WAR is a number assigned to an individual performance, not divided up by how many wins a team has at the end of the year. A lot of factors go into a team's wins and losses that are beyond an individual's control, so most of the time team WAR+50 does not equal the actual win total.

There are a lot of ways to go from 69 wins to 90 wins. One is to add significant top line talent like the Blue Jays have this year. The Jays one just 73 games last year, but when they looked at the rest of the AL East and AL in general, decided that there was a path to winning enough games to make the playoffs if they could add top line talent. They imported Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera and R.A. Dickey and now Vegas is listing them as the World Series favorite.

Another way is to replace terrible with average, and that is just what Boston is doing. Let’s start with removing terrible. In 2012, the Red Sox employed 12 pitchers who combine to provide negative 7 wins to the team (Beckett, Padilla, Thomas, Carpenter, McDonald, Bailey, Melancon, Bard, Stewart, Aceves, Cook, Matsuzaka). This means that these guys performed worse than an average minor leaguer would have. In 2011, it was even worse as the pitching staff had 12 guys combine to post negative 11 wins, thanks mostly to Lackey and Tim Wakefield.

Having terrible on the team is unavoidable, especially on the pitching staff. Every year a team is going to suffer injuries or ineffectiveness, but the key is minimalizing it. In the years the team was successful they were able to limit their negative wins on the pitching staff to around 3. With the team getting rid of 9 of the 12 players on that list (and potentially 11 if Bard and Aceves fail to make the roster) the team is off to a good start.

The next step the team is taking is adding a lot of average players. Assuming Mike Napoli signs, the team has added 8 players this off season, none of whom would be considered a super star (though about half have had super star seasons in the last three years). It is reasonable to expect that they will all be average this season given their recent performances and age.

Last year I wrote a post talking about league average hitters. I argued that being an average player is not a bad thing at all and that the word “average” carries a negative connotation. I wrote that “a hypothetical team with perfectly average hitters and pitchers would be in playoff contention every year.” In 2013, it seems like the Red Sox are putting that theory to the test.

Boston has a very few players on their roster that could post a true super star season. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Lester are the most likely and you could envision a scenario where Middlebrooks, Victorino, Napoli or Buchholz do the same. A super star season usually means about 5 WAR. All of these guys, though, are more likely to post average seasons, or about 2.5 WAR. But if all of these guys do just that, the Sox will be in great shape in 2013.

Ok, time for a quick back of the napkin math section. If you have stuck with me this long then hopefully you won’t mind this too much. Let’s start with the starting the lineup as it is likely to look right now. I am going to assume that just about every regular player in the lineup will post an average season, and that any platoon spots (LF and C) will combine to produce an average season. Based on recent track record, the major stretches here are that Stephen Drew will be average and that Pedroia won’t be well above average.

Ellsbury – 2.5 wins
Victorino – 2.5 wins
Pedroia – 2.5 wins
Ortiz – 2.5 wins
Napoli – 2.5 wins
Middlebrooks – 2.5 wins
Gomes/Nava – 2.5 wins
Drew – 2.5 wins
Salty/Ross – 2.5 wins
TOTAL - 22.5 wins

Now we get to the rotation, where we have to do a little bit of wishful thinking, though not a lot. I will assume that the top 3 (Lester, Buch, Dempster) will be average this year, though I do think Lester and Dempster will be better than that and Buch a bit worse. Lackey and Doubront are the tricky cases where we have to dream a bit. Before Lackey’s miserable 2011, he posted consecutive seasons of about 1.5 wins. I am hoping that 2011 was so terrible because of the arm problems he spent 2012 recovering from and that he can return to the pitcher he was in ’09-’10. Doubront was exactly replacement level last year (0 WAR), but he was just 24 in his first time as a rotation pitcher and showed good skills so I am going to assume he can improve some this year with the experience under his belt.

Lester – 2.5 wins
Buchholz – 2.5 wins
Dempster – 2.5 wins
Lackey – 1.5 wins
Doubront – 1 win
TOTAL – 10 wins

This leaves us with 82.5 wins (50 for the baseline, 22.5 for the starting offense, 10 for the rotation) before we consider the bench and rotation. Since I have already included 2 key bench players in the projections (Nava and Ross) for the starting offense, I will only add 1 more win for whoever makes up the rest of the bench. If Ferrell can manage left/right matchups and defensive replacements properly then this should be easy to achieve. For the bullpen, I expect it to be above average, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s consider it to be average. If we speculate that the rotation will average 6 innings per start (probably a stretch, but we will use it as a round number) that leaves about 500 innings for the bullpen to handle. A starting pitcher is expected to throw about 200 innings per season, so for 500 bullpen innings we can consider that 2 and a half starters. If we multiply 2.5 starters by 2.5 wins, we get just over 6 wins.

Bench - 1 win
Bullpen - 6 wins
TOTAL - 7 wins

That covers just about all of it. There are other factors like the manager, mid-season trades and prospect call-ups that can affect the final tally, but to keep it simple we end up with 39.5 wins above replacement, or 89.5 total wins. I set out looking for the team to get to 90 wins and it looks like they are reasonably set up to get there. For a team of average or worse players, it is easy to see how they can make the playoffs. In a division that looks to be more vulnerable than at any point in the last 10 years, the Sox have as good a shot as any besides maybe the Blue Jays to contend for the playoffs. When you hear people lament the fact that the team added a lot of average and mediocre players, be content in knowing that this has a strong chance to be a winning plan.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Going Dempster Diving

The Boston Red Sox have signed free agent starting pitcher Ryan Dempster to a 2 year, $26.5 million contract, marking the 4th contract this offseason they’ve given with an average annual value of approximately $13 million (if I was an insane person, like Dan Shaughnessy, I might try to connect this to some mystical curse, write a book about it and then go on every TV and radio show that will have me and present it as a fact). After dedicating their offseason shopping spree almost exclusively to the offense, Ben Cherington finally addressed a pitching staff that allowed the third most runs in the American League in 2012. Let's take a look at Dempster before we get to whether Cherington made a good deal or not (do you feel the suspense? That's how you keep people reading!).

Dempster has had a really interesting career. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round in 1995, but traded the next year to the Florida Marlins for old friend John Burkett (ironically, people are trying to compare Dempster to Burkett, who signed with the Sox when he was 36 as a softer throwing righty at the end of his career). In his first 6 seasons with the Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, Dempster was an ineffective starting pitcher. He had decent strike out numbers, but walked way too many batters and gave up a lot of home runs. The Reds released him after just a season and a half. At just 27 years old, it appeared Dempster’s career as a starter was over.

He latched on with the Chicago Cubs and transitioned to a bullpen role. His strikeouts remained steady and his walks actually ticked up, but he was able to cut his homeruns by 2/3 and was suddenly a very useful pitcher. After just one season, he became the Cubs closer, where he would remain until 2007. In that season, his home run problems started to come back and his ERA suffered. Heading into the 2008 season, former phenom Kerry Wood was finally healthy after years of injury issues and the Cubs decided to make him the new closer. With Dempster’s job no longer available, the Cubs decided to give him another shot in the rotation.

Because baseball is ultimately completely unpredictable, Dempster, now 31, responded by setting career bests in ERA (2.96), walk rate (3.31 per 9) and strike out to walk ratio (2.46 to 1). He basically became a completely new pitcher, focused on throwing strikes to keep runners off base. He stopped inducing as many ground balls as he was as a reliever and his home runs rate hovered around league average, but with less runners on base, the home runs did less damage. For the next 5 years, Dempster averaged more than 3 Wins Above Replacement (according to Baseball-Reference) and was one of the better starters in the National League. But with the Cubs out of contention in 2012, they traded him to the Texas Rangers for his first taste of American League action.

At the time of the trade, Dempster was among the NL leaders in ERA. So what does he do in his first 3 starts in Texas? Allow 16 earned runs (19 total runs) in 17 1/3 innings for a 8.31 ERA. It appeared like Dempster would fail where so many other NL pitchers have over the last decade making the transition from the NL to the much tougher AL. However, as he has done so many times before, he fought the perception and pitched really well in his last 9 starts posting his highest strike out rate (9.4 per 9 innings) of his career and a better than average 4.01 ERA. Because the Rangers shit the bed, he was unable to continue this success in the post season. Now, at 35 years old, Ryan Dempster will pitch a full season in the American League for the first time in his career.

So what did the Red Sox get with Dempster, a man who seemingly reinvents himself every 4 or 5 years?

Most importantly they got a durable pitcher. Since he returned to the rotation in 2008, Dempster has thrown more than 200 innings in every season but last, when he threw 173 innings. He had 2 separate unrelated DL stints last year, but neither were for serious injuries (strained quad and a strained shoulder). Now the caveat that he is an aging pitcher coming to a team with a questionable medical staff apply here, but his recent track record shows a pitcher who will take the ball every fifth day. More than anything, this is what the Red Sox have lacked the last two years. In 2011 and 2012 the Sox had just 1 pitcher pitch over 200 innings, and that was Jon Lester’s largely ineffective innings last season. Most playoff teams in 2012 had multiple pitchers throw 200 innings or more than 30 starts. The Reds had 5 starters make 30 plus starts and 4 starters throw at least 200 innings. If you want your team to win over 90 games, then you want at least your top 4 starters making about 75% of your teams starts. If the Sox can get 30 starts out of Dempster, Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront (or if they sign someone like Edwin Jackson) this season, they will win 90 games. That is a Sexy Guarantee.

Of course throwing 200 innings can only happen if they are quality innings. Luckily, at least for 2012, I would expect quality innings out of Dempster. I would predict that Dempster will be average or better this year because he has been so good ever since returning to the rotation. His strikeouts have remained steady over the last 5 years and his walk rate continue to be good, which limits the damage from his occasional homeritis. He also gets a healthy amount of groundballs, which will be great in front of an infield defense that features former Gold Glover Dustin Pedroia and the second coming of Ozzie Smith at short stop. 

The other great thing about this signing is that it is for only 2 years. At Dempsters age there is a decent chance that he either falls off a cliff in his abilities or injuries start to take a toll and he spends some time on the DL. The risk of this happening would only increase after 2 years. If Dempster can make it through 2013 reasonably healthy and effective, I think he will have satisfied the needs of the team. By 2014 I think the Sox will have another 1 or 2 young starters ready to join the rotation and if Dempster starts to slip then, the team will be covered. Also, he could head back to the bullpen and prove useful there as he has in the past.

Of course there are risks in signing any pitcher, let alone one towards the end of his career moving to a tougher league. Someone once said that once you’ve displayed the ability for a skill then you own the potential to repeat that. In Dempster’s case that can be a good thing as he has had many good seasons, but it could also mean that he reverts to the wild tendencies of his youth. If you combine his previous high walk rates with his high home run rates, you get a pretty bad pitcher. Dempster also has a fairly large platoon split in his career, giving up an .807 OPS against lefties compared to just .701 against righties (this split may be muted this year though as he pitches more in Fenway, a tougher place for lefties to hit, and he added a cut fastball in 2012 aimed at neutralizing left handed power). In Yankee Stadium with the short porch against guys like Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, this is a scary proposition. He also continues to lose velocity on his fastball, from an average speed of 91.1 MPH in 2008 to just 89.7 MPH in 2012.

The final verdict is that this is another strong signing by the Red Sox. They haven’t landed any superstars this offseason, but they have filled some obvious holes on the roster with solid players. The offense has a mixture of power and speed and a handful of guys who can grind out at bats (though at present is very right heavy). The rotation now has a durable innings eater to join the upside of pitchers like Lester, Buchholz and Doubront along with some top pitching prospects in the high minors to provide depth should any of these guys get hurt. I would expect this closes the book on the major moves the Sox make for the rest of the offseason. I think they will continue to monitor the market for a Jacoby Ellsbury trade and there is probably a 10% chance they still sign Nick Swisher and a 25% chance they add another starter. More likely we will see them add another left handed hitter that can play outfield and first base and then make a trade to clear up the catching and reliever log jam. There is still too much offseason left to judge how my buddy Cherington did, but at this point he is heading for a solid B+/A-.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


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 “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.

The Future
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. 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.

Jose Iglesias
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)
Middlebrooks (.906/.798)
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.