Free Agent Case Study #2: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Dennis Eckersley filled in for Jerry Remy during the Red Sox road trip to play the Giants and Dodgers and has remained on board for the Orioles series. Eckersley’s analysis, cluttered with lingo like “cut the moss,” “throwing cheese,” and “Hello?!”, is also often insightful and informative. Such was the case when he praised Jarrod Saltalamacchia for his consistent season behind the plate for the Sox in 2013.

Jarrod-Saltalamacchia1

It’s hard to imagine another Sox catcher at this point in time.

Saltalamacchia has seemingly overcome the developmental issues that persisted during the early part of his career on the defensive side of the plate. His swing has always provided power and, perhaps most importantly, he has become a trusted game-caller by Boston’s pitching staff. Salty is playing in a contract year in 2013. In this post, I’ll take a look at the market for catchers, analyze Salty’s true value to the Sox, and give a prediction for whether I see him re-upping with Boston this offseason.

The Numbers

Saltalamacchia was once a top prospect in the Braves system and was the center-piece in a 2007 trade for Mark Teixeira. Much of the promise scouts saw in Salty arose from the power he generated from his uppercut swing from the left side of the plate. Like most young players with a long powerful stroke, Salty struggled with strikeouts and inconsistencies in his approach. Salty’s status as a star prospect diminished during his time in Texas due to his inability to put the ball in play, and the Sox took a flier on him at the end of the 2010 campaign. The numbers show the type of hitter that he has been from 2011-2013 with the Sox, but also point to a fundamental change in his approach in his most recent campaign.

From 2011-2013, Salty hit the 6th-most homers amongst catchers in Major League Baseball with 51 (Mike Napoli leads all catchers with 69, despite playing his entire 2013 campaign at first base). Salty is also last among all Major League catchers with a 69.8% contact rate and leads the group with a 30.6% strikeout rate. These are numbers that reflect a hitter who swings to hit the ball out of the park for each and every swing he takes.

Despite the strikeouts (which have been prevalent throughout Salty’s career), it is clear that he has gone through a fundamental change in hitting philosophy during the 2013 campaign. The graph below helps us visualize Salty’s trend during his time with the Sox:

SAlty_swings

The graph breaks down Salty’s batted balls by fly balls, ground balls, or line drives. When he arrived with the Sox in 2010, Salty was in the worst spot, batted ball-wise, of his entire career. His line drive percentage hovered around 5%, whereas his fly ball (and pop up) percentage was at the highest of his career. Since he has been with the Sox, Salty has reversed this trend, culminating in the highest line-drive (and lowest fly-ball) percentages of his career in 2013. This is one reason for Salty’s apparent decrease in power, as ZiPS projects him to hit 14 dingers this year following seasons of 16 homers in 2011 and a career-high 25 in 2012. Despite the slight dip in power, the change in approach has made Salty a more productive overall hitter: his greater propensity to hit line drives has caused his BABIP to rise dramatically from .265 in 2012 to a whopping .379 in 2013. Moreover, it has caused his overall average and OBP to rise to .270 and .341, respectively (up from .222 and .288 in 2012). The only surprising stat after noticing Salty’s decrease in FB% and increase in LD% is that his slugging percentage has not changed at all from 2012 to 2013, even despite the fact that his homer rate is down. But a quick review of Salty’s counting stats reveals that this is due to the fact that he ranks eighth in the Major Leagues with 34 doubles. We can again attribute this to his greater propensity to hit line drives, as many of the long fly balls that stayed up for just too long may be dropping for Salty in 2013.

As his batted ball trends and overall stats suggest, Salty has been on an upward slope as a hitter during his time with the Red Sox.

The Intangibles

While we have just examined the ways in which Salty helps his club with the bat, he holds arguably even more value to the Sox has their primary backstop. This is where the intangibles come in to play, which might be the single biggest factor as to why Salty gets a major pay-day (or why he doesn’t) on the open market. Simply put, there is much more to calculating player value for a catcher than offensive and defensive stats alone.

Catchers can improve a pitching staff with their daily preparation and ability to call a game. In an effort to quantify Salty’s game-calling ability, I’ll reference an article called “Salty’s Defense/Game-Calling Impact” on the Pro Sports Daily forums. As of August 5th, the chart below gives pitcher’s ERA during Salty’s starts as compared to his back-up’s starts over the past three years:

SAlt

While there is much more to calling a game than simply “pitcher ERA”, the trend is a bit alarming when estimating Salty’s value. Numbers don’t tell the whole picture, of course, but they certainly wouldn’t support a claim that Salty improves a pitching staff through his game-calling. One thing is clear: pitchers are doing better in 2013 while Salty is behind the plate, but it remains a mystery whether this is because he’s calling a better game or simply because the pitchers he’s catching are better.

Josh Beckett was one pitcher who spoke out about Salty’s inability to be on the same page as the starter, but many have spoken in defense of the backstop’s ability during the 2013 campaign. Jake Peavy, for one, has commended Salty’s approach to game-day: “I can’t say enough about his willingness. Salty has got some time here, some time in the big leagues. For him to be so humble in his approach, to not say, ‘This is how we do things here’; it was him saying, ‘Hey, man, what do you need to win tonight? What do you need me to do?” In any case, his familiarity with the Sox pitching staff likely makes Salty more immediately valuable to the Red Sox than any other team.

On another note, Salty has been very durable during his time in Boston. He has missed just 4 games due to injury from 2011-2013 and has not been placed on the disabled list once. While durability is always valuable, it is especially valuable in a catcher, in which the day-to-day bumps and bruises are far more prevalent. This should make teams more comfortable offering him a long-term deal.

The Market

Of the 18 catchers on open market following the season, Salty is the youngest at age 29. He will likely be the second-most coveted free agent catcher (behind Atlanta backstop Brian McCann), though that could change if Salty gets hot or McCann gets hurt again (he missed time in 2011 due to an oblique injury and missed time in 2013 due to offseason shoulder surgery). There have been very few free agent catchers over the past 3 years, likely due to the fact that familiarity with a team’s pitchers is very important to front offices. Thus, we notice that there have been many contract extensions for catchers, but very few catchers who actually hit the open market. Salty is, in fact, in a very unique position as a productive free agent catcher who will likely fetch a deal for more than 3 years. In any case, here is how the free agent/extension market has looked over the past two years:

market

Miguel Montero seems to be the most similar comparable by age (29) and overall production (using ZiPS projections, Salty will have a 2.1 average fWAR over the past 3 seasons when he hits the open market). Montero’s signing was actually an extension, so even though his overall production was a bit higher when he signed, it’s certainly not far-fetched to believe that Salty will get a 5-year, $60 million contract when teams are bidding for his services.

The Suitors

I expect the White Sox, Angels, Athletics, Yankees, Braves, Rangers, Rays, and the Red Sox to be in the running for Salty’s services based on their need behind the plate for next season. I doubt the Rays or the White Sox would spend the money on the current Sox backstop, and a signing by the Angels and Athletics seems equally unlikely due to the Angels’ payroll and Oakland’s frugality. This leaves the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, and Rangers as Salty’s primary suitors, and their free-spending tendencies should make Salty’s eyes light up in free agency.

Prediction

This is a really tough call. I think that if Atlanta does sign a catcher to a long-term deal, they will simply retain Brian McCann (familiarity, as discussed previously, is likely very important to teams when evaluating catchers). A look at the remaining teams’ organizational depth charts could provide insight into Salty’s destination. According to mlb.com, catcher Gary Sanchez is the Yankees’ top prospect with an ETA of 2015. He’s also the second-highest ranked catching prospect in baseball behind Travis d’Arnaud. I expect the Yankees to hold off on signing Salty. While the Rangers’ top prospect is also a catcher, Jorge Alfaro is not expected to arrive until at least 2016 and their 40-man catching depth is weak. The Red Sox have multiple catching prospects in their system (#10 Blake Swihart, #13 Jon Denney, and #15 Christian Vazquez) and have depth on their 40-man roster with Dan Butler and Ryan Lavarnway. If the price does indeed rise to my predicted contract of 5 years and $60 million, it’s hard to see Salty re-upping with Sox GM Ben Cherington. Instead, I see him jumping town for Texas, an organization where his prospects once faded, but one that now might make him a very rich man.

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Do the Red Sox Have a Winning Core?

Much has been made about the “core” of a baseball team. This is the set of star players around which a general manager adds pieces and parts in hopes of building a champion. But what makes a core? Older players? Pitchers? Good “clubhouse guys”? This post of Dave Roberts’ Dive will utilize an incredible August 12th article in the “community research” section of FanGraphs.com to analyze the Red Sox “core” over the past few years. The article, written by Jonathan Judge, can be found here, and is titled “Does Your Team Have a Winning Core? Profiling Sustainable Roster Construction”.

dustin-pedroia-ap2

Dustin Pedroia is the ultimate “Core Player”.

Judge uses three elements; fWAR (wins above replacement, as defined by FanGraphs), a control index (the remaining years of player control the team has, maxing out at 5), and age index (peak baseball age — in this case, 27 — divided by true age). Judge defines “Core Wins” as the product of each factor (i.e. fWAR*[Control Index]*[Age Index]) and further defines a “Core Player” as one with more than 5 “Core Wins” in a season. In his analysis, he notes that the Rays are the “gold standard” of a roster made up of “core players” whereas the New York Mets lie on the opposite end of the spectrum. Let’s use Judge’s formula to take a look at the core make-up of the Boston Red Sox over the past few of years, starting in 2010, and see how this profile might translate to future success.

2010, 89-73, 3rd place AL East, missed playoffs

I’ll start by walking through a calculation of “Core Wins” for a single player to get the gist of what it entails. Consider the example of Jon Lester; the Red Sox had five more years of team control over Lester in 2010, so his control index stood at 2.5. In his age 26 season (1.04 age index), he pitched to a superb 5.4 WAR. Multiplying the factors (1.04*2.5*5.4), we extrapolate that Lester accumulated 14.0 “Core Wins” in 2010, making him a “Core Player” for Boston by the author’s definition. There were a few other Sox players (four, to be precise) who made the cut:

2010 wins'

Some notes: Jed Lowrie was nearly a Core Player (he had 4.9 Core Wins) with a solid 1.9 WAR.  The Red Sox player with the most WAR was Adrian Beltre at 6.6. But the formula obviously rewards teams for have younger, controllable players and Beltre was a 31-year old who would became a free agent after the season. Thus, he accumulated just 2.9 Core Wins. The Red Sox accumulated 71.9 Core Wins on aggregate during the 2010 season. Keep that number in mind when comparing to future seasons.

2011, 90-72, 3rd place AL East, missed playoffs

Ah, yes. The epic collapse that was the motivation for a complete change of   scenery by John Henry and Larry Lucchino. The Sox signed Carl Crawford and traded for Adrian Gonzalez in the offseason, which translated to tremendous success through August. But the wheels fell off in September and the rest is history. How did the Sox fare by the “Core Wins” and “Core Player” analysis?

2011 wins'

Notes: The Red Sox had only four players in their “core”. One reason for this was the attrition of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey. Jacoby Ellsbury was one of the most exciting players in baseball during the season, and his power surge led to a 9.1 WAR and a second-place finish in the AL MVP voting. Carl Crawford, who signed a 7-year, $142 million contract in the offseason, was one of baseball’s biggest busts ever at a -0.1 WAR. The benefit of Dustin Pedroia’s contract extension is clear after he spent two consecutive years in the “core”. The Red Sox managed 85.2 “Core Wins” on aggregate and locked themselves in the long-term, with two-thirds of their roster “controllable” for 3 years or more (as opposed to 50% from the previous season).

2012, 69-93, 5th place AL East, missed playoffs

The beginning of the season marked the arrival of the Bobby Valentine circus in Beantown. And what a circus it was. Conflicts with players such as Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and David Ortiz put Valentine in the doghouse before he could establish any credibility. Gonzalez, Beckett, Crawford, and Punto were mercifully traded to the Dodgers in the “gift-that-keeps-on-giving” for GM Ben Cherington. Let’s take a look at how the Sox performed using the model of our “Core Wins” formula:

2012 wins'

Notes: Now, only three players comprise the Sox “core” (and one was traded in August). Jon Lester fell out of the “core” again even though he posted similar (slightly lower) numbers to those in 2010, which is a result of the formula rewarding players who produce at a young age. That is to say, if a player’s performance does not improve regularly in the seasons before his age-27 season, it may cause the team to reevaluate if he truly is in that team’s “core”. The Daniel Bard experiment was truly a disaster, causing him to go from a “fringe core” player to next-to-nothing in value. Carl Crawford was simply awful again, and never entered the Red Sox “core”. Ellsbury did not perform due to injury, and (in what was likely the only bright spot of the season) Doubront entered the “core” as a productive young starter. Also, Will Middlebrooks was not included in the calculation because he was not under contract at the beginning of the 2012 season. He would have emerged with 5.6 “Core Wins”. In any case, the Sox aggregated 43.7 “Core Wins” according to the formula. A disaster indeed.

2013, 74-53, 1st place AL East, season 78% complete

Right now, on August 20th, the Red Sox have outperformed the wildest expectations of fans (and likely management) for the 2013 season. The payroll was cut by $21 million from 2012 and many regarded the season as a “gap year” as the plethora of young talent the Sox possessed continued to develop. While we have previously set out “Core Player” designation at 5 “Core Wins”, I will pro-rate this to 3.9 to account for that the Sox season is only 78% complete. Let’s take a look at how the squad put together by GM Ben Cherington and managed by John Farrell have fared:

2013 wins'

Notes: Clay Buchholz has performed to a “Core Player” level, even though he has not pitched since June 8th due to injury. That speaks to how spectacular he truly was through his first bunch of starts in the 2013 season. Jon Lester has once again found the “core” elusive and Will Middlebrooks, who was thought to be a sure-thing, had his wheels fall off due to some poor plate discipline. The “surprise-of-the-year” award goes to Shane Victorino who has made Cherington’s signing (which was given heat at the beginning) look like a gem.

Interesting notes about the process:

I learned a whole lot by analyzing the composition of different Sox teams in this way. First off, David Ortiz never appears in the Red Sox “core”, even though a poll of Sox fans, writers, and executives would probably say he is a member. We need a model that accounts for this fact (the problem for Ortiz is that he never signed a long-term contract, and never sees his “control index” offset the reality that he’s an older ballplayer). I’ll raise this point when I discuss the limitations of the model.

Also, we learn that Pedroia is the true definition of a “Core Player”. He is a mainstay in the Sox “core” from 2010-2013, the only player not to drop out of the “core” at least once in the four-year span. The 6-year, $40.5 million contract given to him by Theo Epstein looks like an incredible bargain, and solidified his place in the “core” for the last couple of years.

We can also see that Felix Doubront is really valuable, and only has room for improvement. He has improved during his two seasons in Boston, and his productivity coupled with his young age and controllability make him an incredibly valuable piece for the Sox.

Finally, the Sox “Core” is most valuable (according to the formula) in 2010. This is because they had so many young, home-grown prospects under team control. It will be very interesting to re-visit this formula next year once many of the Sox heralded new prospects (Bogaerts, Bradley Jr., Ranaudo, Webster, Barnes, Owens, etc.) finally break into the bigs. If they perform in their first couple of years, their “Core Win” value will sky-rocket.

Limitations of the Model

In my opinon, the “Core Wins” model by Jonathan Judge does not adequately punish teams for signing outlandish contracts (a case like Carl Crawford, John Lackey, or Adrian Gonzalez). A future model that I would like to develop would incorporate these poor signings into the model in order to judge a teams core. One way to do this might be to weight the “Age Index” more heavily, perhaps by squaring it. Since the index is centered at 1, squaring would reward contributions by younger players and discount contributions by older players. Another method might be to incorporate “guaranteed money” into the calculation. It is contracts like these that weigh down a team’s ability to develop their own players, which in turn adds to their “core”.

The formula also needs a tool that rewards players for prolonged production, event though they haven’t signed large long-term contracts. In 2013, Shane Victorino is valued higher than David Ortiz according to the “Core Wins” formula, but many would surely argue that conclusion. Perhaps including a “time spent with same team” factor could give some insight into this type of player’s value.

While the model certainly highlights the contributes of young, team-controlled players, it has no real predictive value on the macro-level (i.e. the number of aggregate “Core Wins” is basically meaningless). It does, however, function to rationalize the contracts given to Pedroia, Lester, and Buchholz which bought out a couple arbitration years, but also ultimately delayed free agency. As the “Core Wins” analysis shows, these extensions increased their value to the Sox.

In the future, I will likely use this method to determine a player’s trade value or candidacy for a contract extension, as I think the application for “Core Wins” is more useful in that realm than in the realm of aggregate team performance.

In other news…go get ’em, Xander!

*Adrian Gonzalez technically signed this contract in the offseason following the 2011 season, as to avoid putting the Red Sox over the luxury tax threshold in the short term. However, I factored five years of control in due to the handshake agreement the Sox made with Gonzalez’ representatives on a contract extension following his trade to Boston.

**Pedroia’s “Control Index” is set to 2.5 due to the eight-year, $110 million contract extension he received at the All-Star break.

The Dog Days of August

Analyzing the Sox struggles over the past week.

lackey

The Sox are lucky that John Lackey’s ankle injury isn’t more serious.

The Red Sox have gone 5-5 over their past 10 games and just lost 3 out of 4 against the Royals in Kansas City. They didn’t play their best ball in their previous series in Houston, but managed to take 2 out of 3 due to a couple of clutch hits. While they remain in first place in the AL East, they dropped to 32-28 on the road as they head across the border for a 3-game clip in Toronto. Globe writer Peter Abraham argues that the Red Sox actually had a productive road trip by emerging three games up on the Rays, but I contend that the Sox missed a serious opportunity to distance themselves from Tampa, who have lost five straight after being swept in LA. In this post, I’ll chronicle exactly what went wrong during the trip and offer some predictions about what lies in store for the remaining 42 games of the season.

Playing from Behind

Generally, I can’t watch the first couple innings of the Red Sox game because I’m eating dinner or running errands after work. By the time I turn on NESN, it seems the Sox are already down on the scoreboard. The Red Sox have shown an incredible ability to come from behind this season, but it’s much more comfortable to play with a lead. Let’s take a look at the Sox run differential by inning over the past week to visualize just how much they’ve been playing from behind:

Run Differntial

Clearly, the Sox have spent a significant amount of innings behind in the score. In fact, the only game in which they weren’t losing for at least one inning was during their 5-3 victory Saturday against Kansas City. They have been behind in the score during 34 of their 63 innings played (54% of the time) and have held the lead in only 16 of those 63 innings (25%). Clearly, this isn’t exactly a formula for winning; take, for example, the two wins against Houston in which the Red Sox trailed the Astros for a large part of both games. The numbers suggest that the Sox were lucky to emerge victorious 3 out of 7 times in the past week. Now let’s take a look at the reason for the Sox struggles.

Trouble Getting Started

The Red Sox starters rank 5th in the American League with a 3.95 ERA (this is close to their 4.03 FIP, which signifies that this number is not influenced by fielding errors or park adjustments). But in the past seven days, Sox starters have ranked second-to-last (only to the Rays) in ERA at a bloated 6.00 clip. The rotation of Lester, Lackey, Doubront, Dempster, and Peavy (with an aborted spot start by Steven Wright in Houston) simply has not gotten the job done. Much of the problem has come in the first three innings.

Sox pitchers have given up 18 runs in the first three innings, which is nearly 50% of the total runs they have given up in the past week. A large part of the problem is that starters are laboring through the first inning, setting a terrible tone for the game and spending their energy early, which hinders their ability to pitch deep into game. Sox pitchers have, on average, thrown 19.4 pitches in the first inning over the first 110 games of the season. How does this compare to the last week?

pitches

Sox pitchers have thrown, on average, 25.3 pitches in the first inning over the past week. They have had three particularly bad performances from Wright (38), Lester (41), and Doubront (34). If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: first inning pitching plagued Bobby Valentine’s squad in 2012 with a 6.50 ERA in the beginning frame ranking second-worst in the AL. While the Sox first inning ERA has improved to a league-sixth 3.90 ERA this season, the recent trend shows that Sox pitching (with Lester and Doubront especially worrisome) has reverted to their old ways.

My guess is that pitching-astute manager John Farrell and clever pitching coach Juan Nieves take note of the Sox recent struggles with their starters in the first inning and change some aspect of their preparation. Perhaps they make the warm-up bullpen longer or encourage Sox pitching to attack hitters more aggressively in the first inning. Luckily, Sox hitters have performed well despite the pitching funk, thumping away to a .346 wOBA in the last week which ranks fifth in the AL. So long as the Sox can correct the inconsistencies in starting pitching, particularly in the first inning, they should be able to carry their winning ways into September.

The Tale of Two Drews

The Red Sox employed outfielder J.D. Drew from 2007-2011 and signed his brother, Stephen, to a one-year contract prior to the 2013 campaign. The Drews are ballplayers who go about their business in similar ways — they’d prefer to avoid the limelight and just hit the baseball. It’s an admirable quality, but not one that’s so cooperative with the Boston media or fans. For some inexplicable reason, Boston is enamored with players whose highs are raucous and whose lows are dismal. This was never the case with J.D., and doesn’t appear to be the case with Stephen, but the numbers say that they’re some of the best Sox contributors in recent history.

The Background

J.D. and Stephen were high profile prospects in their respective draft classes and both went to Florida State University.* Prior to signing with the Sox, the two had established themselves in the National League. Both brothers, however, followed completely different paths to their contracts with the Boston Red Sox. In 2007, the Sox signed J.D. at the pinnacle of his career to a 5-year, $70 million contract. Stephen signed a low-risk, high-reward deal with the Sox for 1-year at $10 million prior to 2013. He’s the shortstop for now — Xander Bogaerts is the future. Boston fans can’t help but notice the similarities between the two brothers, which extends beyond the striking resemblance to one another and the shared uniform number (#7). Stephen plays the game much same way as J.D. did, with a smooth and dispassionate style that makes hitting and fielding a baseball seem as simple as driving a tractor (because this is all I like to imagine J.D. does now that he’s stepped away from the game). The two have nearly identical left-handed swings and are known around baseball to share one elite quality: their approach to an at-bat and their knowledge of the strike-zone.

Batter’s Eye

J.D. Drew was heralded as one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball when he signed with the Red Sox in 2007. This means he had an excellent understanding of the strike-zone and had the ability to take close pitches for balls to reach base. Less was known about Stephen when he arrived in Boston, as he was a lower-profile signing. But after his first 84 games, it’s clear that he possesses the same skill. The skill can be quantified by using a PITCHf/x statistic called O-Swing%. The stat measures the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike-zone. If you need more info on O-Swing%, FanGraphs has a good summary. But suffice it to say that the lower a hitter’s O-Swing%, the better handle he has on the strike-zone (there are a few exceptions; for example, Miguel Cabrera does not see very many pitches in the zone, but is still skilled enough to square up balls that are off the plate. He has one of the highest O-Swing% in the MLB). I’ve plotted BB% (a hitter’s rate of drawing walks) vs. O-Swing% for each hitter with at least 300 plate appearances this season and super-imposed J.D.’s numbers he racked up with the Sox (2007-2011):

BBOSWing

We can make a couple of observations. First off, BB% clearly trends with O-Swing% — this makes sense: those who swing less often at pitches outside the zone are more likely to walk. Second, we see that Stephen possesses the same plate discipline as J.D., ranking around the 15th percentile in O-Swing%. In fact, both brothers’ BB% is slightly higher than we might expect based on the linear regression (i.e. the data points lie above the trend line). Finally, we notice that if J.D. played in 2013, he would lead the league in O-Swing%. That’s right: J.D. Drew would have the best eye in Major League Baseball if he strapped on the spikes and decided to have another go. Players who are more likely to walk (i.e. who have a high BB%) are more likely to have a higher OBP, one of the fundamental stats for determining a player’s value. It’s not difficult to see why the Drews got the big bucks from Boston.

Fans (including myself) were under the assumption that if you have a great eye, you strike out less. This is not such a ridiculous proposition: if you have an elite knowledge of the strike-zone, then surely you should utilize it with two strikes. But a simple plot of K% (the rate at which a hitter strikes out) vs. O-Swing% demonstrates otherwise:

KOswing

A blob. The two statistics are not correlated in the slightest. To Sox fans, it seemed that J.D. Drew often took the third strike with the bat on his shoulder — the “Master of the Backwards K”. Since Sox fans knew he had a great eye, it seemed as though this happened at an alarming rate, as the expectation was that a lower O-Swing% should also lead to a lower K%. The two stats are not correlated and Drew did not strike out at an alarming rate at all — if he decided to step into the batter’s box in 2013 he’d be right around the league average in K%. Because J.D.’s eye was touted (for good reason) as one of the best in the league, many fans unfairly jumped to conclusions about how often he should strike out. Also, if we take a look at where Stephen lies in the data spread, we see that he strikes out at a much greater rate than his brother, but seems to take less heat from Red Sox Nation. This might be because Sox fans love players with a flair for the dramatic — something Stephen has shown he possesses whereas J.D. never did.

The “Anti-Clutch”

The biggest hit I remember from J.D. Drew was a grand slam in Game 6 of the 2007 ALCS, which turned the tide of the series. As for walk-offs, I remember one biggie: a line-drive over the head of the right-fielder in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS against the Rays to cap a massive Sox comeback. Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston reminds us that there was, in fact, one more, but goes on to summarize J.D.’s reputation brilliantly: “Mr. Excitement, he was not.”

“The Anti-Clutch” was the nickname bestowed to J.D. Drew by my dad, who was often frustrated with his performance in tight spots. But my dad’s a stubborn guy and may have been swayed by one strikeout (he also championed the nickname “Master of the Backwards-K”). Certainly he hasn’t done a fair analysis of the relevant statistics, so I’ll do it here. CLUTCH is a complicated statistic that attempts to quantify a player’s performance in high-pressure situations. It utilizes WPA (win probability added) and LI (leverage index, a measure of just how “high pressure” the situation truly is) and normalizes the league-average player to zero. You can read more about CLUTCH here, but the number generally ranges from -1 to 1. Thus, a player with a positive CLUTCH can be considered just that (clutch) but a player with a negative CLUTCH often chokes in the tight spots. So how did J.D.’s numbers look during his time in Boston?

JDDrew

Yikes. That’s all there really is to say about that, except for it likely validates the opinion of Dr. D’Andrea. For reference, Stephen Drew’s CLUTCH is 0.64 during his first season in Boston, which checks in at well-above average. Nonetheless, J.D. Drew has had a tremendous, all-star career, similar to the likes of Eric Davis, Raul Mondesi, and Kirk Gibson.

Stephen’s Trend

Jose Iglesias started the season as the Red Sox shortstop when Drew missed much of spring training due to a concussion. When Drew returned, Iglesias was optioned to Pawtucket, but was recalled when Stephen missed time in July with a hamstring injury. Iglesias was traded to the Tigers in the deal that brought Jake Peavy to the Sox, clearing the way for Drew to re-assume the everyday job on the left side of second base. Drew’s season trend, especially as it pertains to his batting average, was likely a main reason why GM Ben Cherington felt comfortable giving up Iglesias, a defensive wizard:

Stephen Drew

While Drew’s not even half the fielder that Iglesias is, he has the potential to carry a team for weeks at a time with his bat. Fitting his season trend to a third-degree polynomial (this is not a “random” choice — he has clearly had two critical points over the course of the year), we can see that Drew is heating up as the season turns to August. In the best case scenario (the one in which Drew continues or surpasses his current surge), he could be hitting .300 by September 1st. In a more realistic scenario, Drew will continue his current hot streak, and then regress to his career average of .264 by the time September rolls around. In any case, the remainder of the season is looking promising for the Red Sox shortstop, which is a good sign for a team that’s in desperate need of production from the position. In the wake of the Peavy deal, my favorite Globe writer Chad Finn had this to say about the brothers: “And yes, I’m kind of chuckling at the thought that the unfairly maligned Stephen Drew is still here while Iglesias has moved on. The Drews, they’re survivors, man.”

*J.D. Drew was drafted by the Phillies second overall in 1997, but failed to sign a contract. He and agent Scott Boras demanded $10 million whereas the Phils were only willing to offer $2.6 million. He played with an independent league team for one year, then was drafted fifth overall by the Cardinals in 1998, signing for $7 million. Phillies fans booed him for the entirety of his career.

Rubby could spell K-Rod for Sox

Predictive analysis of baseball statistics is an art, and there are very few well-accepted rules and principles. Even still, common sense dictates that it’s ridiculous to read too much into one performance. So to compare Rubby de la Rosa to an MLB star based on 10 electric fastballs in the 9th inning of a 15-10 Houston shootout would be simply outlandish. But, hey, why not?

The Background

De La Rosa’s pitch speed was touted as his single best attribute when he arrived in Boston as part of the package traded from LA in the Gonzalez-Crawford-Beckett deal. He was coming off Tommy John surgery, but the list of pitchers to match or surpass their pre-surgery velocity upon their return is too long to post. Below is a sampling of stats from De La Rosa’s 2011 campaign (he missed a full season to surgery, except for one brief appearance in 2012:

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS GF IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2011 22 LAD 4 5 3.71 13 10 2 60.2 54 26 25 6 31 60 1.401 8.0 0.9 4.6 8.9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/7/2013.

Rubby (pronounced “Ruby,” as in red) was used primarly as a starter in his rookie season with Los Angeles, and drew comparisons to Pedro Martinez due to his height (5’11”) and also due to his sizzling fastball and wicked changeup. In fact, the Sox hired Pedro as a Special Assistant this spring to work specifically with De La Rosa, and Pedro raved about the 24-year old’s prospects. Clearly, Rubby has the “stuff” to be a top-end starter: the average velocity on his fastball was 95.4 MPH in 2011, which would rank third in the majors this year (behind Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg) amongst qualified starters. While De La Rosa has worked as a starter with Pawtucket in 2013, the organization has made it clear to manager John Farrell that he can use De La Rosa with the big-league club in whichever bullpen capacity is necessary to win.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros

Rubby de la Rosa delivers in the 9th inning against Houston last night.

The Performance

While there were many noteworthy aspects in Tuesday’s outing, Rubby impressed me most with the command he showed with his fastball while managing to maintain his velocity. De La Rosa threw all of his pitches — fastball, changeup and slider — and racked up strikeouts on his slider and fastball. His ability to get ahead in the count allowed him to vary the speed of his pitches over the course of his outing on nearly ever pitch:

rubby speed

The ability to stay in a pitcher’s count makes his pitch selection more unpredictable for the batter, allowing him to capitalize on the exceptionally low 63.9% contact percentage he generates when he throws his changeup. Also, his fastball was simply electric in his Sox debut: he managed 2 swinging strikes on the pitch that he threw, on average, at 98.17 MPH. If he managed to keep that velocity for the remainder of the year, he would vault directly to the top of the leaderboard for relievers’ average velocity, surpassing Cincinnati’s Ardolis Chapman and Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera. De La Rosa also warmed in the pen on Sunday afternoon with the Red Sox leading 4-0, but Farrell deemed the situation too “high leverage” to bring him in. Finally, in front of a nearly empty stadium during a 15-10 slugfest, Rubby made the most of his first opportunity to pitch for the Sox.

The Comparison

Those who watched the 2002 Angels-Giants World Series remember an energetic young Venezuelan by the name of Francisco Rodriguez.

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K-Rod follows through on a pitch during his time with the Angels.

Much like Rubby De La Rosa, K-Rod burst onto the scene in the Angels bullpen late in the season; he made his major league debut on September 18th, 2002, which is more than five weeks later in the season than De La Rosa debuted for the Sox in 2013. In 2002, Rodriguez pitched in five games before the playoffs, striking out 13 batters while allowing exactly zero runs. He experienced even greater success for the Angels in the playoffs, where he struck out a whopping 28 batters over 11 games while posting a 1.93 ERA. In doing so, he cemented himself as one of the key pieces helping Anaheim to a World Series title. While PITCHf/x data is not available from 2002, K-Rod’s bread and butter consisted of his sizzling fastball coupled with a biting slider. It’s a slightly different arsenal than De La Rosa’s (Rubby’s might be even deeper due to his advanced changeup), but both were clearly gifted with elite power “stuff” as emerging young pitchers.

For those who are weary about how De La Rosa’s arsenal and approach will translate to a late-inning relief role from the starting niche he’s held all year in AAA, consider the following: K-Rod was a struggling starter for Angels single-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga in 2001 (the year before his debut), posting a 5.38 ERA and an 11.6 K/9 (while his major league rate over his first three years was 14.59 K/9). In a similar career trajectory to K-Rod, Rubby De La Rosa has yet to truly embrace his potential at Pawtucket in a starting role. Perhaps the transition into a late-inning role is just what he needs — and just what the Red Sox bullpen needs — to become the elite pitcher his “stuff” dictates he should be. So, in a year where the Red Sox are unexpectedly contending for a title, taking a chance on a pitcher like De La Rosa might just be the wild card that pushes them over the edge — hey, it worked for the Angels.

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Remember this little guy?

The Risks

There are a number of risks for both the Sox bullpen and De La Rosa’s development if they decide to convert him to a late-innings reliever. As noted above, one spectacular performance in one game is a small sample size, and De La Rosa can be erratic with his command, especially with his fastball. The last thing a pitcher wants to do in a strikeout situation is to walk a man, particularly when Rubby’s HR/9 rate has not been ideal in Pawtucket (1.06). But the Sox have holes to fill in their injury-depleted bullpen, and you have to think that De La Rosa can fill in better than Pedro Beato or Jose De La Torre due to is elite arsenal of strikeout weapons.

Finally, there are a couple of risks the Sox must consider as they pertain to Rubby’s development as a pitcher. There is a slight bit of concern about re-injuring his surgically-repaired elbow if he slots in during late-inning situations. There is more strain on the arm as a bullpen piece than as a starter because the pitcher throws so much harder over a much shorter period of time in the ‘pen. If the Red Sox truly view De La Rosa as the “next great Pedro”, they’d be kicking themselves if they took the risk of putting him in the bullpen only to see him blow out his elbow again. But, when contending for a title in Boston, sometimes the “now” must precede the “future” in calculated situations. Putting De La Rosa in the ‘pen may be one such risky decision.

Also, if Rubby experiences any sort of failure in a high-leverage situation, it could emotionally ruin the great prospect (think Richie Sexson’s grand slam in Cla Meredith’s forced MLB debut). One must remember, however, that this is not Rubby’s first rodeo: his debut came in 2011 with the Dodgers as a 22-year old and he’s shown a great deal of resiliency already to recover from Tommy John surgery. If I’m manager John Farrell, I consider De La Rosa ready for the limelight right now. I take a chance and stick him in some pressure situations to see if I can’t make lightning strike twice: the 2013 Red Sox version of vintage K-Rod could be the last piece to put Boston over the edge in their contention for the 2013 World Series Championship.

The Flyin’ Hawaiian Starts August Hot

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Shane Victorino, AL Player of the Week.

Shane Victorino’s durability and consistency over the course of his seven year career gave Red Sox GM Ben Cherington reason to offer him $39 million over three years. Ultimately, Victorino took a discount to join the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and his passion for the game is apparent to Boston fans. Turns out Victorino recently completed his best week of the season, and was awarded with the AL Player of the Week:

Split G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Last 7 days 6 6 30 26 4 9 1 0 2 6 0 0 1 2 .346 .400 .615 1.015
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/7/2013.

Victorino, along with spark-plug Jacoby Ellsbury, have guided the top of a Red Sox order that sits second only to the Tigers atop the AL in runs-scored per game at 4.98. In this post, I’ll attempt to project Victorino’s short-term and long-term future with the Sox. To do so, I’ll use a statistic called wOBA to demonstrate his batting trends.

What is wOBA?

Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) combines the value of getting on base (utilizing the player’s OBP) with the value of driving in runs (by using the slugging percentage). The general principle underlying the metric is that the mere act of reaching base is nearly twice as valuable as hitting an extra-base hit. It is simply one of the many tools that evaluators use to determine production and estimate a monetary value for a player’s services. It should be noted that the actual number associated with wOBA is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless — that is to say, wOBA should be treated as an ordinal rather than a cardinal statistic. Also, the statistic does not take into account any fielding value the player offers to the team. A thorough history and guide to the use of wOBA as a statistic can be found here.

Short-Term Projection

Victorino’s career tendency is to start the season slowly, but steadily pick up around the beginning of May. His hitting usually peaks around mid-June, then steadily declines as the season progresses towards September.

Victorino season

While the first two months of Victorino’s 2013 campaign largely resembled his career averages, his uncharacteristic dip in July likely rang alarm bells in the Sox’ front office. This might explain their unexpected trade interest for both Giancarlo Stanton and Alex Rios in the weeks leading up to the July 31st trade deadline. While it’s easy to attribute Victorino’s July struggles to a .274 BABIP lower than his career .297 clip, there may be more to his diminishing performance than poor luck. Victorino’s swing profile suggests that he hit the ball in the exact same way between the two months (~20% LD, ~39% GB, ~41% FB). but his 3.3% infield-hit percentage in July as compared with 10.5% in May may have been the difference-maker leading to his lower production. This should come as no surprise, as Victorino has been continuously hampered by hamstring injuries throughout the year. Victorino’s hot start to August has been due his uncharacteristically high propensity to hit for extra bases (.700 SLG). but I’d expect him to come back to earth in the coming week or so. To be a productive Major Leaguer, Victorino must fit into his niche of getting on base and utilizing his speed to create offense. This seems less and less likely with every limp that Victorino takes upon leaving the batter’s box towards first base.  In any case, the Sox will have to turn to other players aside from the AL player of the week for offensive pop for the duration of their road trip.

Long-Term Projection

Sox GM Ben Cherington must have had faith that Victorino’s production would continue in order to give him a 3-year deal with an annual salary of $13 million. Victorino’s career trend in wOBA, while erratic, might provide insight into Cherington’s decision to do so:

Shane Victorino year

The upward dip at the tail end of the trend-line is clear, and Victorino might recover from his sub-par 2012 in a similar way that he improved his wOBA during his first four years in the bigs. Also, Victorino’s recovery from a sub-par 2010 season may have made Cherington confident that he could recover from an even more dismal 2012 tilt.

Also, it’s not all about hitting. Much of Victorino’s value arrises from his defense and strong arm in the outfield. The affinity that his ribs have for various nooks and crannies in Fenway’s right field is both worrisome for his health and exciting for any fan eager for a jaw-dropping defensive snag. While Victorino often appears reckless and injury prone, the truth of the matter is that Victorino has had only three stints on the disabled list in his entire career prior to 2013 (the last was in 2010) and the maximum amount of time he’s spent out of action is 22 days. Even despite his appearance as injury prone, Victorino has never played in less than 131 games since becoming a full-time player. Given the fact that he’s only 32 years old, his durability should be sustainable for the length of his three-year contract. While $13 million in salary might be a tad high (I projected Jacoby Ellsbury to sign a free agent contract with AAV $13 million yesterday), the value that Victorino brings with his bat, glove, arm, and veteran clubhouse leadership suggests that Cherington made the right move in locking up the Sox right-fielder for 3 years. It doesn’t hurt that he’s in possession of the most recent AL Player of the Week trophy.

Free Agent Case Study #1: Jacoby Ellsbury

While the Red Sox are poised to make a run deep into October, it is easy to forget that everyday center-fielder and leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury will be a free agent following the 2013 campaign.

ellsbury

For this inaugural post in Dave Roberts’ Dive, I’ll explore the possible market value for Ellsbury and give a prediction on whether GM Ben Cherington decides to keep the flashy outfielder in Beantown. Here goes.

The Numbers

Ellsbury’s single biggest asset is his speed, and thus it is imperative that he reach base to offer value to his team. His .361 OBP ranks 5th amongst all Major League center-fielders and is reminiscent of the .376 clip he posted during the 2011 season in which he finished second in the AL MVP voting. While his walk-rate remains below-average at 7.6%, his stellar OBP suggests that his ability to reach base is unaffected by his aggressive plate appearances. His 2013 WAR checks in at 4.1 so far and is third-tier amongst MLB center-fielders — the elite Mike Trout (6.9) is in the first-tier whereas break-out Carlos Gomez (5.6) and Andrew McCutchen (5.4) round out the top three.

In 2011, Ellsbury showed signs of being a four-tool talent (sorry, Jake, I don’t think that arm will ever develop into a cannon) that might anchor the top of the Sox lineup for many years to come. But Ellsbury has been unable to regain the power that rendered his 2011 season a success. If he lives up to his ZiPS projection of 8 homers, is will be a far cry from his 2011 production of 32 taters. His .344 wOBA is in the same range as teammates Daniel Nava and Mike Napoli and ranks nowhere near elite.

The Intangibles

Ellsbury is a dynamic ballplayer and a dynamic personality. His aggressive play and extreme athleticism means that fans could be in for a spectacular play at any time. But it is this same aggressive play that makes Ellsbury injury prone. He missed significant time in 2010 after colliding with teammate Adrian Beltre while chasing a pop-up and lost much of 2012 after dislocating his shoulder while attempting to break-up a double play. Because Ellsbury makes his living by being aggressive in the batter’s box,  on the bases, and in the field, it is unlikely that a team would ever ask him to “tone it down” to protect him from injuries.

Even still, Ellsbury often plays the game as if he’s afraid to injure himself, especially while running the bases. He can often be caught dogging it to first base on a routine ground ball or jogging down the line after popping up. While he presumably fails to give 100% because he’s afraid to re-aggravate a recurring leg injury (he’s had hamstring and groin problems in the past), the behavior only lends credence to the observation that he is “injury prone”.

Finally, Ellsbury is represented by the infamous Scott Boras, who has yet to connect with GM Ben Cherington on a long-term deal with any player.*

The Market

Center field is a premium position and there have been many high-profile signings in recent years. Below is a listing of recent free agent signings (and contract extensions in italics):

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Ellsbury’s market value will be significantly affected by how far the Red Sox go into the playoffs and how much he’s helped them along the way. Center-fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s emergence as the organization’s 2nd-top prospect in 2013 will also likely affect the way they value Ellsbury’s talent.

The Suitors

I envision many west-coast teams to be in play for Ellsbury. The Athletics have an opening with Coco Crisp coming off the books and Seattle has needed a center-fielder ever since Ichiro was shipped east. Texas has an opening in the outfield due to the likely free agent attrition of Nelson Cruz and I’d also expect the Yankees to be in play. Minnesota, Houston, and the White Sox all have needs, but I don’t expect them to compete financially.

Prediction

Ellsbury will command a 5-year, $65 million contract. The Red Sox will deem the price too steep and the Texas Rangers will overpay for Ellsbury’s services as they watch their championship window shrink. Jackie Bradley, Jr. will assume the center-field duties from Ellsbury to start the 2014 campaign. Fair warning: the Yankees can never seem to spend enough money and it would not be the first time that the Bombers pried a center-fielder from the Sox via free agency if they signed Ellsbury. Sox fans should certainly hope that Jacoby does not live by the motto, “what would Johnny do?”

*Cherington agreed to sign Boras client Stephen Drew at $9.5 million for one year following the 2012 season.