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.

baseballrodriguez

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.

rally-monkey-youtube_606

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.