So I am ready to jump right back into baseball. With Spring Training upon us, I’ve spent a few lunches looking at the Sox’s major off-season moves. The questions surrounding the Red Sox this season focus on whether this team has enough offensive firepower to win games. I decided to look at the changes one at a time to see how they break down.
Lowell Out, Beltre In
When I first heard about this move, I was less than pleased. Looking at the numbers, I’m still not happy. Beltre could be mediocre at best, and threatens to be an absolute disaster. Granted, his dismal 2009 numbers were impaired by serious injuries. But no one is sure he is completely recovered from those injuries. Even if he returns to “Seattle years” form, the Red Sox’s starting third baseman wouldn’t fit the patient, grinding line-up they have assembled. In the past ten seasons, Beltre walked 50 times only once; over the same span, Lowell has crossed 50 walks 5 times. Beltre’s career 162 game average BB:K ration is 46:104; he strikes out twice as often as he walks. Lowell’s? 56:83. Additionally, Lowell has near equal power (23 HR per 162 games vs. Beltre’s 24) and a much better career OBP (.343 vs .325).
Beltre was the quintessential one-year wonder, he has done nothing of significance since his “incredible” (“grumble, grumble”) 2006 campaign. His OPS+ since then? 93, 105, 112, 108, 88. Remember that an OPS+ of 100 represents an average, replacement level player.
I get that most feel Lowell has lost his defensive prowess since the hip injury and cannot be counted to play more than 120 games. But Red Sox fans should be weary that Adrian Beltre might turn into the next Edgar Renteria.
Bay Out, Cameron In
I admit that when I first heard Cameron was coming aboard, all I could hear was the whiff of his bat. But, looking closely at the numbers, replacing Bay with Cameron isn’t quite as devastating as I initially thought. Notice I said “quite as.”
Unlike Beltre, Cameron fits the Sox’s philosophy. He is a grinder whose 4.05 pitches/plate appearance tops Bay’s 3.95 (.10 might seem insignificant, but its not). Further, Cameron’s career 162 game average BB:K ratio is almost equal to Bay’s: 75 :156 to 86:157. I never realized how often Bay strikes out; adding Cameron to the line-up doesn’t really increase the number of K’s.
Unfortunately, Cameron’s career OBP% is .40 lower than Bay’s (a mediocre .340 versus Bay’s steadily productive .376) and he average 10 fewer home runs per 162 games (23 vs 33). As with Beltre, Cameron’s signing has been discussed in defensive terms, but he’ll need to make a whole pile of amazing plays (i.e., “there’s no way Jason Bay gets to that ball”) to begin to make up for the impending drop in outfield offensive production.
Scutaro In, Maybe?
Given the sorry shape of the shortstop position in Boston the past few seasons, there really isn’t anyone to whom Scutaro can compare. Though the young Jed Lowrie had an impressive rookie campaign (including 4.06 pitches/per plate appearance), I don’t think anyone considers him a candidate for a full-time position. But the reason I tag a “maybe” onto Scutaro is that he is coming off of the proverbial career season. I know this sounds ridiculously reductive and preposterous, but I think a Red Sox post-season berth can be directly tied to Scutaro walking at least 85 times next season. Yeah, I think its that simple–and that it could be a significant challenge.
Consider that last season was the first time in Scutaro’s 8 year career that he managed to walk more than 57 times, walking 90 times in 680 plate appearances. His career OBP coming into last season was .325. Last season? .379. Given that his batting average showed only a modest increase last season (up to .282 from a career average of .262), that means most of his offensive production came from patience at the plate. Scutaro never had an OPS+ over 100 in his career–he’s always been a below-average player. Now he’s being asked to repeat last season’s OPS+ of 111, 4.06 pitches/plate appearance performance.
Consider too that Scutaro hit 2nd all season for the Jay’s last year. A major part of his challenge will be to maintain the same plate discipline while hitting 7th, 8th or 9th in the order. He won’t be seeing as many good pitches lower in the order without the great bats surrounding him. I guess if Ellsbury struggles or if the top of the order suffers a key injury Scutaro could find his way higher in the order. But he better be ready to get his first at bat in the third inning some nights.
Of course, if the Sox do make the playoffs, it won’t be solely because of Scutaro’s patience at the plate. But I would be very surprised is Scutaro returned to pre-2009 form and the Red Sox still mustered enough offense to make the post-season.
And, unlike our other candidates, Scutaro is not an upgrade in the field. Throughout his career, his defensive numbers have been better at second base. So, on top of having to repeat incredible offensive spikes in production, he has the challenge of playing (slightly) out of position.
Victor Martinez In All Year
I think I have been a bit gloomy thus far, so I’ll end on a [slightly] positive note. The Red Sox will have Victor Martinez for an entire season. But Martinez is not a top of the line slugger, as much as he is a grinding, productive catcher (an OBP of .372 versus a SLUG of .465). Though his power number check in at just 21 HR per 162 games, he has grown more patient at the plate with every season, finishing last year with a 75:74 BB:K ratio and 4.05 pitches/per plate appearance (up from career averages of 67:79 and 3.80).
Over all, I think the Red Sox have taken a small step back offensively. How small a step will be in part up to David Ortiz, but I’ll leave that pondering for a future post. In concluding this one, I’ll say that the upcoming season is definitely going to be less about fireworks and more about sparks. Sparks grinding off the wheel.
Last night’s massacre leads me to craft a round about defense for John Smoltz. Not that I necessarily want him to make another start, but that I think–and yes, I am really writing this–this season’s Yankee team isn’t receiving enough attention. Preseason questions surrounding their pitching staff, A-Rod’s rhetorical debacles, and a few early injuries have in some ways blinded the media to how good this team actually is. As Peter Gammons suggested last night, the only thing that can seemingly stop this team is an epidemic flu.
Put in a simple, declarative sentence: this might be the best offense ever assembled. They are on pace to challenge one of the vaunted baseball milestones, 1000 runs. So far, this has only been accomplished by 7 franchises: the 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1936 Yankees, the 1930 Cardinals, the 1950 Red Sox (maybe the most remarkable since this was a pitcher friendly era), and the 1999 Indians. A few other teams have gotten dreadfully close–several of them closer to our era: the 1996 Mariners, the 1998 Yankees, the 2000 White Sox, and the 2003 Red Sox. The 2009 Yanks are only on pace to score 928, but that doesn’t factor in an A-Rod less March and April.
The real danger of this offense is its consistency top to bottom. It is, quite simply, deeper than any other line up ever. A quick comparison of OPS+ and OPS from the historic 1000 runs club, and a few other noteworthy clubs, to this year’s Yanks makes this apparent. While I expect everyone to be familiar with OPS, I’ll offer a brief definition of OPS+: it is a sabermetric evaluation of a player’s performance relative to other players in the league that season, so a baseline OPS+ of 100 equates to an average player. There have been 59 OPS+ seasons over 200 in baseball history, many of them recorded by the same small group of likely suspects: Ruth, Gerhig, Williams, Mantle and Bonds. Here’s a historic breakdown of some of the top scoring teams in terms of OPS and OPS+:
|Year||Franchise||Runs Scored||+115 OPS+||+200 OPS+||+.838 OPS||+1.000 OPS||-100 OPS+||-75 OPS+|
A few random non-Yankee thoughts:
- One has to wonder how bad the defense was in 1930 if the Cards and Cubs could score that many runs with mediocre production
- Tip your cap to Teddy, Dom, and that incredible 1950’s offense for breaking 1k in a pitchers era. They are the only team on this list between 1936 and 1999. Also, notice their overall balance, with 7 players above the .838 OPS.
- Notice that after the 1930’s, there’s not a single top offense with a +200 OPS+. I probably should have set the bar lower here, and looked for the number of +175 or +150 players
- The asterisk on the 2003 Red Sox marks that they had a significant 4 players over a .938 OPS, including Bill Mueller, their number nine hitter.
In terms of the 2009 Yankees, you could put an asterisk in their favor next to almost every category:
- Their ninth starter, Cabrera, has an OPS+ of 111.
- Their only other impact player (i.e., projected to have more than 300 PA) is Brett Gardner–his OPS+ is 99. Thus, they are only a combined 6 OPS+ points away from having nine starters above 115 and ten players above league average.
- Jeter is the one OPS+ 115 or better player to have an OPS of less than .838; he has a paltry .833. Thus this team could have 8 players over an .838 OPS.
- It is surprising that this team does not have a single player with an OPS+ over 150. The highest they have is Texeria’s 146.
This lineup, beyond all proverbial cliches, will kill you nine men deep. The major leagues have never seen a lineup like this before. There are no weak spots, no easy outs, no respite for a pitcher. For many years the Yankees paid out enough in salary to field an all-star at every position. This is the first year, however, that they are actually doing it.
God I hate them. God they suck.
Please excuse the Metallica reference in the title
As I talked about awhile back, I don’t think the Red Sox have as strong a rotation as we expected. I wanted Halladay or Lee before the deadline, and am truly concerned about our starting pitching heading down the stretch. Right now we echo the 1948 Braves’ mantra from the days of Spawn and Sain–Beckett, Lester, and then pray for rain.
That said, nothing makes me salivate like a Red Sox / Yankee game. I had to explain this to a few students during our goodbye lunch Wednesday–that I respect and even root for the Rays. Despite their victory over us in last year’s playoffs, I hold them no animosity. They are like the little engine that could. They are like the little brother who always tries really hard to play with his older siblings. I find it difficult to rationalize the extreme hatred Rays fans seem to hold particularly toward the Red Sox. I want the Rays to succeed, for however short a window they have. Because, you Ray fans out there, celebrate as you will, but know this: the economic realities of playing in the AL East will catch up to you, especially in this economy. You will find it difficult to compete as players such as Crawford, Garza, and Zobrist reach free agency and when you are not drafting in the top five every year for a decade. We’ll see how things go this off-season, when Crawford exercises his $1mil buyout, becomes a free agent and fills the void of Johnny Damon in left field. Don’t alienate Red Sox Nation Rays fans. Sooner or later, you will want to join us in that purely Boston of anthems: “Yankees suck, Yankees suck, Yankees suck” (no lie, I have heard this at high school basketball games, shopping malls, and weddings).
That aside (directed to the local radio personalities than to any fanboys who read this blog), there is no limits to my completely irrational hatred of all things Yankees. And it pains me, greatly, to say: I think the Yankees are the clear favorite to win the World Series. I thought, especially after the collapse of Wang, that their pitching would deteriorate. But, unfortunately, Sabathia’s elbow doesn’t show any wear after all those innings last season and Burnett has found a way to stay healthy. Pettitt rolls along as he tends to do. Chamberlain has developed as a starter of note. This all spells trouble for everyone else in Major League Baseball because this offense is legendary. L-E-G-E-N-D-A-R-Y. 8 starters with an OPS+ over 118 and an OPS over .838. By comparison, the Red Sox have 2 starters over those plateaus and the Rays have 4. The Red Sox have a more consistent lineup than the Rays with only one hitter with an OPS+ under 85–Nick Green (72) while the Rays have three starters with OPS+ below 85: Burrell (84), Upton (79), and Navarro (52). If this team can pitch, then I fear there’s nothing to stop them from winning their first championship of this century. BOO!
After the two losses to the Rays, I am really hoping for a split with the Yankees. A victory by Smoltz tonight would go along way to that end. Both of our horses appear later in the series, so I won’t dismiss the possibility of winning 3 out of 4. Here’s to hoping that the Smoltz we see tonight proves those Sabermatricians, and their analysis of his incredulously high BABIP, are right.
There’s two things inspiring this post: a comment over at Painting the Black on Edgar Martinez’s chances at the HoF, and Rob’s note that the A’s are struggling offensively this year. To mash them together: I’m suspicious regarding the greatness of any Colorado Rockie hitter.
Rob highlighted how the A’s offense has been less than stellar this year, noting how pitcher Dallas Braden has a sub .500 record despite pitching quite well. I commented that the A’s actually made a bid at winning the division this year, acquiring Matt Holliday and rolling the dice on Giambi. Whatever you might say of the latter, the former was considered one of the better hitters available last season. But a cursory look behind his numbers suggests that the buyer should have been a bit more “bewared.”
Let’s look at what the A’s saw: a 28 year old hitter in the prime of his career who had amassed three straight .900+ OPS seasons while growing increasingly patient every year. Truly, Holliday’s brief career numbers are impressive: .314-.384.-.538, with 136 HRs (a 28 HR/162 avg), 75 stolen bases, and 205 doubles.
However, I am surprised that a sabermetric-oriented general manager such as Beane didn’t hesitate after looking at Holliday’s home/away splits.
- Home: .348-.417-.624, 115 2B, 88 HR, 933 TB
- Away: .280-.351-.449, 90 2B, 48 HR, 659 TB
There are times when, planning a post, I expect the numbers to show me something before I actually look at them. This was one of those times (“I bet Holliday’s home splits are much better than his road ones”). I just rarely expect the numbers to be this definitive. Again, I am surprised that Beane would pay 10 million a season for an .800 OPS player.
The situation is the same with Todd Helton, who at age 35 has played his entire career at Coors Field (and given his contract, is likely to finish there). Historically, Helton’s shadow is fairly large; he is 3rd among active leaders in BA and OPS (37th and 10th all-time respectively). But his splits are just as dramatic as Holliday:
- Home: .360-.458.-647, 196 HR, 2035 TB
- Away:.295-.394-.493, 124 HR, 1536 TB
Its one thing to say “Coors inflates numbers,” its another thing to see the difference between a 1.106 and a .888 OPS.
For those unfamiliar with Neutralized stats, this is a good introduction. Neutralized stats attempt to adjust park, league, and era factors. Neutralized, Holliday and Helton’s career lines look like this:
- Holliday: .302-.372-.515, 128 HR, 467 RBI
- Helton: .303-.401.-527, 283 HR, 949 RBI
My suspicion here is that, after looking at their home/road splits, the neutralization process is a bit too conservative when it comes to a fringe case like Coors Field. Holliday’s career outside of Coors will support or betray this hypothesis. But the numbers suggest that the buyer should certainly beware.
Combined, Helton and Holliday provided the Rockies one of the best 3-4 punches of the decade. Viewed in isolation, their numbers are staggering. But are either Hall worthy? Holliday got out of Coors at age 28, so his stay there will likely not factor into any Hall of Fame decision. But Helton will have played his prime there. His neutralized .928 career OPS puts him in good company, but not necessarily HoF company. His OPS+, an adjusted measurement, ranks him 67th all-time, around players such as Kevin Mitchell, Jack Clark, Pedro Guerrero and Edgar Martinez, and also players such as Duke Snider, Reggie Jackson, Mike Piazza, Harmon Killebrew, and Larry Walker. Wait, Larry Walker? Isn’t that another Rockie?