Do The Red Sox Have a Ground Ball Fetish?

The Red Sox have tried to erase the painful feelings of their botched Jon Lester negotiations by completing a flurry of pitcher transactions. While that’s unlikely to fool people who still just want Lester back, the pitchers acquired (or reportedly acquired) — Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson — all have one thing in common in that they generate a lot of ground balls. Before that, they acquired Joe Kelly, who also generates a great deal of ground balls. Are ground balls the hip new thing on Yawkey Way?

If they are, it is a very new thing. As we can see in the table below, in the brief time that we have data for ground ball percentage, the Red Sox have rarely been overly focused on pitchers who get grounders:

Red Sox Ground Ball Percentage, 2002-2014
All Pitchers Starting Pitchers
Year GB% Rank GB% Rank
2014 43.6 23 44.1 19
2013 42.9 23 43.5 22
2012 46.4 8 47.1 8
2011 42.3 28 42.9 22
2010 43.6 19 45.0 11
2009 40.9 29 43.3 16
2008 43.5 16 41.4 24
2007 42.6 21 42.5 20
2006 43.8 12 45.3 12
2005 42.4 23 42.9 20
2004 45.5 7 46.0 7
2003 44.9 9 45.9 7
2002 45.1 7 47.0 3

As you can see, the team had a bit of a groundballing thing going on more than a decade ago, but they haven’t been as heavy on them since. The team saw a brief spike in 2012, when Josh Beckett — who was the starter who generated the lowest percentage of ground balls — was essentially replaced for part of the season by the ultra-groundballing Aaron Cook. Going from Beckett’s 40.8 GB% to Cook’s 60.2% is about as dramatic a swing as you can have, and it helped push the team into the top 10 for the first time in eight years. So, there’s not a lot of historical precedent for the team targeting ground ball pitchers.

Of course, it’s also been awhile since the team had a plus defender at third base, which has been a sieve since Adrian Beltre left. Shortstop has been better — Mike Aviles and Stephen Drew were solid — but neither were spectacular compared to their peers, and they also didn’t play full seasons. So there wasn’t a real reason to prioritize ground balls.

In fact, the left side of the infield is not guaranteed to be better this year. Xander Bogaerts‘ overall defensive metrics don’t tell the full tale, as he performed far worse when he was thrown to the dogs at third base to make room for the immortal Drew. But that brings Bogaerts’ value from well below average up to just scratch. Perhaps, after two years of being jerked around, Bogaerts will blossom into an above-average defensive shortstop if he is left alone in 2015, but the jury is most certainly out. Sandoval should be a big upgrade, as he generally scores high marks for his defense, but his statistical record is more up and down. The Boston brass is betting on the good side of his profile, and that giving time for Sandoval and Bogaerts to gel will help improve Bogaerts’ performance.

They are making that bet, in essence, because getting these pitchers was, for now, the best they could fill out a rotation with minimal damage to the 2015 team and the bottom line. Getting Lester would have been great, but also expensive. The projected price of the three pitchers is $26 million ($12.2 million projected for Porcello and $4.3 million projected for Miley, according to our own Matt Swartz, and $9.5 million for Masterson), or $200,000 more than the average annual value of Lester’s new contract. That, as Victor Maitlind would say, is a neat trick.

Another reason to make the rotation this way is that it is flexible. The team could go out and sign James Shields, and they could have pushed harder on Brandon McCarthy, but those are premium free agents who will command big deals. If one of them goes belly up while a rookie emerges, the team would be left in an unfortunate situation. And in Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez and Matt Barnes, the team has three such prospects. If one of them is deemed ready early in the season, a pitcher like Masterson signed to a one-year deal doesn’t need to stand in his way. Kelly and Masterson both have experience in the bullpen, and can be shifted there without any trouble. The same is true for adding to the rotation at the front end. While the team may now be content with this rotation, they still have the wiggle room to go after a top-flight starter, as Dave suggested yesterday in the omnibus post. If the team lands Max Scherzer or Cole Hamels, then Kelly or Masterson can assume swingman duties.

These acquisitions also fit because the players traded away were surplus, perhaps not in the long run but definitely for 2015. The Angels needed to trade their stalwart second baseman, Howie Kendrick, to land Andrew Heaney. Now they have a hole at the keystone, one that is arguably bigger than the one they had in their starting rotation. The Tigers had to trade two of their better young players to net Alfredo Simon, and they have very few young players to deal — especially ones who could be part of their tired excuse for a bullpen by year’s end. Marcus Semien may not be a great player, but he was a definite factor in the White Sox’s 2015 plans before he was dealt in a package for Jeff Samardzija. The Marlins didn’t have to deal a great deal to get Mat Latos, but one of the players is close to the majors. And Latos himself comes with injury and performance questions — he was mediocre last season and he might not be better in 2015. But in trading away Yoenis Cespedes, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Alex Wilson, the Red Sox traded away four guys who did not fit neatly into Boston’s 2015 plans. That makes these deals a big win.

What also makes them a win is that these guys are not exactly scrubs. August covered Miley yesterday, and much of what he said applies to Porcello as well. Porcello has reduced his walk rate as time has gone by, and while he is trading strikeouts for grounders, he is getting hitters to swing at the balls he wants — his O-contact% against went up last year, but not his Z-contact%. In other words, he is getting the contact he wants. The same is more or less true of Masterson. His swinging strike percentage has remained static, and his contact percentage was the same full season-low of 78 percent that it was in 2013, when he looked like a great extension candidate. But his defense in Cleveland didn’t cooperate in 2014. He did have some home run trouble in St. Louis, so that bears watching, but it was completely out of line with his career profile. Last season aside, Masterson is a good pitcher.

Certainly neither pitcher carries the cache that Hamels does, but their projections aren’t that much different — in fact, Steamer likes Porcello better than Hamels for 2015. It is possible that the Red Sox and Phillies can still come together on a deal, but the clear preference has been established — take lower ceiling players on in order to make the pieces fit rather than trade a bounty for the one pitcher they need, because that will just create more holes to fill. This makes perfect sense. As I outlined last week for the Boston Globe, the mission now for Ben Cherington and Co. is not to go out and find great players — they’ve already done that. The offense is littered with both proven and potential above-average players. The key now is filling in around them. This current five-man rotation — new recruits Masterson, Miley and Porcello, plus holdovers Kelly and Clay Buchholz — are a good bet to be just what they needed.

Time will tell if the Red Sox have a newfound fascination with ground ball pitchers. They haven’t in the past, but with Sandoval in the fold to go with Dustin Pedroia, the Sox now have two above-average infield defenders locked up for the foreseeable future, that plan may change. But the more likely explanation is that the team is simply trying to fill out the best roster they can, and this year, that means going heavier on position players than starting pitchers.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Dr. Obvious
7 years ago

I like the plan if you have good defensive infielders…If that was the plan, I would have signed Headley instead of Sandoval…Pedroia is a stud & they could then live with a defensive stiff at SS…

7 years ago
Reply to  Dr. Obvious

The Red Sox have exactly what you describe; you’re just not giving credit to Sandoval’s defense. Over 4 seasons (really only about 3 seasons of playing time at 3B), he’s saved +13 runs according to UZR, +9 runs according to DRS, and +19 runs according to FSR.

7 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Yeah, but he’s fat so he’s bad at defense until proven otherwise for many fans.

7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

Panda’s defense should continue to be good for at least a couple of years. Given his size, we can all see this deteriorating rapidly as he gets older, but that might make him a perfect replacement for Papi at DH.

Cool Lester Smooth
7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

“Please, please replace Papi with a guy who hasn’t cracked a 120 wRC+ since 2011”

-Fans of every other team in the AL East.

7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

@Cool Lester:

From 2012-2014, here are the 15 guys who were primarily DHs. Only three averaged a wRC+ of over 124, and in no year in that span did more than four guys crack 124, which coincidentally exactly what Steamer sees from Sandoval in 2014.,d

Sure, by the time he’s potentially DHing, he may have aged a bit, but let’s not pretend that every DH is David Ortiz or E5.

7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

Just to give a bit broader picture on Sandoval (no pun intended)
Last 3 years: UZR/150 -0.1, DRS -6 (so about -2/yr)
Last 5 years: UZR/150 3.2, DRS 10 (about +2/yr)
Career: UZR/150 2.2. DRS 0

He’s basically an average defender, and as defense tends to peak early, I’m not sure I see the plus (good) defender that folks refer to – in fact if one (just as arbitrarily) chooses 3 years instead of 4 years he may be starting to trend toward slightly below average.

I know talking up the “oh people are silly and they just judge him on his fatness” angle is fun, but perhaps others are overestimating his defense because he’s basically an average defender of late and pretty close to average over his entire career.

Between “good” and “bad” there is average. When someone says he is not a good defender, it doesn’t necessarily mean they think he’s bad defender.

Cool Lester Smooth
7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

Yeah, I just don’t buy Pablo suddenly being better than he was from 25-27 at age 28, especially considering that he’s declined each year since 2011.

I think it’s more likely that Panda’s wRC+ slips under 110 than that it jumps 13 points.

Cool Lester Smooth
7 years ago
Reply to  mtsw

Carter, who had what would have been the third most valuable offensive performance of Sandoval’s career with a 123 wRC+ (Sandoval’s got a 122 wRC+ on his career), was worth 1.7 WAR last season.

So, in order for Pablo to be a league average player at DH, he’d need to improve on his career batting line at a point where he’s no longer physically capable of playing 3B.

I’m not a huge fan of those odds, personally.

Cool Lester Smooth
7 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Yeah, Pablo’s a good player, because he’s both a pretty good fielder and a pretty good hitter.

I just don’t trust his joints to hold up.

7 years ago
Reply to  Dr. Obvious

Except that Sandoval is a good defender too and a much better fit offensively for Fenway.