Over the next couple of weeks, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting teams in baseball – one contender and one rebuilder from each league. What makes a team “interesting”? Taking advantage of the extreme nature of its ballpark, for a couple of clubs. Bucking some of the game’s most prevalent current trends and having success, for another. Or almost completely breaking from every pattern displayed in a club’s fairly successful recent past. To kick it off, let’s look at our AL contender, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, who a little more than a year and a half ago, were considered by most to be the single most underachieving team in the game.
As August 25, 2012, ended, the Boston Red Sox were 60-67, in 4th place in the AL East, 13.5 games out of first. This was the ill-fated Bobby Valentine year, that followed the fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse season. The Sox had missed the playoffs in spectacular fashion on the last day of that season in 2011, after a calendar year full of transactions that enthralled just about every pundit and prognosticator – you know, like the Philadelphia Eagles “Dream Team” of a couple years back. They had landed Adrian Gonzalez in late 2010, and extended him for seven years and $154M the next season. They had also signed Carl Crawford for seven years and $142M during the 2010-11 offseason. As the 2012 season slipped away, the heady days of 2004 and 2007 seemed long gone, as the Gonzalez-Crawford centered club was headed nowhere, and had seemingly very limited financial flexibility.
Enter the Los Angeles Dodgers, freshly buoyed by an aggressive new ownership group apparently unencumbered by any semblance of financial restraint. The Sox sent Gonzalez, Crawford and Josh Beckett (along with Nick Punto) to L.A., along with the over one quarter billion dollars they were owed. If the deal was simply those three players in exchange for the associated salary relief, it would have favored the Red Sox. However, the Sox were also able to acquire two significant pitching prospects, RHPs Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, in the five-player package they received in return.
The bottom fell out of the remainder of the Sox’ 2012 season, as they lost 26 of their last 35 games after the trade to finish 69-93, buried in last place. The club now had the financial flexibility, however, to enter the 2012-13 offseason and build around their still considerable core moving forward.
BUILDING TO THE BALLPARK
The Red Sox avoided the temptation to invest in a single big-name star, instead spreading the wealth to an eclectic group of veterans, among them 1B Mike Napoli, SS Stephen Drew, LF Jonny Gomes, RF Shane Victorino and RHP Koji Uehara. They also added 1B Mike Carp in a waiver deal after he was removed from the Mariners’ 40-man roster. Obviously, in retrospect these appear to be spectacular moves, as most of these guys were bearded and delirious at the end of last season. Why this group, however? Let’s take a step back and examine some of the nuances of the Red Sox’ home, Fenway Park. Its’ unique configuration yields some unusual park factors, especially on fly balls.
|FLYBALL PARK FACTORS|
|ADJ FOR BIP SPD/ANGLE|
|2013||ACT AVG||ACT SLG||PRJ AVG||PRJ SLG||PARK FCT|
The above table list my fly ball park factors for all 30 major league ballparks — based on my own calculations and information available from my time in a front office — from most to least hitter-friendly. The first two columns indicate the actual AVG and SLG generated on fly balls, while the next two indicate what the AVG and SLG “should have been” if balls hit at the actual mix of speeds and angles would have resulted into singles, doubles, triples and homers at major league average rates. The fifth column, the park factor, reflects the run value inflation or deflation caused by the difference between the two. As you see, Fenway inflates run-scoring on fly balls at a rate (151.1) second only to Coors Field.
In arriving at that 151.1 figure, one might inquire as to how Fenway inflates fly ball singles, doubles, triples and homers specifically. Well……1B = 101, 2B = 181, 3B = 128, HR = 104. Since the raw number of actual and projected triples is relatively low, the run value inflation is by far most attributable to the inflation of fly ball doubles.
Let’s also look at this another way, and break down Fenway’s fly ball park factor by outfield sector:
LF = 205.4 LCF = 179.1 CF = 200.2 RCF = 89.5 RF = 81.7 OVERALL = 151.1
We are now beginning to localize and quantify the Fenway fly ball factor – it is largely attributable to fly balls that would be outs almost anywhere else, that instead become doubles off of the high LF, LCF and CF fences. Now, to find some position players who hit more such fly balls than other players do, as well as some pitchers who can minimize such damage. (For the record, Fenway’s line drive and ground ball park factors for 2013 were 95.6 and 98.8, respectively.)
How did the Sox’ position players take advantage of their confines in 2013? Here are some Sox regular and semi-regular personnel from last season and their respective fly ball frequencies, expressed in percentile rank form (99 = maximum, 50 = average, 1 = minimum): Jarrod Saltalamacchia 97, Daniel Nava 96, Will Middlebrooks 79, Carp 78, Gomes 75, Napoli 73, Drew 71, David Ortiz 53. That’s a critical mass of some extreme fly ball hitting right there.
Even the two key 2013 Sox regulars with low fly ball frequencies (Jacoby Ellsbury 27, Dustin Pedroia 25) got some points added to their batting average from the Fenway fly ball factor. Ellsbury actually hit .364 on fly balls compared to a projected .295 based on his hard/soft fly ball rate, while Pedroia batted .248 compared to a projected .210 – for both, the difference was almost entirely attributable to wall-balls that would have been outs almost anywhere else. Let’s take an even closer look at batted-ball production by type for a couple of the 2013 Sox’ complementary players.
|Carp||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Gomes||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
The above table shows batted-ball production by type for Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes. The “REL PRD” column shows the run value of their actual production relative to league average for each batted-ball type, scaled to 100. The “ADJ PRD” column adjusts for ballpark, luck, etc., to give a better insight to the player’s true talent level. The next to last row indicates actual production on all balls in play, and the K’s and BB’s are added back to the last row, which measures overall performance. SH and SF are included as outs, and HBP are not included in OBP for purposes of this exercise.
As you can see, Carp and Gomes’ 2013 performances were primarily driven by inflated production on fly balls. Carp’s .429 AVG and 1.102 SLG on fly balls “should have been” only .289-.774, and Gomes’ actual .324-.972 “should have been” only .274-.683. Instead of productive part-timers, both Carp and Gomes should have been near replacement-level performers, with ADJ PRD figures of 96 and 86, respectively, with little to no defensive value, if the balls they had hit would have been converted into outs at MLB average rates for their speed and angle off of the bat. With Gomes specifically, let’s take a step back and look at the whole picture – a massive K rate (84 percentile rank), an even more massive popup rate (99 percentile rank, highest in baseball), and an extreme pull profile, even in the air. In most parks, this is a recipe for the end of a career – in Fenway, it’s the profile of a solid complementary piece.
Napoli and Drew’s offensive contributions were also upsized by Fenway – note Napoli’s nine doubles as a Ranger in 2012 compared to his total of 38 in 2013. The Red Sox also recognized the need for a second center fielder to patrol their spacious RF area when they signed Victorino, and identified the relief stud within when they signed Uehara and his outlandish combination of K, BB and popup rates. Their 2013 roster construction work was done, and they accomplished their goals while retaining significant financial flexibility, thanks both to the short-term nature of their newer financial commitments, as well as the Pedroia Factor.
THE PEDROIA FACTOR
Dustin Pedroia has eight years and $109M left on his contract. Robinson Cano has 10 years and $240M left on his. Cano is the best second baseman in baseball – but he’s not $131M in guaranteed money better, or even close to that. Pedroia too is helped by Fenway, though not nearly as much as most of his teammates. He outperforms his generally solid but unspectacular batted ball profile annually by minimizing his K’s, maximizing his BB’s, and outperforming his hard/soft groundball rates, often on sheer will and hustle. As much value as Pedroia brings on the field, however, it can be argued that he delivers even more in less tangible ways. When one of your core stars consciously takes a long-term discount in the interest of the big picture – of long-term championship contention – players throughout the game notice, and are often eager to get in on the fun. Many of the Sox Class of 2013 free agent signees left money on the table to come to Boston, and they got one hell of a baseball and life experience as a result. As bad as the clubhouse dynamic might have been at the 2012 low point, it was that good and better in 2013.
Ryan Dempster, one of the Sox’ few personnel misfires of the 2012-13 offseason, had $13.25M coming to him in 2014 if he just showed up and went through the motions, even if he wound up spending the entire season on the DL. Instead, he stepped back from the game for a combination of physical and family reasons, forfeited his salary, and even mentioned the best interests of the club in his statement. Might he have done the same if he pitched for another club? Perhaps – but while his actions speak most loudly about the character of Dempster, they also speak to the high regard in which he held the organization. What did the Red Sox do with the savings resulting from this decision?
SIMULTANEOUS MAJOR AND MINOR LEAGUE STRENGTH
You always hear about clubs being right up against their budget number, especially late in the offseason. Well, if most clubs were to suddenly receive $13M in salary relief, they would be inclined to race out and address immediate needs, including those created by the player whose self-removal created the relief. Not this version of the Red Sox. Though their projected 2014 rotation is solid (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Felix Doubront), the Sox know as well as anyone that your original five generally isn’t enough to get you through the season. They even more logically could have used the funds to bring back Stephen Drew, one of the perfect Fenway fly ball fits of 2013.
They chose not to, however, instead signing Chris Capuano out of the bargain bin for rotation insurance, and entrusting the shortstop position to rookie phenom Xander Bogaerts. Beyond this, they resisted the temptation to make a big-ticket move to replace the departed Jacoby Ellsbury, instead entrusting the center field position to another talented youngster, Jackie Bradley, Jr., with reclamation project Grady Sizemore brought in as insurance on a make-good deal that offers little risk and potentially sizeable reward. Behind Capuano in the rotation pecking order stand the two prospects obtained in “the trade”, Webster and De La Rosa, along with high-end prospects Henry Owens and Matt Barnes. Catching depth, a sore spot in almost all organizations, is plentiful, with Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart not too far away, and the recently untouchable Ryan Lavarnway supposedly available for trade. Yes, the Red Sox, along with the Cardinals, Rangers and possibly the Pirates, are the only clubs in the game who currently boast well above average major and minor league talent, with no signs of an imminent downturn on either front. Most contenders pushed all of their chips toward the center over the winter, but the Sox held many in reserve, both in the form of dollars and prospects, retaining maximum flexibility to enhance their club on the fly.
Everything went right for the Boston Red Sox last season, and there are no guarantees for a repeat performance in 2014. Luck is the residue of design, however, and this organization currently is very well designed. The major league club is talented throughout, with young talent sprinkled around a core of proven but ever-motivated veterans. The club fits their ballpark impeccably, and most of its members appear to be proud to wear the uniform. When the inevitable roadblocks present themselves after the season begins, their combination of minor league strength and financial power and flexibility should still give them the ability to be squarely in the conversation for the AL pennant. They aren’t going away anytime soon.