The Red Sox Should Trade for Another Hitter

After a promising start to the season, the Red Sox pitching staff is starting to again resemble the disaster that sank the 2015 season. Over the last two weeks, the starting rotation has put up a 6.89 ERA, as David Price‘s disappointing debut season in Boston has continued, Steven Wright’s knuckleball-magic has started to show signs of wearing off, and Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez just took turns throwing batting practice. The Red Sox continue to hit well enough to stay in contention, but with the pitching staff imploding once again, even the team’s manager is admitting that it’s “obvious” that the pitching needs upgrading. Despite a thin supply of available arms, it seems pretty clear that Dave Dombrowski is going to be among the most active executives in scouring the market for a starting pitcher over the next month.

But as the team looks to load up for a playoff push, there’s a case to be made that the Red Sox biggest move this summer should be to add another bat to the line-up instead.

Back in May, when looking for landing spots for Ryan Braun, I noted that perhaps there was room for the Red Sox to make a big trade with the Brewers, bringing in Milwaukee’s slugging left fielder, but also acquiring catcher Jonathan Lucroy in the deal as well. The idea of the team bringing in Braun looks less necessary now that Andrew Benintendi is crushing Double-A pitching and is looking big league ready; Steamer already projects him for a 109 wRC+ if called up right now, and so the team is probably better served just calling him up to be this year’s Michael Conforto rather than bringing in a veteran to block his path.

But the team’s incentives for acquiring Lucroy have only grown since May. Blake Swihart’s experiment in the outfield is on hold while he recovers from a “severe” ankle sprain, and the odds of him catching for the Red Sox again this season appear low. Christian Vazquez hit just .226/.278/.305 before getting optioned back to the minors over the weekend, as even with potentially elite defense, he didn’t hit enough to hold down a starting job. So now the team’s catchers are Sandy Leon and Ryan Hanigan, a pair of career backups who aren’t likely to be much of an offensive improvement over Vazquez for the remainder of the season.

Lucroy is an obvious answer to a real problem the team faces, and unlike with the pitching market — where demand far outstrips supply — the team probably won’t have that many competitors bidding for Lucroy’s services.

The Mets have been rumored as a potential landing spot for Lucroy, but Travis d’Arnaud is at least holding his own as a hitter since returning from the DL, and hit well last year, so it’s not entirely clear that the Mets want to relegate him to the bench. The Indians could acquire Lucroy to replace the struggling Yan Gomes, but giving up on a guy signed to a low-cost long-term deal doesn’t really seem like the Indians way, especially since most of his struggles are tied to his .204 BABIP. The Rangers were often mentioned as the most likely landing spot for Lucroy over the winter and into the spring, but Robinson Chirinos keeps hitting home runs, and with their pitching staff getting crushed by injuries, they seem more likely to look for arms instead.

There are other teams besides the Red Sox where Lucroy would fit, but no other contender is really in a position where they’re likely to feel they have to trade for a backstop this summer; everyone else could probably talk themselves into making due with their internal options if the price on Lucroy proves prohibitive. So while the Brewers aren’t going to give Lucroy away, the price has at least a chance of being reasonable, unlike what sellers are going to ask for their pitchers this summer.

And despite the commonly-accepted wisdom that a team should only try to improve by upgrading on its weakest link — in Boston’s case, that would clearly be the pitching staff — the Red Sox would actually benefit quite a bit from the addition of another quality hitter. Yes, they already lead the majors in runs scored, so some will claim that the team has “enough offense”, but there is no truth to the idea that there are diminishing returns on adding good hitters to an already-good offense. In fact, the inverse is actually true.

Because hitters perform better with men on base than the bases empty, upgrading an offense that is already performing well will actually result in a larger increase in run scoring than adding a good hitter to a weak line-up, assuming both are replacing the same equally poor hitter. I went into some depth about the effects of a line-up on a hitter’s value last year, but the short version is that Lucroy is more valuable to the Red Sox than he would be to a team with a struggling offense because his hits are more likely to come when there are runners on base in a good line-up, and having good hitters behind him means he’s more likely to be driven in when he reaches base himself.

In baseball, offense begets more offense, and a strong hitting team gets a larger return from upgrading a weak line-up spot than a weak hitting team gets from swapping out a bad hitter for a good one, which is counter to the notion that a slugging team like the Red Sox have “enough” runs and need to figure out how to prevent them. While it’s easy to point to the Red Sox rotation and say that their pitching is the real problem, every baseball teams goal should be to outscore their opponents, not reach some nebulous ideal balance of runs scored and runs allowed. And runs scored don’t count any less than runs prevented, even if you’ve already scored five, six, or seven runs that day.

This isn’t to say that the Red Sox shouldn’t upgrade their pitching staff; they certainly should try, and if they can get a quality starter or two, then definitely do that too. But the Red Sox — and other contenders in similar positions — should not box themselves into simply identifying their pitching staff as the place to upgrade because its the weakest part of the roster. It would be ideal if the supply of available talent matched up with a team’s weakest options, but this year, there simply aren’t enough acquirable arms to fill all the spots that contenders will be looking for.

Reinforcing a strong offense can be just as effective at winning games as replacing poor pitchers. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing to keep beating your opponents 9-7, but it still counts as a win, and given the way offense scales up in a non-linear way, it’s actually going to be easier for a team like the Red Sox to make a larger improvement by adding a good-hitting catcher than it will be to upgrade the rotation in a similar manner. Instead of forcing themselves to shop in a barren pitching market with few good options, the Red Sox could likely make a bigger impact on their team by acquiring Lucroy and accepting that they’re going to go as far as their offense can carry them.

If they can land Lucroy and a pitcher or two, even better. But they shouldn’t avoid making a substantial upgrade to their roster simply because Lucroy isn’t a pitcher. In baseball, runs are runs, and you don’t need to limit yourself to just improving the side of the ball that you’re weakest at.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Also, adding Lucroy would obviously be a positive boon for the pitching staff as well. I know Vazquez was, and still is, a highly-touted defensive catcher but I’m sure a veteran like Lucroy could handle this staff and the pressure of a playoff push more so than a young, unproven catcher.