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Red Sox General Manager, and erstwhile boy wonder, Theo Epstein graced Boston sports talk radio with his presence, and his opinions on Thursday. The results were interesting, to say the least. Among other things, Theo unequivocally defended his right fielder, David Jonathan “J.D.” Drew, and, in fact, referred to him as “one of the two or three most valuable outfielders in the league.” Judging by the responses of the callers, Red Sox Nation was not amused.
Drew is a polarizing figure, who draws the ire of fans for reasons both real and imagined. Essentially, the criticism of Drew boils down to three things: (1) he is vastly overpaid, (2) he doesn’t seem to care, and (3) he is injury prone. I will argue that only the third criticism is valid.
Durability is not J.D. Drew’s strong suit. In eleven full seasons in the Major Leagues, he has never played more than 146 games. In three seasons in Boston, Drew has averaged 129 games played. He reminds me of another smooth, oft-injured Sox outfielder—Fred Lynn. When he is on the field, he is productive. He is not, however, going to remind anybody of Cal Ripken, Jr.
As for his demeanor, or the fact that he is “overpaid,” I don’t think they have any relevancy at all. Why should any of us care how much money he makes? We are not shareholders, so why does it matter how much of John Henry’s cash he deposits in his bank account? The Red Sox are among the wealthiest teams in baseball, so do not believe for one moment that Drew’s contract will prevent them from signing any, and I mean any, player they want to. What about high ticket prices, you say? I could write a whole piece on why ticket prices are not correlated in any way to team payroll, but I won’t—I promise. As for his demeanor, who cares what a player looks like. Players should be judged by their numbers, by their productivity, if you will.
Back, then, to his production, for a moment. In arguing his case for Drew, Theo stated, inter alia, that “primitive” baseball statistics such as batting average, home runs, and RBI are a poor judge of a player’s value. This is, in fact, the rub. To fans of a certain age—this author included—the value of a player was measured by the “back of his baseball card” numbers. It was only grudgingly that I accepted the superiority of the Sabermetric approach pioneered by Bill James. Many have still not accepted the James approach; and if you haven’t, then Drew is a hard sell indeed.
A brief digression into basic Sabermetric theory is, I believe, in order. At its most basic, the James approach seeks to remove context-dependent statistics from player evaluation. For instance, RBI and Runs Scored are often cited as proof that a player is “productive.” It is obvious, however, that those stats are heavily dependent upon context. A player can only drive in runners if they are on base, and can only score a run if somebody drives him in. So far, so good. Batting average is context-independent, and thus seemingly a valuable tool for judging a player. Closer examination, however, demonstrates an obvious problem: a player with a high batting average who does not walk very much or hit home runs (Juan Pierre) is less clearly less “productive” than a player with a low batting average who walks a lot and hits home runs (Adam Dunn). Fans know this intuitively, and the numbers back this up.
As anyone who read Moneyball knows, the “hot” statistic of the last decade is On-Base Percentage (OBP). The reason OBP is so critical is that the most important number in baseball is three—the numbers of outs allotted to each team in an inning. Every out made dramatically affects the probability that runs will be scored. Thus, the importance placed upon “not making outs,” which is the concept neatly expressed by OBP. Most of us who played little league were once told that “a walk is as good as a hit.” This is, of course, not quite true. A walk is (almost) as good as a single. Doubles, triples and, especially, home runs are better. Thus, Slugging Percentage is a valuable statistic. In an attempt to measure the overall value of an offensive player, the two statistics have been combined as On Base Plus Slugging, or OPS. If you look at the history books, or, actually, Baseball-Reference.com, you will find that the all-time leaders in OPS are, almost certainly, the five best hitters in baseball history: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, and Jimmie Foxx. The active leader is Albert Pujols.
Now that we have that out of the way, let us return to Mr. Drew. In 2009, Drew was second, to teammate Jason Bay, in OPS among American League outfielders. He was second in OBP. A fluke, you say? In 2008 he was third in OPS, and second in OBP. It is these numbers, along with his strong, and underrated, defense, that Theo is thinking of when he defends Drew. Not convinced? Then the this will really disturb you. Statisticians formulate what is called Adjusted OPS (OPS+), which normalizes the raw data for era, league, and ballpark factors; on this scale 100 is average. J.D. Drew has a career OPS+ of 129, which means that he is 29% more productive than the average player. Hall of Famer, and current NESN contributor, Jim Rice, had a career OPS+ of 128.