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Having missed the playoffs for the second straight year, the Red Sox are in flux. Terry Francona is gone, Theo Epstein is on his way to the Chicago Cubs, and Boston fans are still trying to understand just what went wrong during a season that began with lofty expectations. In a stunning turn around, critics of the team are no longer bragging about their front office outsmarting others. Instead of looking at mistakes and successes, they attack the front office, and Epstein himself, like Carl Everett at a lecture on dinosaurs, nay-saying all the way.
While the team is not above criticism, this is a disturbing sign from a city that claims to have intelligent fans. As the Tea Party has fired up anti-intellectual fervor among political types, Boston’s media, particularly sports radio, has begun to provoke the rage of the masses against the sound structure the is the Boston Red Sox. Their goal: the complete dismantling of the process that has produced one of the best runs of success in franchise history.
Taken from the book of the same name, the “moneyball” strategy is often mistaken for the high-on base, high-slugging, slow-footed, sluggers exemplified during the season chronicled by Michael Lewis. While these were the hallmarks of Billy Beane’s team-building plan in the early 2000s, they did not by themselves define the entire philosophy of the Oakland A’s.
Oakland, then and now, required a smaller payroll because of their financial situation. At the same time, it is hard to build a fan base with a losing product on the field. The long and short of it is that “moneyball 1.0” took advantage of a market inefficiency in slugging and on-base guys. Because David Justice and Scott Hatteberg were available at discounted rates meant that Oakland went after them.
During their playoff run in 2006, Oakland again turned to market inefficiencies, in this case the old (Frank Thomas who hit .270/.381/.545 with 39 HR) and the crazy (Milton Bradley who hit .276/.370/.447 with 14 HR and 10 SB). In concert with a strong pitching performance from Dan Haren (acquired from the Cardinals prior to the 2005 season for Mark Mulder), a solid season from Eric Chavez, and a 35 home run year from Nick Swisher, the Oakland A’s won 93 games during the regular season. While the normal caveat about the AL West applies, that’s not bad for a team with a payroll just north of $62 million dollars.
“Moneyball” is not simply looking at a stats sheet or “a computer” (like “Carmine”) and choosing a name and production line, rather it is much simpler: exploiting market weaknesses and inefficiencies. In his study of the Tampa Bay Rays in The Extra 2%, Jonah Keri talks about the success enjoyed by the Rays after the team reorganized, and rethought, their baseball operations from top to bottom. The new-look Rays nominally borrowed from the world of finance to put their plans into action. They tried to practice positive arbitrage in their player acquisitions, opened the first baseball academy in Brazil, and listened to trade offers large and small. In an alternate universe, their story is the Michael Lewis smash hit and “moneyball” would refer to the acquisition of players like Edwin Jackson and Ben Zobrist, players who were nothing special at the time they were acquired but became major contributors to a team fighting for survival.
Like Bill Beane’s A’s, the Rays have reached the playoffs and even the World Series, but have yet to walk away with a championship. Even the best strategy, whether it is called “moneyball,” “the extra two percent,” or “the Steinbrenner’s bountiful wallet” can’t guarantee success. They are merely guidelines used to attempt to field a competitive team every year that, with some luck, can win three postseason series.
While we don’t know exactly the measurements used in player evaluation by the Red Sox, we know that Bill James is an advisor and that John Henry wanted Billy Beane to become Boston’s GM when he purchased the team. When those plans fell through, Theo Epstein, protege of another successful baseball executive, former Padres and current Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, got the job. The rest, of course, is history.
We do know that like the classic “moneyball” strategy, the front office has valued on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and their combination in OPS. The success in exploiting these numbers during the early days is memorable: Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Mark Bellhorn, and David Ortiz are clear standouts. They were high on-base guys with power. Mueller even won a batting title, and of course he hit 35 points over his career average to do it. In 2003 and 2004, Mueller’s home batting average crushed his away numbers, a pattern observed in a number of Red Sox players during Epstein’s tenure. While home field in itself provides some comfort to a player as they spend half of every season hitting there, the Red Sox in particular have looked to capitalize on this.
With Fenway Park’s unusual dimensions – Pesky Pole, the Green Monster, the Triangle – the front office has attempted to find players who, like Mueller, are underrated in other parks but can thrive in Fenway. Another guy often put into the “made for Fenway” group is Mike Lowell. During his five years with the Red Sox, he hit more doubles at Fenway four times, more home runs three times, and had better average twice and better on-base and slugging number three times each. In 2007, his best year with the Red Sox, Lowell’s home numbers (.373/.418/.575) dwarfed his performance on the road (.276/.339/.428). While Lowell was not an Epstein acquisition, he was a product of the group the took over during Theo’s break after 2005. A group including his most likely replacement this time around, Ben Cherington.
While all the credit in the world is given to Epstein, sabremetrics, and smart evaluation of player abilities for the success, critics rail against “the computer” that supposedly makes the rest of the moves while the front office lies dormant. This is usually when words like heart, character, fire, dirt dog, clubhouse leader, etc. are thrown around. Realistically, of course, every team makes mistakes. Big ones. Johan Santana and Josh Hamilton were passed over by many teams, albeit for different reasons. Albert Pujols was drafted in the 13th round with the 402nd pick in 1999. The Red Sox, of course, selected current member of the Worcester Tornadoes Rick Asadoorian seventeenth overall. It happens.
Among notable “mistakes” by the Red Sox are Edgar Renteria, J.D. Drew, and Julio Lugo. I’m going to leave Daisuke Matsuzaka off this list. He was not the pitcher in American baseball that he was in Japan, and during the World Baseball Classic, but the dynamic of signing a pitcher from Japan add more variables than signing a guy out of high school or college: a major league commitment is required before he has played a single game in America. At the time of the Matsuzaka deal, he was one of the best, most highly-regarded pitchers in the world. It didn’t work out, but given the care the Red Sox organization seems to take in their work, it’s likely they did their due diligence and it just didn’t work out.
Often forgotten, Kai Igawa was banished to the Yankees’ minor league system, even in 2011 when the team entered Spring Training with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, there was not even a whisper of Igawa as a rotation candidate.
Like just about every other Red Sox fan who lived through the 2004 season, I wanted to see Orlando Cabrera back in a Sox uniform for many seasons. For whatever reason, the Red Sox, after seeking out the shortstop for several seasons before the famous Nomar Garciaparra trade, soured on Cabrera after the World Series. Whether it was something Cabrera did, perhaps “bad clubhouse presence” or the opportunity to upgrade with veteran Edgar Renteria on the market, we will likely never know, but the Red Sox moved on.
Renteria had two excellent seasons in 2002 and 2003, but his 2004 was a step backward. Essentially, he forgot all the progress he made during those seasons. Entering 2002, Renteria had never posted a strikeout percentage lower than 12%. For the next two seasons, the shortstop struck out just 9.4% and 8.1% before returning to a more typical 12.1% in his walk year with the Cardinals. While he would rediscover his ability to get on base after leaving Boston, Renteria hit .276/.335/.385 in his lone Red Sox season. Marco Scutaro, in his first season with the Red Sox, hit .275/.333/.388.
We know the Red Sox have believed in numbers for a long time. We know John Henry wants a forward-thinking front office. We almost certainly know Theo Epstein will be replaced by Ben Cherington. We know that the Red Sox have the money to make risky purchases (Matsuzaka) and sign veterans on the decline (Lackey) or to pay a salary that might be higher than expected for the player they want (Drew). Injuries are certainly to blame for missing the playoffs in 2006 and 2010 while also limiting the resources in the starting rotation in 2011. Cherington wasn’t afraid to trade Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett and Lowell, a move Epstein likely wouldn’t have made. He also wasn’t afraid to eat the cost of Edgar Renteria.