Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Not Really Good-Bye

On March 7th of last year, I did what I had been contemplating doing for a few months. I had been reading countless blogs with writers I respected immensely, and I thought to myself I may be capable of doing it. Eventually, though, I would talk myself out of it. Finally, in early March, I decided to give it a whirl. I didn't really know what to expect, but I knew that if I didn't give it a shot, I would forever regret it. 

It started as a challenge, as I had never really enjoyed writing before (hence my majoring in math), but as time went on, I became addicted. I've had a tremendous amount of help and insight from a lot of great people. I started on Twitter as a way to promote the blog, but ended up meeting some really awesome people. I had never really had many friends that were as into baseball as I was, so it was great to find some new friends who were more than willing to partake in these conversations, as well as some ridiculous ones about desserts. 

As last baseball season went on, I started to realize I might be into this blogging thing for the long haul. Probably not for any monetary reasons, but because I've come to love it. I got to do a couple of guest posts for Fire Brand of the AL, for which I am beyond grateful, especially to Chip Buck who has helped me in so many ways. I began to realize if I was ever going to move up in the world of blogging, I would probably need to find a new arena to show off my writing, as generating a lot of page views for an independent blog was harder than I originally anticipated.

As I've waited for my chance, another great friend I've made through Twitter reached out to me  offering me a chance to write for his blog. This friend is Kyle Moulding, who is known on Twitter as @BoSoxNewsFeed. He runs the New England Sports News Blog and extended an invitation to become a new contributor to the Red Sox portion of the blog. As it's a much more established blog than this, and I really respect his work, I was delighted to take this opportunity.

I just wanted to take the time to thank all of you who read this blog and helped me realize that this is something I love to do. Like I said in the title, and that adorable cat said in the picture, it's not really good-bye. I'm not going to stop writing, as I expect to have my first piece up at the new blog this week. Change can always be a scary thing, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous about writing for a new website after becoming so comfortable with my own. However, the nerves are far and away outweighed for my excitement for the new opportunity. So, again, thank you all for reading this site (which I may choose to update from time to time during the year, I haven't decided yet), and I hope you will continue to read me at my new location.

Ace of the Staff

I will never get sick of this picture

Last week, I looked at who would be the fifth starter in the rotation this year. Today, I'm going to look at the other end of the spectrum and explore who the "Ace of the staff" will be. Now, of course this is a meaningless exercise, but it's February 7th and there are only so many things to dicuss. This doesn't necessarily mean who should start Opening Day, because that's totally without meaning, and Josh Beckett looks like he really wants to in that picture. However, what I will look to project is who will be the team's stopper. When they are in the midst of a losing streak, who will step up and shut down the opposing offense to stop the skid. Last year, the answer was Josh Beckett. However, Jon Lester is the team's most consistent pitcher, and should have something to say in the battle for the team ace.

As I stated above, Josh Beckett was terrific last year. He started 30 games and finished with a 2.89 ERA and 4.1 fWAR. However, looking at his stats, he is probably due for some regression. His .245 BABIP is the obvious place to start. That number is incredibly low, and was the fourth lowest amongst all starters in baseball as well as being a career low. We should expect some serious regression back around the .300-mark in 2012. On top of that, Beckett also stranded runners on base 80% of the time. Considering he'd never had a mark above 76% prior to 2011, and he ranked 5th in baseball in that category, we should expect more of his base runners to cross the plate. However, this was all evident by his 3.57 FIP and 3.58 xFIP. These are still very good numbers. The worrisome part is that this was the first time in Beckett's career that he outperformed his FIP, which means that in most years, his ERA would have fallen close to 4. Beckett's numbers could have been even better, though, had he not faltered down the stretch. If he can perform in 2012 like he did the first four months of 2011, he will be the best pitcher on the staff.

The other candidate, Jon Lester, had a down year by his standards, but a look at his numbers suggest he should improve upon this. He was able to start over 30 games for the fourth consecutive season, but his 3.47 ERA was the highest it had ever been in that time span. His 3.83 FIP was also the highest he posted in that span, although his 3.62 xFIP suggests better times are ahead for the left-hander. The reason for the discrepancy between the two are his home run totals. His 0.94 HR/9 was his highest rate as a full-time starter, and much of this was due to his 11.4% HR/FB ratio. Since his career average ratio is 9.4%, we can expect his home run totals should regress a bit from 2011, which will result in better numbers. Lester's strike out rate fell from 9.74 K/9 in 2010 to 8.55 per nine in 2011. This drop off is somewhat discouraging, since his whiff-rate dropped for every pitch except his changeup between the last two years, and his velocity dropped across the board as well. Lester could have had some nagging injuries that contributed to this, though. As for his walks, those stayed steady at about 3.5 per 9, the same as 2010. However, before that he hovered around 2.8, and virtually all projection systems see him regressing back to those numbers.

Looking at these numbers, and going a little on a hunch, I'd guess Lester will be the most valuable pitcher on the team. This is not to say Beckett will have a bad season, because I don't think that's the case. However, the latter has much more regression on his hands, and Lester should be able to improve on some areas which hurt him last year, specifically the long ball. Both should be big contributors to the team, but the fact that Lester has been able to consistently give the team at least 30 starts and ~200 innings tips the scale in his favor a bit. That being said, don't be surprised if Josh Beckett gets the meaningless title of Opening Day starter, because, well just look at that face!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Who's Number Five?

One thing I've learned to do in my two and a half years as a math major is dealing with being wrong. I am wrong constantly while doing my homework and taking exams. I suppose I was wrong before college too, but I like to pretend I wasn't. Well, I was also very wrong about this offseason. I have been convinced all winter that the Red Sox were going to end up with Roy Oswalt. I've said it multiple times in multiple forums, but it now seems unlikely. According to most reports, it appears the veteran right hander will be pitching in either St. Louis or Texas next year. Edwin Jackson is still a free agent as well, but I wouldn't expect the Red Sox in on him unless a one-year deal would be in play. There are also trade options such as Gavin Floyd available. However, for the sake of this post, I will delve into the possible options to fill out the rotation after Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard that are currently on the 40-man roster or non-roster invitees list.

The first guy is probably the fan favorite to grab the final rotation spot, but I'd keep him in the bullpen. Of course, I am talking about Alfredo Aceves. He was the third most valuable reliever for the Red Sox last year, contributing one win per Fangraphs as the team's swingman. Although it is a very small sample size (just 9 career starts out of 114 career appearances) Aceves has been much worse starting games. His strikeouts dip significantly, he walks more batters. Because of this, you get a FIP of 4.94 as a starter versus one of 3.87 out of the bullpen. Instead, it would be smarter to keep him in the bullpen, using him at all different times. He could come in and pitch multiple innings when the starter gets knocked out early, but he could also serve as a late innings, high leverage reliever. His versatility is invaluable.

The next group of guys to be considered are the pitchers they've brought in on minor league contracts to add depth. This group includes three guys who fans will recognize, but none of whom will inspire too much hope across the Nation. First, the Red Sox signed Carlos Silva. He didn't throw a single Major League pitch in 2011, and started just seven games in the Yankees minor league system. However, he was a two win pitcher just two years ago for the Cubs. His biggest asset is his ability to avoid walks, holding a career 1.73 BB/9 rate. His biggest shortcomings have been health, he's only thrown 200 innings twice in his career, and home runs, as he has a career 1.11 HR/9 rate. In 2010, his home run rate was lower than typical because of a low HR/FB ratio that was much lower than what he consistently had been giving up. He relies heavily on a sinker that has been losing its sink slightly every year Pitch F/X data has been available. Next, the Red Sox signed Aaron Cook. He started 17 games last year for Colorado and was worth one win for the team. He's an extreme ground ball pitcher who strikes out very few batters but also gave up a decent home run rate despite pitching in hitters friendly Coors Field his whole career. If Cook ends up getting the start, he will likely need a stronger defensive infield behind him, leading to Punto starts. Finally, the Red Sox have recently signed former Met John Maine. Due to injuries, he hasn't pitched more than 100 innings since 2008, and has only done it two times in his career. He is a fly ball pitcher, which will not help his HR totals in Fenway, but he will also have a Crawford/Ellsbury/Sweeney outfield tracking down balls that stay in the yard. His greatest concern is health and control. He has a career walk rate of 4.07 per 9, and hasn't gone below that rate since 2007. If he could ever harness that control, he'd be the best best of this group. Out of this group, I'd prefer to see Cook as the number five pitcher, followed by Maine, then Silva.

The Red Sox also have a couple of in house young pitchers to consider. Firstly is a guy they just traded Marco Scutaro for. Mortensen is on the team's forty man roster, and was added in a salary dump move for the Red Sox. However, he does have 13 career starts and is a viable option at this point. He doesn't seem to have many major assets, though, as he strikes out only slightly more batters than he walks and he gives up a good amount of home runs. He is just a replacement level pitcher. Next, the team could look at old friend Andrew Miller. I don't know about the rest of Red Sox fans, but this suggestion gives me the creeps. The former first round pick has been given ample opportunity to show he can start controlling his pitches, and his walk rate remains through the roof. If he hopes to return to the big leagues for an extended period of time, it will not be in this starting rotation. He will have to learn how to pitch out of middle relief. Finally, the team could look at Felix Doubront. He has been in the higher levels of the Sox organization since 2010 and has put up solid minor league numbers in that time. However, he has not pitched well in the bigs so far. He pitched in 11 games last year and lost all control, averaging about 1.75 more walks than strikeouts per nine innings. However, he looked much better in 2010 with a 4.12 FIP. As long as he can control his stuff, he has the most upside for the number five spot.

The Red Sox don't have the most attractive options for their final pitching spot. Their offense should be fine, as should their bullpen, but the rotation still scares people, for good reason. At this point, I think upside needs to take a big role in filling out the starters, and because of this Doubront would be my choice. He is the guy who would be most likely to stick in this spot. After him, I'd rank the rest Cook, Maine, Miller, Silva, Mortensen. If this group doesn't tickle your fancy, and really, it shouldn't, don't worry too much. The roster is never totally set until July 31st (or August 30th, but the waiver month typically doesn't involve major moves), and the team could easily make a trade for a starter mid-season.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Saying Goodbye to the Anti-Nick Punto


JD Drew is one of the more fascinating players to me in recent Red Sox history. He signed a five year, $70 million contract with the team prior to the 2007, and many people theorized that they did so to make it easier to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka. Whether or not that is true, we'll never know. What we do know is that Drew was generally disliked around Boston. People saw him as a guy who didn't care because he didn't show emotions like hometown favorites such as Youkilis and Pedroia. However, this always struck me as funny, because Drew was very valuable for the Sox over his five year contract, and played well in all facets of the game. While it is being reported that he will likely retire, we know for sure that he will not play in a Red Sox uniform again.

Drew played very well for a few other teams before signing with Boston, but I don't write about them, so I will only focus on 2007-2011. He replaced Trot Nixon in right field, who was a fan favorite during his tenure in Boston where he was loved for his "Dirt Dog-y-ness". While Drew couldn't recreate that aspect of Nixon's game, he gave the team more production in right than it has seen from Nixon. In his first season, Drew had his worst year in a Boston uniform. He still was an above average hitter that year and boasted a .373 OBP. His power disappeared that year, as he posted a .152 ISO, his first under .200 since 2003. However, he also had some big moments in the postseason on the way to a World Series championship. He crushed a huge grand slam in game 6 of the ALCS against Cleveland for his biggest moment.

Over the next three years, Drew was very valuable in right field, and was worth 11.4 wins per Fangraphs. His best season offensively was 2008. He walked 17.3% of the time, while limiting his strike outs to about the same rate. This led to a .280/.408/.519 slash line and a 137 OPS +. Last season, Drew was hurt for most of the year, and ineffective for the 81 games he played in. It was clear his career was just about over. However, for his first three years, he was very good for this team. From 2007-2010, he was the eighth most valuable right fielder in baseball according to fWAR. His .369 wOBA was good enough for seventh amongst right fielders during that time period, while his 121 wRC+ was in the same spot.

On defense, Drew mastered the large space that is Fenway Park's right field. According to all defensive metrics he was an above average defender, which is important considering the vast space he covered for home games. Of course, it helped having someone with as much range as Jacoby Ellsbury playing next to him, but that is not to say Drew was any sort of slouch. His arm was just simply average, but the rest of his defense made up for it. His baserunning was also above average.

So while Drew was probably never worth the $14 million contract, it wasn't a total disaster as much of Boston will have you believe. Drew was a top-10 right fielder over the last five years, and played a key role on a World Series championship team. His possible retirement is sliding under the radar, something I am sure he isn't too broken up over. I hope that as people begin to understand the statistical side of the game, Drew will receive more credit for what he did for this team since 2007. I'm not holding my breath, though, as he'll always be the anti-Nick Punto.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's a Platoon Party!

Must to the angst of a chunk of Red Sox Nation, the team will not be sporting All Stars at every position this year. Instead, it seems that the team will employ platoons (GASP!) in right field, as well as at shortstop. Last season, right field was occupied by a combination of JD Drew (possibly on the verge of retirement), Josh Reddick (Traded to Oakland in deal for Andrew Bailey), Darnell McDonald (still here), and Mike Cameron (Lol). Also, lest we forget, Adrian Gonzalez played two games there during interleague. Shortstop was played by Marco Scutaro (Traded to Colorado for Clay Mortensen) and Jed Lowrie (Traded to Houston for Mark Melancon), with Scutaro getting the majority of the playing time. This year, there will be some less sexy names, but let's see if the results will really vary as much as we may think.

Starting with right field, Ryan Kalish figured to be a big part of the team's solution at that position in 2012. However, that idea took a turn for the worse before Spring Training even started, as he had to undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in November, and will likely be on the sidelines until June. In his place, the Red Sox will likely lean on two recently acquired outfielders. One is Ryan Sweeney, acquired along with Bailey in the Reddick trade. The other is Cody Ross, who was signed on Monday on a one year deal. With Carl Crawford possibly missing some time to start the season due to a wrist injury, Darnell McDonald could get some time in right as well. However, the Sweeney/Ross platoon is the one to focus on, with Kalish joining in midseason.

Sweeney is a light hitting right fielder, but can still provide some value. Although UZR has been slightly down on him the past couple of years, he had previously rated as one of the top right fielders in the game. As for offensively, the left handed bat walks at about a league average rate, while striking out at a rate a few percentage points below the league average. However, he has very little power with a .096 ISO. Keeping true to most platoons, though, Bobby Valentine is expected to play Sweeney mainly against right handed pitching. In his career, he has hit significantly better against righties than lefties. He strikes out less (12.8% vs. 18.2%) and hits for more power (.106 ISO vs. .056). This all leads to much more total productivity, leading to a 160-point gap in OPS, 60-point gap in wOBA, and a remarkable 41 point gap in wRC+. Kalish has not had as much big league experience, but should provide even more offensive firepower from the left side of the plate upon his return. These two, combined with Cody Ross hitting against lefties (which I discussed yesterday), the Red Sox should surpass the measly 0.7 fWAR put up by their right fielders a season ago.

Shortstop will be the harder position to replace. Last year, with Scutaro playing the bulk of the innings, with Lowrie filling in as well, the Red Sox finished 15th in fWAR with +3.0 wins. To replace the aforementioned combination in 2012, the team will employ a different kind of platoon than the one in right. Here, they will be playing a combination of Mike Aviles, who is a much better hitter than fielder, and Nick Punto, who has a much better glove than bat. The first member of that pairing is seemingly morally against walks, talking his base in just about 4% of his plate appearances over his career. He also strikes out below the league average, with a career rate of 13.4%. His BABIP and ISO has fluctuated year-to-year throughout his four-year stint in the Majors, but assuming they regress to the mean, he should end up as a league-average hitter, which provides very good value at a premium position like shortstop. However, his defense falls short, although both UZR and DRS rank him as very average. However, Fans Scouting Reports (via Fangraphs) ranks him as well below average, and I tend to agree with that assessment.

As for Nick Punto, he may be a guy that has been ridiculed so much for his "scrappiness" and "grit" that he has become slightly underrated. Over the last three years, he has been a solid 1.5-win player in limited action, thanks a lot to his defense. UZR has ranked him as an above average defender at third, short and second, as did DRS. Fan Scouting Reports ranked him as a 67 on the 20-80 scale last year. On top of his defense, Punto can provide slight value on offense in a limited role. He walks above league average, which will work to the team's advantage with as potent of an offense as they have. However, other than that he doesn't offer much more than singles with some nice base running skills. The Aviles/Punto combination may not match Scutaro and Lowrie's production, but it shouldn't fall too short. I would say somewhere between 1.5-2 WAR at the position is a reasonable expectation.

A lot of the success of the platoons will be hinged upon how Bobby Valentine decides to utilize them. Right field should be pretty straight forward, with Sweeney playing the bulk of the games against righties and coming in as a defensive replacement, and Ross getting virtually all of the starts against lefties. At shortstop, I'd imagine that Aviles will be seeing the field more often regardless of pitcher. Punto will likely be called upon when guys like Clay Buchholz take the mound, since he lets up more contact, and specifically ground balls. However you slice it, the Red Sox shouldn't lose too much value, if any at all, with this platoon party.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Red Sox Sign Cody Ross

As first reported by Ken Rosenthal, it appears the Red Sox have signed former Giants playoff hero Cody Ross to a one year deal worth around 3 million dollars. Now, we laughed and laughed when the 31 year old asked for a three year deal, but that doesn't mean that he can't be a valuable pick up. All offseason Red Sox fans have been clamoring for a right handed bat to provide outfield depth, and Cherington and company got just that in Ross.

Ross is relatively well-known for going on a tear for about an 8-week period for the Giants in 2010 when they won the World Series. However, get those memories out of your head, because he's just not that good. He is not great at drawing walks, although in 2011 he drew walks a career-high 10.6%, up from his career 7.3% mark. This may reflect a change of philosophy, but regression is still to be expected. He also strikes out a little more than the league average, but not at too damaging of a rate. He hits for above average power, posting a career .195 ISO, with a .165 ISO last season. All in all, offensively, Ross is about average, with the potential to be a little above average. Coming from the right side of the plate, that is very valuable depth, especially considering his .384 wOBA and 135 wRC+ against lefties, compared to .317 and 91 vs. righties.

Defensively, Ross can play all outfield positions, but is clearly better suited for the corner spots. He will likely start the season playing some left field, with Crawford possibly still recovering from wrist surgery. UZR ranks him as a slightly worse than average left fielder, while DRS says he's slightly above average. It would be safe to expect about league average defense in left field. Once Crawford returns, watch for him to platoon with the newly acquired Ryan Sweeney in right. Once again, UZR is more down on him in right than DRS, but league average or slightly above would be a safe bet from Ross in right. Once Ryan Kalish returns, it seems Darnell McDonald will be the odd man out. Even when Crawford returns, he will be the fifth outfielder behind Crawford, Ellsbury, Sweeney and Ross, who produces better than McDonald in just about every facet of the game.

For only three million dollars on a one year deal, Ross is just the type of low-risk deal the team needed to make for a right handed outfield bat. At the start of the offseason, I was clamoring for Josh Willingham, but it seemed the patience showed by the front office got them a valuable bat at a cheap price. Another positive from signing Ross to such a cheap deal is that there is still money available to pick up the starting pitcher they so desperately need. Signing Roy Oswalt out of free agency still seems like the most likely scenario to me, while trading for Gavin Floyd of the White Sox still remains a distinct possibility. Whichever route they go, Cody Ross signing for a cheap contract while providing solid value is a big part of the team being able to do so.