Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gaming the System

As many of you are aware, when a high quality free agent signs with a new team, their old team gets draft picks as compensation. For the top tier players (Type A), the new team actually gives up their first round pick and the old team receives a sandwich round pick, between the first and second rounds. Since winning the World Series in 2004, perhaps no team has done more with their compensatory picks than the Red Sox.

Over the last six years, many high profile free agents have left town, often on less than good terms. After the spectacular 2004 World Series victory, three key contributors, Orlando Cabrera, Pedro Martinez, and Derek Lowe all signed with new teams. After 2005 another two important players, Johnny Damon and Bill Mueller, signed with new teams. In return for losing these five players, the Red Sox were awarded a total of nine draft picks, including some very familiar names: Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie, Michael Bowden, and Johnathon Egan in 2005 and Daniel Bard, Kris Johnson, and Caleb Clay in 2006. While Johnson, Clay, and Egan are essentially organizational depth at this point, all the other players have either contributed at the major league level, or were traded away in major deals.

For example, Craig Hansen, who was a compensation pick for losing Derek Lowe, was part of the trade package for Jason Bay. After a year and a half in Boston, Bay signed with the New York Mets, netting the Red Sox another two draft picks, which they used to pick 2010 draftees Bryce Brentz and Brandon Workman.

It is far too early to gauge the impact of the 2010 draftees, the top four of which were drafted with compensation picks, but those picks certainly gave the Red Sox the depth on the farm system to trade away Kelly, Rizzo, et al. for Adrian Gonzalez this winter. Ranaudo, in particular, looks like the steal of the draft. The Red Sox will have at least one more year to exploit the free agent compensation system - after losing Adrian Beltre to the Rangers and Victor Martinez to the Tigers, they'll have four picks in the first forty (19, 26, 36, 40). These extra picks, combined with a willingness to go over slot for top talent, mean that the Sox have a chance for another impact draft, like 2005. The 2005 included key contributors to the 2007 championship, perhaps the 2010 and 2011 drafts will provide a similar foundation. This strategy may soon be obsolete, the Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement is set to expire this offseason and draft pick compensation is one of the potential changes. Sometimes players who are classified as Type A free agents by the Elias Sports Bureau's formulas, but aren't considered top players by general managers, end up in what Buster Olney dubbed "compensation-pick purgatory", where they're definitely good player, but not good enough to be worth sacrificing a first round draft pick for.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Down on the Farm

We're a few weeks in to the minor league season, so I thought I'd check in on how some of the Red Sox top prospects are doing.

Kolbrin Vitek was the Red Sox first round pick in 2010 (20th overall). Because he signed right away, Vitek was able to get 286 at bats split between low A and high A in 2010, putting up a combined .274/.364/.418 with 4 home runs and 17 stolen bases. Vitek is building on a solid debut with a .300/.404/.450 line. That line is particularly impressive given that he started the season by going 2/23. Coming in to the draft, Vitek's bat wasn't in question, but where he would play uncertain. The Red Sox have been playing him at third base, but the jury is still out whether or not he'll be able to stick there.

Anthony Ranaudo was a supplemental round pick for the Red Sox. As I've written before, Ranaudo came in to the college season as a candidate for the #2 pick behind Bryce Harper, before falling due to a poor season. While he didn't sign in time to play any minor league games, the Red Sox were able to see him dominate the Cape Cod League, presumably tipping the scales in favor of signing him for $2.5 million. So far this season, Ranaudo has rewarded the major investment in him, striking out 15 in 15 innings in A ball, while only giving up one run. Given his polish as a college ace, Ranaudo could move up to AA relatively quickly.

Jose Iglesias has been touted as the guy who will close the revolving door at shortstop for the Red Sox. Jed Lowrie is doing his best to establish himself there, but many are predicting Iglesias as the shortstop by midseason of 2012. Iglesias' glove has been described as the best many scouts have seen, and so far his hitting has been a pleasant surprise, hitting .295/.339/.379 as a 20 year old in A and AA. Iglesias has struggled so far this year (.257/.316/.257) in AAA, but it is a very aggressive assignment. Because the bat isn't ready I don't think we'll see him in the majors this season, except for maybe a cup of coffee in September. Iglesias is just 21 years old, so there isn't a need to rush him to the majors, especially with emergence of Lowrie and the steady, if unspectacular, production of Scutaro.

A couple of old friends are doing well in San Diego. Anthony Rizzo, one of the key parts of the Adrian Gonzalez trade, is dominating in AAA, hitting .436/.483/.764. Rizzo is showing his power spike in AA last year, 25 home runs, more than doubling hit previous high, was not a fluke by hitting four home runs in his first 60 at bats. Rizzo could be a huge contributor in San Diego very soon. It's always disappointing to see a prospect breakout after being traded away, but you don't get bats like Adrian Gonzalez cheaply. Casey Kelly, the top prospect in the Adrian Gonzalez deal, has also been solid in three AAA starts. Although he has a 3.31 and 1.04 WHIP through his first 16 innings, the strikeout rate has not been particularly impressive. Kelly has always been touted as a pitcher with an advanced approach, but sooner or later he'll need to strikeout more batters if he is going to become the #2 pitcher that many scouts project him to become.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Things like this make me miss Coco

Sure, he was a disappointment in his time with the Red Sox, but he sure does know how to kick it old school. Adding the fro to go with the 1970's inspired mustard yellow Oakland A's alternate uniforms is an awfully nice touch.

Bright spots

It has been a rough start to the season. Ever since the 0-6 start, Sox fans have been repeatedly bludgeoned with "No team with a record of X-Y has ever made the playoffs." It's been an ugly, ugly start, but there are some things to be legitimately hopeful about.

First, Josh Beckett has looked spectacular. His start against the Yankees on Sunday night, with the team desperate for a win, was incredible. His game score was 88, well above the previous high for his career. His K/9 is the highest of his career, albeit in a small sample size, and the new cutter appears to be finally working for him after being blamed for his gaudy home run totals in 2010. Since Beckett is locked up for another four years, a return to form is a great sign for 2011 and the overall performance of the Red Sox down the road, too.

Dustin Pedroia appears to be showing no ill effects from breaking his foot last summer. Considering the fact that he still has screws in his foot, which will be removed this offseason, that is pretty impressive. Pedroia currently has a line of .320/.421/.540, and did the bulk of the damage on the season against the Yankees. He had three hits in each of the three games of the series, going 9/15, with three doubles and a home run. When the team desperately needed to win, he put them on his back. Last year only two players (Hanley Ramirez and Robinson Cano) had three consecutive games with three hits.

In case you're wondering, the record holder for consecutive three hit games is George Brett, who had six consecutive three hit games in May of 1976, while going 18 of 26. I think Rod Carew, who is tied for second at five, had a more impressive run. In early June of 1975 Rod Carew went 15 for 18 with six walks and three strikeouts. During the streak he was up 24 times, and hit more home runs (4), than he made outs (3). Despite a triple slash line of .833/.875/.1.556 from Carew, the Twins managed to go 0-5. All of this information is from the Baseball Reference blog, found here.

Finally, Papelbon seems to have returned to form. I always felt the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated this offseason. Coming in to the season his K rate was above 10 K/9 IP for three consecutive years. The pitcher everyone expected to replace him, Daniel Bard, actually struck out fewer batters and walked more in 2010, but because Papelbon was a bit unlucky, stranding only 66% of the baserunners he allowed, while Bard stranded 86% (MLB average = 75%), Bard's ERA was nearly two full runs lower.

There are some definite concerns (Lackey, Matsuzaka) and some under-performers who should turn it around (Gonzalez, Crawford, Youkilis) that have led to the 3-10 record, but there are also some reasons to be hopeful.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic

OK, maybe it isn't quite that bad, but the Red Sox have decided to use their unexpected off day thanks to the postponement of the Red Sox Rays game on Wednesday, and have reshuffled their rotation. John Lackey, who was scheduled to pitch on Wednesday, was bumped back to Tuesday, Daisuke was pushed back from Saturday to Sunday, and Jon Lester will pitch on Saturday on four days rest. Both Daisuke and Lackey have struggled mightily, posting WHIPs that would be good ERAs (2.71 and 2.42, respectively) and K:BB ratios right around 1. Giving them time off is definitely a good idea, but I'm not sure one start is going to make a difference. Given Daisuke's ineffectiveness over the last year and a half, you have to wonder if this is his last shot to stay in the Red Sox rotation. Both Alfredo Aceves and Tim Wakefield have pitched relatively well, have started in the past, and were stretched out as starters to begin the season. Aceves, in particular, has been sharp, with 5 strikeouts in 5 2/3 IP and no walks. If I had to pick the guy I expect to be 5th starter in a month, I'd put my money on Aceves. Daisuke could probably be traded, potentially to the NL, but the Sox would probably have to eat about $15 million of the $20.67 owed over the next two years. Shuffling the starting pitchers around isn't going to make a huge difference - the hitters need to start hitting with runners on, and the pitchers need to cut down on the walks and home runs.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A lack of understanding of probabilities

Tom Verducci wrote a recent article for SI.com primarily about why Red Sox fans should be worried (the three word summary: old, expensive pitchers). He also went on to discuss the amazing success of home teams this year (55-35 record, good for a .611 winning percentage), and how it would be the biggest home field advantage ever! Unlike in other games, where home field advantage is a result of crowd noise, the structure of a baseball game will always favor a home team, even if the teams are identical.

That might be a project for another time...

Over the last ten years the home team has been good for a .545 wining percentage. Using that as the "true" winning percentage, I ran a simulation of 1,000 sets of 90 games. In 113 of them, the home teams won 55 games or more, clearly demonstrating that the hot start for home teams is well within the boundaries of random variation. Just think, we were equally likely to ending up with an article discussing the death of home field advantage, as home teams won 43 or fewer of the 90 games (0.478 winning percentage! Worst ever!) 120 times out of the 1,000 simulations.

Verducci does get it half right - acknowledging that he thinks it is a random development - but then manages to undermine that statement by then attributing the winning percentage to "cycles in the game". If I can show that you're wrong in a couple commercial breaks between innings, your idea probably shouldn't be a major feature of your article.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to extend a losing streak

1. Bring in your only lefty in the bullpen to start a clean inning against the bottom of your opponents lineup.
2. Watch as that lefty hits the next two batters and walks a third on four pitches. To add insult to injury, that batter was actually trying to sacrifice. The bases are now loaded with no outs.
3. Despite the fact that your opponent has a lefty up and a switch hitter on deck, bring in Dan Wheeler, leaving high strikeout guys like Bard and Jenks on the bench. Oh, and Dan Wheeler gets killed by lefties, allowing 11 HR in 11 IP over the last 3 years against them.
4. Miraculously, this move doesn't bite you in the ass. Instead of capitalizing on a potential double play line drive, drop it. Tag third, throw to the catcher, and watch as the catcher, the major league veteran of nearly twenty years oft praised for his baseball IQ, lets the runner cross home without tagging him out.
5. Now facing that switch hitter, leave that reliever in who gets killed by anyone batting left handed at all. Try not to hurt your neck as you turn to watch the ball fly out of the park.

A lot of mistakes here, but the one that worries me the most is Francona's misuse of Wheeler. There is just no way that Wheeler should face a left handed hitter in a close game. The reason Wheeler has been an effective pitcher over the last few years is that Joe Maddon has done a spectacular job picking the right match-ups and protecting him from left handed hitters. And to leave Bard and Jenks on the bench, the two guys who had the best shot at getting the Red Sox out of that jam with a strikeout or two, is unforgivable.

Snider taking it to the next level

Travis Snider has been up in the big leagues for parts of three seasons. Last year was his first as a full time starter, and he gave us flashes of his potential with a strong May that was cut short by injury and a spectacular September, when he hit .300 with 6 home runs. To date this season he's hitting .250/.357/.333. While the power isn't there, the walks are nice. I'm predicting massive, massive things from Snider this year, partly because he's gone from the picture to the left, to this:

Now that is one hell of a skeezy mustache. I'm pretty sure the creepy mustache is what made Carl Pavano useful last season. If a mustache can lead Pavano to a 3.75 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP, who knows what it can do for Snider.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Some thoughts from opening weekend

Thoughts on the AL:

Either the Royals are better than billed, or the Angels are a good bit worse. Alex Gordon hooked a game winning home run by a foot or two on Opening Day, Chris Getz’ RBI single capped a two run 8th to put the Royals ahead for good on Friday, Kila Kai’aihue hit a walkoff on Saturday to break a 1-1 tie, and Matt Treanor hit a three run home run win it in the 12th inning Sunday afternoon. In all of these games, the bullpen pitched well, particularly Tim Collins and Joakim Soria, who combined for 7 scoreless innings in the series.

A-Rod and Mark Teixeira are having a great start to bounceback seasons. A-Rod went 3/5 in his first two games, with all of his hits going for extra bases (2 2B, 1 HR) and has reached base in 6 of his 8 plate appearances. Teixeira has hit three run home runs in back to back games, leading to a pair of victories. Last season it took Teixeira until April 18th to get his 6th RBI and until April 22nd to get his second home run. He also added a solo home run in the Yankees loss to the Tigers on Sunday. Both A-Rod and Teixeira were either ineffective or injured for most of the early part of the season last year. With a strong April from Teixeira and being another year removed from hip surgery for A-Rod, the Yankees offense could be even better this year. They may need it, particularly if Hughes doesn't find his lost effectiveness or velocity.

As for the Red Sox, it was certainly an ugly weekend, but there are some bright spots. Ellsbury seems like he’s finally fully healthy. At the plate he’s looked solid – working the count well, hitting for a bit of power, and stealing a base in the opener. He also made a diving attempt on a line drive to the warning track on Saturday. While he didn’t come up with the ball, it is great to see him go full bore for a ball and not have to worry about his rib injury.

David Ortiz is also off to a hot start, having already hit two home runs, including one off of lefty reliever Darren Oliver. It took until May 1st for Ortiz to hit his second home run of 2010.

Adrian Gonzalez has looked at home in a Red Sox uniform, displaying a great approach and hitting the ball to all fields. He’s 5/13 so far, and even chipped in with a stolen base. I wouldn’t count on too many more, this was Gonzalez’ second career stolen base and fourth career attempt.

Saltalamacchia is really big. At 6’4” he dwarfs most other catchers and is border line “too big” for the position, at least according to conventional wisdom. In the last couple of years Joe Mauer and Matt Wieters, who are both 6’5” have been able to handle the wear and tear of the position while playing good defense, so that label may fade away, much as it did at shortstop after the success of Cal Ripken.

Papelbon looked ok in the eighth inning on Sunday. He struck out the side, but also allowed a couple hits and an intentional BB. All three strikeouts occurred after the bases were loaded, so it was nice to see Papelbon bear down and get the tough outs without giving up any more runs.

Pitching was the weak spot in all three games. The strong finish and impressive spring for John Lackey doesn’t seem to have carried over to the regular season. Lackey was destroyed by the Rangers, giving up 9 runs, not getting out of the fourth. Lackey gave up three doubles, two triples, and two home runs, the second of which was a grand slam by Adrian Beltre, and ended Lackey’s night. To add insult to injury, all six runs in the 4th were scored with two outs. There wasn't a single cheap hit in the bunch, with line drive after line drive either finding the gaps or the outfield seats.

Lackey wasn't alone, in that regard though. The Red Sox pitchers are having trouble keeping the ball in the park. They gave up three HR in the first game, four in the second, and four in the third. That puts them on pace for a less than impressive 594 for the season, after giving up 152 all of last season. Obviously that pace is completely unsustainable, but it is a worrisome trend. Thanks to this barrage, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler became the first teammates to both hit homeruns in three consecutive games and Kinsler became the first player to hit lead off home runs in the first two games of the season.

It was an ugly way to open the season, with the Red Sox getting swept in a 3 game series for the first time since 1996. Hopefully they’ll turn things around soon; after a three game series in Cleveland the Red Sox have back to back series against the Yankees and Rays.