Author Archives: MCoA

Some Thoughts About Baseball

Baseball! (RLRS Photo)

Baseball! (RLRS Photo)

I spent most of the last month, well, I spent most of the last month taking care of a baby. But the time spent not taking care of a baby was mostly spent watching and writing about soccer. It was fun. The weird part was when I realized that I didn’t have time to watch a baseball game one night. Then I didn’t have time the next night. Then it had been a month and I had watched no more than an inning or two of baseball.

That was weird. In some ways, what the World Cup did was replace one of baseball’s best attributes. It’s always there. You have plans? That’s ok, baseball will be there tomorrow, and there will be fifteen games for you to pick between. For two weeks of World Cup, there were three matches a day, and even after that the games kept coming. Soccer can’t usually scratch that daily itch, but during the World Cup it steps up.

But daily World Cup matches are also nothing like daily baseball games. The World Cup is much more the playoffs than the regular season. Baseball’s pace and intensity and different during the season, and no other sport can really compare. I got myself prepared for each World Cup game. I just kind of turn on each baseball game. It’s a good change of pace.

The other big thing with soccer is its newness. Not only is the sport reasonably new to me, as a fan, but there’s a huge in how much statistical research has been done. So if I have a question, I usually have to collect the data and do the work myself. And in trying to do the work myself, I’ve found big error bars on nearly everything. Even when something seems like a solid finding, the next week’s results always seem to invalidate it.

I’ve been wondering to what degree that’s true in baseball, too. While obviously baseball breaks into discrete events much more readily than soccer, and provides a much larger sample of events to study, so much remains indeterminate. The 2013 Red Sox certainly played toward the limits of their ability, but with most of the team returned, the Sox have not been good. Xander Bogaerts isn’t hitting despite looking for all the world like an amazing prospect. The Orioles are kind of good, and so are the Brewers. Nelson Cruz is amazing somehow. No one really knows for sure who’s good at fielding. Big chunks of the game, it seems to me, remain at the limits of analysis. I’m not saying I feel like doing new research on baseball, but trying to do new research on soccer has left me with the feeling that baseball has more mysteries than I had previously acknowledged.

Why The Red Sox Should Not Punt 2014

Let's keep him (RLRS Photo).

Let’s keep him (RLRS Photo).

With tonight’s loss, the Red Sox have fallen to 47-53, 8.5 games behind the Orioles in the AL East and only slightly closer to Seattle for the second wild card. This is a time when a lot of front offices wold see a reason to give up. But I don’t think that the time is here yet.

One of the things that struck me most, coming back to the Red Sox after a month away, is that this still looks like a good baseball team. The improvement of Jackie Bradley and the banishment of AJ Pierzynski have erased two of the lineup’s holes. The bullpen is still lights out. Jon Lester is still an ace and a there’s talent for the other rotation slots. I’m having more fun watching this Sox team than I expected based on their record while I was away. I’d be sad if they chucked the season.

The projections agree with this broad impression. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections rate the Red Sox as the second best team in the AL East and give us a roughly five percent chance of winning the division. So punting the season means giving up on a one-in-twenty shot. That’s not a crazy thing to do, but it requires a good reason.

As best as I can tell, the reason to punt is easy to sum up. The Red Sox could get an A-/B+ prospect for Jon Lester. We have a true ace, in the midst of an excellent season, whom we could sell to the highest bidder. No other Red Sox player would really draw a true prospect, though we could probably get something for Uehara. Talking about trading Peavy or Drew or Miller is superfluous. The return on those players would be nowhere close to justifying giving up on the season.

But I don’t want to trade Lester. I want to re-sign Lester, and surely the Red Sox front office agrees. While from a pure economic self-interest perspective trading Lester should have little effect on his decision on his next contract, I think that’s oversimplistic. Lester has been a Red Sox his whole career. The affective link between Boston and Lester is a big part of what could keep him with the Sox. You break that link with a trade, and there’s a meaningful drop in the chances of re-signing him. So even the possible upside of punting comes with a downside. I would rather work in the young kids to fill the holes as needed and keep playing competitive baseball.

Notes on a Happy Monday

\o/ (RLRS Photo)!

\o/ (RLRS Photo)!

The Red Sox season looked about dead and buried a week ago. Now we’re not quite back where we started, still only at .500 but trailing a hot Blue Jays squad by several games. Still, there are many reasons to be optimistic, or at least to be enjoying the baseball the Sox are playing. A few thoughts.

  • Brock Holt \o/. Baseball is fun sometimes. Especially when a career AAA guy gets his shot and puts up an 1100 OPS to lead the Red Sox back into the middle regions of the AL East. Holt should be starting regularly somewhere on this infield until he cools off.
  • Mike Carp will go on the disabled list with a broken foot. That’s a recovery usually measured in months, not weeks. Daniel Nava will come up, and both he and Holt look likely to stick around for a while.
  • Just re-sign Jon Lester already. He’s an ace. He’s worth $120M easy.
  • It’s notable how much better the Red Sox are when they don’t have a 7.00 ERA pitcher eating up every fifth start. Clay Buchholz can be a useful pitcher and the club should be working to get him healthy again. But he should not regain his rotation spot until he’s shown himself to be a better pitcher than Rubby De La Rosa or Brandon Workman. For me, that would take a couple outings in AAA.
  • Garin Cecchini added to the fun with his first major league hit. Cecchini showed off a perfect Fenway swing, popping a double to left off an outside fastball. Last year Cecchini’s away line in AA was 260/370/345 with a 25% strikeout rate. Pretty similar to his rough numbers this year for Pawtucket. He was carried by a huge 345/485/485 line at Hadlock Field, home of the Maine Monster. If Cecchini is a true Fenway hitter, he might be able to succeed in the majors even off the back of a doubtful AAA campaign.
  • Plus Alex Hassan is from Quincy and his whole family was there yesterday.

The Value of Stephen Drew

Welcome back (RLRS Photo)

Welcome back (RLRS Photo)

By the projections, it’s practically nothing. That should be our usual starting point, and that stats seriously hate Stephen Drew. The Red Sox signed him for over $10M to offer roughly zero projected upgrade to the roster. He projects to a roughly .310 wOBA, which would make him sort a non-awful shortstop but a fully awful third baseman. And in the Red Sox lineup, Drew would be replacing third baseman Will Middlebrooks even if he were to play short. The stats, by contrast, still like Middlebrooks ok. Even with his current sub-600 OPS factored in, the ZiPS and Steamer rest-of-season projections see him to as a better hitter than Drew, with an expected wOBA around .320. To like the Drew contract, you have to affirmatively reject the projection consensus.

I’ve been going over the numbers, and I think I do reject it. First, on Drew. The thing that kills his projection is his broken leg in 2011. He lost nearly a full season to the injury, and he returned a shell of himself for a couple months. Long recoveries from broken legs are reasonably common, with Jermaine Dye 2003 as the paradigm. I think it’s very likely that Drew is a better hitter than his projections think, since they take that 601 OPS for Arizona as indicative of his present expected level of production, and I disagree.

I’m also pretty ready to cut bait on Will Middlebrooks. As I showed last spring, players with Will Middlebrooks’ peculiar concatenation of hitting talents usually bust. He appears to be in the process of doing exactly that. If Middlebrooks’ 2012 is more of a fluke than an indicator of future success, then he likewise is not a hitter for whom you want to trust the projections too far.


In their recent performance, Drew has been about 20 runs better than Middlebrooks per 500 PA. Despite that, it’s Middlebrooks who projects as the weaker hitter by nearly 10 runs. It’s a huge gap. While I know the dangers of going with “what I see” over more objective projections, I can’t help doing it here. I think Stephen Drew is going to add a cromulent OBP bat to the lineup while upgrading the defense. That’s a positive move to me.

What Would It Take To Make The Red Sox Good?

There’s a fine line between good and terrible.

Jake Peavy's first pitch. The rest have not been as good (RLRS Photo)

Jake Peavy’s first pitch. The rest have not been as good (RLRS Photo)

After being ignominously swept by the Tigers this weekend, the Red Sox are now 20-23. They’ve been outscored 187 to 175, which is between 21-22 and 20-23 in expected win-loss. This club has not been particularly good or bad at winning close games. Likewise, the clutch problems of the early season have almost entirely righted themselves. According to the third-order standings at Baseball Prospectus, the difference between the Red Sox’ runs scored expected record and their runs created expected record is around half a game. Clutch has cost the Sox maybe a win over the season, but no more than that.

The problem for the Red Sox is not so simple as a lack of clutch hitting or struggles at winning close games. It’s just that they’ve played below-average baseball for seven weeks. I have a few proposals for how to improve the club so that they play better.

1) Wait and See

There are currently more Red Sox underperforming expectations than overperforming. Mike Carp has a 600 OPS. Dustin Pedroia‘s at 750, Shane Victorino‘s at 700. Grady Sizemore is better than his 700 OPS as well. The bullpen probably isn’t this good, but the Red Sox should probably expect improvement from the roster overall in the next couple months.

2) Let the Kids Play

Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are both striking out way too much. Bradley is batting .200 with a .300 BABIP because he’s striking out so much. Bogaerts needs a .350 just to be hiting .260. With a combined K-rate over 30 percent, the Sox’ young stars need to make adjustments. I don’t think there’s a solution here other than letting them play, and neither Bogaerts nor Bradley was an extreme strikeout hitter in the minors. They should adjust. You can think of this as “Wait and See 1a” if you want.

3) Fix the Rotation

The main place I don’t want to the Sox to wait is the starting rotation. Jake Peavy’s bad start tonight underlined that he hasn’t actually been pitching well all year. He has a team-worst FIP well over 5.00, and he’s looked like the second coming of Ryan Dempster. Felix Doubront looks to now be settling in to his traditional below-average season, but Clay Buchholz is a total wild card. I think it’s extremely unlikely that all three of these guys are the best pitchers for the 3-5 slots in the rotation. The Sox should be looking very hard at Rubby De La Rosa and Brandon Workman for starting pitching jobs.

It’s not going to take more than 85 wins to be part of the AL East race well into September. This Sox team can get there, but I think it’s going to take some judicious fixes.

How To Fix What’s Wrong With Baseball

No Tommy John yet (RLRS Photo).

No Tommy John yet (RLRS Photo).

First step, no more walk-off losses against the Twins.

The Red Sox have been very lucky recently to lose almost no young pitchers to Tommy John surgery. Everywhere else in baseball, busted ligaments are stealing seasons from the most exciting young pitchers. Jose Fernandez, baseball’s best pitcher, is only the most recent in an epidemic. As tracked by Jon Roegele, there have been nearly double the number of Tommy John surgeries this season as by this date in any year in the last two decades. There’s a real problem.

At the same time, pitchers in baseball are getting too good. Even without Fernandez and Matt Harvey and Matt Moore, pitchers are throwing harder than ever, with nastier breaking stuff than ever, and it’s making the game less exciting. We are nearly up to a strikeout per inning in baseball, after years of roughly two strikeouts every three innings. While there is something fantastic about watching great pitchers get Ks, the out itself is a problem. There’s no ball in play, no opportunity for any athletic performance or possible movement of the baserunners. Baseball, generally, is better the more that it is a team game, the more that there are multiple moving parts, fielders and baserunners along with pitchers and hitters.


I am pretty convinced that the two issues are linked. With more pitchers putting more stress on their arms to throw at 100 percentage and rack up the Ks, we’re seeing more injuries as these arms give out. As Travis Sawchik points out, the recent rash of strikeouts has correlated to a big increase in speed, as in just five years the average MLB fastball velocity has jumped from under 91 to over 92.

How can we solve this problem?

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Travis Shaw: Breakout Prospect

This, but with more contact (RLRS Photo).

This, but with more contact (RLRS Photo).

He’s gone full Mookie.

An unheralded ninth round draft pick out of Kent State, Travis Shaw fought his way into the prospect ranks with a big season at Salem in 2011. The Sox have not done well developing power prospects at the corners, and so Shaw’s 400/500 season put him in a good position in the organization. Not a lot of power hitting first basemen blocking his path. He earned a call-up to Portland late in the summer, and there began the backslide. A strikeout rate already in the scary 25 percent range tipped up toward 30, and even pretty good power numbers couldn’t sustain a good batting line. Last year, returning to Portland, Shaw kept striking out and lost power. It seemed like a lost season, but a big run in the Arizona Fall League kept 2013 from being a complete bust.

And now he’s gone full Mookie. I don’t know what the Red Sox hitting coach is doing in Portland, but something very big has changed with Travis Shaw. His strikeout rate in AA was about 27 percent coming into the year, and it’s down to 10 percent. He’s nearly got a Mookie ratio (K < BB < XBH), with more strikeouts than walks (20 to 13) and equal numbers of extra-base hits and strikeouts. Shaw’s 400/500 is entirely sustainable based on his contact rates, and he might even have further to climb.

We should not get too excited about a third-time level repeater, a 24-year-old who has only just figured out AA pitching. However, Shaw was always a tick of contact ability from being a real prospect. He’s added about five ticks. This looks to me like the real deal, a true breakout season perhaps slightly overshadowed by his .400-hitting teammate.

Source: Red Sox Play, Win Weekend Baseball Games

One of my... favorite pitchers?? (RLRS Photo)

One of my… favorite pitchers?? (RLRS Photo)

That weekend turned around quite nicely. After being on the receiving end of a Yu Darvish gem on Friday, the Sox recovered to spank the Rangers 8-3 on Saturday afternoon and then 5-2 yesterday. Jon Lester and John Lackey were both brilliant. Lackey in particular has turned into one of the most enjoyable pitchers to watch in the majors. He works very quickly and he throws strikes (1.9 BB/9, 8th in the AL). Lackey combines that efficiency with the sine qua non of the fun-to-watch pitcher, a nasty breaking ball that he can use to make hitters look silly. In fact, Lackey’s got two of them.

I think that when I’ve noted how weird it is to see John Lackey as one of the Sox’ best pitchers, this might get at what I’m referring to. It’s not just that a guy who was among the 20 best pitchers in the league in his 20s in now among the 30 best pitchers in the league in his 30s. It’s that I hated watching Lackey pitch, and now I look forward to his games, even a bit more than his quality would usually indicate.

Of course, perhaps one of the reasons I look forward to Lackey’s games is that the back of the rotation is still a big problem. Clay Buchholz had another disaster start on Friday. Felix Doubront might be doing his Doubront-y thing of pitching himself into shape, but he hasn’t looked great even when the results have been there, and his ERA still stands over 5.00.

The problem for the Sox is that our rotation depth isn’t quite as strong as you would hope. Chris Capuano has been excellent, but he’s been shifted oddly into short relief and might not be able to handle a regular slot right now. And these are the basic pitching stats for the AAA rotation that was supposed to make everything all right:

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