Breaking news: good things actually happened in 2006 (and why you’re not likely to hear much about it in the media)

November 2nd, 2006 → 1:37 pm @

The Red Sox front office, in case you forgot, took a lot of beatings in the last 12 months; if a Martian came down and read the coverage of the team, he could reasonably be expected to conclude that Theo Epstein had personally taken a bat to Jason Varitek’s knee, Jed Hoyer had smashed Wily Mo’s hand in a door, and Ben Cherington had spent weeks hiding behind Papi’s car for the sole purpose of startling him to the point of his developing a heart murmur. (After all, if the disappointing season was entirely the front office’s fault, all of the primary causes would have to be laid at its feet.) The local media didn’t help in this regard; as I’ve said time (and time and time) again, the most frustrating (and, to my mind at least, reprehensible) aspect of this was when writers or commentators decried moves they had previously been in favor of…and failed to fully explain the confluence of factors that contributed to 2006*

Anyway, it turns out that at least some people think the Sox didn’t do such a bad job after all; in fact, in Baseball America’s recent ranking of the 2006 draft, the Sox ranked tops in all of baseball. It’s not surprising that it’s a national publication devoted in large part to amateur players that took the time and energy to point this out; in various local writers’ and commentators’ end-of-season rankings of the Sox’s front office, I didn’t see a single instance in which the team’s draft or player development program was included in any significant way.

Now, a worthwhile question to ask is why, if this team is so good at evaluating talent, it has struggled when transitioning these players to the big leagues (and/or seemingly made some missteps when it comes to trading away prospects). One factor — and this doesn’t totally explain things away, but has to be considered — is the reality that playing in Boston is different from playing in virtually every other market in the country. Some players react to the intensity and scrutiny differently than others; just as crucially, the fans and media throng put enormous pressure on the team to put up a team littered with big names and known quantities. Nick Cafardo’s Globe piece today hints at that — the piece begins, “If Theo Epstein or Brian Cashman tried to parade a roster like the Cardinals’ onto the field in Boston or New York, they’d probably be run out of town” — but then fails to explain how this affects what eventually happens on the field. (A corollary, and a valid point, is that if Brian Cashman or Theo put this team on the field in the AL East they’d likely end up with a losing record….but I digress.)

* Related to this is another David Leonhardt column that deals with former Treasury Secretary Robert Robin, a writer-subject combo I’ve brought up before in relation to how sportswriters and sports fans could better understand the game. In yesterday’s piece, Leonhardt addresses Rubin’s recent bet against the dollar…a bet that didn’t pay off. But that doesn’t mean it was an incorrect bet to make. Leonhardt explains Rubin’s philosophy:

“Throughout [Rubin’s] career — as an arbitrage trader at Goldman, as the Treasury secretary who led the 1995 bailout of Mexico — he has argued that decisions should not be judged solely on the outcome. Somebody could do a perfectly good job of weighing the relevant risks, make a call that maximizes the chances of success and still not succeed, because the world is a messy, unpredictable place.”

Unpredictability is hard for sports fans to swallow; I get that. What’s harder to choke down is when sportswriters — either because they’re lazy or because they’re pandering to their audience — don’t take the time to understand and explain this stark reality.

Post Categories: 2006 Wrap-ups and report cards & Red Sox front office & Sports Reporters

Why you knew the A’s weren’t going to be the second team to come back from 0-3.

October 16th, 2006 → 12:26 am @

“We’re running into a better team, and they’re knocking down everybody in their path. It’s not frustrating, they’re better than we are.”
— A’s third baseman Eric Chavez after Oakland’s Game 3 2006 ALCS loss.

“We have to do what’s never been done in Major League baseball history and that’s come back from a 3-0 deficit.”
— Johnny Damon after the Red Sox’s Game 3 2004 ALCS loss.

“It’s as big a hole as you can dig yourself, but obviously, you’re going to keep fighting them and try to dig your way out of it.”
— Bronson Arroyo, ditto

“It’s never fun being down 3-0, but there’s still hope. We’ve still got a chance.”
— Tim Wakefield, ditto

Post Categories: 2004 Playoffs & 2006 Wrap-ups and report cards

OK, Gammons, enough cribbing off my blog (The Derek Lowe Year-End Wrap-Up)

October 4th, 2006 → 5:12 pm @

Remember the item I posted yesterday? You know, the one looking at how Pedro had broken down blah blah blah. I ended by saying, “More year-end wrap-ups and report cards — as well as a look back at the free-agent pitching class of 2004 — in the days to come.”

And then today, Peter Gammons has an ESPN column on…Pedro and the free agent class of 2004! Yeah, I’m so sure you just came up with that on your own, Gammo. It’s not like you revolutionized baseball writ…oh. Anyway.

For those of you without ESPN Insider, Gammons’s piece makes a Pedro observation I hadn’t even realized: that since July of 2005, the right arm of god has gone 12-13. Ouch.

Then, Gammons takes a look at the rest of the pitchers who came on the open market in ’04. After Pedro’s 4-year/$52 million deal, there was Carl Pavano’s 4-year/$39.999999 million deal, Lowe’s 4-year/$36 million contract, and Russ Ortiz’s 4-year/$33 million windfall. Neither Pavano (4-5) nor Ortiz (5-19) has managed to even win 10 games in ’05 and ’06 combined, and only Lowe has thrown more than 400 innings (at 440). In fact, out of all of the free-agent pitchers available after the ’04 season — a class which includes Matt Clement (3 years/$25.5 million), Eric Milton (3 years/$25.5 mil), Jaret Wright (3 yrs/$21 mil), and David Wells (2 yrs/$8.2 mil with plenty of bonus clauses) — Lowe’s the only guy who’s thrown more than 400 innings. Pedro and Derek and the only two guys with ERAs under 4 (3.37 and 3.62, respectively), and out of a class of 12, only six guys — Pedro, Derek, Wells (18-12), Wright (16-12), Jon Lieber (3 yrs/21 mil, 26-24), and Chris Benson (3 yrs/$22.5 mil, 21-20) — have winning records.

So what does that tell us? Well, that old straw about pitching being notoriously hard to predict is, in fact, true. And I don’t think there’s a Red Sox fan alive — or a member of the team’s front office — that doesn’t wish the team had re-signed Lowe instead of picking up the equally mopey but not nearly as durable Matt Clement. But what’s made Lowe so valuable isn’t that he’s been that good; a lot of his peripheral numbers, including batting average on balls in play, have been fairly similar in LA compared to what they were in Boston, suggesting that, had he been pitching in the AL East the past two years, he likely would have ended up with a record and an ERA somewhere between what he was doing in ’03 and ’04 — sucking — and what he did in ’05 and ’06. (In Boston, Lowe’s lack of success and his poor BABIP numbers corresponded pretty starkly, which could be due to crappy defense or could be do to the fact that batters pound the ball when they see hanging sliders. But I digress.)

Does that mean the Sox made a mistake when they didn’t even offer Lowe a courtesy contract? Yes and no. The Sox were worried about that Lowe’s off-field activities would become a distraction…and they were right. If Derek had been in Boston when he left his wife for a sportscaster, we’d still be reading about it. And Pavano and Clement were widely considered the two best pitchers of the class (or at least the two pitchers with the most upside)…and not just by New York and Boston.

But looking back, Lowe (and arguably David Wells) has been the best pitching deal of that year. Lowe likely had more pure physical ability than anyone else on the market (and yes, I’m including Pedro), and he’d already shown a remarkable ability to stay healthy. Hindsight being 20-20 and all, both of those things were clearly undervalued.

As it is, Derek Lowe will go down in Red Sox history as a) one-half of one of the great heists of all time (Lowe and Varitek to Seattle for Healthcliff Slocumb)*, b) a remarkable bargain for the years he played in Fenway, c) the inspiration for Bill Simmons’s best-ever coined phrase (the Derek Lowe Face), and d) the only man alive to clinch the deciding game in all three rounds of the playoffs. That’s a great resume.

Right now, it would be awfully nice if Lowe was adding to that resume. I was firmly in the camp of people who thought it was a mistake to offer Lowe a contract. I still understand the reasons why I thought that. I also see much more clearly how important a pitcher’s physical history and his ability to succeed in a specific environment should be taken into consideration.

* It’s amazing how many lopsided trades Boston has had a part in: Ruth; Parish and McHale for Joe Barry Carroll and Rockey Brow (not that simple, but still); Bagwell to the Astros…and then there’re the trades that included future Sox stars, like then-Oriole Curt Schilling, et al, to the ‘stros for Glenn Davis and then-Dodger Pedro to the Expos for Delino DeShields (I shit you not.)

Post Categories: 2006 Wrap-ups and report cards & Derek Lowe

Year-end wrap-ups: Dodging a bullet with Pedro

October 3rd, 2006 → 6:04 pm @

Two thousand and six was — by far — the worst year of Pedro Martinez’s bejeweled career. His year-end line: 9-8, 132.2 innings pitched, a 4.48 ERA, 137 K’s. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s Pedro’s worst ERA ever. The only season in which he’s had less strikeouts was 1993…his rookie year. His two-year totals with the Mets are 24-16, 345 Ks, and a 3.55 ERA. That would have put him eighth in NL ERA this year.

Pedro did, to be sure, display flashes of the brilliance that has made him one of the best pitchers ever to play the game. Even with his miserable performances of the last several weeks, his .220 BAA would have placed him third in the league (behind Chris Young and Carlos Zambrano) had he pitched enough innings to qualify. And during the season’s first months, he showed, perhaps more than ever before, that he’s a brilliant pitcher and not just a fireballer.

But the Pedro Martinez who finished the year looked a lot different from the one that sauntered into Boston on June 28 for his first start at Fenway since he left the Sox after 2004. At that point, he was 7-3 with a 3.02 ERA, and there was lots of moaning about how the Sox should have done more to re-sign Pedro when he hit free agency. There were stories in the press about how Pedro wanted to come back, but the Sox just wouldn’t pony up.

That, to but it bluntly, is a pile of crap. I pointed that out at the time and got no small amount of grief. There might have been circumstances in which Pedro would have come back to Boston, but he gave every indication that it was not his first choice.

And as painful as this season was, it would have been more painful if Pedro had been another one of the walking wounded populating Yawkey Way. Pedro never was quite able to accept Curt Schilling taking over the mantle as the best pitcher on the Sox’s staff. He griped about it before the ’04 season, he griped about it during the ’04 season, and he griped about it after he signed with the Mets. As Peter Gammons said two years ago, it was “preposterous” that Pedro didn’t bother to show up in New York for Game 6 of the ’04 ALCS…a game Schilling happened to be pitching. With all of the drama and all of the soap operas swirling around Fenway this year, can you imagine what it would have been like to add a hurt, jealous Pedro Martinez to the mix?

Finally, after two years in which Pedro cost the Mets a million bucks a win (which is, granted, slightly less than what Matt Clement has cost the Sox thus far), there’s a decent chance that the $26 million he’s costing the team for ’07 and ’08 will be pretty much sunk costs. If the Red Sox want to continue trying to compete with the Yankees, there’s two things they can’t do: make poor decisions (more on that later) and spend tens of millions of dollars on players in, ahem, the twilight of their careers.

I’ve said many, many times that Pedro is one of my all-time favorite players. I got chills when he returned to Fenway. Watching him strike out 17 Yankees in 1999 is one of the highlights of my baseball-watching life. But it should be clearer than ever that the Red Sox — whether that be Theo, Larry, or whomever — made the right move in not ponying up more than 50 million for a 33-year-old pitcher who is generously listed as being 5-11 and has had a history of shoulder problems.

(More year-end wrap-ups and report cards — as well as a look back at the free-agent pitching class of 2004 — in the days to come.)

Post Categories: 2006 Wrap-ups and report cards & Pedro Martinez