Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What Price Loyalty?

After trading for Victor Martinez on July 31st the Red Sox had 5 players to fit into 4 spots in the lineup - 1B, 3B, C, and DH. Looking at the OPS of each player doesn't suggest that it would be particularly difficult to figure out who should sit:

Kevin Youkilis .987
Victor Martinez .831
Mike Lowell .813
Jason Varitek .755
David Ortiz .713

Defensively the primary alignment is pretty clear as well. With Lowell now a dreadful 3B due to hip surgery and age you put Martinez at 1B, Youkilis at 3B, Varitek at C, and Lowell DH's. Martinez, while not at Youkilis level, is an adequate 1B. Youkilis hasn't played at 3B as well as he did last year, but he is still vastly better than Lowell at this point. Oritz would play roughly 2-3 times a week when Martinez gives Varitek a day off or when Lowell needs a day off to rest his hip (not sure how often this would be required if Lowell is just a DH).

Terry Francona hasn't seen this as such a clear decision. Boston has played 10 games since the Martinez trade, here are how the 39 lineup spots (Casey Kotchman received 1 spot start) have been divided:

Youkilis - 10
Martinez - 10
Ortiz - 8
Varitek - 6
Lowell - 5

Has Ortiz simply been hot and Francona is riding the streak? No, not so much. Ortiz's OPS in August is .339; Lowell's is 1.107. Francona has long been considered to be extremely loyal to his players, at times to a fault. This is one of those 'to a fault' situations - Lowell is by far the better hitter right now.

We don't need to delve into all of Ortiz's numbers they've been well documented. But one that is particularly gruesome is his road OPS which sits at a sickly .594. Seems pretty clear that the best way to put Ortiz in a position where he can succeed is to limit him to playing in Fenway as much as possible. Varitek needs a day off, maybe Lowell sits against a tough RHP - fine play Papi, otherwise no thanks.

Having said all that is it likely that Francona could cost the Red Sox the Wild Card over the lineup? Probably not, even if Big Papi takes all of Lowell's at bats it's unlikely that would cost the Sox even 1 win when looking at earned value. In October though, shouldn't you run out your best lineup whenever possible?

Rios To The White Sox

Kenny Williams once again made a bold move yesterday by winning a claim on Alex Rios and acquiring the talented outfielder for nothing, well nothing other than 5 years and 60.7M or 6 years and 73.2M remaining on his contract.

In the short term at least it is a terrific move for the Sox. Currently 3 games behind Detroit in the AL Central standings, adding Rios should be worth 1 -1.5 wins or so over Scott Podsednik in CF. Long term is Rios really going to be worth his hefty contract through 2014 (13.5M option in 2015 with a 1M buyout)?

I'd say it's pretty questionable. Rios has gone from being under-rated in response to his perceived lack of growth to actually being over-rated when looking at his earned value in 2007-8 and trying to project it forward. Courtesy of Fangraphs let's look at what Rios has earned in terms of batting value, fieldling value, and dollars earned over the years:

2004 -4.4 17.4 $7M

2005 -11.3 8.4 $2.7M

2006 13.5 9.3 $12.1M

2007 20.9 8.9 $18.9M

2008 11.4 23.9 $24.6M

2009 -.6 .1 $4.9M

Hmm...... don't his 2007 offensive season and 2008 defensive season look like outliers here? Remember Rios is 28 so while he shouldn't be entering his decline phase yet he has probably established who he is.

Rios basic problem on offense is primarily based on his refusal to walk, leaving his OBP very batting average dependent. This year his line has dropped to .264/.317/.427 - very poor offensive numbers for a corner OF. The reason for the fall in batting average can be attributed to a decline in BABiP from his career mark of .328 to .294.

Why the roughly 10% decline in BABiP? Perhaps it's coincedence but Rios' line drive rate is 9% below his career rate as well. Rios hasn't returned to his extreme ground ball hitting ways of 2004-5, but the last couple of years he's hit more ground balls than in 2006-7. More ground balls, more infield pop ups - moving to the Cell isn't going to fix that. Those 17 hrs hit the first 3 months of 2007 seem like a distant memory, the last 2 years and a month Rios has hit 36 total home runs.

While the White Sox home park, the 'Cell', is a very good hitters park it isn't significantly better than the Rogers Center in Toronto. For what it's worth over Rios career he's hit a HR every 30 at bats at home and every 57 at bats on the road - a huge variance. His career OPS on the road is .735 over 100 points less than at home (.839) and is dreadful for a RF.

Defensively Rios is a very fine player posessing an outstanding arm and plus range at least for RF. It isn't clear where the Sox play him long term or what his defensive value will look like in CF. Certainly this year stationed between Jermaine Dye and a gimpy Carlos Quentin he'll have every opportunity to show how his range plays in CF. It isn't clear why his defensive numbers are down so much this year, he should be expected to return to his 2005-7 level, not 2008 which stands out rather dramatically from the rest of his career.

If we assume Rios settles in at roughly 12 runs above average on offense & 9 runs above average on offense and remains as durable as he has been he's going to earn roughly between 3.5-4.5 wins above a replacement player. Based on the slow down in market spending this past winter and what we should anticipate this winter I'd guess that suggests Rios will earn around 15M. Considering his actual contract pays him 12.5M per that's a win, but not a huge win. If he moves back to RF or misses any time with injury the contract is going to be pretty neutral in terms of value he generates.

Who knows, maybe the general malaise that seems to have fallen over the Toronto clubhouse has negatively affected Rios. That certainly won't be a problem in Ozzie Guillen's clubhouse, perhaps being in a pennant race will jump start Rios and he'll take off the next couple of months. More than likely though long-term Rios is going to settle in as being a good player, but more of a complementary player than one you build around. I just wonder how many 'good' players are going to make 60M dollars between 2010-2014.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Willy Taveras - How Low Can He Go?

On 12/27/08 the Reds made one of many recent head-scratching decisions by giving Willy Taveras a 2 yr 6.25 million dollar contract. Keep in mind that just 2 weeks earlier Taveras had been non-tendered by the Rockies and wasn't exactly flooded with contract offers. Through the first month and a half things looked suprisingly good, Taveras was providing good defense, stolen bases and this hitting line (as of 5/13):


To say that poor Willy fell apart starting the next day would be kind. His slashline from 5/14 through last night:


Keep in mind this isn't some small sample the streak, highlighted by a 1-46 with 0 walks stretch, covers 244 plate appearances.

Thanks largely to Taveras the Reds leadoff hitters to date have 'produced' the following line - .232/.273/.297 for a comical .570 OPS. Out of morbid curiosity I decided to go back and look for a team that produced a worse line than that out of the lead-off spot. Here are the recent 'top 10' including the '09 Reds with primary lead off hitter(s). I was too lazy to make the calculations for OPS+ so I simply added the league average OPS as a decent comparison.

Team/Yr OPS Lg. Avg. Hitters
Cubs 1981 .527 .683 Ivan DeJesus/Bobby Bonds
Toronto 1981 .537 .693 Alfredo Griffin
San Diego 1981 .551 .683 Ozzie Smith
White Sox 1976 .556 .681 Chet Lemon/Pat Kelly/Jerry Hairston
Cincinnati 2009 .570 .740 Willy Taveras/Chris Dickerson
Boston 1992 .573 .713 Wade Boggs/Billy Hatcher/Jody Reed
Seattle 1994 .575 .779 Rich Amaral/Felix Fermin/Brian Turang
St. Louis 1986 .576 .702 Vince Coleman
Oakland 1978 .578 .711 Mike Edwards/Miguel Dilone/Joe Wallis
L.A. 1989 .578 .678 Alfredo Griffin/Willie Randolph

Some suprising names huh? A couple of Hall of Famers and a few other players that had solid careers. Quite an accomplishement for Alfredo Griffin to have 2 of the 10 worst lead-off seasons in the past 34 years. Anyway, I think 1981 should be ignored, it was a very odd season with the August re-start after a roughly 2 month strike, it obviously doesn't compare well to any other season listed here. When using league OPS as a comparison that one team that under-performed the '09 Reds out of the lead-off spot was the 1994 Seattle Mariners who managed to have a below average offense despite a monster season by Juinor Griffey and very fine seasons from Buhner and both Edgar and Tino Martinez.

Interesting exercise, but is there anything the Reds could do differently over the last couple of months of the season? Being the Reds the options aren't great, but there are a couple of alternatives superior to writing Taveras in as the lead-off hitter every day. 1) Put Chris Dickerson there once he comes off the D.L. or 2) Call-up Drew Stubbs from Louisville.

Dickerson is not a great player by any stretch, his scorching hot 6 weeks last year can be ignored, but he has some value. He's walked in roughly 13% of his plate appearances; he has some pop in his bat, has some speed, and the very small sample suggests he can handle CF. His .259/.355/.359 line this year is considerably better than what Taveras offers.

Stubbs is a former #1 pick of the Reds out of the University of Texas and has been somewhat of a disappointment. He strikes out an awful lot, and most of his power has left as he's cut down on his swing in an attempt to reduce K's. He does have pluses however - he's considered an outstanding defensive CF'er; is a terrific base stealer (44-51 SB's this year); and will draw walks. At age 24 calling him up now would hardly qualify as a rush. Stubbs major league equivalency this year isn't impressive - .238/.308/.315. The point is that 2009 is lost to the Reds, they may as well call up Stubbs and see if he can be part of the future.

The Reds of course will do neither. Taveras makes 4M next year, and the concept of sunk costs is foreign to them. Plus Dusty loves his veterans. Jay Bruce and Dickerson are both out with injuries, yet Dusty made it clear he wanted no part of Stubbs or Chris Heisey (another modest OF prospect in AAA). Far better to roll with Laynce Nix/Taveras/Johnny Gomes - strikes me as the core of a pennant contender....

Friday, August 7, 2009

Smoltz Returning To Where It All Started?

This afternoon the Red Sox did the inevitable and DFA'ed John Smoltz, not exactly stunning news for a 42 year old starting pitcher with a 8.33 ERA. It isn't difficult to breakdown why Smoltz struggled so terribly, two stats that jump out:

1) Lefties are hammering him to the tune of .444/.485/.767

2) From pitch 31 on Smoltz's slash line is equally gruesome - .388/.402/.741

Let's flip things around and look at a couple of other numbers though (small sample size acknowledged):

In 85 plate appearances right-handed hitters haven't done much - .232/.259/.390

Pitches 1-15 you ask? .265/.395/.294

Could Smoltz help someone as a one inning RH specialist? It sure seems like he might be able to. The Sox of course are well aware of these numbers and have asked him to go to the minor leagues to prepare to pitch out of the 'pen. There are some salary issues to work through (reportedly Boston would like a restructuring of his contract) that both he and the union may object to so the situation is unsettled at the moment. The other question is where exactly would he fit in Boston's pen? Certainly behind Papelbon, Bard, Okajima, and Ramirez. Likely behind Delcarmen and Saito as well. Doesn't seem like a huge need there.

What about another AL team pursuing the playoffs; where he started his professional career; close to where he is originally from? What about the Tigers? Detroit could use a RH set-up man to replace Joel Zumaya. The current set-up crew offers Bobby Seay & Fu-Te Ni from the left side and Brandon Lyon & Ryan Perry from the right. They haven't done a bad job, but it isn't hard to imagine Jim Leyland wanting to add a piece.

Who knows what Smoltz is thinking - does he want last night's pounding to be the final time he walks off a mound; does he feel obligated to try pitching in relief for Boston; would finishing his career in Detroit mean anything special to him?

Getting 20-25 innings out of John Smoltz isn't going to be the catalyst to propel the Tigers to the World Series, but it might help win the division. The need is there from Detriot's perspective, I'm guessing it happens.