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February 10, 2009

Red Sox Recycling

Sentimentality Run Amok?

by Steven Goldman

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Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Between employing David Ortiz at designated hitter and Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis at the infield corners, the Red Sox have had a trio of reliable cornerstones in their lineup the last three years. Unfortunately for their pennant hopes in 2009, there is the very real danger that all of them will be delivering less at the plate, but to make a bad situation worse, the organization has only one possible patch available, a minor league first baseman who may not be ready until midseason, if then.

This might seem a bit of a surprise, because the combination worked very well for them in 2006 and 2007. Before 2008, Youkilis had shown that there was more to his game than a good eye at the plate, and if he wasn't a power hitter of the class you normally get at first base, he was producing numbers consistent with the first sackers the Sox have employed in the aftermath of the Mo Vaughn era. Lowell had rebounded from a career-worst season with the Marlins in 2005, re-emerging with a career best .320 average and 120 RBI in 2007 (winning himself a three-year extension in the process). Big Papi has been the heart of the club, and had batted .302/.402/.612 since coming over from the Twins in 2003.

Then two legs of this tripod showed signs of folding in 2008. Lowell underwent surgery in October after a partially torn labrum in his left hip limited the 34-year-old to .225/.286/.357 rates in the second half before he was shut down in mid-September. The resultant move of Youkilis to third base meant the Sox were forced to experience Sean Casey's second-half slump before settling on late-season acquisition Mark Kotsay for the playoffs, a decision that proved disastrous. Lowell's rehab is supposedly going well, but the combination of a severe injury and a player in his mid-30s rarely augurs heightened production. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA forecasting system envisions him showing no more durability than he did in 2008, while projecting a further decline in offensive production, dropping to .272/.332/.442.

Lowell's not the only old-timer trying to come back from injury. Ortiz tore a tendon sheath in his left wrist in 2008, and saw his swing significantly affected. Although still productive upon his return (he hit .277/.385/.529 in 55 games), he was far from the intimidating hitter who had ranked among the top five MVP vote-getters for five years running, and after more than 50 games on the shelf, the wrist was still "clicking" on him late in the season. PECOTA projects that Ortiz will recover his health in 2009, but not his former productivity, predicting rates of .269/.375/.504, a level of production equivalent to the injury-hampered numbers from last year.

Alone of the three, Youkilis emerged from the season not only whole, but improved. For the second year in a row, the former "Greek God of Walks" cut his walk rate, eschewing ball four for a more aggressive approach at the plate. The change was small, but significant, with Youkilis swinging at more pitches and putting the ball in play earlier in the count. The result was a .312/.390/.569 breakout, Youkilis maintaining his doubles power of earlier years, but also boosting his home-run total to 29-13 more round-trippers than the year before.

The problem is, that was then, and this is now. Youkilis got a late start to his major league career and, at 29 years old last season, may have enjoyed a late-peak season. That peak was abetted by a .347 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a very high rate of success. Youkilis has had high BABIPs throughout his short career, but last year does represent a career high, so he should be expected to lose ground. As such, PECOTA foresees Youkilis returning to his late-model John Olerud ways, providing a weighted mean projection of .275/.366/.475.

Add that up, and the Red Sox have three key players potentially going in reverse, all in the same season. Over the winter, general manager Theo Epstein did little to add quality depth to surmount this problem once his pursuit of Mark Teixeira came up short. If Lowell is slow to recover, Youkilis remains the prime option to take over at third; moving shortstop Jed Lowrie in Lowell's place is a possibility (he started 22 games at the hot corner last year), but that would force the restoration of Julio Lugo to the starting lineup, and Lowrie and Lugo starting at the same time would only exacerbate their run-scoring problem. If Ortiz isn't his old self, free-agent signee Rocco Baldelli could substitute (at least sometimes, given his channelopathy), but he's not really a DH-quality bat, and in any case may be required to substitute in right field for the fragile J.D. Drew. Youkilis is in less danger of tailing off as severely, but were he to miss extended time, the Sox would have difficulty substituting for him from among what's on the roster-Ortiz hasn't worn a glove for more than 10 games in any season since 2004, and the re-signed Kotsay shouldn't be seen as a serious substitute.

The one in-house band-aid available to protect them from such hurts is their top prospect, Lars Anderson, only 21 but coming into view. An 18th-round pick in 2006, Anderson batted .317/.408/.513 at High-A Lancaster last year, then moved up to Double-A Portland and continued to rake, hitting .316/.436/.526. These are terrific numbers for any player at these levels, particularly a 20-year-old; the Portland numbers translate to .292/.399/.489 at the major league level. PECOTA sees him capable of hitting only .256/.336/.400 in the majors this next season, but as Anderson is quite young and has yet to experience much of Double-A, let alone Triple-A, it is bound to be conservative. Long-term, Anderson projects as a quality middle-of-the-order hitter in the big leagues, but the immediate problem is that Anderson is only one man, he's only a first baseman, and even if he has the upside to deliver at the plate as effectively as the trio of Ortiz, Lowell, and Youkilis did in their best days, that potential probably won't show up in 2009.

In short, if Youkilis, Lowell, and Ortiz fail or slump to the levels that PECOTA expects, the Red Sox will need awfully big years from just about everyone else-especially incumbent MVP Dustin Pedroia, the even more fragile Drew, or Manny-replacement Jason Bay-to avoid losing so much offense that finishing higher than third place in baseball's toughest division becomes a matter of destiny instead of forecasting.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Kevin Youkilis,  Year Of The Injury

30 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I had been thinking something along those lines for a little while now. However, if such a situation develops, think of the gains that could be had simply from dropping ten yards and putting on 2009. If any of the group of Smoltz, Penny, and Saito are pitching well, they could be moved at the deadline for a nice return. We all want to win every year, but sometimes a strategic retreat can net you a much better position.

Feb 10, 2009 08:49 AM
rating: 0

The Yankees are in worse shape. They've done nothing to address THEIR aging C; BOS at least got Bard. They overspent for Teixeira--which John Henry shrewdly avoided. The Yankees have no real CF and their reliance on Damon in LF is as tricky as BOS' reliance on Lowell & moreso than future reliance on Youk + Ortiz.

I understand why PECOTA projects a regression for Youkilis--it will always project one. However, from a scouting standpoint, it appears that Youk acquired a new skill in 2008, to pull with more consistent authority. Given the skill set with which Youk entered 2008 (a tremendous eye) it isn't that surprising that he was able to make an adjustment to hit for more power. I see no reason to believe that Youkilis' power output in 2008 is not his "new norm."

NYY's loss of Abreu is more than redressed by acquiring Teixeira--but they still lost Abreu in RF. So notwithstanding NYY's substantial improvement in their starting rotation, it seems that neither BOS or NYY is keeping up with TB & while I agree that they are in a battle for 2nd, the Yankees are the ones losing that battle, despite their (typical) spending spree.

Feb 10, 2009 09:22 AM
rating: -3
James Martin Cole

Youkilis is certainly an interesting case.

It's noteworthy that, prior to last season PECOTA projected him for the following 2008 line: .265/.368/.458.

As we all know, Youk crushed that line, posting a line of .312/.390/.569.

It seems like a lot of the gain in AVG and SLG came at the expense of isolated patience, as PECOTA expected Youk to walk 79 times, and he only ended up walking 62 times.

For 2009, PECOTA is currently predicting that Youk will improve his walk mark to 70, but lose a large number of hits and homers.

What's striking is how similar last year's PECOTA's prediction for 2009 is to this year's PECOTA projection.

Last year's projections pegged Youk's 2009 for .272/.379/.466. This year, PECOTA says he'll put up a line of .267/.360/.480.

That seems very bizarre to me; it seems like PECOTA actually liked Youk better BEFORE his breakout year. Last year, he exceeded his PECOTA projections by 138 points of OPS. Somehow, Youkilis beating his projection by 138 points has led PECOTA to shave 4 points off of his 2009 projection.

It seems like they're seeing his drop in walks as real, whereas the batting average increase and big increase in power production are just statistical noise.

Watching him play last year, it really didn't seem like his approach had been seriously adjusted. While I'm not sold that Youkilis will post a .569 SLG next year, I think you can confidently assume that Youkilis will exceed his weighted mean projection for 2009 by a significant amount.

Feb 10, 2009 10:06 AM
rating: 4

With the fragile nature of two out of three of these players, wouldn't it make sense to make an effort to bring in Adam Dunn? I'm not sure what the National's offer was to him, but with this trio of questions, it appears Dunn would be a great fit. I imagine there is a way to creatively get all of these guys somewhere in the 500 PA range, even if it forces you to move Drew to CF on a (very) few occasions. Obviously it's important to know how his market is developing, but adding Dunn to the CO/CI combo of Youk, Lowell, Bay, Drew, Baldelli would give Francona some very interesting options.

Feb 10, 2009 09:54 AM
rating: 2
James Martin Cole

I was talking to a buddy of mine last night about that exact thing!

Feb 10, 2009 10:08 AM
rating: 1

I've been advocating for Dunn to anyone who will listen all offseason. Dunn is a great hitter and while he's a poor fielder, he's a better option than Ortiz who I think is done. Players of his type with his body type, when they decline, they decline fast. Papi has meant a lot to this team, and yes, i think sentimentality (along with a large amount of money) are why he's still here when the team could do much better.

Feb 10, 2009 12:46 PM
rating: 1

This is partly the basis for the suggestion, however, I was leaning more towards the steep decline of Lowell. Obviously Lowell is more than a late inning defensive replacement, but in a division that predominantly features RH SP's, it's fairly reasonable to think that carrying an extra lefty to mash (and stash at first base) would be a good idea.

Feb 10, 2009 13:37 PM
rating: 0

One other advantage that you didn't address is the Red Sox's increased financial flexibility that they have developed this offseason. They are down to about $133 Million and are in great position to add salary to fill a need during the season. In the current economic situation, this is a tremendous advantage. They are already deep in the pitching department and the outfield, and can always add a big bat to replace an injury or drop off from the 1B, 3B, DH slots.

Feb 10, 2009 09:55 AM
rating: 1

Why would Dunn come to the Red Sox, unless they pay him more than what others are currently offering. He would not be guaranteed a starting spot in the OF unless you agree to bench Drew or Bay. Dunn needs to prove he can be productive to earn a long term big money contract, sitting on the bench, or playing out of position is not the way to accomplish that.

The only way this works is if there is a subsequent trade of Bay for a stud 1B or 3B. Doesn't seem likely.

Feb 10, 2009 09:59 AM
rating: 0

It's pretty easy to spin PECOTA's projections negatively, since they are generally conservative, especially for the AL. In fact, Ortiz, Youkilis and Lowell's projections, while lower than their results last year, are pretty good relative to the league.

Doing a quick sort with the excel file:
-Ortiz's projected VORP is 1st among DHs, 2nd among AL DH/1B to Miguel Cabrera, and 10th in the AL overall.
-Youkilis's projected VORP is tied for 3rd in the AL among 1B (and doesn't include his defense of course) and 30th in the AL overall.
-Lowell's projected VORP is 6th in the AL among 3b.

PECOTA does predict the three to "slump," but it predicts the rest of the league to slump just as much. Also, Lowell and Ortiz weren't very healthy last year, they got no production from the catching position, Julio Lugo was slugging .330 for half the season and Jacoby Ellsbury was mostly lost at the plate, and while it cost them in the playoffs, the team somehow managed to score the second-most runs in the league. Only Pedroia and Youkilis had career years. The catching probably won't produce more offense, but it shouldn't be much worse. It's tough to expect a lot of regression from the Red Sox' offense.

Feb 10, 2009 10:02 AM
rating: 6

I don't get it, why is it sentimentality run amok?

I think one can easily make a case that the Red Sox had a bad offseason in the free agent market. Lots of risk, and no sure bets. But sentiment was the guiding factor? Was it sentiment that led them to pursue New England native Rocco Baldelli? Maybe. But I don't see Cris Carpenter or Tom Glavine walking through that door. And what sentiment would they have had for players they never employed like Saito, Smoltz, or Penny?

Perhaps one could claim that sentiment drove them to sign Mark Kotsay, or Jason Varitek. OK, I would buy that.

But that's about it.

As to the players you actually mention in support of your misty watercolored memories theory, your argument makes little sense. Ortiz was signed three years ago to a club-friendly deal that ties him up at $12.5M a year through his prime, and Lowell was signed in the 2007-08 offseason after a healthy and productive season. Neither of them was signed this year, and both were healthy when they did sign in years past. So did the team ignore evidence of injury or decline and sign the players? No. They already had the players signed. Was it sentiment that led the team to keep those players, then? Or was their trade value minimized by their injuries?

Youkilis alone of the three was signed this offseason; perhaps that is where they were overly sentimental? But I don't know; the player had his best year at age 29, and his deal ties him up through his prime without getting into crazy money at any point. What is sentimental about tying up the guy who finished third in the MVP vote through his age 34 season?

Besides, you allude to a point that effectively undermines your argument: the team's pursuit of Teixeira. Acquiring Teixeira would have forced one of those three aforementioned players to be traded. It wasn't sentiment that caused the Teixeira deal to go south, it was Leigh Teixeira on one hand, and the Yankees money on the other.

And since we are on the topic... Who besides Teixeira would have upgraded the team at those spots? Nick Swisher? Please. Adam Dunn? Well, who is to say that won't still happen?

Overall, I think you are correct to observe that the Red Sox do have some serious risk of decline at a couple of key lineup spots. But to chalk that up to an excess of sentiment when the team a) seemed willing to discard one of the three players when they elected to pursue Mark Teixeira and b) didn't make all of these decisions during the time frame you discuss seems completely off point and erroneous.

Feb 10, 2009 10:26 AM
rating: 5

Re: Penny - As a former marlin, a case could certainly be made for John Henry having sentiment affect that signing.

Feb 10, 2009 12:54 PM
rating: 0

is it just me, or are red sox fans super touchy?

Feb 10, 2009 10:41 AM
rating: -2

Yeah, I mean -- wow.

Feb 10, 2009 11:07 AM
rating: -1

"is it just me, or are red sox fans super touchy?"

I can't speak for all of us, but I love to touch people.

Seriously, I think the subtitle of the piece "Sentimentality Run Amok?" is misleading. I don't think the Sox' decision to go with Lowell/Youk/Ortiz has anything to do with sentimentality. The reality is they tried to address the issue but once they were unable to land Teixeira the other options in the FA market weren't going to provide an upgrade and players like Dunn, Abreu, Ramirez (OK, maybe not) aren't yet at a point where they will accept a one year deal as a reserve.

Goldman talks about the Sox needing to upgrade based on PECOTA but the Depth Charts released yesterday show them as a 98 win team. I agree with the underlying premise that the Sox have some fragility that could prove fatal but I don't see sentimentality as being the driving factor for it.

Feb 10, 2009 10:51 AM
rating: 4
James Martin Cole
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Also, Steven writes for the YES Network, and is thus on the Yankees' payroll. The Yankees are going to run Derek Jeter out at shortstop, pretty much for old times' sake. Where is his article about that?

Feb 10, 2009 13:25 PM
rating: -10
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

James, if you don't think I've been hard on Jeter's defense FOR YEARS, you haven't read me at all. YES has never asked me to shill nor to pull my punches. Do any kind of search, you'll find dozens of examples. Please do your research before you impugn my integrity.

Feb 10, 2009 15:51 PM
James Martin Cole

Don't worry, no one's suggesting that the Steinbrenners, Michael Kay, and the Free Masons are paying you to write bad things about the Red Sox. I'm not saying you're corrupt. I'm saying you're a homer. You're a Yankee fan bashing the Red Sox. Integrity has nothing to do with it.

That said, I take issue with the premise of the article. The Red Sox are one of the few teams that allow beloved free agents to walk (often to your Yankees). Both Ortiz and Youkilis are signed at below-market rates, and Lowell has two years and 25 million left, which is hardly peanuts but isn't especially overpriced otherwise.

The combined salaries of these three players is 27 million, less than an awful lot of teams will pay for 1200-1800 PA's of the type of production that these three players are likely to put up. All three players are projected by your website to rank in the top half of AL players at their position. Ortiz is projected to be the very best at his position, Youkilis is projected to be third best even with his nonsensical bearish projection (see above). Lowell is projected to be the 6th best, which is nothing to scoff at.

The Red Sox medical staff is widely considered to be among the league's best, they have one of the best 1B prospects in the game, a number of band-aids in Pawtucket (Carter, Bailey, Thurston), a ton of good prospects should they need to make a trade, and a good deal of money should they want to take on another team's bad contract. I fail to see how this situation is as notable as the Yankee's SS situation, or the Rays' closer situation, or the Blue Jays' rotation situation, or the O's, well, entire pitching staff situation. To me, the Red Sox 1B/3B/DH situation looks pretty good.

Feb 10, 2009 17:39 PM
rating: -2
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

James, like the man said, do your homework, because you're off base here. Steven has covered the Yankees for ages, and he didn't get to be where he is by being a homer; on the contrary, he's quite probably more critical of the Yankees than anyone else covering their beat, unless you're counting the tabloid sensationalists who get paid to manufacture outrage in 800-word parcels.

Beyond that, this is a Baseball Prospectus article, not a YES article, and I guarantee you Kay and the Steinbrenners aren't reading it; if they were reading Steve they would certainly have a better backup catcher than Jose Molina, for one thing.

Beyond that, we at BP just ran a piece about the problems that Jeter at shortstop creates for the Yanks both in the near term and beyond only week ago: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8462

Seriously, go get a late pass.

Feb 10, 2009 18:09 PM

I have to say that I really don't see the point of this article other than to point out what would happen in a worst-case scenario for the Red Sox this season. It truly seems like more of a hopeful prediction from a Yankee fan than anything that resulted from actual insight and analysis. I could probably write the same article about 15 or 20 other MLB teams. For example, the article that asks what will happen if Posada can't play the catcher position, Damon's cascading injuries continue to stack up, Matsui's and Wang's rehabs don't go well, Rivera's elbow finally meets its maker, etc., etc., etc., etc. I guess the Red Sox just get to enjoy the bulls-eye on their back for a while due to recent successes. But I come to BP (and pay for BP) to read insightful analysis, not something I could read on any Yankee blog for free.

Feb 10, 2009 18:29 PM
rating: -2

Then I suggest you cancel your membership in light of this egregious affront to analytical blogging.
Come on, there have been similar articles about the Yankees and other teams as well. This article addresses expectations, that's all. Who cares?
Definitely a tender bunch.

Feb 11, 2009 02:59 AM
rating: -1

It's true that this article could be written about most other MLB teams (and by the by I think that might be a rather interesting series) but as a red sox fan it's interesting to read it about a team that is often given credit for having, through sheer intellect, already accounted for all contingencies. It's not meant necessarily as a knock on the front office, but to point to the fact that there are not always easy improvements to be found without considerable cost to the future. I don't think it has much to do with sentimentality or emotion, but, frankly, getting bent out of shape about titles and headlines really is a good reason to seek professional help. The red sox do have some financial flexibility and talent to trade, I think the point that is interesting is that an opportunity to use those tools (to fill holes created by decline, injury,bad contracts) has to appear, and not all of those options will be attractive. The Lugo and Lowell contracts were always questionable, and because of lack of positional flexibility Ortiz as well. Those decisions weren't made in a vacuum however, and neither will the choices that the sox may have to make going forward. I would love to see a series along these lines for most teams, it makes for a better understanding of just what effect the length of contracts actually has on teams and ideas like success cycles.

Feb 11, 2009 04:37 AM
rating: 1

I'm glad I'm not the only Sox fan that saw, "Sentimentality Run Amok," and thought "hm, wonder what this is," instead of, "STEVEN GOLDMAN HATES THE SOX!"

Feb 11, 2009 15:52 PM
rating: 0

Jay, how about replying to his point re: the premise of the piece. The Red Sox may have problems at the corners, but I wouldn't really consider it a huge concern. They have 2 star level players. One of which was clearly a top 10 player in the AL last year, one of which has been 4 of the last 5 years. Lowell is a weak link, but is he really that weak of a link. Plus throwing out Lars Anderson as an inadequate insurance policy is a pretty remarkable. How many teams have better insurance at any position?

Oh and if anyone at BP wants to bet me a free subscription or book versus the wholesale dollar value on the over/under of the Pecota for Youlis, I'll take it. But I doubt anyone will.

Feb 11, 2009 09:19 AM
rating: -1

Pecota projects the Red Sox to score 869 runs and win 98 games. As a Red Sox fan, I think that is sentimental enough for me.

Feb 10, 2009 14:43 PM
rating: 0

Word, sgshaw! You take the words out of my mouth. Best SLG in the AL, best OBP in the League, crazy low RA, and winning the vaunted AL East. Am I taking crazy pills, or is all this still being predicted in spite of PECOTA's sadistic daydreaming regarding these aforementioned three? Where does all Mr. Goldman's doom and gloom about the general state of the Sox come from? It just seems a little outta whack. Yes, players age and get hurt. And yes, there is not a whole heck of a lot of organizational depth in terms of power bats. But like it or not there IS a ton of organizational wealth and intelligence, a ton of trade bait, and an obvious will to win. So why, again, look at this through poop-colored glasses?

As for the commentary on Sox fans, ekatta: When have we NOT been touchy?! You love that we're touchy! It gives you something to be snarky about. Besides which, to expect us not to freak out about such a pessimistic article is ludicrous. Particularly so against the backdrop of what PECOTA is predicting for the team as a whole this season.

Feb 11, 2009 07:06 AM
rating: 1

Steve does doom and gloom pretty often. I say this as a Yankee fan who reads his articles all the time. The Yankees could have a HOFer (in their prime) at every position and Steve would be pointing out the weakness of the bench. He's been hammering away at the Molina situation for a while. Ditto Nady. The CF pit of despair (well, it could be) as well. He does this, and Yankees fans often rip him for it.

So, while I happen to agree that the article is a worst-case scenario that is unlikely (and the PECOTA numbers look like dropoffs but really aren't in the context of the overall projections - we noticed this when we mulled the Yankee projections over at RLYW), he's not a Yankee homer trying to take down the Sox. He's just a glass half empty kinda guy. :)

Feb 12, 2009 05:49 AM
rating: 2
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Big Papi is not finished! I predict a big year for the big man!

Feb 10, 2009 18:10 PM
rating: -7

haha, way to go proving my point! jk fellas, nothing to fear in Red Sox nation this year, they'll be competetive as usual. Enjoy the games

Feb 12, 2009 11:12 AM
rating: 1

It seems like there would be a good match with the Padres here. Kouzmanoff could be had relatively easily, but if the Red Sox really wanted to ante up they could go for Adrian Gonzalez. It's not like the Padres are gonna win a pennant any time soon.

Feb 12, 2009 14:34 PM
rating: 0
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