Note: Beginning sometime early in December, my new home will be banishedtothepen.com. It’s a collective of listeners to Effectively Wild: The Baseball Prospectus Daily Podcast, who want to put our own thoughts out there for your consideration. I hope you’ll follow me over there, and follow me on Twitter for updates. My new handle is @MATrueblood.
The Boston Red Sox are inscrutable sometimes. That’s true of most smart people and smart organizations, but it’s not something to which learned baseball fans are accustomed anymore. It might take a longish series of clicks, going deep into a rabbit hole on Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs or Brooks Baseball or Baseball Prospectus or Baseball America or Baseball Savant. It might even take a few months of simply seeing a team’s design play out. Sooner or later, though, today’s savvy fan is trained to either find an explanation for a transaction, or pronounce it stupid. It’s painful, then, when a smart team makes a move that appears to defy explanation.
This is what that pain looks like:
Source: Hanley Ramirez headed to Boston tomorrow to finalize deal with #RedSox.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 24, 2014
red sox trying hard for mega free agent double play: panda and hanley. http://t.co/cp5DW9tVow
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) November 23, 2014
Now, no one is ready to say that Sandoval has made a decision, and indeed, there appear to be three solid offers on the table for him. Sandoval might well re-sign with San Francisco, or choose the dark horse and become a San Diego Padre. Still, the whole thing is strange. Everyone is grasping at straws, wondering what the Red Sox think they’re doing. After all, this is a team that already has Xander Bogaerts—an elite prospect as recently as nine months ago, a small World Series hero but a year ago—in place at Ramirez’s long-time, favored position, shortstop. They also have Will Middlebrooks at third base, where Sandoval plays (a lesser concern, as Middlebrooks’s uneven journey to this point might simply mean he’s on the outs).
Ignore both incumbents, and there’s still a problem, real or perceived: Ramirez is no longer seen as a true shortstop. If he move to third, Sandoval must play elsewhere, and neither first base nor DH are available spots in Boston. (Nor do many think Sandoval is a legitimate third baseman, although his move may come not in 2015, but further down the road.) If Ramirez move to the outfield, that reintroduces the problems posed by the talent on hand: The Red Sox have Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Rusney Castillo, Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino fighting for their 2015 outfield spots.
As you can see, if Sandoval joins Ramirez in Boston—and really, even if he doesn’t—another shoe will have to drop. Someone will be headed out of town, whether in a trade for upgraded starting pitching or in a package of some kind, consolidating two decent players into one excellent one. Once it happens, it’s likely that those of us inclined to rationalization will have a rationale to follow.
Even at this moment, though, with no subsequent moves helping to put this in perspective, and with no confirmation as to whether or not Sandoval is, indeed, Boston-bound, I can start to see what the Red Sox see in Ramirez. It’s upside and stability. It’s a track record. It’s shelter from the storm.
Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” He was talking about a nation in crisis, a war on a massive scale and the end of slavery. Skyrocketing strikeout rates and a few other, more mysterious forces changing the competitive environment of Major League Baseball don’t meet Lincoln’s standard, but it’s the job of an MLB executive to think that it does. This kind of shift forces changes in decision-making paradigms. The term that runs a hamster wheel in my head, and has been doing it since 2012, is ‘violent variance.’ The unpredictability of baseball has gone from charming to aggravating, for teams as much as for pundits.
That variance giveth, and it taketh away. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2013 because they ran up the highest team BABIP ever, and no one since integration was even close, and because many of their players played to nearly the top of their range of possible outcomes. They finished last in 2012 and 2014, though, because those teams woefully underperformed their potential, and they lost a playoff spot that ought to have been a birthright for them in 2011 because of a string of bad breaks and an unfortunate confluence of slumps in September.
The younger players are, the more volatile any projections of their future performance are. Accumulating a statistical record gives a player credibility. Ramirez has been in the big leagues for years, succeeding there for years. Xander Bogaerts may be a higher-upside asset than Ramirez, but because he doesn’t have a 7,000-plate appearance track record, he also has a much lower floor. That’s suddenly a blacker mark against him than it might have been 10 years ago, when things didn’t seem to swing so wildly.
Consider the Red Sox’s AL East rivals, the Baltimore Orioles. They’ve had as peculiar a roller-coaster ride since the start of 2012 as Boston has had, and it’s been because of some radical, unpredictable changes in players’ performance levels. Collectively, the Orioles won many more games than their raw performance augured in 2012, then played right around their median projections but got much less fortunate in 2013, then played far, far above their expected performance levels in 2014. There was no way to predict that the Orioles would reach October in 2012 and 2014, and that Boston would rule October in 2013, because both their actual performance and the wins and losses that only partially depend thereupon swung so wildly.
The Red Sox are done simply riding that wave. They see a rule set in baseball that limits their spending on amateur talent, and they see a sea of changes in the way the game unfolds on the field that makes long-term planning nigh impossible. Seeing both of these things, they have decided that there is simply no point in not going for it, no point in waiting on and relying too heavily on players who might never deliver on their promise, no point in sitting on stacks of cash and hoping they keep them bobbing above those violent waves of variance. Young players aren’t useless, and teams need to maintain strong farm systems in order to have long-term success, but sometimes good players are available for reasonable prices, and the only responsible thing to do is to bring them in and let the best players play.
It’s that, or we’re all circling a black hole, getting sucked in, and time is becoming part of a five-dimensional singularity, so Ramirez simply needed to return to the Sox, nine years to the day after being traded away. It’s so hard to say. The real moral of the story is that the Sox are inscrutable, and that baseball itself is increasingly so.
UPDATE, as Sandoval nears a deal with Boston, 10:00 AM CST: I’d like to add a short, speculative note based on an anecdote two and a half years old. It likely has no meaning, but it might have some, so I want to mention it.
Two years ago, SABR had its annual convention in Minneapolis. As a Twin Cities resident, I couldn’t resist. I attended a brief presentation there by SABR president Vince Gennaro, about whether there was measurable, skill-based variance in players’ abilities to hit different calibers of pitching. In essence, he was trying to figure out whether some players simply prey upon bad pitchers, while others are more able to handle even elite arms. The idea was that if such a distinction existed, perhaps it would point us toward a model for batters who can perform better than others in the playoffs.
Gennaro’s two case studies were Andre Ethier and Pablo Sandoval. Ethier, as it turned out, was deeply reliant upon getting good matchups, not only in terms of platoons but in terms of opponent quality. Sandoval, by contrast, had one of the smoothest contours of any player in baseball, when mapping his production across tiers of opponent quality. Gennaro postulated that Sandoval might be an especially good playoff hitter, and one who could reliably mash in October, not rely on getting lucky to do so.
Two Postseasons and two World Series rings later, it sure looks like Gennaro was onto something. If his full research was ever released to the public, I haven’t seen it. Gennaro also consults for some teams, or a team, it’s not entirely clear, so his work might have remained largely proprietary. If the Red Sox have information in this vein, though, it might also help explain the premium they appear to have placed on his services. It wouldn’t have to be only about the Postseason, either. If the Sox still consider the AL East the most difficult environment in which to thrive in all of baseball (dubious, but defensible), they may have put a special premium on players who have proved they can hit elite pitching.When There’s Blood on the Street: Adam LaRoche Signs With Chicago White Sox
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