Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hot Stove Talk (Good Liberal Edition)

Already missing baseball? Me neither, yet. The NFL is in full broil. College football is on pace for its annual BCS cock-up, leading to the inevitable smug sports pundits who weekly screw up the rankings (as evidenced by their certainty with each week's pronouncements followed by the inevitable loss of a top-ten team they pronounced wonderful) that this time the BCS got it right. The NBA is underway. College basketball is kicking off. We just got over an election season that felt every bit as exhausting and exhilarating as a great sports season. Hell, they're even playing hockey.

Nonetheless, baseball's siren song beckons. The Washington Post travel section this week drew some of us in with a story on the Dominican winter league. And of course with the awards season comes anticipation of the Hot Stove League kicking into full gear, a process that has already begun with the Holliday trade to the A's and the first free agency chatter bursting forth.

A few weeks back, after the Sox lost Game 7 of the ALCS, GoodLiberal asked a series of questions. I figure the least I can do is try to respond:

OK- so Beckett and Papi have to be trusted to rebound from sub-par years. Lowell will be back. Unresolved issues include Lowrie/Lugo, Tek, what happened to Bucholz?, middle relief, What happens to Coco?, does Lars Anderson step up? etc.
A nice intro to the offseason post would be welcome!

Ask and ye shall receive.

First off, isn't it amazing the difference two games made? Had the Sox lost in five, I think many of us would have headed for the ledge. By coming back to take the series to the end of the 7th game I think many of us were able to say: Good season, not a great season, bring on 2009. The loss was disappointing, but it is refreshing to know that I can live without a sense of entitlement. Winning is better because we know what losing feels like. That said, I'd rather win in 2009, just as I hope the Pats find a way to win this year and the C's work toward a repeat and the Bruins can work their way back to long-dormant glory.

Papi and Beckett dealt with injuries. This is no excuse, it is simply a statement of fact. Papi was never right, which actually places his production as a wonder rather than a disappointment. We all have to hope that an offseason of rest and rehab and strengthening and a little luck will return him to full strength. This offseason will go a long way in determining whether Papi ends up as a (by any measure better) version of Mo Vaughn or if he retruns to a Hall of Fame-caliber (Jimmy Foxx?) trajectory. Meanwhile Beckett never really was what he is this season, if that makes any sense. But he's a young power pitcher with no structural arm problems. Let's hope he rebounds. Indeed, let's expect that he will.

I do not see a Lowrie-Lugo tension. Lowrie has a place in the future, Lugo is a nice guy to have but is not a difference-maker. Tek is getting old. And he has lost some bat speed. And while he always has run well for a catcher, he is not going to be able to compensate by becoming a dink-and-dunk hitter. So the question becomes: Is his management of the pitching staff, and defense, and those dreaded (because often unfounded) "intangibles" (leadreship, eg.) enough to make the difference. Were his agent anyone but Scott Boras I'd say possibly -- try to sign him for two years at more than he's worth but perhaps a little less than the market might bear. But not for three or four years. The Sox have been very smart about letting guys go a year or two too early rather than a year or two too late. In Tek's case they kind of broke that rule with his last contract. I simply do not see him in a Sox uniform in 2009 unless Boras finds an inhospitable market, which could happen, but which I don't expect. Some alchemist will seek gold in Varitek. And I will wish him nothing but good things as one of my favorites of all time.

The pitching situation is interesting because the Sox of this era finally learned that pitching 9or at least balance) is the key. Yes, of course, you want to bash. But the Pythagorean/Pythagenport theory of baseball, a (more complicated) calculation of runs scored against runs given up has made it quite clear that no matter how much you bash, a solid staff is the key factor. The Sox have always produced at the plate. In recent years, however, they have learned that there is simply no such thing as too much pitching. In several recent springs the Sox have had more starters than slots to fill. And every one of those years guys have gotten hurt, guys have floundered, things have changed. Every year that we have entered with supposedly too much starting pitching we have ended the year with a different rotation than what we expected.

Were I the Sox, I'd at least put in a bid for every significant pitcher on the market. At minimum drive up Sabathia's price (prediction: CC reverts to his still fine mean next season; the last eight weeks or so of the season was an outlier). And who knows -- maybe you end up with him. In the end, the Sox have a pretty impressive staff, and all praise to Lester and Dice-K, who showed signs of making the leap. If both continue to improve -- Dice actually needs to become less focused on perfection, which would reduce his walks -- and if Beckett gets healthy again and Bucholz pulls it together, that is a hell of a foundation.

Bucholz is young. And young pitchers struggle, especially when a lot of burden is placed on them. he has the stuff. He has shown an ability to compete in the Bigs. But he has to work on some mechanical issues, on pitch selection, and on confidence. Being in the fourth or fifth slot will help him, as may lesser expectations and a year of growth. As for the middle relief, that is often a crapshoot, because those guys by definition are men in between. No one sees their career ceiling as being a bridge reliever. And so what you get are excess starters and non-closers and wily veterans and green rookies in middle relief. We would like to see the Okajima of 2007. We would like some of the young arms to do their time in middle relief. And we need luck -- do not forget what a role simple fortune plays in all of this. The stat Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is a telling one, because wide variations are often attributable to luck. Take away home runs (and walks and strikeouts) and balls hit in play are often a crapshoot -- after all, what's the difference between a bloop hit and a screamer right at someone? As far as the quality of contact the screamer is better, but in terms of outcome, you'll take the bloop every time. That difference may not be all luck, but luck plays a vital role.

As for the young talent, the Sox are in that rare position of being able to play what I have called "Moneyball Plus." They can incorporate the smarter approach to baseball embodied in finding inefficiencies in the marketplace, knowing what data to prioritize, and so forth, but they also have the money to go after the pricey talent. Moneyball is almost certainly the most understood book of its time even as those who have understood it have grown in their knowledge (or had ideas confirmed) of the game. The reality is that the Sox can be Moneyball smart but big market bold. It's the best of both worlds, and as teams like the Sox have caught up and thus teams like the A's struggled, idiots have assumed that the so-called Moneyball approach has failed, when in fact it has exploded and become the norm among successful teams of all economic stripes, thus making it difficult for poorer teams to reap its considerable benefits. In any case, the point is that the Sox can develop young talent, but they can do so for two purposes: To become stars in the system or to trade for talent elsewhere, much of which might be out of the price range of a lot of teams forced to be spartan.

Yeah, ok, I'm missing baseball a little bit.

1 comment:

GoodLiberal said...

nice post. What is interesting is that you definitely have Bucholz penciled in as the fifth starter. As we have Beckett, Dice-K, Lester and Wake ready to go, the question is whether we sign a Burnett or a Lowe and then trade some pitching for a catcher (Teagarden for Bowden and Coco?) and store Bucholz in AAA or relief with Masterson until the inevitably DL case strikes.

Then there is Teixera- I think that you have to make a run at him, which means moving either Youk or Lowell or finding a way to play all three...

Lugo's got a big contract and I'd prefer to play Lowrie anyway. Worth trading for another reclamation job (Andruw Jones?) or swallowing some of the contract for something back?

C's have started well enough, but I still worry over those Pats: no Thomas, no Harrison, no Brady, no Maroney (and doubts about whether he is a featured back going forward). I don't think we can win this year, I want great draft picks for next year, but I don't want to root against my team...