Posted 24 October 2012 - 09:17 AM
After looking at every position, I think 4 in particular stand out as areas where the Sox front office has struggled with on-base skills since 2008. I will say, that although the decline started after the end of the 2007 season, I think some of that can be attributed to natural aging and regression of players. For instance, Ortiz is no longer as good as he was from 2004-2007. But he is still damn good. But his regression shows up in the long term averages. In reality, I think that player evaluation either changed around 2009-2010, or the front office just kept choosing the wrong players, or the long(er) term plans for particular positions didn't pan out because of injuries. I think 4 positions in particular show these possibilities to be the case. The positions I have in mind are catcher, third base, left field, and right field.
Starting in 2008, Varitek's contact skills started to decline, and those brought down in OBP. He still posted good walk rates, but it was clear to everyone that he was in decline. The front office traded for Victor Martinez, who had a great OBP, but an average BB%. But, his plate discipline in terms of drawing walks, was a step down. I'm not sure if at the time of the trade the consensus was that Martinez would stick at catcher (maybe somebody can help me out here), but I do remember that it was clear in 2010 that he was ending his days as an everyday catcher. I understand the rational for trading for Saltalamacchia, but he is clearly sub par in on-base skills in already weak competition. He improved his walk rate this year, but just doesn't hit consistently enough. In some ways, it is hard to fault the front office because available catching talent has been awful. And some of their internal options never panned out. In terms of personnel decision making, each replacement for Varitek has been worse in getting on base. That may be a function of the talent available, and a function of waiting until an internal option like Lavarnway is ready. But I don't fault them for not finding a replacement as good as Varitek. However, I think it may be worth it to trade Saltalamacchia this winter, whatever is value, and roll with Lavarnway at catcher. He had very good walk rates in the minors, and although his strikeout rate is really high, I think he could put up a similar season to Saltalamacchia this year, despite a bad 27 games at catcher this year.
Mueller was clearly the best, but Lowell proved to rebound nicely. Beltre was one the players that began their shift to preventing runs. He put up a nice OBP, although it was largely driven by a high average, but he struggled to walk. This isn't to diminish his fine offensive season he had, and his amazing defense may have made up for his lack of walks overall. One of things that is interesting to explore is what changes Beltre made to his swing while he was in Boston. The hitting success he began in Boston has continued in Texas, even as his walk rate has declined. Replacing Beltre at third with Youkilis gave the Sox an elite on-base skill player at the position again; however, Youkilis' body couldn't withstand a full year at third. Even this year, he struggled by posting his lowest OBP and walk rates. This doesn't justify his trade, but brings up interesting questions about the original Gonzalez trade that shifted Youkilis to third. Middlebrooks is a good player, but he doesn't walk and barely put up a league average OBP for third basemen. He also didn't flash that awesome defense we heard about him displaying in the minors. He's the kind the player this ownership group would have traded away 10 years ago because they didn't fit their model. If he cannot display better on-base skills next season, then I don't see why he should be a long term option at third.
Left field is the most baffling of all of the positions I looked at. I still don't understand why the front office did not aggressively pursue Matt Holliday (then spend $80 million on Lackey), but instead dump a ton of money on Carl Crawford a year later. One of the only explanations I can come up with using publicly available data, is that he fit their new defensive minded focus, and would continue what they were going to try a year earlier with Ellsbury in LF. Crawford's speed was wasted in left, and his swing was not conducive to Fenway's giant right field. He never walked enough prior to joining the Sox, and was coming off a career year. It is one of those moves I'm not sure I'll ever understand. Passing on Holliday, a player who fit their model, to get a player who didn't, and pay more for that player is a clear indication that priorities had shifted in the front office. I do give them credit for trading for Bay somewhat replace Manny's production, and then having the wherewithal to not sign Bay long term. But everything after that - moving Ellsbury to LF, passing on Holliday, signing Crawford - has been questionable.
One of the things that struck me about right field is that after the 2006 season when Nixon left, the Sox immediately went and signed JD Drew, who had elite on base skills. The front office showed a clarity of vision and stuck to it despite sniping from the fans and press. I'm not sure if Drew was worth the contract they gave him. He had three good years (using OBP as a standard), and 2 average years. And if you like slugging more, then 2 good years and three average years. Regardless, he was a player who fit their model and they jumped on him when he became available.
Ross is a guy who would not have fit their model in the past. His on-base percentage is slightly below average, and walk rate about league average for RF. It was inevitable that there would be some regression after two elite on-base skilled right fielders. And to be fair, Ryan Kalish was considered the heir apparent, but he was injured all 2011. Despite high strikeout rates in the high minors, Kalish posted good walk rates. In a way, he resembled Mike Cameron. Lots of strikeouts, a decent amount of walks, and decent power. He wasn't great in his 2010 cup of coffee, but showed signs of promise. This offseason provides a unique junction for the front office. Ross' value is derived solely from playing at Fenway. He's great at Fenway. But on the road he's a bad player. Is it worth giving multiple years to a guy who will only be good half the time? Is Kalish ready? I don't know the answers to those questions, and they are worth discussing. Justin Upton could be a long term option, but with him it is a question of availability and cost. And in the minors the Sox have Brentz who will most likely start the year in AAA.
Going forward, it is important to note that it isn't 2003-2004 anymore. I'm not sure if replicating those 2003 & 2004 teams is even possible. And, as 2007 shows, you don't have to to win the World Series. However, I think it is important that they try and fill the many holes in their lineup with players who used to fit a model of good plate discipline and on base skills. This may mean that decent players like Saltalamacchia and Middlebrooks may not fit into the long term plan, but the trends posted at the beginning of this thread speak to some problems the team his having. They haven't made the playoffs in three years (and played awful in the 2009 ALDS), and although 2011 was a bounce back year in terms of performance, it looks to be an outlier in the trend. Even before the injuries and major trades this year, the team would have continued a downward slide, despite a great season from Ortiz. I think the problems are personnel related, and that the team just has different players than they used to. Hopefully the rebuilding process gives them an opportunity to start moving back toward higher on-base players, or at least those with better walk rates.