Monday, February 29, 2016

Price and Performance: Of Lions and Asses

“An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass” - George Washington

The Red Sox must rely on their offensive leadership...but who exactly are they? The Sox are moving away from their recent Moneyball roots. But is the problem analytics or identifying and paying players most likely to produce? 

Establishing a cause and effect relation for statistics isn't easy. For example, we know that the most productive players invariably have productive statistics. But we can't a priori know that players who have had excellent statistics will continue to do so. 

Age, injury, illness, lack of motivation, personal problems (e.g. alcohol or substance abuse), or statistical variation can change productivity. 

Consider the complex decision-making surrounding free agent Jacoby Ellsbury. 

At the end of the 2013 season, the Red Sox had to decide their commitment to their free agent outfielder. In his "peak" (age 27) season, he was runnerup for MVP with a .928 OPS, 39 stolen bases and more than 100 runs scored and batted in. He had never done so previously and never duplicated those results again. 

His final three seasons with the Red Sox resulted in uneven production, with 14.8 WAR, but marked fluctuations. The Yankees backed up the truck to sign him, with more than ample love from certain Boston scribes, but his two New York season have been mostly a Bronx bummer, with a total of 5.2 WAR and declining runs, homers, RBI, stolen bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. And he's not even among the two highest paid Yankees. 

What was the difference in production between the two highest-paid players on each of the six last place division teams compared with the ten playoff teams? 

The highest paid player of the worst teams averaged 13.3 million dollars per win above replacement. The second highest was slightly less overpaid, averaging 10 million dollars per WAR, and the combination was about 11.7 million dollars per WAR. If we accept the fact that an All-Star player should be a five WAR player, then a '20 million dollar contract should yield about 4 million dollars/WAR. 

It's better but not spectacular for the ten playoff teams. Their top players cost 9.45 million per WAR, their second averages 6.38, and the combination 7.74 million per WAR. 

It shows that the playoff teams tended to spend slightly more efficiently than the cellar dwellars, but even they got underachievement. 

Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” From an asset allocation standpoint, he had that partially right. Management owns overpaying for mediocrity, but the stars, excepting  Greinke, Kershaw, and Bautista have a lot of 'splaining to do on their own. Granted this is a small sample size and not assessed longitudinally. It certainly doesn't disprove the adage, "price is what you pay, and value is what you get." 

As for Jacoby Ellsbury, no matter how much love he got from the Boston media, he has plenty of company in the overpaid mediocrity class.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Dinner Out

           "Dinner Out is a go." Mookie Betts organized a team gathering at a Japanese restaurant. He prepared to pick up the tab for forty-five teammates, but Dustin Pedroia and other unnamed veterans spared him that cup. 

How important is team chemistry in baseball? Old-timers remember the "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates of 1979. But slightly older fans also remember the 1977 dugout confrontation between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson. 

Martin had to be restrained from going after Jackson . 

A little over four months later, the Yankees captured yet another World Series. 

Dave Roberts has a pragmatic view of baseball chemistry"Winning definitely bands a team together. It's easy to have good chemistry when you're winning."

Sometimes chemistry occurs when players have a common enemy, like the manager or ownership. The fictional representation of that was Tom Berenger's "Major League". 

A baseball team is a 'cross-functional team' from an organizational standpoint. This Harvard Business Review illustrates that cross-functional teams are frequently dysfunctional. The author noted, Cross-functional teams often fail because the organization lacks a systemic approach. Teams are hurt by unclear governance, by a lack of accountability, by goals that lack specificity, and by organizations’ failure to prioritize the success of cross-functional projects.

A few successful projects didn’t have cross-functional oversight — but we found in those cases that they benefitted from support by a single high-level executive champion. Projects that had strong governance support — either by a higher-level cross-functional or by a single high-level executive champion — had a 76% success rate, according to our research. Those with moderate governance support had a 19% success rate.

Contrast the Red Sox with recent revolving door administration (Theo Epstein, Ben Cherington, Dave Dombrowski) and inconsistent organizational process with the Patriots with a "single high-level executive champion (Bill Belichick). The Red Sox accountability roller coaster most recently oversaw the departure of Larry Lucchino and Ben Cherington when most of the instruments of failure (the players) survived. The Patriots' architect of policy will oversee the departure of those failed instruments. 

In other words, Dinner Out is non-story propaganda pushed because we have no 'real news' to report. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Chemistry Lesson - Red Sox

"No progress occurs without change, but not all change is progress." - John Wooden

It's all good. Let's put on some smiley faces today and reexamine the Bosox 2016. David Price showed up over a week early, saying and doing all the right things. He and David Ortiz hugged it out, burying the hatchet. 

GM Dave Dombrowski praised 23-year-old outfielder Mookie Betts for organizing and sponsoring a team dinner. Maybe Dunkin Donuts should show Betts some love for being an exemplary teammate. 

Clay Buchholz threw batting practice and there were no injury qualifiers included in the discussion. 

MLB is modifying sliding rules, which should eliminate rolling blocks and just maybe keep the Sox dp combination of Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts healthy. As an aside, not only should the runner and batter be declared out, but the violating slider should be tossed. 

Henry Owens was all smiles as he battles to earn a spot at the back of the rotation.

The sample size on the young lefthander is far too small to be handing out starts or bus tickets. Suffice it to say, he's got a number of more established pitchers ahead of him but it would be shocking not to see him in the rotation at some point this season. 

While I may channel The Positive Dog (today), Peter Gammons stakes a more open-minded position at The positive spin is that Brock Holt, Travis Shaw, and Deven Marrero all have that Cassius "lean and hungry look". 

John Farrell is healthy. The Red Sox have an experienced replacement available. It doesn't get any better than this...or much shorter. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Farrell-y Brothers

The Red Sox have reconstructed broken parts of the club - the starting rotation and the bullpen. It's not as though a two-year hiatus without a championship has wrought tar and feathers to Fenway Park. 

Ownership has gotten solid reviews on their hire of Dave Dombrowsky and had no choice but to give cancer survivor John Farrell a chance to save his job. The question becomes, will the prior regime's coach killers, Ramirez and Sandoval be addition or addition by subtraction? Will the Sox need more than comic relief from the high-priced spread? 

Competing for a title is certainly one thing. Competing to avoid humiliation as the employers of 'don't care' and 'care even less' is another matter. But wait, is the quality of mercy and forgiveness not strained? 

In the language of Wall Street, the Red Sox and gazillionaire chief John Henry have suffered "style drift". Style drift means no consistent plan. Richard Dennis had his "Turtle Traders" and the Red Sox have simply turtled. 

What's the overarching organizational philosophy? We have no idea. It's been "run prevention", bargain-basement free agency team building, avoiding aging pitchers, buying overpriced free agents, farm system development, trade the overvalued prospects, no Ace needed, Open the Checkbook for the Ace, analytics from Bill James, and the Eyeball Test from Dombrowski. 

John Wooden remarked, "no progress occurs without change, but not all change is progress." Conversely, John Henry might borrow the words of John Maynard Keynes, When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?

That said, "Money can't play." You can't win the game on paper, in Vegas, or on a spreadsheet. The Red Sox have amply proven that. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Wait for It

The Red Sox want us to "Get Ready for It", the new and improved Bosox. We shouldn't be quick to judge a book by its cover, but Pablo Sandoval's gravity-challenged arrival smacks of arrogance and entitlement. 

Contrast the San Antonio Spurs' championship attitude with the Red Sox 'chicken and beer' legacy. 

The Red Sox third baseman showed up larger-than-life and you've got to believe the photographer waited to get this snap next to food service. 

A .245/.292/.366/.658 slash line doesn't equate with "nothing to prove" after a nothing year for Sandoval. It's reasonable to expect that either Travis Shaw, Brock Holt or both could do as well or better while (if you'll pardon the expression) "hungrier" to contribute to the team. 

FanGraphs describes his year. "Actually, he had the worst season of any major leaguer." 

Boston fans can actually be reasonable...but you don't get unconditional love. We appreciate "lunch pail" guys who show consistent effort and accountability. 

If Sandoval actually showed up in shape and a bit penitent, "I'm disappointed in my performance last season and determined to help the team be successful this year," at least some of us would buy low. 

As for now, Sandoval's on the Triple Pack Disposal Watch List with John Farrell and Hanley Ramirez. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Negative Interest Rates

I'm back. 

We've read and heard a bit about Central Banks imposing or considering "negative interest rates". With negative rates, the bank/government holds your money and takes a small percentage away from you, encouraging you to spend or invest, which is fine if you have discretionary money, but not so attractive for many citizens. 

With Spring Training upon us, I couldn't help but note a distinct lack of interest so far. The Red Sox need to win back fans lost to bad baseball, high prices, and bad public relations like the exile of Don Orsillo. 

There are the usual good "young phenoms" stories (Betts eclipsing Bogaerts), bad (comeback trail for Corpulent Corners - Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez), and ugly (even Clay Buchholz not wanting to talk contract extension). I mean you can't blame a guy for injuries, but must you overpay and over rely on him? 

In Reading the Room, David Kantor frames conversation styles. The four broad positions are 1) mover (get 'er done), 2) opposer (no way, Jose), 3) follower (aye aye, sir), and 4) bystander (noncommitted, evaluating both sides). In today's narrative, I choose opposer in examining the Red Sox prospects. 

"Nature abhors a vacuum." John Farrell, thankfully a cancer survivor, returns to the dugout. However well we wish the Skipper personally, professionally, he has been a drag on the trajectory of young players. Betts and Bogaerts both ascended along with Farrell's unfortunate departure, and I'll argue he's the Claude Julien of Yawkey Way, keeping the young players down while kowtowing to fizzled 'grizzled' veterans. The Arc of Discovery seems absent from Mr. Farrell's mindset, recalling the fealty to Stephen Drew and near destruction of Xander Bogaert's career in 2014. 

You can't win without strength up the middle. The Red Sox have morphed from "Five Aces" to one ace and question marks. David Price is penciled in for 18-20 wins and his tutelage of Eduardo Rodriquez, Rick Porcello, and Joe Kelly is expected to transform chicken feathers into Popeyes. The aforementioned Buchholz has the curse of unlimited potential but "you can't help the club from the tub." 

Buchholz has never pitched 200 innings in a season and hasn't won more than twelve games in the past five seasons. The Sox have ponied up nearly thirty million dollars over five years for less than nine wins per season. His 2010 breakout year with 5.6 WAR has been superseded by five years with a total WAR of 8.2. By way of comparison, a real ace, Clayton Kershaw, has had a WAR of at least 6.2 during each of the past five seasons. 

GM Dave Dombrowski deserves credit for rebuilding the back end with Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith supplanting (in all likelihood) Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa in the key roles. What, you say? Isn't Uehara the setup guy? We'll see if ball rotation is enough with an ever-declining fastball to keep Uehara productive. 

Koji Uehara, average velocity, via Fangraphs. 

The catching battle gives a healthy Blake Swihart the edge over Christian Vazquez returning from Tommy John surgery. 

Swihart's post all-star game split gives Sox fans optimism about All-Star performance. "One swallow does not make a summer." We "know" about Vazquez's prowess at pitch framing and throwing out runners (prior to injury). His caught stealing percentage nearly doubled Swihart's 28 percent last season. But nobody is arguing that Vazquez has similar offensive potential to Swihart. 

The remaining 'middle' with Mookie Betts in center (for now), Bogaerts at short, and Dustin Pedroia at second base is solid if not spectacular for now. Some have Betts projected to be a top-10 MVP candidate this season, many hope Bogaerts can double his homerun production into the mid-teens, and that Pedroia can reverse his production and injury trends. 

Pedroia's three-year rolling WAR average has dropped from 6.4 to 5.4 to 4.4. A formerly elite player, he has dropped from All-Star to very good with both objective offensive and defensive decline through injury and age

Now for the more concerning question marks. We don't know whether ageless David Ortiz hits a performance cliff during his farewell tour. Ortiz had a spectacular second half, including other-worldly .325/.401/.701/1.102 splits after the All-Star game. We can only marvel and wonder at what allows him to do that. 

Conversely, the big question marks come at the corners of the infield and the outfield. Blaming Sandoval and Ramirez for the Sox failure last season seems overdone, particularly when so many others, especially pitching-wise, 'shouldered' the (pun intended) responsibility. You don't need stats, just the 'eyeball test' to see the damage the new acquisitions inflicted. Adding stats just feels like piling on. 

Some argue that Sandoval only had a bad year, an outlier for a "winning player." The concerns about Ramirez go deeper, especially as he is again asked to learn a new position. First basemen get a lot of 'touches' and their ability impacts the entire infield defense as well as the running game. David Schoenfeld has chronicled Ramirez' shortcomings defensively at other positions and expecting a defensive sow's ear to become a silk purse (at first base) seems the height of vanity. Over-under Hanley games at first base pools are springing up all over the Bay State. Time will tell whether Hanley becomes a 'coach-killer' for John Farrell. 

Finally, in the outfield, we have the enigmatic cases of Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley, Jr.. I've read that although it takes only about a hundred at bats to establish an estimated strikeout percentage, it takes about a thousand to guestimate where batting average for balls in play will rest. 

Castillo simply lacks a projectable resume'. We can say that he doesn't walk much, will strike out a lot considering that he doesn't walk, and that he will steal some bags. 

Bradley, Jr. is another case entirely. His defensive skills are described as "majestic" and only playing time (and the offensive spillover onto Gold Glove selections) prohibit him from having a Gold Glove. He had an epic hitting surge last season amidst a career of below mediocrity production. Expecting the former seems less realistic than receiving the latter. Hope is not a plan. 

The Sox have adopted the conventional wisdom of bolstering the bullpen and adding an ace to try to escape the three out of four last place finishes. Vanquished are Ben Cherington and Larry Lucchino and the return of John Farrell is a feel-good vote for task-oriented leadership in a changing communication landscape. 

What fascinates me is the outlier aspect of performance. Mark Belanger was a .228 career hitter who hit .287 in 1969. George Scott hit .303 in 1967 and .171 in 1968. Even Wade Boggs, a .328 career hitter, hit .259 in 1992. The capacity for overachievement and failure as players struggle to hit a round ball with a rounded stick creates unique opportunity for spectacular success among undiminished failure. Witness the Red Sox 2013 Championship riches sandwiched amidst abject baseball poverty. Don't expect another championship in 2016 from the Sons of John Farrell.