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 His 2010 breakout year with 5.6 WAR has been superseded by five years with a total WAR of 8.2.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. 

No comments: