Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Everyone knows about the amazing job the Red Sox pitching staff has done this season. By any number of measurements they are among the top rotations and bullpens in baseball. Pardon me not pulling out a bunch of stats to show this, but I think we can all agree on that point.

Its the team's hitting that has been the issue this season. As a team the Red Sox are fifth in the AL in batting average, second in OBP (to NYY) and third in SLG (behind DET and NYY). When looked at that way, one would think, "The offense doesn't look too bad to me. If you combine the team's pitching with just decent hitting you might have a pennant winner on your hands."

Thats not untrue, but to prove the point I'm trying to make, I should be more specific than just quoting just team stats. Of course David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez got off to slow starts power-wise, but pointing fingers at the team's best hitters (who are both having their requisite stellar seasons) is foolhardy.

No, I'm here to point fingers elsewhere. They say, when writing, don't tell, show. This means put the information out there and allow the reader to make judgments on their own. So, in that spirit, here are the Red Sox starting nine with their rankings in OPS within the
American League. A '1' means they are the best in the league while a '14' means they are last. Note: MLB.com only ranks "outfielders" as opposed to "center fielders" or "left fielders" so when considering outfield rankings remember that there are not fourteen outfielders but 42 (and really more than that, but for simplicities sake stick with 42).

DH, David Ortiz: 1
C, Jason Varitek: 7
1B, Kevin Youkilis: 5
2B, Dustin Pedroia: 5
3B, Mike Lowell: 2
SS, Julio Lugo: 13
LF, Manny Ramirez: 7
CF, Coco Crisp: 37
RF, J.D. Drew: 32

You'll notice that positionally the Sox are above average at three positions (LF, 3B, and DH), about average at three positions (1B, 2B, and C) and decidedly below average at three positions (SS, CF, and RF). For a team with a payroll as high as Boston's, there is little excuse for fielding three below average hitters in your everyday lineup.

When doing this, I was not expecting Coco Crisp to show up so prominently on this list. While he has been playing amazing defense in center field, Coco has likely hurt the Sox with his lack of offensive productivity over the course of the season. Still, the reality of the situation is that the Red Sox can get away with stashing a lighter hitting player in center. That is less so with the other two positions listed below.

Aside from Coco, two players stand out on this list. With decent production at these spots over the course of the season, the Red Sox would be in no danger from the Yankees, despite New York's hot streak. The two players are linked together not just by their suckitude this season, but by the fact that, together, they signed for $106 Million for eight seasons worth of service this past off season. Yes, I'm talking about J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo. Drew and Lugo have double-handedly murdered the Red Sox offense this season.

Drew's anemic numbers (.262/.365/.391) are his worst since his first full season in the majors in 1999. Drew's average and on-base would be tolerable (if not up to standard) if he could hit the ball with some authority, but he has not. Instead, his power has completely disappeared this season and, when combined with his frequent muscle pulls and semi-frequent 'rests' he gets against left-handers (which seem designed to protect the team from him as much as anything else), it appears the Red Sox may have just wasted a massive amount of money and, more importantly, almost crippled their offense in the process.

Drew is a drag on the offense in and of himself. But it gets worse. Or better, depending on how you look at it. The Red Sox have two reserve outfielders who could play when Drew gets pulled from the lineup, Wily Mo Pena and Eric Hinske. Hinske has fourteen plate appearances versus left handers this season, so its not been him picking up the slack. Its been Wily Mo, who has an .828 OPS (143 OPS+) against lefties this season.

Of course, the Red Sox seem intent on trading Pena and bringing up Bobby Kielty in his place. That may or may not pay off, but given that A) the A's released Kielty, and B) the A's offense is horrid, one wonders how well Kielty will be able to improve on Pena's performance. But I digress...

Still, the fact that a $14 Million a year player not only has to be platooned, but has been decidedly out-hit by his platoon partner is a major problem.

One note of caution about throwing Drew out the window. In 2002 with St. Louis, Drew hit .252/.349/.429 for an OPS+ of 110, similar at least on the surface (no park factors, or league factors involved) to his .262/.365/.391 line with a 99 OPS+ this season. Over the next four seasons, Drew had OPS+ of 133, 158, 148, and 125. (A 100 OPS+ is average.)

To further examine this in the context of the AL East race, Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu has been better than Drew this season (at least at the plate) by a fair margin, but still not overwhelmingly amazing. Abreu has posted a good but not great OPS+ of 114 so far.

The difference between Abreu and Drew has been large enough to matter, but not huge enough to be a sucking wound. The real sucking wound on the Red Sox offense has been the abysmal performance of Julio Lugo. Lugo has been a below average hitter his whole career, but he features some pop, some speed, and I suspect the Sox signed him in no small part because of his range defensively. However, while his defense has been good (annoying throwing errors aside), his offense has fallen off a cliff making playing let alone paying him a difficult decision to digest.

Lugo's OPS+ this season is 68. Thats sixty friggin eight! He is hitting for zero power (slugging less than Drew, as if that were even possible), and when combined with his hideous on-base 'skills' (getting on base less than 30% of the time) you get a rally killing land mine in the Sox lineup. The fact that Francona has hit him leadoff, where he has managed to reach base at a .291 clip (thats on-base, not batting average), for the vast majority of his plate appearances has not helped to minimize the damage either.

Comparing Lugo to his NYY counterpart, Derek Jeter, only serves to give me heartburn. If you care to look at the numbers yourself, you can check out Lugo's ineptitude here and Jeter's stats here. Suffice it to say, the Sox place third in this two man race by a fair margin.

The overall point here is that the team the Red Sox put on the field this season has been great despite, not because of, these two expensive off season acquisitions. The Red Sox would likely have been just as well off with David Murphy in right field and some replacement level shortstop batting ninth and then attempting to improve at the trade deadline.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I must admit that I was excited by Drew's signing. I figured that the Sox could live with his various maladies if he put up something approximating his career batting line of .284/.390/.500. I was more skeptical of Lugo's signing but gave the benefit of the doubt to Theo and the Sox front office. Unfortunately, neither has done much to justify that benefit.

Aside from the problems this season, signing Lugo and Drew present very real problems for the future. I suspect that part of both of these signings was the idea that the organization did not have ready replacements available at either position (cough HANLEY RAMIREZ cough OPS+ 155 cough).

Fortunately or unfortunately depending, again, on how you view it, that thought process may no longer hold water. The Red Sox happen to have a center fielder in Jacoby Ellsbury and a shortstop in Jed Lowrie who both look to be ready for the majors, if not now then at least by next season. While Lowrie may be miscast as a shortstop and Ellsbury is better suited to center field than right, the reality of the situation is that with Lugo's and Drew's overbearing salaries, these two young players are likely blocked from contributing in the near future.

To me the key here is Drew. There is a track record of success to point to that suggests Drew may at some point pull himself from this malaise, but no such corresponding historical record exists for Lugo. The Lugo problem is not one that will be easily fixed, but that is a problem to be solved after the season. For now, barring Lowrie's call-up, the Sox will have to live with the fruits (or lack thereof) of their decision.

If Drew can reasonably approximate the player the Red Sox thought they were getting from now until the season ends whenever that may be, the Sox offense will improve radically. If not, there will continue to be two (or three if you count Crisp) almost automatic outs at the end of the Sox lineup, and that makes it very difficult to build and sustain big rallies.

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