Friday, March 27, 2015

Unzipping 2015: Comparing Boston and New York - Center Field

In the last installment we saw that one way to maximize value when it comes to players is to sign (or trade for) lesser-known players that give you a similar amount of production. Today we look at another way to maximize value: draft smartly and be willing to cut loose expensive players. When it comes to center field, Boston did both of those things with today's players.

Boston: Mookie Betts

2015: 147 G | 156 H | 65 RBI | .266 BA | .336 OBP | .408 SLG | .744 OPS | 3.4 WAR | Cost per WAR: $151,323 | Age: 22

New York: Jacoby Ellsbury

2015: 134 G | 152 H | 62 RBI | .281 BA | .337 OBP | .424 SLG | .761 OPS | 4.0 WAR | Cost per WAR: $5,285,714 | Age: 31

134 games for Ellsbury may sound high to some, but he has averaged 129 game a season over the last four years. And 2014 marked the first time since 2008-09 where he played 130+ games in two consecutive seasons. And for being paid as much as he is, Ellsbury provides pretty decent value, especially for a large-market team.

But Betts is just an all-around better value. He provides almost the same amount of WAR at a fraction of the cost. One WAR from Betts costs less than 3% of one WAR from Ellsbury. Boston controls Betts for years to come and, at only 22, he could be a fixture in center field for the next decade. Based on current performance, Betts is a potential Rookie of the Year candidate.

Of course, a lot of the same things were said about Jackie Bradley, Jr. last year before his season went all pear-shaped. But Betts seems to be performing better and more consistently, so hopefully for Boston there won't be a repeat of 2014.

Both players also rank in the top 10 projections for center fielders (Ellsbury is 6, Betts tied at 7). So neither team is deficient at center. But it is fair to say that Boston parted ways with Ellsbury at the right time. They now have what should be a comparable player for much less money. Money that can be used to sign or extend other players on the team.

That kind of financial flexibility is one of the greatest assets a team can possess. Mookie Betts gives Boston a lot of flexibility. And possibly a ROY season to go with it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unzipping 2015: Comparing Boston and New York - Left Field

In the last installment we saw that Brian Cashman can occasionally make a smart signing or two. In looking at left field, we'll see that he used to be good at drafting players as well. Meanwhile, Boston is paying big money for some desperately needed production.

Let's look at the players:

Boston: Hanley Ramirez

2015: 122 G | 120 H | 70 RBI | .271 BA | .345 OBP | .455 SLG | .800 OPS | 3.0 WAR | Cost per WAR: $6,583,333 | Age: 31

New York: Brett Gardner

2015: 120 G | 113 H | 44 RBI | .260 BA | .333 OBP | .409 SLG | .742 OPS | 2.8 WAR | Cost per WAR: $4,464,286 | Age: 31

Brett Gardner has been a steady, un-heralded presence in New York's outfield. Did you know that in 2010 he had a WAR of 7.3? If you aren't familiar with the scale, anything 8.0 or higher is considered MVP-level performance. And while he hasn't hit that height since, he has hit 4.0 WAR the past two seasons.

Ramirez comes into Boston with a lot of hype. Former Rookie of the Year, three-time All-Star. Swings a solid bat.

Ramirez also has a lot of questions. Injury-prone. Notoriously difficult to get along with. Has never played left field.

That last one is the big question facing Boston going into 2015. Even if Ramirez is solid with his bat (and there is no reason to think he won't be), how good will his glove be in left? He wasn't that good defensively at shortstop and that was his normal position. If he provides, say, 5.0 WAR with his bat but has -1.3 WAR with his glove (something Ramirez did in 2010) then you have a good player, but not one worth almost $20M a year.

And that has to be mentioned here as well. Gardner provides substantially more value to the Yankees per WAR than Ramirez in Boston. Gardner is about 1/3 cheaper. And that gap could widen even more starting in 2016 when Ramirez will get $22,750,000 a year until 2019. That is a huge chunk of change for a player who may be mediocre at best in left field.

If there is one thing to be said in Boston's defense it is that those three wins Ramirez is providing mean a lot more to them than Gardner's 2.8. Boston is projected to make the post-season; New York is not. Three wins could mean avoiding the wild-card slot. Three wins could mean home-field advantage. And $6.5M per win isn't completely insane as a valuation.

But what this does show - again - is that you don't need to spend tons of money to find a useful player that gives you production that is comparable to a more well-known player. Ramirez may have a higher ceiling on his possible 2015 impact...but he has a lower floor as well. Risk is a part of any business, true. But $20-$22M a year is a lot of risk.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Unzipping 2015: Comparing Boston and New York - Third Base

This off-season the Red Sox made a big splash signing two of the biggest free-agent bats in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval, in particular, was a necessary investment. Third base became a black hole for Boston in 2014. Will Middlebrooks' future in Boston died there and Xander Bogaerts proved by playing at third that shortstop was where he belonged. Sandoval solved that problem with one stroke of the pen.

Meanwhile, the Yankees brought back Chase Headley, whom they had traded for in 2014. He quietly signed a four-year, $52M deal and brought some stability to the position.

Now, the causal first-glance consensus may be that Boston has the stronger player at third. After all, they signed the third baseman from the defending MLB champions. And the Yankees have someone you may have never heard of before. But you may want to sit down if that's what you've been thinking.

Boston: Pablo Sandoval

2015: 144 G | 150 H | 83 RBI | .279 BA | .328 OBP | .454 SLG | .782 OPS | 3.1 WAR | Cost per WAR: $5,677,419 | Age: 28

New York: Chase Headley

2015: 139 G | 127 H | 73 RBI | .253 BA | .340 OBP | .427 SLG | .767 OPS | 4.1 WAR | Cost per WAR: $3,170,731 | Age: 31

That's not a misprint. Headley is giving the Yankees one more full win at third while costing about $2.5M less per win than Sandoval.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First is that Headley is slightly better in the field that Sandoval. And while that isn't shown in my admittedly-abbreviated line above, it affects overall WAR. Second, Headley is also projected to be slightly better than Sandoval in runs scored and home runs. Add all that together and you can see where he can rightly be projected to add one win more than Sandoval.

Things get even more interesting if you look at averages over the past few years

2010-14: Pablo Sandoval yearly average

2015: 135 G | 141 H | 70 RBI | 59 R | .283 BA | .778 OPS | 119 OPS+ | 3.2 WAR |

2010-14: Chase Headley yearly average

2015: 142 G | 138 H | 63 RBI | 66 R | .266 BA | .762 OPS | 117 OPS+ | 4.0 WAR |

Again, very similar lines. And while Sandoval looks like the stronger hitter, he has less WAR. Why? Fielding. Sandoval actually had a negative defense-only WAR in both 2012 and 2013. Headley has never had that problem.

None of this is meant to imply that Boston's signing of Sandoval was a bad idea. He is a massive upgrade over the debacle that existed at third in 2014. But sometimes the quieter signings can be just as effective as the ones that grab all the headlines. If not a little more so. And credit must be given to Brian Cashman for not only trading for Headley last year, but re-signing him in the off-season.* How that Cashman co-exists with the Cashman that gave $5M to Stephen Drew is beyond me.

If Boston has one advantage in this match-up it would be that Sandoval is only 28 while Headley will be 31 in May. Age matters and Sandoval is in his prime while Headley is at the end of his. But trying to predict anything based on age alone is idiocy.

But for now, the Yankees have a cost-effective solid third baseman that is just a little better overall that Boston's trumpeted free-agent signing.

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*Also, it's a little amusing that both Middlebrooks and Yangeris Solarte (the player of note that Cashman traded to San Diego for Headley) are competing for the same position in SD this spring.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unzipping 2015: Comparing Boston and New York - Shortstop

In the last installment we saw statistically what we all knew instinctively:

  1. Dustin Pedroia is superior across the board to Stephen Drew.
  2. Yankee management was insane to sign Drew


Shortstop is going to be much closer. Boston has former top-prospect Xander Bogaerts entering his second full season while New York is replacing the legendary* Derek Jeter with four-year veteran Didi Gregorius.

What's interesting about these two players is how similar they stack up. Bogaerts was a little better with the bat but Gregorius was a little better in the field. So how are they projected this year?

Boston: Xander Bogaerts

2015: 147 G | 144 H | 53 RBI | .263 BA | .322 OBP | .409 SLG | .731 OPS | 2.5 WAR | Cost per WAR: $217,200 | Age: 22

New York: Didi Gregorius

2015: 132 G | 123 H | 48 RBI | .251 BA | .307 OBP | .369 SLG | .676 OPS | 1.8 WAR | Cost per WAR: $281,389 | Age: 25

As you can see, Bogaerts has the edge here in plate production. But this is definitely the closest we have seen when it comes to value.

Some people were dismissive of the Yankees when they traded for Gregorius. But he is actually a pretty smart signing for New York. And here is why: 0.9 WAR. That is the average WAR per year that Derek Jeter provided to the Yankees from 2010-2014. Gregorius doubles that amount for literally pennies on the dollar compared to Jeter and his salary. And Gregorius's glove should be better as well (a low bar to clear, to be sure). As dumb as the Stephen Drew signing was...that is how smart Cashman was to trade for Gregorius.

That said, however, won't change the fact that the Red Sox come out ahead here. And not only because Bogaerts should provide more bang for the buck. Bogaerts is also a home-grown player, which gives the Red Sox more financial flexibility for the next few years. He is also three years younger than Gregorius.

The only wild-card that could change this outlook is Bogaerts' glove. Last year he got jerked around between short and third and he suffered for it. Bogaerts never looked comfortable at all in the field in 2014 and it showed. If that deficiency in the field continues and Gregorius performs to his standard (slightly above league average) that will even these two players out. Preventing runs counts as much as scoring them.

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* If slightly over-rated. Yes, he played hard and was great at the plate. But then we should also be able to admit his glove was average at best. He exceeded the league average for Range Factor at his position exactly once in 2005. That's not the hallmark of a great fielding shortstop.