Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 3, 2004
BASEBALL: All You Need Is Glove?
I don't have the quote handy, but Bill James has told interviewers in recent months that the Red Sox have their own, proprietary defensive statistics that show some pretty impressive things. I kept thinking of that, as the Sawx traded Nomaaahhh for two guys - Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz - who have made particularly large impressions with the glove. Do the Sox know something the rest of us don't about the size of the impact of these players? (The fact that the A's have similarly been stocking up on glove men the past few years suggests that there may be something up here as far as non-public evaluations of defensive value).
Second James quote that comes to mind is his defense of the Ted Simmons trade upon Whitey Herzog's arrival in St. Louis, on the grounds that (1) the team wasn't winning with Simmons anyway and (2) Whitey's willingness to deal Simmons after Simmons refused to play third base was necessary to establish who was in charge. Lesson: yes, sometimes the manager's need to motivate the players really is a legitimate factor in making a deal.
This brings us to the competing interpretations of the Nomar trade: is this a disastrous abandonment of a win-now Sox team? Is this, like the Cardinals trading Simmons, importing Darrel Porter, and dealing Garry Templeton for Ozzie Smith, part of a needed restructuring in which declining properties (who lack plate patience) are shipped out and more defensive-oriented players brought in?
Joe Sheehan argues, persuasively, that Mientkiewicz was basically available for free, having lost his job to Justin Morneau, so effectively the Sox traded Nomar for the inferior (.298 OBP this season ) Cabrera. Bill Simmons counters that every team in the league had scouts watching Nomar, and given his poor defensive play and attitude, the deal the Sox got was probably all they could get for a declining Nomar in his walk year. Bill is probably right: the real issue is, if this is the best deal you can get, and Nomar's hitting well and you're contending for the Wild Card, do you make a deal at all?
Sheehan: "Chemistry is a three-game winning streak."
Again: they're both right here, to some extent; I don't much believe in "chemistry," but then there really is such a thing as a guy who's so miserable and insubordinate that you need to ship him out and stick with people who actually want to win some ballgames. I'm afraid I'm not close enough to the Sox to judge.
Still, the deal-breaker is exactly how much the Sox stand to gain from Cabrera's and Minky's defense. Entering this year, owing in large part to Nomar's injuries but also their defense, my Established Win Shares system rated Nomar only slightly ahead, with 22 EWSL to Cabrera's and Minky's 19 apiece. Of course, that doesn't account for the fact that Win Shares is biased towards players who are close to replacement level but get a lot of playing time. This season, Nomar has 6 Win Shares (2 above an average player with his playing time), while Cabrera has 7 and Minky has 4, but 4 each below average - not a flattering picture. So it's hard to get a good feeling about this deal on the Win Shares ledger, though Cabrera gets 4.5 defensive WS to Nomar's 0.8 - even with the difference in playing time, that's something.
Step back, though: Sheehan contends that the Red Sox staff is so flyball- and strikeout-dominated that infield defense won't make much of a dent. The Hardball Times' Fielding Independent Pitching numbers - which seek to project a pitcher's ERA as if he had an average defense behind him - seem to bear that out: other than Derek Lowe, none of the Sox major pitchers has a significantly worse FIP than his actual ERA (San Pedro de Fenway is trailing a bit, 4.15 to 3.96, but it's not a large difference). However, the splits widen when you compare Runs Allowed as opposed to ERA:
I know FIP is supposed to approximate ERA, not RA, but 0.74 runs/game seems like a big deal for your top 8 pitchers . . . it comes to something like 63 runs. And while I don't have the numbers to compare here, 1.46 ground balls per inning pitched seems like plenty of opportunities for the infield defense to make a difference. If nothing else, the Red Sox have a lot invested in Derek Lowe - and might some day in the future want to have the option of adding other pitchers who get a lot of ground balls - and with their defense as it was, that was a lost cause.
I'm running low on time here, so I'll just say: no, I don't think this deal really helps the Sox, but given the financial realities, the fact that they're not going to catch the Yankees in the regular season and the fact that there's a good case that this team needed to upgrade its defense, I'm not going to rip the Sox for taking a bad situation, identifying a way in which their team needed to be upgraded, and executing a strategy that is aimed directly at the problem.