Friday, June 26, 2009

Why J.D. Drew fits

My first mistake, probably, was turning on sports talk radio in the first place.

But I've been moving all week, shuttling boxes and bags from one apartment to another, and that means I've had a chance to check in with what our local experts have to say. This week, of course, it's been all about the Red Sox and Yankees and what exactly it is that the Red Sox have done so much better than the Yankees of late.

The answer is fairly obvious: The Red Sox have drafted and developed players since 2004 far, far better than their pinstriped counterparts. Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon make up a core that's comparable to the Yankees' pre-2000 core of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The Yankees haven't kept up that type of player development and now could miss the playoffs for a second straight season. The Red Sox, who just keep plugging in homegrown parts like relief pitcher Daniel Bard, have put themselves in a position to succeed both this year and for years to come.

The hosts didn't want to go overboard, though. Theo Epstein has made his share of mistakes, they said. Julio Lugo is a big one. That's a mistake. And everyone knows about J.D. Drew and how overpaid he is, right?

Hold on a second.

We're still doing this?

Yes, J.D. Drew makes quite a bit of money. He's actually the highest-paid player the Red Sox have on their roster, just ahead of David Ortiz and Mike Lowell.

But this is the luxury the Red Sox have afforded themselves with their player-development system. When they see a guy who's a perfect fit for their system, they can overpay to get him -- and J.D. Drew is a perfect fit for their system.

Joe Posnanski outlined last fall the importance of sticking to the plan. Football teams all have to have plans -- if you're a running team, you're looking for wide receivers who are good downfield blockers rather than tremendous pass-catchers, but if you're a passing team, well, that's when you make a gutsy deal for Randy Moss.,

Plans apply to baseball teams, too. The Red Sox have adopted the Oakland A's on-base percentage plan, but they've taken it a step further. The plan for the Red Sox is to grind out every single at-bat and make a pitcher work for every single out. The theory is that it will shorten starts and get into bullpens faster and just generally mean more runs scored against weaker pitching.

Youkilis is a pitch-grinder, the best in the game. Ortiz is a pitch-grinder -- even when he was struggling, he was still averaging four pitches per at-bat and drawing more than his share of walks. Jason Bay is a pitch-grinder, too, a guy who will strike out his share but who also sees pitches and draws walks. Dustin Pedroia is a different type of pitch-grinder: He's patient at the plate and walks quite a bit, but he also can spoil bad pitches as well as anyone in the game. He so rarely swings and misses that he's able to foul off pitch after pitch after pitch in search of the one he wants.

That's already a pretty formidable group of pitch-grinders.

But now you consider J.D. Drew -- to some, the most aggravating player to don a Red Sox uniform in years. The reason he's so aggravating is because he's so willing to take a walk. He seems to have the raw power to hit 30 home runs a year -- he did it with the Braves in 2004 -- but he instead takes his walks and hits his doubles and thus ends up driving in 65 runs every year instead of 100 runs every year.

Drew, however, is a perfect fit for the team approach at the plate the Red Sox have developed. He's seeing 4.22 pitches per at-bat this season -- a career high, sure, but his pitches per at-bat num bers have trended upward for years:

2003: 3.79
2004: 3.97
2005: 3.88
2006: 3.97
2007: 3.93
2008: 4.16
2009: 4.22

The reason the Red Sox overpaid for Drew was because he fits perfectly in a lineup with Pedroia, Youkilis and Ortiz. Manny Ramirez, the predecessor to Bay, routinely saw four pitches per at-bat while he was with the Red Sox -- and Bay is seeing exactly four pitches per at-bat so far this season.

Drew fits the plan. He fits right in with the rest of the pitch-grinders at the top of the Red Sox lineup, guys who will drive opposing starting pitchers absolutely nuts with their refusal to swing at pitches off the plate. It was Drew, remember, who took a borderline pitch with two strikes last Sunday against Atlanta, a pitch that eventually resulted in three Braves being ejected, and yanked the next pitch into right field for a run-scoring single.

That's the plan the Red Sox have. They overpaid to get Drew because he fits what they want to do so perfectly. Even better, it seems to be working: The Red Sox are seeing 3.89 pitches per at-bat as a team -- tied for third-best in the American League. They're also scoring 5.35 runs per game, third-best in the American League.

In fact, if you line the runs-per-game leaders up against the pitches-per-at-bat leaders, they're almos the same. The Rays see 3.98 pitches per plate appearance and are the highest-scoring team in the American League. The Mariners see only 3.71 pitches per plate appearance and are the lowest-scoring team in the American League.

When you make opposing pitchers work, you score more runs. Only five hitters in the American League are forcing opposing pitchers to throw more pitches per at-bat than Drew -- and Youkilis and Joe Mauer are two of those hitters.

Drew fits the plan. The Red Sox, thanks to their investment in young, cheap talent, didn't have to worry about the price tag. If that's a mistake, we probably need a new definition for the word.

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