Monday, October 12, 2009

Upgrading the defense and hitting on the road

The question was a terrific one from Baseball Prospectus' David Laurila to Theo Epstein at a postmortem press conference at Fenway Park today: The Rays last year got a lot better in part because they greatly upgraded their defense. This year, the Angels got a lot better because they greatly improved their on-base percentage. What do you need to do next year? Which area needs to be upgraded the most?

"You probably start with your weaknesses because there's the greatest room for improvement there," Epstein said. "If you look back at this year's club, we weren't the defensive club we wanted to be. There is room for improvement with our overall team defense, our defensive efficiency. Offense on the road. We didn't really hit on the road at all this year. We'll take a look at seeing if there's a way to improve that a little bit."

There's one move that can upgrade the Red Sox in both areas.

Defensive efficiency
The usefulness of advanced defensive statistics still is up for debate. It's tough to argue, though, that they aren't more valuable than the antiquated system of errors and fielding percentage. The Red Sox finished the season as a middle-of-the-pack defensive team according to Ultimate Zone Rating, their minus-17.2 ranking them just ahead of the Yankees but miles behind the Angels and Rays.

The trouble areas have been well-documented in this space already, but just for the sake of simplicity, below are the final UZR numbers for the Red Sox regulars:

Dustin Pedroia, 2B: 10.2
J.D. Drew, RF: 9.7
Alex Gonzalez, SS: 4.4
Casey Kotchman, 1B: 4.3
Kevin Youkilis, 1B: 4.3
Jed Lowrie, SS: 3.7
Nick Green, SS: 3.6
Victor Martinez, 1B: minus-1.1
Kevin Youkilis, 1B: minus-1.3
Mike Lowell, 3B: minus-10.6
Jason Bay, LF: minus-13.9
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF: minus-16.5*
David Ortiz, DH: Plays no defense

* Quibble with it all you want, but the fact remains that the speedy Ellsbury still doesn't break on the ball as well as he could -- especially on fly balls hit in front of him.

Offense on the road
If you want to get really simple, you can line up the Red Sox players expected play regularly next season -- eliminating Nick Green and Jason Varitek from the equation -- and subtract their road OPS from their home OPS to see who saw the greatest benefit from hitting at Fenway Park this season:

Mike Lowell: 932/713: 219
David Ortiz: 880/703: 177
Dustin Pedroia: 903/736: 167
J.D. Drew: 991/844: 147
Jacoby Ellsbury: 802/742: 60
Kevin Youkilis: 992/933: 59
Jason Bay: 936/904: 32
Victor Martinez: 744/1024: minus-280
(Beware: Martinez only played for the Red Sox for two months.)

What we've learned
Two players stick out above. Two players hit substantially worse on the road than at home and brought either nothing or negative production to the table defensively. Two players, if replaced, could represent an upgrade in both of those areas.

Those two players are Mike Lowell and David Ortiz. Both Lowell and Ortiz have tattooed the Green Monster throughout their Red Sox careers with doubles that would be fly balls anywhere else. Just check out their respective hit charts from this season:

Mike Lowell

David Ortiz

Those two players, however, are going to be awfully difficult to ship elsewhere.

Ortiz, you can rule out almost immediately. The aging designated hitter endured an epic slump in April and May, and while he bounced back in June, he didn't exactly look like his old self. (His post-June 1 on-base percentage of .356 would have ranked him 39th in the American League had it been his total for the season.) Oh, and he can't play a defensive position.

Lowell, on the other hand, is a different story. He can play a defensive position -- albeit with spectacularly limited range -- and showed this season that he still can hit when his hip gets adequate rest. A team needing a third baseman certainly might listen to a sales pitch for Lowell if the Red Sox were willing to pick up quite a bit of the $12.5 million due him next season. Seattle, a team that might be losing Adrian Beltre to free agency, might be a fit; the Cardinals, who will have to decide what to do with Mark DeRosa, might be another.

Don't be surprised if Epstein shops Lowell this offseason.

The key, then, would be to find a replacement who represented an upgrade defensively and who can hit anywhere. An upgrade in the field shouldn't be too difficult: Among third basemen this season, only the Mets' David Wright had a worse UZR (minus-10.9). Several infielders available on the market could represent an upgrade on Lowell:

Defense: The well-traveled veteran has played almost everywhere in his career, settling in mostly at second base in back-to-back seasons with the Cubs but playing mostly third base this season with the Indians and Cardinals. He had an UZR of minus-6.0 and a Fielding Bible plus-minus rating of minus-12 -- mostly due to ground balls either straight on or to his left.
Hitting anywhere: DeRosa this season had a .700 OPS in home games and an .804 OPS on the road. In his there months with the Indians, he was a dramatically better hitter at home -- but in his three months with the Cardinals, he was a dramatically better hitter on the road.

Chone Figgins
Defense: According to UZR, only Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman had a better season at third base than Figgins. According to the Fielding Bible's plus-minus, no one had a better season at third base than Figgins. The Fielding Bible had Figgins at a sensational plus-40 for the season -- including plus-23 on ground balls to his left.
Hitting anywhere: Figgins had a .795 OPS at home this season and a .783 OPS on the road, not enough of a difference to tell you anything. In his career, the difference is even smaller: He's OPS'ed .754 at home and .748 on the road. He can, it seems, hit anywhere.

Marco Scutaro
Defense: A year ago, Scutaro put up a Fielding Bible plus-17 at third base after replacing the injured Scott Rolen there, including a plus-11 on ground balls to his left. This season, he put up a plus-16 at shortstop, including a plus-14 on ground balls to his left. Ultimate Zone Rating had him as a spectacular defensive third baseman two years ago but an average shortstop this season. Either way, though, it seems clear he's an average defender -- at worst -- at both shortstop and third base.
Hitting anywhere: Scutaro OPS'ed .834 on the road this season and .734 at home. In his career, he has OPS'ed .706 at Rogers Centre in Toronto but .737 everywhere else. He can hit anywhere.
What does that tell us?

It tells us something we really already know: The Red Sox would be a more complete team next season with either Figgins or Scutaro playing third base than with Lowell -- but that doesn't mean it'll be easy to find a taker for Lowell.

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