Monday, August 10, 2009

Bag of baseballs > .265 average

The Red Sox parade of mediocrity from my youth: Jack Clark,
Jose Offerman, Tom Brunansky and Troy O'Leary.

I realize that a lot of people reading my blog are sports fans, because I mostly follow sports bloggers, writers and columnists on Twitter, yet I haven't written any posts on sports lately. From reading my last 10 entries or so, you'd think I was obsessed with television commercials, 1990s movies and providing flip remarks to music that randomly appears on my iTunes playlist. (For the record, you wouldn't be wrong if you assumed “yes” to any of the three.)

Therefore, let me debate an issue that comes up around the trade deadline every year – The idea that some teams are “giving up” by trading veteran players. It is almost always hogwash, and a claim made by lazy sportswriters, radio show hosts and the general public.

The outcry seemed most intense this year toward Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neil Huntington. For some reason, the maddening crowds (thanks Thomas Hardy!) screamed that he should have kept Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, even though both have, you know, been on the team for the half-dozen or so years it has really sucked. Without Sanchez and Wilson, you might go 70-92 instead of 65-97, and even this might be an overstatement.

The perception of them as above-average players seems to exist solely because of counting stats – i.e. at-bat dependent stats like home runs, RBI and hits.

Freddy Sanchez's combined line between Pittsburgh and San Fran is .299, but his OBP is only .338, and he doesn't hit for enough power or play a great 2B, SS or 3B. At "just" $4 million, I suppose he's priced-appropriately for his price tag, except that you can find some minor league guys to play as well as he does, and pool the savings at that position and somewhere else to get a marquee player.

Jack Wilson's line is even more hack-tastic, as his OBP doesn't break .300. Even if he is a SS, that's unacceptable. He can defend really well, but he's not Ozzie Smith, which he has to be to justify his sub-par production at the plate and $6.65 million salary.

Getting anything for them, even if it's just salary relief, is better than holding on to them and seeing what little value they have crater when they finally do put up a .200 average.

To dip into baseball history a bit here, I've always been a fan of the Branch Rickey philosophy of dealing a player a year too early as opposed to a year too late. For example, even though this is sacrilegious for a Red Sox fan to say, I would have loved to see them trade David Ortiz to a stupid GM after his big year in 2007. Since he was a big, fat 1B / DH, like Mo Vaughn and Boog Powell and Mark McGwire and Travis Hafner and Cecil Fielder, there was a really good chance that his production was going to crater, which it has so far this year. Therefore, if I wouldn't have a problem with the Red Sox dealing Ortiz, I feel even less remorse for the idea of the Pirates dealing (overvalued) veterans for any sort of prospects with a pulse.

Of course, the Red Sox want to hold on to Ortiz for reasons other than his ability to hit a baseball. While they wouldn't have to worry about attendance falling off without him there, I'm sure the merchandise sales on a guy like Ortiz are in the millions of dollars, so there is an ancillary benefit that can't really be replaced, sort of somehow managing to trade Ortiz for Albert Pujols. For example, Ortiz straight-up for Adrian Gonzalez would have been a win on the field for the Red Sox, but I imagine it would actually hurt revenue.

As is, the Red Sox have probably maximized their “on-field performance” revenue – They've won consistently for the past six years, with playoff appearances in five and two World Series championships, and they recently set the record for straight home sell-outs. Because they have capped their performance-based revenue, it does make sense that they use their large financial cushion to hold on to fan favorites (Ortiz, Lowell, Manny Ramirez and his drama as long as they did) in order to maximize non-performance revenue.

However, I think this only applies to perennial contenders who can rely on strong gates despite week-to-week and month-to-month dips in team quality – Red Sox, Yankees, maybe the Mets, Angels and Dodgers. If you are a small to mid-market team, and your attendance and revenue is going to more strongly tied to this current season's record, then you want to do your best to maximize your record, or failing that, to maximize future records (trade veterans for prospects).

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