Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lucchino's Folly? The Beckett Deal Two Years Later

It’s been nearly two years since Theo Epstein’s 85-day vacation from the Boston Red Sox, an absence that saw one of the franchise’s defining trades completed by a 7-man committee led by International Scouting VP Craig Shipley.

By Seth Mnookin’s account, the decision to acquire pitcher Josh Beckett was driven by BoSox President & CEO Larry Lucchino, who wanted to both compete with the Yankees and demonstrate that the front office was still functioning despite the loss of Epstein. Other members of the team, including then co-general manager Jed Hoyer, had reservations, principally driven by Beckett’s health.

When the deal was done, the media consensus was strongly behind Lucchino.

“The Yankees got clipped,” wrote Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, calling Beckett “a 25 year old Curt Schilling” and saying the inclusion of a “fading” Lowell and “the best shortstop prospect in anybody’s system” didn’t matter.

Two years later, we're ready to ask whether Lupica’s assessment stands the test of time.

What was in the deal?
"You need prospects and you need finances, and we're fortunate to have both of those," Shipley said after the deal was done to acquire pitcher Josh Beckett, gold-glove third baseman Mike Lowell, and set-up man Guillermo Mota from the Florida Marlins.

Boston gave up two significant players: shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Anibal Sanchez, along with two other minor leaguers, Harvey Garcia and Jesus Delgado.

After Epstein’s return, Mota was packaged with Andy Marte, Kelly Shoppach and cash, and sent to the Indians for Coco Crisp, David Riske and Josh Bard. Riske was in turn traded straight up for Javier Lopez, and part-way into his first season with Boston Bard was sent to San Diego with Cla Meredith for Doug Mirabelli. As you’ll read below, none of that matters.

What Boston got out of the deal.
According to the Fox broadcast team today, what Boston got was a pitcher who owns 44 head of cattle, listens to Waylon Jennings and has won a world series at Yankee Stadium. Apparently these are all good things, in that order.

They also got a power pitcher with a history of blister and shoulder problems that have limited his playing time.

The best news for Boston was that Beckett topped 200 innings for the first time last year, and projects to crest the mark again this year. While his first year with Boston didn’t measure up to expectations (16-11 record, a 5.02 ERA and minus-2 RAA), he’s rebounded with a season that ranks with his best in Florida. Going into today, Beckett was 18-6 with a 3.27 ERA and 32 RAA, and will set career bests for strikeouts and walks. His adjusted ERA is fifth-best in the American League.

For an ace pitcher, Beckett’s contract is very reasonable – just $4.3 million last year. After agreeing to an extension with a signing bonus of $2 million, he’ll earn $6, $9.5, and $10.5 million in 2007-09, with a club option for 2010 of $12 million. The club option vests if Beckett starts 28 games in 2009, or 56 games over the final two years – in simpler terms, the option vests if Beckett stays healthy. He’s actually making less money this year than Schilling ($13 M) and Clement ($9.5 M), and the same as Matsuzaka and Gagne ($6 M). Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield makes $4 M.

At the time of the deal, many considered the then 31-year-old Lowell’s contract ($30.25 million over four years) the price of acquiring Beckett. Boston was simply one of the few teams with the financial resources to eat a contract of that size. The funny thing is, Lowell’s contributed more to Boston’s success so far than Beckett, whatever measure you pick. He produced a full 33 runs above average last year, and 37 year-to-date; his adjusted OPS (106 and 128) are solid, and he’s 16.8 wins above replacement since coming to Boston.

For the record, Mota’s value within the transaction is effectively nil. Crisp (24) and Lopez (5) have made positive contributions to Boston’s runs above average over the past two seasons, although Crisp’s comes entirely from his value as a fielder in 2007. Bard (-4 before his trade) and Mirabelli (-18) undo virtually all of this. The deal would look better if Mirabelli hadn’t sucked up 266 at bats this year and last.
Beckett200626339219.916-115.92$4.325 M3.6%
Beckett200727271405318-632$6 M4.2%
Lowell20063257310620.70.2788.233$9 M7.5%
Lowell20073353312842.40.3048.637$9 M6.3%

What Florida got out of the deal.
The Marlins extracted themselves from $48.3 million in salary commitments to Lowell ($18 M) and Beckett ($30.25 M), plus Beckett’s $12 M option year in 2010. This was part of a larger plan that took their payroll from $60 M down to $15 M, and their record from 83-79 (.512) to 78-84 (.481). Clearly it wasn’t worth spending $45 M a year for 5 extra wins.

In addition to shedding salary, they got the best player in the deal, 2006 rookie of the year Hanley Ramirez. Today, Ramirez ranks 5th in average and slugging percentage in the National League and 7th overall in adjusted OPS at 151. Most impressive, in all of baseball he’s second only to Alex Rodriguez in VORP, which measures only offensive contributions.

Being just 23, he is, of course, a bargain, earning just $402,000. Ramirez has posted 64 runs above average while under contract to the Marlins, and 18.5 wins above replacement level, including 10.0 this year. That’s an eye-popping number, particularly on a team that’s won only 64 games this year.

Ramirez’s only weakness – and it’s a significant one – is his defence, which is among the worst in baseball at any position. His batting production this year is actually 53 runs above average, while his fielding is 13 runs below average. It’s fair to describe him as both the best offensive and worst defensive shortstop in baseball.

Florida also gained Anibal Sanchez, a young pitcher who entered the public consciousness when he threw a no-hitter on September 6, 2006. The achievement was witnessed by just a few thousand fans, and it broke a record no-hitters drought that had prompted careless speculation something fundamental had changed about the batter-pitcher dynamic.

Sanchez contributed 20 runs above average last year, thanks to his ability to mix a curve, changeup and slider with a mid-90s fastball. His injury history – he missed the 2003 season recovering from Tommy John surgery – didn’t stop the scouts from being high on his chances. After he joined the Marlins, Baseball America ranked him behind only Jeremy Hermida and Hanley Ramirez in their prospect rankings.

He may never deliver on that potential – in June 2007 he was diagnosed with a torn labrum, and was operated on by the busy Dr. James Andrews.

As for pitchers Harvey Garcia and Jesus Delgado, neither are among Baseball America’s top 10 prospects in the Marlins organization. Garcia made it to the Albuquerque Isotopes this year, but pitched just 46 undistinguished innings, plus 4 innings for the Marlins after roster expansion. Delgado did little better during his 93 innings with the AA Carolina Mudcats.
Ramirez20062263311654.90.2868.524.0$327 K2.2%
Ramirez20072357615184.10.31910.040.0$402 K1.3%
Sanchez2006221715236.210-34.820$327 K1.1%
Sanchez2007236882.12-1-1$381 K1.2%

What the future holds
The Red Sox are championship contenders, but the future belongs to the Marlins.

Baseball Prospectus’s projection for the next five years suggests that Ramirez alone will deliver 32.7 wins above replacement – just one fewer than Beckett and Lowell combined.

Prior to Sanchez’s injury, BP also projected a five-year WARP of17.3 for the pitcher; post-injury those projections are likely to come down significantly.

In terms of marginal value above replacement (MORP), Ramirez projects to deliver $100 million in value over the next five years, compared to $42 million from Beckett and $34 million from Lowell. The latter figures are comparable to the $39 million projected for Sanchez at the start of this year.
2008-12 ProjectionsWARPMORP
Beckett18.2$41.95 M
Lowell 15.5$33.58 M
Ramirez32.7$100.5 M
Sanchez17.3$38.8 M

The projected values make the future seem one-sided. It’s not.

The impact on Boston also needs to consider the alternatives. If Ramirez had remained with the Red Sox and reached a similar level of performance (64 runs above average over two years), he’d presumably have replaced Julio Lugo’s production (23 RAA), for a net positive impact of 41 RAA. The Sox would then have had to replace either Beckett’s or Lowell’s production, presumably from the free agent market.

As the Mota trades demonstrate, the future may not be fully mapped out yet. Lowell’s peak year was at age 29, and although 33 he’s close to that level of production now. The post-season would be an excellent time to trade him, especially if free agent to be Alex Rodriguez comes available.

“They love what they’re getting from Beckett – an 18-win season,” the announcing team agreed during Saturday’s game. And by the end of the afternoon the Fenway faithful had watched Beckett rack up number 19.

That fact illustrates the bottom line: this trade has produced a win-win outcome. Florida shed salary that it didn’t make sense to spend, and gained one of the game’s best young players. Ramirez could star for a future Marlins championship contender, or be converted into more talent once free agency looms.

Boston gained much needed production – the kind needed to give it the edge in its race for the division title. This year Lowell and Beckett have delivered 69 RAA, while Ramirez and Sanchez produced 39. That difference works out to about 3 wins above average, and likely more than what was available on the free agent market.

Much of the gap comes from the absence of Sanchez, Ramirez’s inept fielding and Lowell’s resurgence; change any of these and the Sox might have been better without the deal. But that’s not the world we’re working with today.

Will Ramirez continue to explode into one of the game’s superstars? Will Beckett remain healthy? Will Sanchez be a factor again? Will Lowell remain in Boston?

The answer to none of these questions is known. But for now, Lucchino’s deal is holding up just fine.

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At 1:34 AM, Blogger andy grabia said...

I fear that at the end of this deal Boston is going to come out looking real bad. Small note that I'm surprised you didn't mention, given your love of the stolen base/homerun benchmarks: Hanley is currently a 28/49 player. He is two home runs and one stolen base away from doing what only Eric Davis and Barry Bonds have ever accomplished: stealing 50 bases and hitting 30 homeruns. Unless the Rockies change catchers tomorrow, I'll gonna assume he'll get his 50th SB this weekend. He swiped three bags Saturday night.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

Well sure, Boston might end up looking bad. But if they win the league championship or the world series this year, that will go a long way to answering the doubters. Would you trade away Hanley Ramirez to win a World Series? I probably would.

Thanks for the link at BoA. The always insightful lowetide asked 4 questions about this post, which I answered over there. For the sake of completeness, I'm going to repeat my paraphrasing of his questions, and my answers, here:

1. What is VORP? Does it factor in ballpark effects?
Short answer: yes, VORP adjusts for ballpark effects. It’s Value Over Replacement Player, or the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances. For each player, replacement-level is calculated based on playing time at each position.

VORP’s advantage that it facilitates comparing players at different positions, and comparing pitchers to batters. Caveats include: it doesn’t measure defence, and it’s cumulative (not a rate stat) – it describes what a player produced in the playing time available. If two players of equal production rates have unequal playing time, the one who batted more will have the higher VORP. There’s a pretty decent explanation on wiki.

2. Re: “Lowell has contributed more than Beckett” – you’re smoking a mighty, mighty spliff in making that comment this season.

Technically, I was talking about their contributions over the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Beckett made a league average contribution last year, while Lowell’s performed well in both seasons.

That said, the statement holds true for the 2007 season.

I was surprised to discover that Lowell’s contribution outshines Beckett’s – I was expecting to find that Lowell was merely an acceptable price to pay for Beckett’s production.

In the American League, Lowell’s VORP ranks him second among third-basemen, behind only (obviously) A-Rod. Now he’s a long, long way behind, but hopefully this conveys how good a season he’s had (currently .326/.380/.500 by traditional metrics).

It’s the measures beyond VORP that lead to the conclusion that Lowell’s outshone Beckett.

For that I went to Runs Above Average. Lowell has generated 30 Batting RAA this season, and 7 Fielding RAA. Beckett meanwhile has produced 32 RAA.

There are two things going on here. First, Lowell’s defence, which is not going to show up in a box score anytime soon, is quite good – to the point that it’s about 20% of his value. Second, Lowell has taken up 10.1% of Boston’s at-bats this year. A superlative everday position player is simply going to contribute more to the team’s success than a starter who’s in every 5 games.

A final aside: since you long ago abandoned baseball, you may not realize how thin the 3B position is in the American League. By VORP it’s A-Rod (92.8), Lowell (43), Figgins (39.8), Beltre (30.2) and Glaus (20.6). Yes, the 2007 version of Troy Glaus is the fifth-best batting third baseman in the American League. It’s embarrassing.

With apologies to Alex Gordon, the exciting, talented 3B are in the National League: David Wright (69.5), Miguel Cabrera (66.8), Ryan Braun (49.2), Aramis Ramirez (41.6), Garrett Atkins (25.0) and Ryan Zimmerman (23.7). Old timer Chipper Jones (67.4) is right up there too.

3. Typically, when a team makes a prospects for veteran deal it's with winning in mind. Does the author plan on giving points, or is this just some kind of fantasy baseball thingy?

I confess you’ve lost me. The centerpiece of my conclusion was that Boston has increased its short-term production by about 3 wins (2007), albeit at the expense of losing a star whose projected five-year production and marginal value far outshine what’s anticipated from the veterans they acquired. To me, this is win-win.

That Boston missed the playoffs last year is obvious – and Beckett’s first-year inadequacies are part of what went wrong. That they’ll make the playoffs this year, and perhaps win the division, can in part be attributed to the net 30 runs above average that they’ve gained from this deal in the 2007 season.

4. Why on earth would Florida play this kid out of position?...This piece doesn't even mention the fact that Ramirez' value decreases when they move him to one of the corner infield slots or the OF…

Florida isn’t playing Hanley Ramirez out of position: he is, and always has been, a shortstop. He’s just not very good with the glove.

All is not lost. Ramirez played his age-22 and 23 seasons in the major leagues. He’s still learning, and I would think that given how high the scouts are on his tools that he could mature into a league average defender. His rookie year defence wasn't as bad as this year's, so there may be an element of bad luck in this too.

Florida could move Ramirez, but not without making other changes. Third base is blocked by another elite player, 24-year-old Miguel Cabrera. The Fish are currently using Mike Jacobs at first base, which is nothing to write home about. The more significant block to that change might be the conventional wisdom that first should be occupied by a power hitter. Ramirez has a solid slugging percentage, but it’s driven by his speed (doubles, triples) more than out-of-the-park power. Having a first baseman who steals 50 bags in a season may be too out of the box for baseball management.


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