LONGSHOTS: Numbers donít add up to supposed Fenway pressure
by Dave Long
Alex Speier wrote a story in the New Hampshire Sunday News about a month ago that made me bristle. He used first- and second-year stats of players whoíve joined the Red Sox in the last few years as evidence to suggest newly acquired players need a year to adjust before they really contribute in the expected way. As I read it, I said to myself, Iím not going to write about it, Iím not going to write about it, NO, Iím not going to write about it.
Well, guess what? I canít help myself, so Mr. Willpower is going to write about it.
Iím doing it because I sense an urban legend in the making, that ó and I say this with every bit of sarcasm I can possibly muster ó Boston baseball is too much of a pressure cooker for guys to live up to whatís expected in their first year in town. Thus providing an excuse when the latest free agent isnít as good as billed in year one.
Itís a crock and the numbers used to support the thesis show how statistics can lie if you donít have the full story for context. Not that Speier is lying. Heís an earnest fellow who obviously put a lot of thought in to this. I just donít buy his conclusion. In fact itís just the opposite ó especially for hitters who Fenway makes better. Or at least their numbers better. Name one hitter who was better after leaving playing at Fenway half the year than he was when he played there. Iíll help: Carlton Fisk. Now give me another.
Mo Vaughn hit 40 his last year with Boston in 1998. He hit 36 and 33 with the Angels, which he bested three other times in Boston. But he wasnít bad. Nomar? Sorry to say heís been a shell of himself. Shea Hillenbrand bested the .293 and 18 homers he hit in his second season one time each. Scott Hatteberg ó maybe. But that probably has more to do with playing more in Oakland. John Valentin? He was cooked before he left due to injuries. And if I go below the Tarrier Line there are a bunch, including Fred Lynn and Wade Boggs, who were never the same after leaving The Wall behind for richer pastures.
How about those coming to Boston in year one? Curt Schilling? He won 21 games. Series hero Bill Mueller knocked in 85 and hit .326 to win the batting title after never coming within area codes of that in the NL. Johnny Damon: .256 for the Aís to .286 in Boston when his runs scored, extra base hits and RBI were all much higher. Did he crumble under the pressure of playing in Oakland? More likely he struggled with the pressure of impending free agency. And then thereís Manny, who hit just .306, compared to the .351 he hit in his walk year in Cleveland. Does that mean he needed a year to adjust? Or could it be he was having one of those years until the hamstring issue derailed him for 40 games, preventing what might have been his career year ó which is saying something, because itís been a pretty remarkable one. Still he hit 43 homers and drove in 125, which he didnít top in Boston until three years later. Dustin Pedroia and Jonathan Papelbon didnít need a red-shirt year to get ďacclimated.Ē Even crazy Carl Everett hit .300, drove in 108 and hit nine more homers than the previous year in Houston.
But the two guys taking supposed big steps up in their second years in the storyís graphic are the ones that made me nuttier than I usually am. The story used big leaps in their second season of Mike Lowell and David Ortiz to support the emerging hypothesis of needing a year to adjust. Itís true Mike Lowell went from 20-80-.280 to his 21-120-.324 team-MVP season and Big Papi saw his numbers go from 31-101-.288 to 41-139-.301. But Speier neglects to mention that in the season before Lowell came to Boston he hit eight homers, drove in 58 and hit .238, while for Papi it was 20-75-272 in close to the same at bats. That looks like a vast improvement after entering the ďpressurizedĒ Boston baseball environment over the previous year in the baseball cauldrons of Miami and Minnesota. Plus in the case of Ortiz, he had 140 more at-bats in 2004 than 2003, so his home runs and runs batted in per at-bat were virtually identical in those years.
The seeds of this hoo-ha started when Edgar Renteria struggled at the plate and had 31 errors after Tony LaRussa said he might have difficulty playing in Boston. No argument there. He was not a good fit. In fact I think heís still spooked, as he went into last weekís series between Detroit and the Sox with no errors in í08 and promptly made two in the first game! But it didnít seem to bother Orlando Cabrera, who immediately sparked the roll that led to the first World Series win in 86 years, or Alex Gonzales, who was more productive than Julio Lugo.
Then came Josh Beckettís giant ERA leap in 2006 and the trio of J.D. Drew, Lugo and Daisuke Matsuzaka not meeting expectations. But each is an individual case. Do you really think Beckett, whoís been impervious to pressure in his two stellar post- seasons, was spooked by Boston, when he, oh by the way, won a career-best 16? Or is it more likely he improved because, like many 25-year-old pitchers before him, he realized he canít throw his fast ball by major-league hitters every time? For Dice-K, besides command issues, he had the weight of two nations on his back as he moved around the world and to a completely different culture. Thatís a little more than just coming to Boston.
As for Lugo and Drew, theyíre just not as good as their contracts suggest. Lugo is on pace to commit 48 errors. That doesnít sound like a Year Two comfort zone. Drew had significant off-field issues to distract him in 2007. But did you know his 64 RBI were fourth-best of his career? And does his 118 games, 74 runs, 20 doubles, 20 homers, 62 RBI, .278 career average sound like a guy who should be getting paid more than Ortiz? Itís not better than vintage Trot Nixon. So expectations are based on contract mistakes more than a realistic assessment of what players are capable of.
So in the end, while I like the creativity of the Speier piece, Iím not ready to buy that guys need a red-shirt year before being productive in Boston.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billyís Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM Ė The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.