LONGSHOTS: Are Sox spinning on the new move to defense?
by Dave Long
Spring training is off and running for the Red Sox without much fanfare to speak of. No panic now or in the lead-up to it as there was last year when the history-challenged were hysterical over the fact that, thanks to a contract impasse, the Sox might not have (pause for a gasp…) Jason Varitek calling pitches behind the plate.
That was treated by the reactionaries as a calamity somewhere between the free agent walk of prime-of-life Carlton Fisk to the White Sox after the 1980 season and the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. Of course by July those same folks were calling for the captain’s head because he couldn’t throw anyone out stealing and was hitting the way the historical record of all but two catchers (Fisk and Mike Piazza) said he would at 37.
But this year, not much. There’s the mild controversy over who is the fifth starter, Clay Buchholz or Tim Wakefield. But the Bronson Arroyo-for-Wily Mo Pena flap of a few years back has calmed the nerves on that one after Theo and the Nation learned the lesson that sooner or later the old adage usually comes true — you can never have enough starting pitching. And then there is the issue over whether the lack of a 30-homer guy or two can be mitigated by a shift in emphasis to “run prevention.” Most seem to be buying that, or taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Theo’s position.
To me it sounds like at least partial spin since they had to say something after Jason Bay wouldn’t bite on the medical language Theo and company wanted inserted in his new deal. Since the brass has historically spent when necessary I’ve got no problem with that. In fact, while spending is good, spending wisely is better, which they haven’t always done. And after getting just one good one in the four-year deal they gave Keith Foulke, none from Julio Lugo’s four-year deal and zero from Curt Schilling’s last deal, I’ve got no issue with looking for protection with what they think is a potentially long-term knee issue with Bay. And if you say that didn’t bother the Mets, remember Theo passed on Pedro for fragility issues and they didn’t and wound up getting a year and a half of production on that four-year deal. So I’ve got Theo’s back on this one.
It sounds like spin because it flies in the face of what he did after 2006 when they committed a team record low 66 errors. After that, Mark Loretta and Alex Gonzalez were out to pave the way for Dustin Pedroia and because the ladder was below the acceptable of level of Theo’s beloved OBP number despite being spectacular defensively at short. So in came Julio Lugo. How’d that work out? So are we now to think he’s made a complete conversion? Or was it they couldn’t get the hitter they wanted to fill the five hole for cost or injury protection issues? I think it’s the latter and the way to assuage the masses is to talk about improved fielding — which brings me to the point of this diatribe.
Few if any seem to think this is much of an issue, but I do. It’s putting Mike Cameron in center and moving Jacoby Ellsbury to left to preserve the legs of baseball’s best base stealer. The Sox have two points on their side. The first is that Cameron has been a very good center fielder for a very long time during which he’s won three gold gloves. Though I’d hasten to say the operative word here is “very.” And then there is the fact that of the top five base stealers of the last 40 years, all but Joe Morgan were left fielders. That list includes Ricky Henderson, Lou Brock, Tim Raines and Vince Coleman.
But of the next six only Willie Wilson spent anytime in left and that was only because Amos Otis was already there when he arrived in Kansas City. But after his decline at 35, Wilson moved to center for the next 10 years and still averaged 50+ steals. Also in the next six are center fielders Otis (my man) Nixon and Kenny Lofton as well as shortstops Ozzie Smith, Bert Campanaris and Maury Wills — which besides catcher is the most demanding position.
There’s also the side that says he’s never played left before and Ellsbury has. True, but Manny was in left for 7½ years and Cameron can do it better than him blindfolded. Plus, since this is supposed to be a platoon situation with Jeremy Hermida, that means Ellsbury will be going back and forth all year. And while he’s done it before, doesn’t it make more sense to put him and Cameron in a regular spot if possible? Plus prevailing wisdom says the legs a manager should preserve are the 37-year-old ones and not the 26-year-old. History says those are the ones that get tired first. And going back to the missing 30-homer guy: they’re going to need Cameron to hit the 25 and 24 he’s hit the last two years in Milwaukee — though I should point out it took him 29 games more to hit one fewer last year at 36.
Given that evidence, this seems to be another case of Mother Francona’s zeal to baby players, as well the stat geeks’ outsmarting themselves again. Much like when Ellsbury was kicked out of the lead-off spot on May 31 last year while hitting .299, because his OBP was only .346. When he returned there on July 20 his average was .294 and OBP .342. So why did they send him back? Because the day his speed left the lead-off spot and Dustin Pedroia took over, Pedroia was hitting .328 and Kevin Youkilis a robust .366. When they went back to him in desperation Youk was at .304 and Pedroia .302 — though after dropping to .285 he was moved back to the two hole and JD Drew led off for three weeks.
That’s as good an example of outsmarting yourself by what the numbers say rather than what you’re seeing with your eyes as I can think of. His speed makes a difference up there last year regardless of those numbers and does in the field as well. And while they may have learned their lesson, and this move is being made as a concession to his importance to the offense, it still looks to me like a case of someone fixing something that ain’t broken.
Because if Cameron doesn’t his those home run numbers because his 37-year-old legs tired in August/September, as Ellsbury’s have not in any of his three years in the majors, while David Ortiz is the 25-85 I suspect he’ll be, all the spin in the word isn’t going to stop the clamoring for the bopper they missed out on this winter.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.