Lessons For Ben Cherington: Finding Success In Theo's Failures

During his introduction in Chicago, Theo Epstein highlighted "sustained success" as his focus. This should come as no surprise; it was always clear that Epstein had an eye to the future in every transaction, never willing to mortgage coming seasons for the sake of a better shot at the present. The result was six playoff appearances in nine years, including four trips to the ALCS and two World Series wins. Only twice did the team finish with fewer than 90 wins, reaching at least 95 for every playoff trip.

But things weren't always perfect under Theo, and he's known as much for his major failings in free agency as his successes these days. It wouldn't be unreasonable for many to jump to the conclusion that, ever since that 2003-2004 golden period of OBP-centric moneyball, Epstein has lost the magic on the market.

And in some cases that's certainly true. While John Lackey was never supposed to be anywhere near this bad, it was pretty clear that he wasn't a pitcher on the rise, and that his contract would likely be looked on in a negative light come the end. And then there's the issue of  Carl Crawford playing in Fenway's left field from ages 29 to 36. To be sure, when Theo has had a lot of money lying around, he's been a bit careless with how he spends it--a mistake that Ben Cherington should absolutely learn from.

But not all failed seasons are truly failures of management, and I hope that's something that Cherington also takes into account. It would, after all, be a shame for him to look at some of Epstein's greatest conceptual triumphs and choose to scorn them for the unfortunate results they produced.

I speak of 2009 and 2010, two years that can hardly be considered successes by Red Sox standards. In 2009 the team pushed their way to a 95-67 win record largely on the strengths of a 47-30 start to the season and then found themselves swept out of the playoffs by the Angels in three disappointing games. 

Low Risk, High Reward

Finding themselves unable to compete with the Yankees' monstrous offseason budget for 2009, the Red Sox and Theo Epstein turned to a different approach, focusing not on the big-market purchases that would prove so disastrous in the next two offseasons, but on once-great players who had been diminished in recent years for any number of reasons in the hopes that they could find their old magic. About $12 million went into signing John Smoltz, Brad Penny, and Takashi Saito while the Sox spent the rest locking up home-grown stars in Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, and Kevin Youkilis.

Of course, the latter part of that has proved highly lucrative for the Sox over the last three seasons. But as 2009 progressed, it became clear that the low risk starters just weren't going to bring high rewards. Penny was mediocre, and pushed out by John Smoltz, who proved such a disaster that the Sox had to put in a call to Paul Byrd for the second straight year. All-in-all, it was a failure.

But was it the method that was flawed, or just the ultimate results? Well, look no further than 2010 and 2011 to find out, because Theo didn't abandon his strategy. Adrian Beltre is the obvious poster-boy here with his MVP-like 2010 that resulted in two draft picks to boot (Blake Swihart and Jackie Bradley Jr. for the record), but there are others to be found. Alfredo Aceves, Bill Hall, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Mike Aviles all fall into the same category, having once had significant success or promise that diminished in recent years due to injury or other difficulties. While the verdict is still out in some cases, it's hard to say the Sox haven't at least gotten their money's worth there given how little was actually spent.

Run Prevention

More concrete both in its aims and its failure was the "run prevention" doctrine of 2010. Defensive stalwarts in Mike Cameron and the aforementioned Mr. Beltre were added to the team along with top free agent starter John "soon to have an expletive for a middle name" Lackey. We all know how that turned out. Beltre was absolutely amazing, but Cameron was hurt and ineffective while Lackey was entirely mediocre (not even taking into account his historically bad '11). 

But the idea, again, was solid. Moneyball is often misunderstood to be all about OBP and the like, but that was simply the application of the idea to the market in 2003 and 2004. What Billy Beane was really onto back then (and what guys like Bill James have known for decades) is that the game of baseball is far from figured out, and the free agency market often does a poor job of valuing things that really win games. In 2004, guys who got on base could be had for pennies on the dollar compared to their brethren who excelled in the classic stats of average, homers, and RBI. 

In 2010, Theo went looking for the new market inefficiency and found defense. And the thing is that he was right. While the defensive metrics we have access to may not be widely accepted or even reliable, the Sox have their own systems they're confident in, and if we believe them to be accurate, then it was the right move. Just look at the Rays. Every year since 2008 it's seemed like they're doomed to languish in third place, often seemingly well out of the race. They just don't have the bats to compete with the Yankees and Sox, and while their pitching staff is good, it's raised so much higher by a defense which has consistently kept the team's ERA well below its peripherals.

The problem in 2010 was that the defense was never on the field. Ellsbury missed most of the year, as did Mike Cameron. Dustin Pedroia's top-notch glove was absent for the second half, and Kevin Youkilis found himself sidelined with a bizarre thumb injury. With backups filling up half the field, the Sox would finish the year with a very negative UZR and an ERA about half-a-run higher than peripherals would suggest.

Separating Failure From Misfortune

Ben Cherington will begin his role as the GM of the Red Sox with plenty of experience to draw upon. Working at the side of Theo Epstein for years, Cherington could even prove the best of both worlds for the Red Sox. If he's been able to objectively evalute the best and worst of Theo--from his focus on the farm system, to his occasional bizarre obsessions with players (see: Lugo, Julio)--then it's possible what we'll get here is a more refined version of the brash young executive who took Boston by storm some nine years ago. 

To be that, though, Cherington will have to be able to separate the true failures from the misfortunes. Expecting players nearing or over 40-years-old to be reliable contributors? Probably a mistake. Signing declining free agents to long-term contracts? Ditto. But there's a lot of good to be found even in Theo's worst moments, and if Cherington can filter out the random chance and noise, then the Sox will be just fine with him at the helm.

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