J.D. Drew Closure: Remembering Him in the Appropriate Light

Since 1901, J.D. Drew ranks 71st in games played by Boston Red Sox. Among outfielders, he's 26th; right fielders he's 7th. Since Drew joined the club, the Red Sox have won 441 games versus just 310 losses. With Drew's time as a Red Sox player coming to a close and his time as a regular almost certainly over, it seems like a good time to reflect on the Drew experience in Boston and because just about any discussion concerning Drew tends to get a bit clouded, it's best to start with some facts. Drew has been a regular contributor during one of the most successful runs in Boston Red Sox history. Nobody who paid close attention to the 2007-2011 Red Sox will forget Drew, for better or worse.

"Fine," say the detractors. "He may have been a contributor but he played with very little fire, was often injured and what's not in any way arguable is that he was overpaid." The anti-Drew crowd feels strongly about these things, which tends to mask the fact that there are some legitimate criticisms of Drew. His 106 wRC+ was the second worst of his career in his very first year with the Red Sox in 2007. In 2010, with one teammate after another falling down to injury around him and when the team really needed him to step up, Drew could not come through with the sort of offensive contributions he provided in the previous two seasons. In 2011, he has been a total disaster.   

What's lost in these criticisms, though, is any perspective at all on the nature of the unrestricted free agent market. There are essentially three buckets of compensation classification in Major League Baseball. There are pre-arbitration players, where, provided they draft well and develop and promote their youngsters effectively, teams enjoy great return for the money. Think Daniel Bard. Then there are arbitration-eligible players, another grouping that offers well-run teams tremendous surplus value. If a very good player goes to arbitration, it's only a one-year commitment and it's often the case they do not get their true value. Even better, well run teams offer their young players long-term extensions to buy up their arbitration plus a  year or two of unrestricted free agency in exchange for a lifetime of financial security. These deals have meant everything to the Red Sox, who see incredible output on the cheap from All-Stars like Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester.

Finally there are unrestricted free agents. In particular, relevant to Drew's case, there's the high end of the unrestricted market. Here, rarely do teams receive great ROI. Instead teams are willing to shell out big bucks for the hope that a player's recent track record will translate into future performance. Even if it means there's an overpay, teams want a higher degree of certainty than a younger, less proven performer offers. When a wealthy team like the Red Sox assembles its team, they can feel confident plugging holes, "tactically" as Theo would say, via the free agent market. Think of the current return the Red Sox are seeing for the money paid in 2011 to Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carl Crawford, John Lackey and Drew. And yet the Red Sox are fielding one of the best clubs in franchise history. Paying premiums on the free agent market is nothing new, and expressly budgeted into a well run, deep-pocketed team's plans.

There are degrees of overpays, of course, so let's just whip around the league and consider some other free agents. We can start with Drew's free agent class, the 2006-2007 group. There's Alfonso Soriano in Chicago, making $3 million more than Drew per year and under contract through 2014. Barry Zito is under contract through 2013 and makes $4 million more than Drew. Carlos Lee offers no defensive value whatsoever, has performed similarly to Drew at the plate, and makes $2.67 million more than Drew per year and is under contract through next season. There were some other beauties, too. How did Jason Schmidt and Gary Matthews, Jr. work out? What about Kei Igawa or Jeff Suppan?

For perspective, let's take a look at how Fangraphs rates the ROI of a few of these guys. They assign a dollar figure to each Win Above Replacement a player contributes. For Fangraphs, a Win is worth about $4 million in player salary. So Drew has "earned" $59.1 million of the $70 million he is guaranteed. For Soriano, he's been worth $62.5 million of the $85 million he's been paid on an average annual contract value basis. There's still a ways to go on his deal, though, and he doesn't appear to be improving at this stage. For Zito it's $30.5 million on $90 million with two years to go, and for Lee it's $40.9 million against more than $83 million and Lee still has a year remaining.

This methodology has imperfections but at least it offers a logical framework or baseline. For a sense of how the Red Sox are able to make up for their underperforming and highly paid free agents, let's consider the cases of Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury in 2011. According to Cot's Contracts, Pedroia will earn $5.5 million in 2011, $6.75 million if you want to consider the average annual value of his deal. Thus far, with two months remaining, Fangraphs has him as being worth $29.5 million. Even last year, when he missed so much time, he was at $13.2 million. For his career, he's been worth an astounding $107.6 million if you apply his contributions to Fangraphs' measure of value on the unrestricted free agent market. In Ellsbury's case, he's making $2.4 million this season and has been worth $26.1. Righteous indignation over the money paid to Drew is better directed towards Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement than to Drew himself. By their very nature, unrestricted free agents on the whole offer poor return on investment.

The reason it's important to look at this empirically, logically and through the lens of the broader free agent market is that noted sports media personalities like Bob Ryan and Bill Simmons have decided that 2011 alone amounts to sweet vindication for their long-held belief that Drew is overpaid and that the signing has been a failure. Few athletes have been subjected to such disjointed treatment from the media and by extension, the fans. In short, it's been downright shameful.

In Ryan's case, his treatment of Drew began about as unprofessionally as one could imagine and it's winding down with some of the most inane baseball commentary in recent memory. On the very day Theo Epstein announced Drew's signing, knowing full well why the media was gathered, Ryan pre-empted Theo's announcement by saying, "On behalf of an eager constituency, I hope the rumor (of a J.D. Drew deal) isn't true." Now, with Drew having earned every dime of his salary coming into the 2011 campaign, Ryan decided he would take Drew's awful year to date as an opportunity to explain to fans just how bad the Drew signing was. To do so, he propped a camera in front of himself and Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan, and proceeded to run down the list of "Theo's biggest busts." You can watch for yourself.

 

Included among Ryan's choices are John Lackey (4.96 ERA, 356 hits allowed in 312 innings), Edgar Renteria (89 OPS+ and awful defense) and Julio Lugo (.664 OPS). It's so sad, so self-evidently idiotic for Ryan to lump Drew in with these guys that it's hardly worth mentioning. And yet, because media influences fan perception, it's passed off as a reasonable discussion.

Ryan's not alone, of course, and thankfully given the timing of this article, last week Bill Simmons decided once again he would chime in on Drew as part of his mid-season Red Sox report card.

Drew leaves Boston this winter with his incredible $14 million grand slam and a couple of seasons (2008 and 2009) that looked solid from a saber standpoint unless you were actually watching him every day and wondering if his body had blood in it...I always felt bad bitching about Drew because his son had health problems, and because it wasn't his fault that he lacked the everyday fire of, say, Trot Nixon...If there's a silver lining, maybe Theo learned from the Drew/Dice/Renteria signings that certain personalities can't work in Boston regardless of what the numbers say; that's just one of the reasons they pursued Gonzalez so heavily, not just because advanced numbers said he would be a splendid fit for Fenway, but because his personality was such a good fit. A lesson learned, right?

To paraphrase, for Simmons, there were a couple "solid" seasons "from a saber standpoint" but he lacked Trot Nixon's fire and Drew's personality was probably never meant for Boston (Boston's a really special place, you guys!) but a big part of the reason that Adrian Gonzalez's deal is working out so well is that his personality fits here. That's the lunacy that passes for real analysis while actual evidence to the contrary is right there to check out for anyone inclined to take the time. How is Bill Simmons explaining which "lessons" Theo Epstein can learn about baseball personnel any different than Kige Ramsey lecturing Simmons on the finer points of building a strong internet brand?

The most insane part of Drew's reputation as soft and a poor fit for the Boston market is that he has turned in some of the most clutch performances in Red Sox postseason history. As Win Probability Added (WPA) goes, for Red Sox position players since 2004, only David Ortiz's performance in Game 3 of the 2004 ALDS - the opposite field walk-off home run against Jarrod Washburn - tops Drew's performance in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS or Game 2 of the 2008 ALDS. That Game 2 performance was one of the underrated dramatic moments in recent history. Drew broke a 9thinning tie with a two-run home run to right-center field off of Francisco Rodriguez, who had finished 3rd in the American League Cy Young voting that season. This was back when K-Rod was K-Rod and truly considered invincible.

Later in the ALCS that season, Drew paced Boston's dramatic comeback win in Game 5 with another two-run homer and then a walk-off RBI single in the 9th. These two games rank 1 and 2 since Drew joined the Red Sox for postseason WPA. Since 2004, they rank 2 and 3 (behind the Ortiz game). There's also the 2007 ALCS Game 6 grand slam off of Fausto Carmona, of course. While Drew struggled in 2007, he hit .342/.454/.618 in September to close the season out. His hot finish carried into the postseason.

==========

There was another Red Sox player who played for five seasons with the club, battled injuries, made a lot of money and played a key role on the 2007 World Series winning team. You might remember Mike Lowell? Here's how Drew and Lowell stack up:

Total Comp

Games

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

fWAR

bWAR

Drew

$70M

602

2,358

.265

.371

.458

13.7

13.4

Lowell

$55.5M

612

2,480

.290

.346

.468

10.6

12.4


Pretty similar, right? Drew's been a little better, but he made more money, too. It's how it should be. So do you think the two will be remembered in a similar light around here? Think the Red Sox will stage J.D. Drew Day in September to honor his accomplishments? Assuming he retires, think Drew will come back next year for yet another Fenway serenade, as Lowell did last weekend when the Red Sox were home against the Mariners? Think Bob Ryan even considered tacking Lowell onto his list of "Theo's biggest busts?"

Drew's a quiet, introspective family man by all accounts who tries to do a good job and likes to keep to himself. He's taken Josh Reddick's ascension with extraordinary class and professionalism, as just one indicator of his character. Lowell is more media-friendly and visible around town. He also played feebly through injuries, something fans admire even as it cratered Boston's chances to win in 2010. At the beginning of last season, Lowell was vocal about playing regularly, even though his cliff-dive regression and inability to stay on the field necessitated the acquisition of Adrian Beltre.

Nothing against Mike Lowell, of course, but the contrast of Drew and Lowell ties together why their incongruous treatment by the media matters. Lowell can come back to Boston any time, sign some autographs, make some money, do some television and never purchase a meal of his own. Really, he is something of a local hero. On the other hand, despite both his team and personal successes, the media climate has made for a difficult five years in Drew's case. If he chooses to retire, I wouldn't blame him for never returning to Boston again. In short, media treatment impacts lives, and their unfair treatment of Drew has undeservedly made his life worse than it otherwise could have been. That might not resonate with some readers because Drew's wealthy, but there's more to life than money. Drew accepted a contract offered to him and honored that contract by playing it out with professionalism. The boos and the media hit jobs were never part of the deal.

More than just quality of life, though, unfair media treatment also influences how fans remember a player's contributions. One quick-and-dirty metric for this is Baseball Reference's ELO rater, a crowd-sourcing initiative that asks fans to rank players where they feel the inidvidual slots in all time. For one, Lowell ranks 437th and has amassed 28.9 Wins Above Replacement (the B-Ref vintage). Cliff Floyd, for example, ranks 424th and has 27.3 WAR to his name. The previously mentioned Carlos Lee ranks 419th and has 22.5 WAR. Drew ranks an astoundingly inaccurate 555th all time despite racking up 46.7 career Wins Above Replacement. In reality land, he slots in at 173 all time as far as B-Ref WAR is concerned. WAR is not an exact science, but the exercise once again manifests the adverse affects unfair media treatment can have. Drew deserves better.

In the final weeks and months of J.D. Drew's career, here's hoping local fans reflect on what Drew has meant to this special run of Red Sox teams. He hasn't been perfect, he hasn't been a bargain by any stretch, but for what Theo Epstein might have wanted out of Drew, he's come awfully close to living up to the money. Take it from Theo himself. Just because Drew's limping to the finish line the way so many aging,  big money players do in the final year of their contracts, don't discount what he has meant to the Boston Red Sox and their fans' enjoyment.    


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