The current free agent market in baseball is just nutty. Shin-Soo Choo, one of the best hitters in the game but a player who simply cannot play defense anymore, just signed a 7 year deal worth 130 million dollars to play in Texas. Robinson Cano signed for 10 years and 240 million with Seattle. Curtis Granderson convinced the Mets he was worth 4 years and 64 million. Even relievers as old and unpredictable as Matt Thornton have managed to get multi-year deals for millions of dollars. Seriously... a 37 year old reliever who the Red Sox determined was not worthy of a roster spot for the playoffs got 2 years and 7 million from the Yankees. The market has gone full on Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
So how does a team that isn't willing to compete, dollar for dollar... year for year, in that market assemble a competitive roster? We've talked about "Moneyball" here plenty and will reiterate quickly that it is not as simple as valuing high OBP over a high batting average. It's looking for market inefficiencies that can be exploited to improve the ratio of dollars spent to wins. The Red Sox are currently an interesting example of "Moneyball" as they have been placing value on things differently than a lot of teams.
In 2013 the Red Sox front office valued making sure they had a roster of all average or better OBP hitters, strong defense at several positions (short stop, center field, right field) and lots of depth to help deal with slumps and injuries and paying a little more per year to keep contracts shorter. They are doing something similar this year in signing guys like A.J. Pierzynski to a one year deal or moving on from players like Stephen Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury to promising rookies like Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley.
They have also focused on roster flexibility. The recent trade for Jonathan Herrera is a great example of this. Herrera is a strong defensive player with experience all over the infield and an average OBP. He gives them a redundancy at third, short and second base without a huge drop off at the plate, at least as far as OBP is concerned. The outfield has two players capable of playing center field in Bradley and Victorino, two who can play right field in Victorino and Nava (they survived 62 games with him out there in 2013, 3 more than he played in left) and three who can play in left in Gomes, Nava and Carp. Carp also backs up first base and DH and Napoli can fill in as an emergency catcher should they be unlucky enough to see Pierzynski and Ross both get hurt in a game. There is a ton of flexibility in this roster and the Red Sox are very unlikely to be stuck with a below average player on the field for very long at any point in the 2014 season.
There's another way in which flexibility plays out, though, and that's in lineup construction. Some teams value the stability of keeping hitters in the same slot for most of the season. The Red Sox do not. John Farrell and the front office like to play match ups and platoon splits to their advantage. In 2013, for example, they had 662 plate appearances in the 5 slot in the order between Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Napoli had the lion's share at 365 but they used platoon splits to maximize production from a slew of players and managed to have the best offense in baseball despite many hitters bouncing around the lineup all year.
Jonny Gomes had 88 plate appearances in the 5 hole, 82 hitting second, 127 hitting 6th and managed to have at least one PA in every other slot in the order. Daniel Nava had 105 hitting 5th, 145 hitting 2nd and 222 hitting 6th. Salty had 255 hitting 7th, but 94 hitting 6th and also hit 5th, 8th and 9th. Napoli spent most of the year hitting 4th or 5th but appeared in 6 different slots in the order over the course of the season. Mike Carp hit everywhere but 3rd. In fact, the only players who didn't bounce around at least a little were David Ortiz with 535 of 600 plate appearances hitting 4th and Dustin Pedroia who hit 3rd for 666 of his 724 total plate appearances on the season.
We should see quite a bit more of this in 2014, but the Red Sox aren't just banking on platoon splits and flexibility to put a winning offense on the field. They also appear to be trying to exploit the fact that high OBP players, even at the expense of power, are more valuable to teams with a lot of high OBP hitters in the lineup. A balanced lineup is far more dangerous than an imbalanced one with a few elite OBP hitters.
A quote from that link:
"What does this teach us? Well, team OBPs do not provide insight into how balanced a lineup a team has. The Reds would be foolish to think they have a lineup that gets on base enough to be an elite offense. With the loss of Choo, the Reds offense may struggle to produce runs at a league-average clip as Votto and Bruce could be stranded on base countless times.
A balanced lineup was a major factor in the Cardinals scoring the most runs in the National League. Their team may have had an excellent .332 OBP, but their top eight hitters by plate appearance had a .355 OBP. As a group they were excellent. The Red Sox were similar in that their top eight hitters by plate appearances all had above-average OBPs with Stephen Drew coming in eighth at .333. Think about that! The Red Sox eighth-best hitter at getting on base was 15 points above league average."
Choo and Votto are OBP gods. Very few people have been better at getting on base over the last few years than those two guys, but the Reds offense struggled to keep up with St. Louis despite their OBP being in the same ballpark. They scored 124 less runs on the season despite only being .005 points behind them in team OBP.
This is why a guy like Jonathan Herrera, who will sport a league average OBP and very likely one of the best OBP's among utility fielders in the game, is worth more to the Red Sox than he is to the Rockies. Giving up a pitcher with the swing and miss stuff and exciting velocity of Franklin Morales plus a prospect (even a fungible one) makes sense from Boston's point of view. It's the kind of trade that could very well work out for both sides.
When we talk about "Moneyball," about exploiting market inefficiencies, this is exactly the kind of thing we mean. The Red Sox have taken a different approach to building their roster than most of the rest of MLB and in effect have created a secondary market where only they and a few other teams are shopping for talent. This drives down competition and keeps prices down. Edward Mujica is another great example on the pitching side. The Red Sox love pitchers who throw a ton of strikes. Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and now Mujica provide them with low cost but extremely effective assets in the bullpen that are more effective because they are a part of a systemic approach.
When your pitching staff is seriously focused on throwing a lot of strikes and winning the battle for the strike zone a pitcher who lives in the zone is going to be more effective. Much like how a relentless high OBP lineup will wear down pitchers, hitters who have the zone pounded with strikes will have a harder time getting comfortable at the plate... especially when those strikes are from pitches with a lot of movement. I'm looking at you Koji, Junichi and Edward. All three feature very effective split finger fastballs that, even if they catch too much of the zone, often induce weak contact.
And much like Koji last year, Mujica was undervalued and picked up for what has turned out to be a great deal. He had one poor stretch in which the Cardinals decided to replace him at closer and his market was completely altered. The Red Sox, seeing that he fit their system incredibly well, jumped at him and now his contract looks like a steal.
Value. In places others don't see it or have it. It's what the Red Sox are all about these days and it's a wonderful thing to behold.