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On Discipline And The Mega-Trade

This guy is the not only the poster boy for the Championship level Red Sox, but a big OBP contributor. That isn't an accident. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
This guy is the not only the poster boy for the Championship level Red Sox, but a big OBP contributor. That isn't an accident. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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I'm traveling back east with my two three-year-olds and somewhere over eastern Montana they got into a video. That freed me up to listen to something I've wanted to hear for over a week now. That would be Ben Cherington's post-trade interview on WEEI. Listening to it while watching my kids repeatedly spill apple juice on each other, I was struck by a statement Cherington made. Here's what Cherington said at just after the nine minute mark in response to a question about what discipline means to him and how it will help build the next great Red Sox team (I can't find an exact transcript, so I transcribed this myself).

"It applies to the entire team outlook. Not just the decisions we make but how we play. Our best teams have been disciplined teams. We've grinded at-bats, we've made pitchers work, we've thrown strikes, we've played good fundamental baseball. [...] The more disciplined players you have, [the more] you tend to play disciplined baseball."

He went on to talk about assembling the team, but the talk of discipline perked up my ears. I wasn't the only one. Cherington used the word frequently in his post-trade press conference and a number of media outlets picked up on it. Most assumed he meant discipline in assembling the team, which they took to mean not spending lots of money on free agents. Because as we now know, spending money on free agents is always bad. (I suspect, because Cherington is a smart sort, to him the meaning is more nuanced. Like doing things in a smart, sustainable way.)

But if you look at the quote above, that wasn't all that Cherington said. He also talked about playing winning baseball and the discipline involved in doing that. When he said discipline, he was talking about plate patience, about the need for players who know the strike zone, who can make pitchers work, and can get on base. And what's oddest about that is that this Red Sox team doesn't do any of those things.

If you've followed the team since Theo Epstein took over after the 2002 season, you may have noticed one of the founding principles of the Epstein era was a focus on on-base percentage. Millar, Mueller, Ortiz, Bellhorn, Varitek, Damon, Manny, those guys weren't all the most patient, but all of them could take a walk if it was handed to them. Most could work for one. There's a reason Mark Bellhorn played second base for the Red Sox in 2004 and it wasn't because of his fielding. Dude could (and did) get on base.

The Red Sox have gotten away from that philosophy a bit recently. Here (I hope -- I'm having some trouble with the SB Nation dashboard and Excel is failing me (or I'm failing it) again) is a table of the Red Sox walks per plate appearance from 2002 through this season.

Year Walks per Plate Appearance
2007 0.107
2006 0.104
2009 0.104
2005 0.102
2004 0.101
2008 0.101
2003 0.095
2010 0.092
2011 0.090
2002 0.086
2012 0.071

I could also have done Walks per Game but this is slightly more exact. In any case, both stats tell the same story, as for that matter, do straight walks. All have been dropping since the Red Sox last championship run. You'll notice when the team's walks per plate appearance are 0.1 or greater they're a pretty competitive team, but below that less so. I'll say it again: this isn't an indicator of quality for a whole baseball team. There's much more that goes into a winning baseball team than just walking a lot (pitching for example), but this drop is worth noticing.

A quick note about context: overall offense is down since its 2006 peak and down especially strongly since 2009, so that plays a role in these numbers which aren't league adjusted. For some league context, the Red Sox are 25th in baseball in walks this year. They're behind the Astros, Reds, Giants, and on and on. They're behind basically all of baseball. It's not that you can't win when you don't draw walks --- the Red Sox are just ahead of the White Sox and Pirates --- but it's harder to do. I should also note that the Red Sox were second in walks last season, fourth in walks in 2010, fifth in 2010, and third in 2009, so they have been having success walking compared to the rest of the league in recent seasons.

But this season the Red Sox aren't walking. Many of the guys who the team used to depend on to walk weren't here during the season. Kevin Youkilis played a part of the season in Boston then was traded and replaced by Will Middlebrooks, a guy who has been all that could have been hoped for but who has walked 13 times in 286 plate appearances. Jacoby Ellsbury, never a huge walker but a guy who will take one every once in a while, missed two thirds of the season. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has started at catcher more often than not. He brings skills to the table, but walking isn't one of them. David Ortiz leads the Red Sox in walks with 56, and other than one game he hasn't played since mid-July. He's 20 walks ahead of Dustin Pedroia's 36, which is second.

So the Red Sox walk less than they used to when Theo took over the club and less this season in a league-wide context. But here was the disconcerting part. It was probably not going to get any better and in fact could have gotten worse.

Carl Crawford has never been known for his on-base ability either, and with his injury issues the team has been forced to play Triple-A guys in left field. (Oddly this has helped the team's OBP as Daniel Nava is fourth on the team in walks this season.) Adrian Gonzalez was a big walk-taker in San Diego but his walk numbers have been slipping since his 119 walk season in 2009 with the Padres. At the time of the trade, Gonzalez had taken 31 walks this season.

Before the trade, the offense was to to be built around Gonzalez and Crawford. With Ortiz getting older and the likelihood of next year's lineup including Will Middlebrooks, Mike Aviles or Jose Iglesias, Saltalamacchia, Crawford, and a less walky Gonzalez, the Red Sox are all of a sudden not a patient team. In fact, they're a particularly impatient team. As I said above, that can be a hard way to win.

Now the trade has happened, and Gonzalez and Crawford are in L.A. There are many reasons the trade happened, but one lesser discussed reason might just be the team's increasing need to add on-base percentage, to add to its list of patient hitters. To add discipline to the lineup. Crawford and Gonzalez weren't going to hurt the Red Sox offense overall (probably) but they did tie up the team's finances something fierce.

The Red Sox didn't solve their on-base issues by trading Gonzalez and Crawford, but the deal opened up an avenue to doing so. Now the team has both the financial wherewithal and roster room to reshape the club by focusing on adding disciplined players. If Ben Cherington and the front office do this right you should see the team's overall plate discipline start to go back up. It'll take some discipline to do it, but as Cherington noted, that's what winning baseball requires.