After all of the turmoil this team went through in 2011, it was pretty clear that the coming offseason would bring some serious changes, and moves would be plentiful. Some of them caught major headlines, like the Mike Napoli saga and the addition to Ryan Dempster to the broken pitching staff. Others flew a bit under the radar, such as the signings of Koji Uehara and David Ross. One move in particular that was probably the most criticized and analyzed out of everything from that crazy winter was the signing of Shane Victorino to a three-year $39 million contract. There were plenty who saw the value that the Red Sox saw from the outfielder, but more apparent was people's disdain towards the signing.
The reasons for the criticism were mostly consistent for all of the fans against the contract. For one thing, Victorino was coming off the worst season of his career offensively, hitting just ..255/.321/.383 (94 wRC+), compared to his career .275/.341/.430 line coming into this season. Considering that 2012 was his age-31 season, the reason for the worry amongst the fan base was obvious. Many saw Victorino as a player in decline.
What the critics didn't bring up so willingly was that he had the best season of his career just one year earlier. In 2011 with Philadelphia, the right fielder hit .279/.355/.491 (133 wRC+), with a career-best .212 isolated power. Of course it'd be unfair to weigh two years prior more heavily than the most recent season, but to totally discount it was just as unfair. And all of this has gone without mention of Victorino's glove, which has never left.
Now, we're 78 games into the 2013 season, and the controversial free agent is starting to change some opinions. Taking a look at his offensive stats, nothing jumps off the page as being much better than a season ago, but he has made a world of difference for this team this year. Victorino is currently batting .285/.342/.380 (96 wRC+), with that line containing the power void he found himself in the start of the year when he had a paltry .027 ISO in April. Since then, though, he's had a .146 ISO, with an OPS 102 points higher than it was after his first 19 games.
One reason his batting line is worse than it may seem is his career-low 7.1 percent walk-rate. Though that could indicate deteriorating plate approach, this doesn't seem to be the case. For one thing, Victorino is still maintaining his typical low strikeout-rate, sitting at 11.7 percent this season. Beyond that, he is swinging at just 28 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone. This is consistent with the rest of his career, excluding last season when that rate jumped up to 33 percent. When Jacoby Ellsbury began to heat up in May, Victorino began coming to the plate with a man on base more often, meaning the pitcher was more likely to be pounding the zone. This was exacerbated by having Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz behind him in the lineup. Because of these factors, he is seeing more first-pitch strikes, and more pitches in the zone, than he has in any of the last three seasons. To his credit, he is doing what he can with these pitches, with his 4.8 percent whiff-rate being the second-lowest of his career.
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Watching Victorino play on an everyday basis, though, it's clear that his offense is far from his most important asset. He's been able to show off his tremendous fielding ability this season like he never has before, now that he's roaming Fenway's massive right field. Between him and Jacoby Ellsbury, we've been able to see some incredible range covering a tough and large outfield with relative ease. In addition to his range and glove, Victorino boasts one of the best arms in the games, which has done wonders in holding baserunners back from taking the extra base. We've even seen him try to through out some slower runners at first base, though that hasn't paid off yet. Add this all together he's been the best defensive outfielder in the game this season according to Fangraphs' UZR stat. This stat, and other similar defensive stats, should be taken with a grain of salt in samples this small, but that he's ranked so highly shows that he's at least been well above-average with the glove.
The only thing that has held Victorino back this season has been health. While he's yet to be held out for an extended period of time, he's had a few short absences. This continued when he was pulled from yesterday's game with more back tightness. As of this writing, no further word has been released regarding the injury, but it doesn't seem like something that is overly serious.
Even with the missed time, both fWAR and bWAR have the outfielder being worth a shade over two wins at this point in the season. This is pretty remarkable, as this is typically considered to be an average player over a full season, and we're not even at the All-Star break yet. His defensive numbers are likely to come back down to Earth a bit, but his value this season can't be denied.
When he's been on the field, Victorino has put worries of his contract to rest. In today's free agent market, the type of deal he was signed to is given to an average player who isn't meant to be a star, but instead to fulfill a role on the team. Right now, Victorino is doing that by excelling on the field and the base paths, while being average at the plate. Next season, he'll be able play center field after Jacoby Ellsbury's (presumed) departure in the offseason, if Jackie Bradley can't fulfill that role right away. If not, Victorino's showing no reason to worry about his immediate future. The 32-year-old had many critics upon his arrival in Boston, but approaching the half-way mark of 2013 season, he is beginning to put those worries to rest.
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