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Keith Law on D&H: The 2010 Sox, the farm system, and ‘useless’ statistics

02.17.10 at 9:52 pm ET
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ESPN’s Keith Law touched base with the Dale & Holley show on Wednesday afternoon to offer analysis on a diverse array of topics. Law examined the state of the Red Sox‘ farm system, headed by top prospects Casey Kelly and Ryan Westmoreland, and concluded that no team is better positioned to make a run at Padres superstar Adrian Gonzalez in the trade market this year.

“I think there are very few clubs who could match the Red Sox. If the Red Sox were willing to open the cupboard and say you can have anybody, or you can have anybody except for Kelly, the Red Sox could probably match just about anybody, and the thing that helps them is the farm system that I ranked ahead of Boston, Texas, they have no need for Adrian Gonzalez,” Law said. “I really think that Boston could top anybody if Adrian Gonzalez becomes available, and he will. San Diego’€™s not going anywhere.”

Law also offered his take on the Sox’ offseason emphasis on pitching and defense, which he regarded as having yielded an upgrade over the 2009 team.

The conversation also broached the subject of useful statistical measures — foremost, whether traditional stats such as RBIs have any value. On that topic, Law pulled no punches.

“Totally useless,” Law said of RBIs. “In terms of measuring the value of a player’€™s performance, I find them absolutely useless because 1) it’€™s determined by how many opportunities you get ‘€” the guys who hit in front of you in the lineup, how often did they get on base; and 2) there’€™s no particular skill to driving runs in. There’€™s no such thing as a hitter who is significantly better in RBI opportunities.”

A transcript of the interview follows. To listen to the complete interview, click here.

You had the Red Sox ranked No. 2 among minor league systems. What are your impressions of their farm system?

It’€™s a very deep organization. … Texas has depth, but they have guys who will make an impact in 2010. I thought that pushed them ahead of Boston and Tampa Bay, who are [ranked] 2 [and] 3. I could have had them three, two. They’€™re very close to each other. But the gap between those two teams and Texas, I just think they’€™re head and shoulders above everyone else.

Are Westmoreland and Kelly the cream of the crop?

Those are the top two guys. I think they’€™re both legit. And I think with full seasons in 2010, we’€™ll get a lot more insight into whether or not these guys are as good as the scouting reports, because that’€™s really what we’€™re basing it on now. Kelly has not thrown a lot of innings in pro ball because they had him on a pretty tight innings limit and they were still working with his interest in playing shortstop. That experiment is over now, and I think it’€™s the right call. He was an interesting shortstop prospect but a long-term project at that. But he’€™s extremely advanced as a pitcher, particularly in terms of feel, command, the intangible side of pitching that’€™s usually the last thing to come. You find good high school arms with good stuff, big fastballs and knockout sliders, but not Kelly’€™s command and poise. And it’€™s a great delivery, too. I really think that he can pitch at or near the top of a big league rotation not too far down the road.

With Westmoreland, it’€™s the same thing. He just has not played a lot. He’€™s been hurt. He was actually hurt when they signed him with a shoulder injury that required surgery. He barely played in the field last year, gets down on the field for a week and then gets hurt making a big catch running into a wall and fractures his clavicle. So I think he’€™s got six or seven games in the field so far in pro ball in just a half-season’€™s worth of at-bats. We just need a little more data on these guys for the statistical side, but on the scouting side, both of these guys project as impact players.

Do you see Westmoreland as a big league center fielder?

If he can throw. This is the big question. Speed, range ‘€” yes, absolutely. And before shoulder surgery, he had a plus arm. I saw him throw at the Area Code Games, which is a showcase every year in California. He hit 90 out there. So he’€™s had plenty of arm, but I just don’€™t know where his arm is now. He barely threw last year. They were babying him back in left field because he was coming off of a fairly serious shoulder operation, but I just don’€™t know. If he can still throw, can he play center field? Absolutely. If he can’€™t, then he’€™s a left fielder, and he’€™s certainly got to hit more to be the same kind of impact player that I thought he’€™d be as a center fielder.

Run prevention is a phrase we’€™ve heard a lot in Boston of late.

Don’€™t say it to Dustin Pedroia.

It bothers him, but what did you think of the Sox’€™ offseason moves?

I get it. I like the strategy. I think it makes a lot of sense, not just from a baseball perspective. Obviously, you’€™ve heard that pitching and defense win championships. I’€™ve heard that since I was a little kid. There’€™s actually some research to back it up now, too, that those are things that tend to play up a little bit in the postseason. But also in the business of baseball. Run prevention is still probably not that well valued in the player market, whereas offense has become kind of overvalued. The Red Sox are kind of contributors to that, in that they went heavily after offense, basically after OBP and slugging, and those attributes became pretty fully valued or maybe overvalued in the player market. So I think it makes sense to try to be a little bit nimble and shift in another direction. Don’€™t overpay for Jason Bay when you know the player inside and out, when you know what his strengths and limitations are, when you think you can go out and deploy that money a little more successfully, get more bang for your buck, basically, going in the direction of run prevention, both in terms of pitching and then especially on defense. I think defense is still just not that well understood or well valued by front offices across the game.

Theo Epstein said that J.D. Drew is worth more than $14 million a year. Do you agree with that assessment, and that average and RBIs, particularly RBIs, are overrated?

RBIs are useless. I couldn’€™t tell you how many RBIs really anyone had last year. It’€™s not a stat I’€™ve looked at since I stopped playing fantasy baseball eight years ago. And batting average is not useless, but it’€™s totally incomplete, and if you compare batting average to the two other back-of-the-baseball-card stats ‘€” on-base percentage and slugging ‘€” on-base percentage includes everything batting average includes, but it also considers the value of a walk, the value of getting hit by a pitch, the lost value of an out made on a sac fly. And slugging stops treating all hits as equal. In batting average, a single and a home run are treated as if they’€™re exactly equal. Well, they’€™re not. Slugging percentage is not perfect, at least it addresses the fact that different hits have different values to a club. I think ultimately, if you’€™re in a front office, a GM or an assistant GM, a stat analyst, whatever, that’€™s your concern, trying to figure out how much value is this player going to contribute to my club going forward. The way to do that is to look at the things that the player actually did himself ‘€“ they’€™re not dependent on context like RBIs, they don’€™t ignore a bunch of important events like batting average does ‘€“ and then it essentially adds that up. What was this worth ‘€“ the 200 hits that this guy had, it breaks down which were doubles, which were triples, which were home runs; all the outs this guy made in total ‘€“ how much value is this guy going to contribute to my club? Then you’€™re trying to decide how much to pay him or how much to give up for him in a trade.

Do you really think that RBIs are useless, rather than just overvalued?

Totally useless. In terms of measuring the value of a player’€™s performance, I find them absolutely useless because 1) it’€™s determined by how many opportunities you get ‘€” the guys who hit in front of you in the lineup, how often did they get on base; and 2) there’€™s no particular skill to driving runs in. There’€™s no such thing as a hitter who is significantly better in RBI opportunities. Guys might do that over a year or two over the course of their careers, but you are not seeing guys who are just substantially better than the norm with runners in scoring position. Obviously all hitters hit a little bit better with men on base and pitchers working out of the stretch, maybe he doesn’€™t generate the same velocity. But in general, a hitter’€™s a hitter, whether there’€™s nobody on base or there are guys on second and third.

Some guys take advantage of those opportunities that are there for them, and some don’€™t. Some guys have a knack for driving people in.

I disagree with that. I do not think that’€™s true, that there are guys out there who take extra advantage of those opportunities. Over the course of the season, yes, absolutely, there will be players who will be significantly better than the norm in knocking in runs or performing in clutch situations, which has been a sabermetric debate for 20 years, whether there is such a thing as a ‘€œclutch hitter.’€ There’€™s clutch hitting, obviously, but is there an individual animal who you could call a clutch hitter? I fall on the side that says no, there’€™s not really a guy who’€™s better in the clutch. There’€™s not really a guy out there who’€™s better in RBI situations. If you’€™re in an RBI situation, if you’€™re in a clutch situation, the guy you want at the plate is just your best hitter, period ‘€“ the guy who’€™s going to produce the most offensively or give you the least chance of making an out, because obviously in a clutch situation, in an RBI situation, the last thing you want is an out. So get me the guy up there who’€™s the least likely to make an out or who’€™s most likely to get that extra-base hit, regardless of what the situation is, because I think if you really look deep down into it, over the course of multiple seasons, you won’€™t find that those guys who you’€™re talking about who step up in big situations really exist.

Do you think the Red Sox will score this year?

It’€™s going to be a different club than it was the last couple years, in that, I think that Red Sox fans ‘€” and I go to a lot of games each year, living locally ‘€” they’€™re long games. I’€™m actually a little bit hopeful that they might be kind of shorter this year. That’€™s not a bad thing when you go to as many as I do. I think they’€™re not going to put as many guys on base as they have in past years, they’€™re almost certainly not going to hit for the same kind of power ‘€” especially not in the middle of the lineup as they have the past couple of years. It might have been you guys yesterday who said they’€™re going to score 50 fewer runs but they’€™ll prevent 100 fewer runs. I think you got it exactly right. Their runs allowed total is going to drop by a lot more than the runs scored total is going to drop. But the runs scored total is going to drop. I think you’€™d be really hard-pressed to argue that they’€™re going to score more runs, because they’€™re not going to put as many guys on base, and they’€™re not going to hit with the same amount of power, especially not in the middle of the lineup, which is where guys typically come up more often with men on base.

Are home runs a useful stat?

Is it useful? Look, absolutely. It’€™s a guaranteed run, it knocks in whoever’€™s on base in front of you, it’€™s a non-out event. Any time a hitter doesn’€™t make an out, it’€™s a good thing, just by definition. The problem, and this gets a little bit off the track as a statistical argument, is how much is a home run really worth relative to a double, relative to a single? A home run is not worth four times as much as a single, and that’€™s how we count it in slugging percentage, and I think that it’€™s good in the sense that it’€™s easy, and you want to be able to explain to an eight and 10-year-old kid the difference in value, you can explain to a kid like that how slugging percentage works, and it’€™ll make some sense to him. For a statistical analyst working in a front office, it’€™s not quite true. It’€™s the home run is worth maybe two, two and a half times as much as a single is worth. But the idea as a GM of focusing on a guy who hits home runs, or from a scouting perspective, which is a lot of what I’€™ll do over the next couple of months doing draft coverage, going out and seeing guys, we’€™re projecting power. And when we’€™re talking power, we’€™re much more talking about home run power down the road than doubles power. If I see a 17-year-old kid ‘€” I’€™m going to see Bryce Harper, the catcher in Las Vegas, he’€™s got off-the-charts power. I’€™m not saying I think he’€™s going to hit 50 doubles. I’€™m saying I think he’€™s going to hit 35 home runs, because ultimately that’€™s the most valuable thing that any hitter can do in a plate appearance. And finding guys like that, especially finding them when they’€™re 17, 18 years old and I can project down the road and say he’€™s going to have 30 home run power, that’€™s what everyone wants. All the scouts who I’€™ll see over the next couple of months, that’€™s what they’€™re all trying to do ‘€” they’€™re all trying to find that guy.

Do you think isolated power is an accurate measure of what a guy will give you?

Yeah, actually I really like that stat, because it separates out ‘€” at the layman’€™s level, because again, I look at all the advanced stats because that’€™s my job, but I don’€™t expect the average reader to get all wrapped up in FIP and Wins Above Replacement. You don’€™t necessarily have to do any of that stuff to understand and enjoy the game as a casual fan. But isolated power is one of the very easy-to-understand stats that tries to separate, it tries to give you a proxy for trying to separate two skills: the ability to make a lot of contact and the ability to do something when you make that contact, the ability to generate extra bases which increases the probability of your team scoring more runs. So, as a quick, back-of-the-envelope measure of power, yeah, it’€™s absolutely a stat that I use.

Do you think that the new metrics in baseball are a tough sell to the person who grew up thinking that the sacrifice bunt is an essential part of baseball?

They scare people. They really do. They scare people in the industry. I’€™ve noticed that with a lot of other writers. I take criticism, I took criticism for the Cy Young vote back in November, because people I think were ultimately scared by stats that they didn’€™t understand. I come from a different perspective. I recognize that, too. I worked in a front office. I was evaluating players with that sort of different eye, because we were trying to project forward and figure out what stats were most valuable to help us value a player going forward, to figure out what we should pay him in free agency or what we should give up to trade for the guy. But I do think ultimately you see a lot of guys who are scared, who are threatened who, ‘€˜I have understood baseball this way for 50 years, you can’€™t tell me I’€™m wrong ‘€” I don’€™t want to hear that I’€™m wrong, that everything I thought about baseball was wrong or misleading, that I had a bad understanding of this game.’€™ People don’€™t like to hear that, that some essential belief that they’€™ve held for decades is, if not totally wrong, then just a little bit askew. That’€™s sort of the price that I pay for giving it straight, is that a lot of people don’€™t want to hear what I have to say because it challenges these fundamental assumptions that they’€™ve always had about the game.

Just to refresh our memories, who did you leave off of the NL Cy Young ballot?

Carpenter. Chris Carpenter. At the time, it was a three-person ballot, and as far as I was concerned, there were five candidates, and Chris Carpenter was fourth, which meant I left him off my ballot. As it turned out, of the 32 ballots, 30 had Carpenter on them. So the fact that Will Carroll and I both left Carpenter off the ballot contributed ‘€” didn’€™t guarantee but contributed ‘€” to Tim Lincecum, who I thought deserved to win the award anyway, won the Cy Young Award. And it created a controversy, I think, in large part because Will and I are non-traditional journalists. When I wrote, when they published on ESPN that day, my explanation of, hey, here’€™s how I figured out my ballot, I relied heavily on some of those advanced statistics. And again, that just set some people off. ‘€˜I don’€™t want to hear about fielding independent pitching, I just want to look at wins and losses when talking about starting pitchers.’€™ There are people who want to engage in the debate, and those are the people who I love interacting with, and there are some who just don’€™t want to hear it. They judged pitchers by their won-loss records for 30 years, and that’€™s just how they’€™re going to do it going forward.

Didn’€™t Carpenter, held up to the light of advanced stats, didn’€™t he turn out as well as anyone else?

To me, he was third or fourth. To me, Lincecum was head and shoulders above everybody. That was a no-brainer to me. And then, you could put Vazquez, Wainwright, Carpenter and maybe Dan Haren, you could have put them in any order and I wouldn’€™t have argued. I haven’€™t criticized anybody for putting Carpenter on their ballot over Vazquez. I thought those four guys were all fairly close. But Carpenter did get a little bit of a boost from, whether you call it luck, or from the defense, probably a little bit of both. Vazquez, on the other hand, was probably hurt a little bit by some of those same factors. And I gave Vazquez a boost also for pitching in a tougher division. I go out and see all these clubs every year, at least the contending clubs. The NL East is a much better division offensively than the N.L. Central was, and I think that skews the stats. What Vazquez did, coming out roughly equal or slightly ahead of Carpenter in a tougher division, was worth putting him higher on the ballot.

You rank the Yankees farm system 25th. What happened to it?

They neglected it for a while, and I know that was a big debate between Cashman and the people above him in the organization about how much time and how much resources they should be devoting to building up the farm system. I think he’€™s kind of won that battle now, where they’€™ve started to shift the focus back towards the draft, back towards signing guys in the international market. But when you neglect it for that long, give up draft picks, sign free agents, trade away your better prospects for middling big-league guys, it’€™s going to take a pretty serious toll on your system that will take several years to recover from, even if you drop $8 million in the draft every year, which is on the high end for a team’€™s budget of signing guys. It takes several years to really restock a system. Look at how long it took Theo [Epstein] and his group to restock the Red Sox system. Now they’€™re consistently on top, but that’€™s because they’€™ve been there for seven years, and they’€™ve been very consistent about plowing money into it, adding scouts, they’€™re much more involved in the international front. It’€™s going to take the Yankees a couple of years to get all of their operations back up to where they’€™re at least above the middle of the pack. If you’€™re the Yankees, there’€™s really no excuse for you to be near the bottom unless you just made a philosophical decision to ignore it.

If the Padres make Adrian Gonzalez available, does the Sox’€™ player development depth allow them to make a deal?

I think there are very few clubs who could match the Red Sox. If the Red Sox were willing to open the cupboard and say you can have anybody, or you can have anybody except for Kelly, the Red Sox could probably match just about anybody, and the thing that helps them is the farm system that I ranked ahead of Boston, Texas, they have no need for Adrian Gonzalez. They have Justin Smoak, who I think is one of the best first base prospects in the game, basically ready to step in. He can’€™t play in the big leagues right now, but he’€™ll be ready at the All-Star break. Texas, who of course had Adrian Gonzalez six or so years ago, they’€™re not going to be in that market, so I really think that Boston could top anybody if Adrian Gonzalez becomes available, and he will. San Diego’€™s not going anywhere, so I think that Jed Hoyer at some point is going to have to say that the best way to accelerate this rebuilding year is to trade Heath Bell and to trade Adrian Gonzalez.

Read More: adrian gonzalez, casey kelly, ryan westmoreland,
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