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Epstein on D&C: Defense needed improvement

02.25.10 at 8:39 am ET
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Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein joined the Dennis & Callahan show (Click here to listen to the interview) to talk all things Sox, continuing the debate regarding what statistics really do matter.

It didn’€™t appear to be a terrible defense, but have you or do you see things differently than that?

We were subpar defensively last year any way you look at it. If you want to watch the team from a scouting standpoint, we had definite holes defensively that affected our pitching staff, especially on the left side of the infield with health, with Mike Lowell coming back off the surgery not able to have his normal stellar defensive performance. We had clear problems at shortstop all last year. A few too many balls were falling in the outfield as well. By the numbers, we were the third-worst defensive team in baseball last year.

What would those numbers be, because fielding percentage you were third best?

Fielding percentage isn’€™t a really good indicator now.

Is that one of those primitive stats now?

No, no. Take whatever stat we use and pick holes in it. You can’€™t rely on one stat, but the most simple measure is taking balls that are in play and turning them into outs. That’€™s what your pitchers want. He gets the ball in play and he wants a defense behind him that turns those balls into outs, and we were the third-worst team in baseball in doing that. I think it actually didn’€™t show up, at times we had great situational pitching. When we had guys on base and guys in scoring position we actually pitched really well last year. That’€™s the type of thing that you can’€™t really count on year after year. If we brought back the same group, we felt that it was going to be a major problem this year. We are not obsessed with pitching and defense, far from it. I think we scored more runs than any team in baseball since I’€™ve been the GM. We are probably more offensive-oriented than anything, but what we think that wins is balance. You look back last year and we were the third-best offense in baseball last year, we were the third-best pitching staff and we were third-worst defense. So, if there is a quick way to fix the team and get us back to balance and elite performance in all areas it was the defense. It’€™s not an easy thing to fix. You can’€™t let one guy go and bring one guy in, then you’€™ve just upgraded one position. With the way things turned out, it wasn’€™t our only goal going in, but we were happy it worked out this way, we were able to turn over four or five different positions and make us a better defensive club. We don’€™t think we’€™ve taken that much away from our offense.

You’re also talking about fixing a club that won 95 games.

A lot went wrong last year and we were able to win 95 games. When you talk about fixing, what we really mean is maintaining this elite level of performance. Our goal, and we try to be pretty precise with it, is to try and win 95 games every single year in the toughest division in baseball. It puts us in a position to go out and win a World Series. We’€™ve done that six out of seven years now.

Looking back at what we’€™ve done, I don’€™t think we’€™ve played the same way of playing was available to us this year. Meaning, I don’€™t think we could have brought back the same group. You guys know, you talked about it at the end of last year, we were getting older in some areas. We had some players that were maybe toward the end of their careers, and I think if we were to bring back largely the same group on paper we might have looked OK, people feel better about things this time of year, but I don’€™t think it would have turned out well this year.

Looking forward we have one of the best farm systems in baseball. I’€™ll be honest with you, because of the switch we made from college to high school kids in the draft we are probably a year-and-a-half away from really realizing that, so when I talked about the bridge ‘€” which I regret saying because it gave you guys so much to talk about ‘€” what I really meant was: How are we going to get from that team that’€™s done all of these things six out of the last seven years to that next team and do it without anyone noticing? Do it at a really high level so we can keep winning 95 games. When I talk about fixing in order to keep playing at this level, I thought we needed a better defense, we needed to add some better pitching.

If there were good offensive players maybe you would have gone that way, but you got these defensive guys on short-term deals.

I agree with that. I also think it’€™s a product of taking an honest look of where we are. If I were to have done my job perfectly over the last eight years, we wouldn’€™t have had any holes coming into this winter. We would have had young players coming up through the farm system ready to take over. We would have had players in their primes who are plus offensive players, plus defensive players and we wouldn’€™t have had these holes.

I’€™ll be honest, there have been years when we had that situation because we executed at a high level the two or three offseasons previously. Coming off the 2007 team there wasn’€™t a lot we had to do. With all the players coming off contracts, one led to another, there were players ready to take over and we didn’€™t need Johan Santana, so we resisted the temptation to trade Jon Lester or others for him. It’€™s not always going to be that way.

As we take an honest look at where we are, the little misses that are natural in baseball, and I’€™m not above that obviously we’€™ve had our misses, those add up and it can put you in a position where you have to do some things to go out and maintain a level of performance. If we just let things happen and inertia took over and we just brought back the same team or took a really convenient path or went out and signed the highest-paid position player on the market, I don’€™t think it was going to solve the problems we had. The players available did fit because they addressed our run prevention, and they were available on shorter contracts, so when the prospects are ready they won’€™t be blocked.

If Bay had accepted the offer, there wouldn’€™t be this thought of shifting to defense.

Last year and during the season we made a legitimate attempt to sign him and it ended up not working out.

What went wrong with Bay during the offseason? Did you insist on a surgery that he didn’€™t need?

I think with Bay, because of the process we went through midseason when we essentially agreed on a deal but a deal did not come to fruition, by the time the offseason came around we knew in our minds there was probably less than a 10 percent chance we were going to end up signing him. We looked at Matt Holliday and because of his place in the market and how long that process would be and because of the circumstances there was going to be less than 10 percent chance as well. So we had to look at everything else out there and formulate a plan that would work for us. As it turned out it actually did match some of our needs.

You’€™re not counting on Adrian Beltre or any other guy in a contract year to have that breakout year?

I wouldn’€™t count on that. I think certain players do. I think I was asked is there proof that players tend to play better in contract years and if you look back at it there is not. All that means is people are different. You would respond different than I would or Meter would or Gerry would. Adrian, from all indications, is, he is so professional he’€™s going to be ready to play, and he’€™s so competitive he’€™s going to be ready regardless of the circumstance. He had a huge contract year before in LA, and he showed up in great shape so we are looking forward to a great year from him.

With new reports of Mike Lowell not going anywhere, does that bode well for the upcoming season?

Absolutely. The seismic shift is really in the reporting of the issue. Since the Texas deal blew up I haven’€™t expected a trade and we planned internally on him being a part of this club. That’€™s why we haven’€™t brought in anyone else in to back us up at the corner infielder. What better player could you ask for to protect you at third base, at first base and designated hitter than Mike Lowell to serve as a right handed bat off the bench. Injuries happen. It takes more than eight position players to get through the year and to have a guy like Mike Lowell to step in would be huge for us.

What if Lowell doesn’€™t buy into that?

I think that’€™s already proven to be a non-issue. We’€™ve had a half-hour phone conversation the other day. He came in yesterday, Tito and I had another half-hour conversation with him and [Dustin Pedroia]. We all agree that this is not an ideal baseball situation for Mike Lowell but it is what’€™s best for the Boston Red Sox. He’€™s just too professional to become a major distraction.

Would you feel unfulfilled if you let Mike Lowell go for a bag of baseballs and David Ortiz can’€™t perform or someone gets hurt?

Sure, and that’€™s why the Texas deal was made when it was, at a point in the offseason where we could take that $3 million we could have potentially saved and do a lot with that in the market place. There were some pretty good hitters who can protect us who signed for less than $3 million. At this point, I don’€™t expect a trade. Obviously we will listen with interest if anyone calls with a legitimate offer on any of our players, but I think that part of building depth and redundancy to withstand the attrition of a long season and this year he’€™s a big part of that.

What if he is healthy and shows he can play first?

No, we were going to work him out at first base this spring because it improves his ability to help the Red Sox and impact our team. For him to protect us at all three positions is important: third base, first base and DH.

Did you know right away that Mike Cameron was your center fielder and Ellsbury was going to left?

It was a long process in pursuing him and weighing him against other alternatives and that was certainly a front-burner issue. Had Cameron come right out and said, “I have to play center field for the duration of the contract no matter what,” and made it clear it was more about him than the team, we probably would have got scared off and gone in another direction. He said he would play anywhere. He prefers to play center but he’€™s willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. Jacoby ended up having the same attitude. This is the way we line up best now and we knew that the day that we signed Mike, and even Mike said that if some point during his tenure here if it’€™s best for the team if Jacoby moves to center and Mike to move to a corner, then that’€™s what he is willing to do if we ask him.

Did Ellsbury have problems in center last year?

I think that he is an above-average center fielder now, who is going to be a great center fielder. I know there is a certain number we don’€™t use that is accessible to people online that had him as one of the worst defensive center fielders in baseball last year. I don’€™t think it’€™s worth anything. I don’€™t think that number is legitimate. We do our own stuff and it showed that he is above average.

Are there things he still needs to work on in center field? Absolutely. Reading the ball off the bat and breaking in on certain balls, that’€™s something he is going to get better at over the years. He’€™s already improved going back on balls and playing balls that are close to the wall. He’€™s going to make those improvements. The only downside I saw to the Cameron deal was delaying temporarily Jacoby’€™s development, but taking the big-picture approach, I think he’€™s going to end up and be a really good one and already is.

Is the biggest difference between Cameron and Ellsbury the throwing arm?

I think experience more than anything else. Sixteen years of playing center field, his instincts are incredible. Mike actually tracks fly balls differently than a lot of fielders. Right off the bat he has a great feel for where the ball is going to end up and will turn his back to the baseball and run to the spot. Just those instincts and getting to where he needs to be is something Jacoby is already good at but he’€™s going to get better at with experience.

Could Daniel Bard be your closer on Opening Day?

I think we could certainly throw him out there and have someone with the stuff to get the job done in the ninth inning and have somebody who will learn a lot along the way and ultimately be a good closer, but I think we have other candidates in the bullpen to do the exact same thing. If we took [Hideki] Okajima and threw him in the closer’s role I’€™d have no doubt that he would do a fantastic job. I think Ramon Ramirez, you put him in the ninth inning he is going to do a fine job as well. If you have the stuff and you have the balls and you want the job you will adapt to being a good closer.

But some people believe that about Bard now.

It’€™s a good situation to be in for the organization. To have a young guy come up who this time last year not a lot of guys have heard of and already he’€™s established himself. His challenge right now is to do it for a whole major league season. Hitters have seen him. They know what to expect. They are not going to be overwhelmed by the velocity, so he’€™s got to be able to develop that third pitch. He’€™s got to settle on that breaking ball that he’€™s comfortable with and he’€™s got to locate it a little bit better. They are going to make adjustments to him and he’€™s got to do it back.

Does the John Lackey deal set the bar for Josh Beckett contract?

In a way, they are relevant to one another. If you look statistically they are each other closest comps over the course of their career. Of course it’€™s somewhat relevant. To me in no way does signing John Lackey represent an impediment to keeping Josh here. I think all it means is that if we are able to keep Josh he’€™s a chance to be part of a better pitching staff than if we had not done the deal.

You never wanted him anyway though, we all know that.

That’€™s why I gave him a four-year extension.

It must be nice to have those three guys at the top of the rotation.

It’€™s a nice sight the other day seeing those guys healthy and throwing bullpens and knowing what they bring to the table in terms of stuff, competitiveness, command, ability to win big games. I actually feel good about the pitching staff as a whole. I’€™m really excited to see what Clay Buchholz can do this year. I thought last year was an outstanding developmental season for him. What he did in Triple A, came up to the big league, proved he belonged, went out and threw a really good playoff game, so I’€™m excited to see what he can do. [Daisuke] Matsuzaka and [Tim] Wakefield obviously when they are at their best they can impact a pitching staff as well.

Who’€™s going to provide out of Wakefield, Buchholz and Matsuzaka?

I think the way to look at it is last year we had almost a third of our starts went to a group, the [Brad] Penny, [John] Smoltz, Matsuzaka and a few others, a third of our starts went to a group that were not productive. They had an ERA over 6.00. If we can take those starts and have a majority of them go to the Buchholz’€™, a healthy Matsuzaka, a healthy Wakefield we should be in really good shape.

According to Bill James, Adrian Beltre is going to have 17 home runs, 68 RBIs. Is that a satisfactory season?

That probably wouldn’€™t be, but you are probably reading from the Bill James Handbook, which he doesn’€™t have anything to do with. They just slap his name on it.

Really?

Those projections are not his actual projections. He likes to read them to see what they are when they come out. We actually have ‘€” Bill is involved and [we] have others on staff who do more detailed projections that mean something but don’€™t mean everything to us. You’€™ll notice of that book with the pitchers’ projections because there is so much attrition in pitching virtually every pitcher you won’€™t find a pitcher projected for more than 15 wins or 170 innings because it’€™s the safe thing to do with projections.

He doesn’€™t have anyone in your lineup with 30 home runs or 100 RBIs?

He probably didn’€™t last year, either, when we were the third-best offense in baseball. That’€™s just the way those projections go, you just regress everyone towards the mean. We actually have nine guys on our club who hit 25 or more home runs in season before, not that it’€™s relevant going forward, but it is more than any club in baseball.

What stat have you told us that is primitive before, was it RBIs?

I don’€™t think RBIs is primitive. I think is extraordinarily relevant to what we need to do which is to predict future performance.

If we want to evaluate a team or a player the way you do, what is the best way?

It depends how you like viewing the game of baseball.

We like good players, we don’€™t like bad ones.

All right, there are ways you can break down a player’€™s performance, his statistics, what he does, and come up with a value on how much he adds offensively vs. an average player or a player who is readily available. You can break that down and say he’€™s worth this many runs per season. A great player would be worth, say, 40 runs more than an average player. It’€™s about 10 run equals a win, so you say that player vs. a guy that we can call up from Triple A is going to win four more games. Significantly you could do the same thing with his base running and with his defense.

Is this VORP?

They are all part of the same family. We have our own proprietary stuff that we use, but it’€™s all part of the same family. It’€™s just a matter of how well you adjust for context and how accurate that is. You can do the same thing for defense and base running. Defense you can have the same type of swing. You could have a two or three win player defensively who is worth three wins more than an average defender. I think the important thing to do when you are looking at how valuable a player is. You say you like good players and don’€™t like bad players, the good players are the ones who contribute a lot of runs above what an average player or replacement could do offensively and defensively and run the bases OK. When you look at the total package some of that is subtle. You don’€™t come away from the ball park every day saying, ‘€œYou know what we really won that game because the center fielder got a good break on that ball in the gap and caught it without leaving his feet.’€ But you come away saying, ‘€œHey this guy hit a game-winning three run homer in the ninth inning.’€ But those two plays might be just as significant to whether you win the game or not. It’€™s a well rounded player who does everything well that we are looking for.

Do you think J.D. Drew is better than Bay?

I think they are actually pretty similar. They contribute in a similar way, it depends exactly how you access Jason Bay‘€™s defense, but they are pretty similar. Don’€™t forget, if we let a player go, it doesn’€™t mean we condemn the player. You are talking to the guy who traded a Hall of Famer for Jason Bay. When everyone said you can’€™t replace Manny Ramirez and Jason Bay came in here and during the time he was here gave us better production than Manny Ramirez did over the same period. I love Jason Bay as a player, but we have to place bets. We have to place bets on players’ futures and how they fit into the organization and how they help us win. I’€™d made that trade again for Jason Bay in a second, but in the end another team was willing to bet more and longer on Jason Bay’€™s future than we were. Would I welcome him as part of a winning team again here? Absolutely.

Do you play fantasy baseball?

No. I play fantasy football.

If you did you would have an unfair advantage.

I think it would be unfair for most people in baseball front offices to play because they have more knowledge about young players coming up then average people and more knowledge on how a player projects going forward. What his tools are, what his makeup is and also they can put performance in context better. So, yeah, I think it would be unfair. I will say about my fantasy football abilities, both years the Red Sox won the World Series my fantasy football team, the Stinky Pinkies, also won the championship. I was insufferable those years. All I did was win championships in those years.

How many teams turned fewer double plays than the Red Sox last year?

We were not good at turning double plays. I’€™ll say two.

None. Is that significant?

That speaks to our problem on the left side of the infield last year. It also speaks to the fact that we happened to have a fly ball pitching staff, and to how badly we were at controlling the running game. It’€™s easier to turn a double play with a runner on first than try to turn one with a runner on second. It’€™s easier to turn one with a ground ball pitcher, it’€™s harder with a fly ball pitcher. But our infield defense was really bad. You don’€™t go to a game and come away saying, ‘€œWe lost that game because of the left side of the infield didn’€™t get to a couple of balls.’€ We might not make an error but not get to a couple of balls and that turns the game. You might say, ‘€œThe pitcher was brutal. He gave up three hits in a row in the fifth inning it ended up costing us the game.’€ The subtlety of the game is defense. It’€™s hard, even for a scout, to evaluate defense with the naked eye in the short look. You have to see a player play every day. You have to be looking for it. You have to see how he breaks with a ball off the bat. You have to see what his range is and a big part of this game on why you win or lose is turning those balls in play into outs and turning double plays, which was something we weren’€™t good at last year.

We knew Julio Lugo stunk and Lowell was hurt. But we never thought Bay was less than average or Ellsbury was less than good.

What you will see this year, contrast with Carl Crawford’€™s left field defense for example, with what we’€™ve typically see in left field. We’€™ve had bat-first left fielders. If you don’€™t see a left fielder making an egregious mistake, that doesn’€™t mean he’€™s doing a great job. Look at how hard it is to hit doubles when we play Tampa Bay. We’€™ll hit balls that would doubles that turn into outs, that’€™s a huge swing. If that happens once a game, once a series, you take a ball that would be a two-base hit and zero outs recorded and turn it to zero on base and an out recorded, that is a monumental swing. If you add that up over the course of a season and add that into a player’€™s offensive value, it changes the whole nature of what the player contributes. Again, those players who contribute offensively and turn those balls into outs that others wouldn’€™t defensively that makes a really valuable player.

What are the one or two questions that you are sick of answering?

The panic in the streets about our offense, it keeps me up at night, too. I know just how impactful it can be to have a lineup full of elite hitters. We had it in 2003. We couldn’€™t play defense, we couldn’€™t pitch and still won 95 games. If that were available this year and combine it with better run prevention, absolutely we’€™d go that way. We might have to make a move in-season. We actually project on paper to score exactly the same amount of runs that we did last year. I know it might not happen, and if it doesn’€™t, and we are not winning enough baseball games, then going out and getting a bat whether it’€™s a Victor Martinez or a Jason Bay is easier to do at the trade deadline than find an elite pitcher. That’€™s the question that is a little exaggerated for concern, but at the same time, it’€™s legitimate.

Is the shortstop question something you are sick of?

A little bit, yeah. But at the same time, we haven’€™t been very good in our decision-making in that area. I haven’€™t been very good. I understand it. It speaks to a certain standard that you are not going to have every position on the field sort of a natural progression from veteran to a prospect who takes over the position on a great contract. There’€™s a 25-man roster, you are not going to have every position covered for. It would be nice now and then if those types of questions were put into context of what has been accomplished over the last years. Prior to this group taking over, we won 95 games once since the ’70s. Now it’€™s happened six out of seven years, so putting thing in context is important but we deserve those questions about shortstop. It hasn’€™t been very good.

How is holding baserunners going to be different this year?

For a couple of reason, Vic has a whole spring to work with Gary Tuck, who is the best catching instructor in baseball. Jason Varitek is going to be a lot healthier than he was last year, especially that he will get a lot more rest than he got last year and it will allow him to stay fresh for the year. Most significantly, there is a renewed emphasis on it here. It was embarrassing last year and we did not do a good job in that area, it cost us. It was one of Tito’€™s main points of emphasis this spring. Watch us in that area, we should be better. We have failed if we are not better in that area then we were last year.

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