The price of positional flexibility

There is no one thing you can point to as the catalyst of the Red Sox’s failed 2012 season. The problem was philosophical. It was a lack of chemistry among the players, of respect for their manager. It was a lack of leadership, a lack of production. For every problem that may have contributed to the sinking ship, the Red Sox have attempted to find a new course, but so much of the same things were done a year ago in the wake of that original collapse.

On paper, the team seemed poised for success. Boston found the worst possible time to sink into a slump in 2011, and that made the team seem so much worse than the final standings showed them to be. Andrew Bailey, Cody Ross, and Ryan Sweeney were not splashy acquisitions, but it truly appeared the Red Sox were not far away. Before the 2012 season, ZiPS liked them for second in the AL East with a better than six in 10 chance of reaching the playoffs. They finished last, 24 games out of the Wild Card.

Tampa Bay fell short of the playoffs, as well, but the 21-game discrepancy between the Rays and the Red Sox did not seem to fully capture the differences between their cultures. While the Boston players and manager traded insults through the media, the Rays played dress up on their road trips. Neither team made it to October, but for Tampa, that seems wholly temporary. It was misfortune, not dysfunction.

On the field, the problems the Rays and Red Sox had in 2012 were remarkably similar. In 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury had one the best seasons any center fielder ever had, leading baseball with 9.1 WAR, but Evan Longoria had an excellent year himself with 6.1 WAR. Each player was hurt in 2012 and held to 74 games played.

Their top 2011 stars were just the start, as the Red Sox and Rays at times lost Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Carl Crawford, Ross, Kevin Youkilis and later Will Middlebrooks, B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Luke Scott, Jeff Keppinger, and Sean Rodriguez. And that’s just the hitters. Both teams were near the top of the list of most days lost to the DL for their hitters in 2012. Where it buried the Red Sox, it only inconvenienced the Rays, and I do not believe culture is the entire explanation.

Jacoby Ellsbury produced 1.5 WAR in a little less than half a season in 2012. In the same time, Evan Longoria produced 2.4 WAR. Those totals are reasonable estimates of the wins their teams lost in their time without them, but that does not account for the context of their actual team compositions. The Red Sox pieced together their center field without Ellsbury with the likes of Marlon Byrd, Scott Podsednik, and Ryan Kalish. Those three players combined for -1.3 WAR for the season. The Red Sox continued to throw new center fielders at the problem, but none of them stuck.

In contrast, the Rays did not scour the minors or the waiver wire for a replacement. They employed a bit of creativity. Keppinger split time at second base with Ben Zobrist in 2011, but he had played a bit of third base in stops with the Astros, Reds, and Royals, and Zobrist could man second. The Rays could not have predicted that Keppinger would have his best offensive season since 2007, but they did have a roster full of players that could play multiple positions and so were built to take advantage when he did.

The trade market was thin at third base, but Tampa did not need a third baseman. The Rays needed a third baseman or a shortstop or a second baseman or a right fielder, and so they did not have to overpay or overextend themselves. They traded a non-prospect for Ryan Roberts in the end, but he was one of many options the Rays had, which was many more than the Red Sox had in center field.

Catchers are usually mentioned as the great shortcoming of WAR. We have just begun the attempt to measure all of the little things a catcher can do to make his teammates better. I believe Zobrist deserves the same consideration.

From 2009 to 2012, Zobrist has the third-most WAR of all position players, but I am not sure those 25.1 Wins Above Replacement describe his full contributions. Zobrist allows the Rays to play the platoon advantage and to overcome injuries to players at multiple positions. The Red Sox had depth in 2012, but they did not have the right depth to address their specific problems. With Zobrist, Keppinger, and their other players with positional flexibility, the Rays were prepared for all kinds of problems.

The Red Sox have signed Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino to matching three-year, $39-million contracts. On the surface, those contracts do not make a lot of sense. Napoli has played catcher and DH in his career, two of the more crowded positions on the Red Sox’s roster. Now he will try first base. Victorino may have lost his peak bat, and with Ellsbury in center, his potential value is diminished in right field. Many have speculated that Victorino and Napoli portend imminent trades of Ellsbury and either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway. I wonder.

The Red Sox wanted a culture change. If the new manager and the lack of long-term contracts are evidence of their new course, I would speculate that Victorino and Napoli are evidence, as well. Neither player is a likely All-Star, but each is versatile. Might these signings allow Boston the position flexibility it will need to cover for potential injuries? If 2012 was an indication, such flexibility would serve the team well.

The Red Sox have a checkered history with their plans for success, but success in baseball has always been more about how you deal with failure. Last season, the Red Sox relied on Ellsbury and Ortiz, and when they lost them, all was lost. This season, they will hope to have them, but now they may not require them to find success.

References & Resources
All statistics are from FanGraphs.

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Detroit Michael
9 years ago

Ben Zobrist should have been an AL MVP candidate for three of the last four seasons.  He’s the most underrated player in baseball, in my opinion.

Fangraphs authors keep saying that positional flexibility is reflected in WAR, but I agree with this article that it isn’t.  The benefits of having Zobrist, a SS / 2B / RF, on the roster can’t be seen from just Zobrist’s statistical line but instead come from roster construction advantages elsewhere on the 25-man roster.

Paul E
9 years ago

MotorCity Mike & Scott:
    Even more difficult, how does one judge positonal flexibility from the perspective of a guy like Bobby Bonilla, Dick Allen, or Gary Sheffield? Obviously they share a reputation as welders in the field, however they did provide a great deal of flexibility for their managers at some point. How that could be quantified is another question….

9 years ago

How about Miggy moving from 3b to 1b.  That enabled the Tigers to replace the likes of Kelly and Inge with Fielder.  I think that makes up for the WAR difference with Trout.

9 years ago

Of course I meant from 1b to 3b.

Scott Spratt
9 years ago

I agree with part of what you said, David.  If Prince Fielder had gotten hurt last season, Cabrera would have allowed the Tigers to find a replacement at either 1B or 3B.  However, Napoli and Victorino will presumably play 1B and RF, respectively, but with injuries at C or CF, they could effectively move up the defensive spectrum.  Cabrera deserves a lot of credit for being an adequate defender at 3B in 2012, but WAR makes positional adjustments, and so the value gained by his move was accounted for, and many players would be fine if they moved down the spectrum to play 1B, not just Cabrera.

Detroit Michael
9 years ago

You could give Miguel Cabrera 0.5 – 0.75 extra wins above replacement for the positional flexibility, but it still wouldn’t have made him the real AL most valuable player last year over Trout. 

Paul E., I think we can assume that you can pretty much always shift a guy to easy-to-field positions.  Sheffield went from SS to 3B to RF to LF to 1B/DH, if I recall correctly.  Dick Allen from 3B to 1B.  Bonilla moved back to 3B but was a serious negative with the glove, so that might be a better example of what you’re saying.