Since I issued the challenge yesterday, that I would try to hold baseball commentators to the James manifesto standard, I wanted to mention a couple of media people in that light. On the plus side, on Tuesday, Francesa and Russo of WFAN were talking baseball with Tom Verducci, who was in Red Sox camp at Fort Myers. The BIG story is, of course, Dice-K, who apparently has 150 Japanese reporters covering his fielding drills. The conversation eventually came out around to Manny, his erratic ways, his potential unhappiness at again not being traded, etc. Francesa essentially said, who cares: he's the second best hitter in baseball over the last decade (to Bonds), he hits 35-40 homers a year, drives in 130 runs and last year, before he essentially quit, he was hitting .320, with 35 homers and a .430 on base percentage. Five years ago, Francesa wasn't talking about OBP and it's not simply a matter of throwing a stat out there for the sake of doing so. Manny has two great talents that help his teams win games: his tremendous home-run power and his exceptional command of the strike zone. His very high on base percentage perfectly captures that central skill in a way that no other statistic, not batting average, or RBIs or whatever, could. This is now routine for Francesa, and what followed was an edifying conversation between Mike and Verducci about how well Manny stays back on the ball and how late he is able to react and still swing with balance and generate power which, among other things, means that curveballs rarely fool him.
Russo is less far along on this curve, but Francesa's invocation of Manny's OBP yesterday took me back to the late 1990s. In 1997, John Olerud came to the Mets to play first base, and Rico Brogna, who had been with the Mets ended up at first for the Phillies. Russo used to argue on the air that he'd rather have Brogna at first because he was more like a typical first baseman, a 30 homer, 110-RBI guy, whereas Olerud was more a gap hitter. Just to be clear about this: John Olerud was, at that time, roughly a 1,000% better than Brogna in every way. In the three year period in question, Olerud actually had more RBI 291-287, and hit one fewer homerun, so even given the premise, Russo was wrong about the differences. But, more to the point: the premise was moronic. Brogna's OBP's in those three years were .293, .319, and .336. Olerud's: .400, .447, .427. Using the OPS+ measure, which takes a player's on base percentage and slugging and scales it relative to the league that season, (so that 100 is always average), Brogna's three year figures were: 88, 97 and 96. In other words, at his best, Brogna was merely slightly below average as opposed to sucky. Olerud's: 136, 163 and 131. In other words, great, when not utterly awesome. In fact, that 163 figure, for 1998, means that the sum of Olerud's key offensive contributions was slightly better than Sosa's in 1998, when Sosa hit five hundred homeruns (OK, 66).
This not just a matter of statistical illiteracy - it's simply not knowing the game. The Mets had a truly great player. They cleared room for him by letting go of a below average one. And Russo's arguing, on the basis of an idiotic image he has of what a first baseman "should" be, that he'd rather have Brogna.
That was meant as kudos to Francesa, not to trash Russo...
In today's Boston Globe, Dan Shaughnessy has a column about J.D. Drew. It's complementary, suggesting that, despite the degree to which Drew has been absolutely viflifed in Boston before having played a game, maybe he's not such a bad guy after all. Shaughnessy concludes his column thusly:
He played in more than 140 games in two of the last three seasons. He's been an MVP candidate. He showed up in great shape. He's an upgrade over Trot. He hasn't said or done anything dumb since the Sox signed him. Sure, he's overpaid, even by today's ridiculous standards.
But why not give the guy a chance?
I happen to like Drew, too, as a ballplayer and, as a Yankee fan, I find the prospect of facing a middle of the order of Papi-Manny-Drew, extremely unpleasant. Lineup protection is, generally, one of the great myths in baseball, and should take its rightful place alongside the Yeti or the Loch Ness monster. But, it was glaringly obvious during Boston Massacre, Part II, last August, that the Yankees were not afraid of anyone in Boston's lineup after Manny, which is why he spent the entire series on base. Manny doesn't need anybody to protect him. But, the Sox do need another potent bat in the lineup, and Drew is that bat.
The legitimate concern about him is whether he can stay healthy. But, what's missing from discussion about him is just how good he is when he is healthy. Shaughnessy only mentioned his stats once in the colum: a recital of Drew's 2006 triple crown stats, 20 homers, 100 RBIs and .283 batting average which has the sound of a decent outfielder. But, this neglects Drew's real skill - command of the strike zone, which both means he gets on base a lot and punishes the ball when he's pitched to. The Epstein regime has been in place for four years now, and it's just very surprising that a columnist who covers the Red Sox as closely as Shaughnessy does, would not note Drew's best stat, given the emphasis on that stat by Red Sox management. If that stat were something esoteric, like a high sac fly total, that would be one thing. But, when it's the single best (non-composite) measure of a player's offensive contribution to his team that we have, omitting it is just misinforming readers. Last year, Drew's OBP was .393. Drew's been over .400 three times in seasons in which he's played 100 or more games, so he's clearly capable of better than .393, especially given the differences between hitting in Fenway and hitting in Dodgers Stadium. But, that .393 mark is also his career OBP, and it's a big reason why his career OPS is 133. In other words, his ability to get on base is a mainstay of an offensive game that has been fully 33% better than the league average during the course of Drew's career.
What Shaughnessy's doing here is a bit like describing how good a cheeseburger is by talking about the bun that it comes in.
Unless Shaughnessy has grounds for arguing that Drew's triple stats tell us more about his contribution to his team than do his on base (or slugging) percentage - and I assure you, he doesn't - he gets the first failing grade of the season.
The rest of the article is good, though.