Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Red Sox Fans, Meet the New Left Side of Your Infield

Not really.

Last year, Red Sox third basemen (primarily Will Middlebrooks, but also Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt) batted .211 with a .271 on base percentage and .308 slugging percentage. Those are all pretty bad! That ranked them 14th in the 15-team American League with a .580 OPS. That's pretty bad, as they weren't particularly close to the Royals, 13th with .658. Red Sox shortstops (primarily Bogaerts and Stephen Drew) batted .250 with a .316 on base percentage and and .369 slugging percentage. That ranked them seventh in the league in OPS. (Red Sox fans will probably be surprised the team's shortstops ranked in the upper half offensively. Keep in mind that shortstops collectively had the lowest OPS in the league, and that Bogaerts hit far better at short (.266/.333/.391 slash line) than at third (.182/.217/.300)).

So by signing free agents Pablo Sandoval, who was the Giants' third baseman last year, and Hanley Ramirez, who played shortstop for the Dodgers, Boston could be seen as upgrading both positions. But they're not; Sandoval will indeed become the team's third baseman, but Ramirez is slated to play left field, where he will join a very crowded Boston outfield that includes Yoenis Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Jackie Bradley, Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, and Holt. Obviously, some of those players will be traded (the leading candidate is Cespedes, acquired at last year's trade deadline from Oakland; the 29-year old has one year remaining on his contract at a reasonable $10.5 million). The shortstop job will apparently be Bogaerts's. 

But what of Sandoval and Ramirez? What can Red Sox fans expect?

Both are coming from two of the toughest parks in baseball for hitters, going to one that is good, though not for the reasons usually cited. Let me explain that. Per the 2015 Bill James Handbook, over the past three seasons, Dodger Stadium, where Ramirez played the past two years, suppressed runs by 12%, doubles by 5%, and triples by 57%. (When I say "suppressed" I mean that there were 12% fewer runs scored in Dodger games at Dodger Stadium than at Dodger games on the road). It was actually an OK place for home runs, boosting homers for right-handed batters like Ramirez by 7%, but it suppressed other hits enough that right-handed batting average took a 7% hit.

Sandoval's a switch hitter, but the Giants' AT&T Park hurt everybody. It suppressed runs by 16%, doubles by 4%, and homers by 34%. With its large outfield, it increased triples (not exactly Sandoval's specialty) by 36%, but overall it suppressed left-handed hitters' batting average by 1% and righties by 7%. It reduced homers from both sides of the plate by about a third. Overall, Dodger Stadium was the the fifth-toughest National League park in which to score a run, and AT&T Park was the second-toughest. 

By contrast, from 2012-2014, the Red Sox's Fenway Park increased scoring by 8%, the second highest boost in the American League. Contrary to its reputation, it's not an easy place in which to hit a home run. In fact, it's been the toughest American League park for left-handed hitters, decreasing long balls by 28%. For righties, it increased home runs by 3%. Overall, though, it boosted batting average by 6%, doubles by 36%, and triples by 13%. Its small foul areas reduced foul outs by 27%, the most in the league.

So Sandoval and Ramirez are moving to friendlier ballparks for hitters. The thing is, neither of them have suffered much from playing in pitchers' parks their entire careers--Ramirez in Miami and Los Angeles, Sandoval in San Francisco. Here are Ramirez's home/road splits:
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/26/2014.

And here are Sandoval's:
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/26/2014.

Each player was more effective at home than on the road. That's normal in general, but not so much when a player's home park is tough on hitters. As a team, the Dodgers had an OPS 41 points higher in away games, while the Giants' team OPS was five points lower at AT&T than on the road. So for whatever reason, Ramirez and Sandoval were less affected by their home park than their teammates. Both are likely to get a benefit from Fenway, though not as much as some may expect, given that their penalty for their prior home parks was less than usual.

Neither should be hurt much by Fenway's homer-suppressing properties, though. Ramirez bats right, and Fenway's favorable for right-handed sluggers. As a switch hitter, Sandoval mostly bats left, but his career home run percentage from the left side--3.4% of plate appearances--isn't high. Among 54 left-handed and switch-hitting batters with 500 or more games played since 2008 (Sandoval's rookie season), Sandoval ranks last in home run rate. So he's not a home run-dependent guy, at least in the regular season.

That brings up two odd splits of Sandoval's. First, his record in the regular season and the postseason:
Regular season 869 3533 3215 398 946 192 19 106 462 11 12 259 464 .294 .346 .465 .811
Postseason 39 167 154 21 5313 0 6 20 0 0 10 22 .344 .389 .545 .935
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/26/2014.

If the only time you saw Sandoval play was during the postseason, you'd think he's an elite slugger. He's not. He's a very good hitter, but not the Hercules that he's become in October. And the Red Sox are smart enough to not read too much into his performance over 39 games.

Next, his performance against right- and left-handed pitching:

Like most switch-hitters, Sandoval fares better when batting left. You heard a lot during the postseason that he was pretty useless against left-handed pitching. As the table shows, that was certainly true in 2014. But that's not the norm for him. Expect him to be better against left-handers in 2015.

A few other tidbits about Sandoval and Ramirez:

  • Ramirez has acquired a reputation for being injury-prone. That's been true over the past two years, during which he's missed 110 Dodger games, but it wasn't the case up until then. From 2006 to 2012, he played at least 151 five times and 142 once. The only season he missed substantial time was 2011, when he had shoulder surgery. During thpse seven seasons, the only shortstop to play more games than Ramirez's 1,007 was Derek Jeter with 1,060. So for most of his career, he's been durable. Now that he's on the wrong side of 30, though--he turns 31 next month--staying in the lineup may be a challenge, made easier by the move to the outfield.
  • The Red Sox are pretty disciplined at the plate, swinging at only 28% of pitches outside the strike zone (third lowest in the majors) and making contact on 80% of swings (tenth highest). Sandoval's 84% contact rate was 51st among 146 batting title qualifiers this year, and Ramirez was 72nd at 82%. So they'll both fit in by that measure. But Ramirez chased 29% of pitches outside the strike zone (76th highest), while Sandoval, a notorious free swinger, was first at 45%. What's doubly remarkable is that despite leading the majors at swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, he made contact on 80% of such swings (the major league average was 63%), seventh highest in the majors. He swings at, and hits, just about everything. His free-swinging ways make him possibly the most entertaining batter to watch. (The link, to an article by Baseball Prospectus's Sam Miller, never fails to make me laugh.)
  • A lot has been written about Sandoval's physique. He is, put bluntly, fat. It hasn't affected his hitting, and he's a surprisingly good third baseman, with quick reactions and a strong arm, but there's plenty of reason to worry that he'll age quickly. However, he does have the option of moving to DH if his fielding deteriorates, on the theory that 39-year-old David Ortiz won't last forever. 
  • Ramirez is the rare player to return to a team that traded him away. He was 21, with two major league at-bats under his belt, when he was traded by the Red Sox following the 2005 season with three other prospects (one of whom, pitcher Anibal Sanchez, panned out) to the Marlins for starter Josh Beckett, third baseman Mike Lowell, and reliever Guillermo Mota, who in turn was flipped for, among others, outfielder Coco Crisp. Beckett, Lowell, and Crisp all played key roles for the 2007 World Champion Red Sox, so that swap worked. 
Overall, these signings improve the Red Sox, though it's incumbent on them to sign some free agent starting pitchers and/or trade some of their surplus outfielders for starters. Red Sox starting pitchers had a 4.36 ERA last year, third-worst in the league, and it was 4.68 excluding Jon Lester, who was traded for Cespedes at the trade deadline. Ramirez and Sandoval have their talents, but they don't pitch.

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