For an off-season that started out painfully sluggish, Boston has cranked up the heat on a frostbitten hot stove in the last couple weeks.
In the span of a few days, The Boston Red Sox filled three major holes by inking Mike Napoli (pending a successful physical), Ryan Dempster and Shane Victorino to multi-year deals.
The Napoli signing surprised few. Boston has not had such a gaping whole at first base since Tony Clark and Brian Daubach were struggling to collectively stay above the Mendoza line back in 2002. With that void filled, the Red Sox turned around and snatched up Shane Victorino to fill their hole in right field in what has been among the biggest surprise free agent signings thus far.
When the winter meetings began, anyone with half an ear tuned into the baseball world expected Cody Ross to ink a long-term deal with Boston to man right field. Instead, the Sox opted to pick up a speedy switch hitter in Victorino to complete the outfield for $14 million more than what Ross was demanding.
So, why did they do it?
Well remember back in September, when Larry Luchinno and Ben Cherington were scrambling to explain what had gone so horribly wrong in 2012? They started by firing pitching coach, Bob McClure, then kicked Bobby Valentine out of Beantown and finally admitted that Boston needed “more than cosmetic changes” to contend again (Ben Cherington after mega-deal with LA).
So where am I going with this?
Well, one of the biggest, but most overlooked, changes Cherington has made was returning Bill James to a position of significant power in the front office. The sabermetrics guru, and current Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations, had apparently fallen by the wayside near the end of Theo Epstein’s tenure in Boston. But now he’s back, and influencing the decision making process.
How does this relate to Cody Ross and the Boston’s baffling pact with Shane Victorino? Well, one of the most widely used and trusted statistics developed by Bill James is Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a measure of a player’s value compared to a replacement level, bench player. Fangraphs posted the chart above for reference.
The chart should give you a general idea of a player’s value, as reflected in their WAR. Now all they need to do is build a new chart with another level called “Trout” with a 10+ WAR next to it.
Anyway, I digress. Last year, Cody Ross had one of his most effective seasons since joining the big leagues, besting his career averages across the board and even tying a few career highs. However, Ross only managed to post a measly 2.4 WAR, which puts him on the low end of being a “solid starter.”
On the other hand, Shane Victorino’s 2012 season was, hands down, the worst of his career. His defense and speed were still excellent, but he didn’t hit for average or much power. Despite that, he still posted a 3.3 WAR, outplaying Ross and putting him in the “good player” range.
What’s more is that Victorino is just one season removed from posting a superstar-level 5.9 WAR in 2011 with the Phillies. He may never return to those levels, but Victorino has routinely posted WARs in the high threes and fours in his time with the Phillies. Ross has only reached past three once in his career, back in 2008 when he posted a 3.7 WAR with the Marlins. He hasn’t come close to that level of production since.
WAR is not a perfect statistic, but basically, according to Sabermetrics, Ross’ best seasons are comparable to Victorino’s worst seasons, and Bill James knows it.
Yes we paid $14 million extra for Victorino that could have gone to a free agent pitcher or towards Bobby Valentine’s unemployment benefits. But I’d wager that it’s money well spent, because for $14 million extra over three years, we landed a player who’s career WAR is exactly double that of Cody Ross over an equal nine-year time period.
So in truth, Victorino should cost us, upwards of $50 million, double what we would have paid for Ross. Instead, he’s costing us $39 million. Ross is a great player and a fan favorite, but Bill James recognized that Victorino provided at least twice as much value at a premium position for a discounted price.