October 4, 2009

Theo: We Ignore RBI In The Front Office

Last Wednesday, Theo Epstein was a guest on WBCN, talking with Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti. You can hear the entire show here. What I have transcribed below is at the very end of his appearance.

In the show, Epstein was very honest about how fans and media view the game and its players and how the Red Sox front office looks at them. We are beyond lucky to have a group of people running this team who truly understand the game and refuse to be swayed by any of the insane media circus that surrounds them. (I smoothed out some sentences and bolded some good stuff. I also typed out more than I needed to, probably. But why delete it now?)
Theo: Sometimes you guys get stuck evaluating players through home runs and RBIs. It's not the way most clubs do it these days. You look at the underlying performance of a lot of our guys, they bring more to the table than just the counting stats. J.D. is right up around a .900 OPS and playing really good defense in right field. ... He seems to be brought up only on certain stations when he's in a slump and it's time to pick on him.

WBCN: Obviously his OPS is always pretty high and yet when you look at his career performance based on runs scored and RBI -- and again recognizing those are traditional statistics -- it looks like it doesn't always lead to run production.

Theo: That's not true. In RBI, yes. Based on his skill set, he's always going to have underwhelming RBI totals. I couldn't care less. When you're putting together a winning team, that honestly doesn't matter. When you have a player that takes a ton of walks, who doesn't put the ball in play at an above average rate, he's not going to drive in a lot of runs. Runs scored, you couldn't be more wrong. If you look at a rate basis, J.D. scores a ton of runs, and the reason he scores a ton of runs is because he does the single most important thing you can do as in baseball, as an offensive player -- and that's not make outs. ...

Look at his runs scored on a rate basis with the Red Sox or throughout his career -- it's outstanding. And you guys can talk about RBI if you want. We ignore them in the front office. ... If you want to talk about RBI at all, talk about them as a percentage of opportunity, but it simply is not a way that we use to evaluate offensive players.

WBCN: Are you sick of defending J.D. Drew? You've been defending this guy before you even brought him here. Are you getting tired?

Theo: I'm not tired of it. I think it's an interesting case study in the way fans and media perceive certain players. Someone did a study where they asked fans to apply -- and I'm going to butcher this because I didn't read it carefully enough -- they asked fans and media to describe a certain player at two points during the season, once when he was hot and once when he was cold. They did it with different personality types. And the player that was not very emotional, just played the game, didn't have outward signs of passion, during those times when he was in a slump, he was described as aloof, uncaring, a dog. And during those times when he was really successful, he was seen as having ice in his veins and a cool customer.

Then you take the other kind of player, the player who wears his emotions on his sleeve at all times, throws his helmet, that type of thing. When he was performing really well, he was described as a passionate player, a dirt dog, exactly the type of fiery makeup you want, a team leader. And when that type of player was slumping, he was too emotional, he snaps, he can't control himself.

There's a tendency to pigeon-hole players or label them based on things we think we know about them, by the way they act. In J.D.'s case, you combine that with the fact that the things he does extraordinarily well, that actually really help teams win, are subtle. Home runs and RBI, just to keep it on the most basic terms, are really obvious to people. Everyone wants to say this guy is 30 and 100. The fact that J.D. is going to have close to a .400 on base percentage, close to a .500 slugging percentage -- no one talks about that, that's more subtle. So you combine his personality type with the tendency to label someone and extrapolate what he must be like as a person or a player based on the way he handles his emotions on the field, combine that with the fact that his game is subtle, and no matter what he does, he's not going to be a well-liked player. I find that fascinating.

And it doesn't matter one iota with respect to executing our business plan, which is to put ourselves in a position to win around 95 games as often as we can. Yet with respect to the narrative that surrounds the team [with the media and fans], it's meaningful, but it doesn't matter. From our perspective, being paid to get the team in the playoffs every year, it's meaningless.

Am I annoyed to have to defend him? No. But I like justice. So when players are picked on unfairly, when they are doing well, it shouldn't be ignored.

WBCN: Well, since you've gone here. What about pulling himself out of the lineup? What about that case, I think it was in Tampa [It was in Texas, August 14], and Terry talked about it after the game, where he's used his lineup card, he's got Clay Buchholz running around second base, it was that game, and J.D. at the end of the game is like "Ehhh, I got a little something, Tito, I need to come out." And Tito says "Look at my lineup, you can't get out." Now that's something that recurs with J.D. Drew.

Theo: That's happened two or three times with other players since then. I'll tell you this: when it comes to the player who guts through injuries and plays 155 games a year or the player who might want to take himself out of the lineup one day before he really aggravates an injury and ends up on the 60-day DL ...

One of the things we actually tell our players in the minor leagues is you need to be more honest with us about when you're hurting ... With the way we built this team, I would rather have a right fielder who plays at a very high level who plays in 130 games rather than someone who plays hurt, plays at a lesser level, and ends up playing 155. Because you know what? We have Rocco Baldelli ready to go out there. And look where we are when you combine those two and stack them up against the right field production of any other team. ...

Now I have respect for the guy who guts it out all the time, but sometimes they can cross the line and be fool-hardy. Everyone's personality is different, everyone has different thresholds, but look at the guy's performance on a rate basis and look at his performance when he complements it with who his backup is, who was specifically brought here to be able to play when he doesn't play, and look where we are and I think you'll see a correlation.
Among American League right fielders, Drew is #1 in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage. (Before today's game, he was .002 behind Shin-Soo Choo in OBP (.394 to .392), but Choo had the day off and Drew went 2-for-3. Likewise, he was .002 behind Nelson Cruz in SLG (.524 to .522), but got eight bases in 3 PA.)

I also looked at what percentage of baserunners he drives in. Among AL RF with at least 400 PA, he's right in the middle of the pack (13.9%). He is behind Bobby Abreu (19.7%), Nick Markakis, Jermaine Dye, Alex Rios, and Choo, but ahead of Cruz, Ryan Sweeney, Nick Swisher, Michael Cuddyer, Magglio Ordonez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Willie Bloomquist (9.9%). ... He is also middle of the pack on the Red Sox.

I like what SoSHer CaptainLaddie says: "It's reached the point where I can judge someone's knowledge of baseball based on how they view JD Drew."

(That quote is from a lengthy discussion of Drew. It starts off slow, but it may be worth your time.)


fc said...

Thanks for this transcription. And thanks, Theo - some of us do get it about JD. He's a terrific player, as solid as they come. And I will never understand why being reserved and staying calm under pressure is judged to be a bad thing by so many.

laura k said...

Thanks for this - excellent stuff, and you're right, we are so lucky.

I agree completely with fc.

Despite what some people will tell you, NYY fans and much NYY media were the same way about Bernie Williams, because he was supposedly passionless, cold, bland, etc.

What a stupid thing to judge a player by - his apparent personality. It goes to how superficial the sports media and so many of its acolytes are.

But this interview is great, I'll try to listen to it tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Amazing work - this will be in the daily links post tomorrow on Over the Monster.

Patrick said...

I love to listen to Theo. I have so many more questions for him. I wish he could have a not rushed, long interview about the state of the nation.

Bloggers and sports analysts can be excellent, but there's nothing better than hearing it from the source.

allan said...

And that Texas game in which Tito told Drew he had to play? He hit a dong in his next AB.

FenFan said...

Nice work per usual, redsock. The more I read blogs like yours, the more I start to have a better appreciation for statistics beyond the simple measuring sticks (wins, ERA, HR, RBI) used by a large percentage of the baseball media. The truth is that each player has strengths for which Theo and the Sox draft, sign, or trade for him, and they go far beyond those numbers.

The problem is that people today (read: the media... again) more often get wrapped around one number: a player's salary. The mindset is that if a player is making $14 million per season, he should be hitting 35 home runs and plating 120 runs each season while batting well over .300. Oh, and being a "dirt dog" counts, too, i.e., wearing your emotions on your sleeve.

allan said...

Joe Posnanski on Theo:

"I would just love to know that my GM really and truly believes that one thing — that it's really, really, really important for a baseball player to not make outs.

That seems so simple to me, so utterly basic, so law of gravity. But I know that there are GMs in the league — more than you would ever believe — and lots of other people in and around baseball who do not believe this. It isn't exactly that they are opposed to players who get on base. They certainly want guys to get on base. No, it is that they believe that OBP — the ability to not make outs — falls behind other more mystical talents such as the ability drive in runners in clutch situations or be a leader in the clubhouse or play the game the right way or whatever. ...

I suspect that it would be a whole lot of fun to be a Boston Red Sox fan."


Pokerwolf said...

The one thing that kept repeating in my mind while I was reading this transcription was:

"They're talking about Drew, but this applies to Manny in spades."

Thanks for the great find, Redsock!

A Conformer said...

This has most likely been pointed out before, but I just noticed this little line in one of the FJM short-lived comeback posts:

Don't be that douche who said "If George Bush is elected I'm moving to Canada!" and then didn't move to Canada.


Rob said...

In other news, 15% of JoS readers so far are trolls!

Rob said...

I should say, JoS voters. :)

Geoff said...

"...look at his performance when he compliments it with who his backup is..."


laura k said...

"...look at his performance when he compliments it with who his backup is..."


Oy. Bad form.

Patrick said...

I like how Theo is the one who brings up Drew. It seems like he went on the air wanting to speak up for Drew, and when the DJ asked the final question and it wasn't about Drew, Theo put it on the table.

Shelley said...

Great post. I heart JD Drew. I am a card carrying member of the Drew Crew. No doubt. I think he's well worth his contract with the clutch hitting and fantastic defense.

Drew Crew for Life!!!