May 1, 2010

Dave O'Brien Has A Thing For J.D. Drew

But it's not a good thing.

Many people are obsessed with J.D. Drew, for a variety of reasons, most of which have very little to do with playing baseball. Drew doesn't talk much, so you won't hear him bark at umpires or offer some post-game tidbit. He is not prone to Jobaesque fist pumps and you won't see him throw his helmet or curse the heavens after making a critical out. He gets paid a lot of money, but he doesn't drive in a lot of runs, and his batting average isn't all that high. Plus he's so fragile, the next strong breeze might knock him onto the disabled list*.

*: What? He's played in 22 of 23 games this year? And last year, he played in more games than Kevin Youkilis? Shush, you!

There is another bunch of people who like Drew because he is a damn good fielder and a smart baserunner. He stays calm and focused at all times, and gets on base better than just about anyone else on the team. A lot of those same people don't care what his direct deposit statements look like. Those people are boring, though, and hard to make fun of. So screw them.

Thankfully, of the two Drew camps, Red Sox radio man Dave O'Brien is in the former. It's impossible to say if O'Brien is actually as ignorant about baseball as he sometimes makes himself sound or if his dislike for all things Drew (he has also been riding the MUMS Train since at least 2003) is rotting his brain. On Friday night, his obsession was front and center.

First, here is O'Brien's call in the second inning, when Drew stepped in against David Hernandez with one out and no one on, and Boston down 2-0:
Here's J.D. Drew taking a strike to the outside corner. J.D. hitting .181 with two homers, but he could get well very quickly here in Baltimore. He loves hitting at Camden Yards. He swings, there's a high fly ball, left field, this is deep, backing up Scott, backing up, leaps at the wall -- he cannot get it! And that ball is outta here! A home run for J.D. Drew! To the opposite field, and the Red Sox are on the scoreboard, Baltimore on top 2-1. But J.D. touches them all for the third time, here in 2010. Put a great swing on that ball -- and just loves to swing the bat here.
In the fourth inning, Drew took the first four pitches for a 2-2 count:
Joe Castiglione: "So J.D. has yet to swing the bat in this plate appearance."

[The next pitch is low for ball 3.]

DOB: "I don't know if it's good or bad, but how many big leaguers see five pitches and never take the bat off their shoulder*? And he might see six and not take it off."

JC: "He's got the discipline to do it -- he takes ball four. [laughs] So he looked at all six. Works a walk, third walk by Hernandez."
*: This probably happens once a game. Last night, Martinez took 10 straight and Ortiz looked at six in a row. There was Drew, of course. Plus see below for a big surprise!

In the sixth, Drew was the first man to face reliever Will Ohman. Baltimore was up 3-2, but Boston had a man on first with one out. P.S.: At that point, Drew was the only Red Sox batter to have reached base in both of his PAs.
DOB, after Drew has taken two called strikes: "So --"

JC: "After the home run, he has not swung the bat."

DOB: "Has not swung the bat, that's exactly right. Took six pitches, took ball four, full count, took the walk his last time up, and now the first two pitches here in for strikes, he has not offered at them."

JC: "That's low [ball 1] -- so another pitch he hasn't swung at. ... Strike [3] called over the outside corner, and Drew knew it. It's amazing. So, four pitches in that at-bat, six pitches in the last, didn't swing the bat for 10 straight pitches."

DOB: "Well, as we said midway through the previous at-bat, when he took ball four, I don't know if it's good or bad, I don't know if that's a positive or a negative, that you don't swing the bat for 10 straight pitches."

JC: "After you'd just homered. Well, it shows he's not over-anxious."

DOB: (chuckles)
Drew batted in the eighth with one out and no one on. The game was tied 3-3.
DOB: "And now comes J.D. Drew, who since homering in the second inning, to get the Red Sox on the board, has walked and struck out looking, and he has taken 10 consecutive pitches. First one to him is -- a strike on the inside corner. What will make J.D. swing the bat?"

JC: "He had an RBI hit off this pitcher [Jim Johnson] Sunday."

DOB: "The 0-1 pitch, check swing, that's a strike on the inside corner. Drew did not like the call at all, he's a little steamed about it, as he takes a little walk outside the batters box. That's 12 straight pitches he's looked at. That is patience to the extreme. Here comes the 0-2. That's outside, for a ball. 1-2, one out, bases empty, we're locked up 3-3 in the eighth inning. Johnson delivers, check swing, that's low for a ball. That's 14 straight pitches he's looked at. I don't know, I may be alone, but I find that remarkable."

JC: "It is. It's amazing."

DOB: "2-2, swing and a high fly ball to center field, way, way back, Jones, to the track, to the wall, it's gone!! He hit it outta here!!! The Red Sox lead it 4-3! He took 14 consecutive pitches -- over his last three plate appearances -- and he smokes one to center field when he finally takes the bat off his shoulder. That's incredible. The Red Sox lead it 4-3."

JC: "Two swings, two home runs. Amazing! He knows what he's doing."

DOB: "I think -- in the end, that's exactly right. He knows what he's doing. His second home run tonight, and here's David Ortiz. He takes a pitch outside for a ball. Kinda glad we kept count."

JC: "It was a high fastball. Oh, he loves this park."
Drew was up again in the ninth. The game was tied 4-4, with one out and men on 1st/2nd.
DOB: "And J.D. Drew will get another rip."

JC: "He won't be over anxious."

DOB: "He's proven that tonight. J.D. with two homers, a walk, and a strikeout. [talks about other game stuff] First pitch, he's taking, and that's in for a called strike. The Red Sox have taken 10 walks in the game. And Drew again in a ball park he loves to swing the bat in, has the game on his bat, maybe. The pitch is outside for a ball. 1-1. ... It's in for a strike, he took something off that pitch, at 83. ... Drew waves the bat low, now brings it up, they lead away from first and second, the pitch -- way outside, 2-2. ... Here's the 2-2, waived at and missed, and J.D. Drew strikes out. 87 mph, in, but J.D. couldn't locate it. ... So two away."
O'Brien never came out and said: "What's wrong with this guy? Why won't he ever swing? This is no good. He's got to be hacking." That's not his style, nor is it the style of most professional announcers.

Taking 14 consecutive pitches in a single game is certainly out of the ordinary*, but O'Brien does not present it to us as a testament to Drew's great plate discipline. It's freakish behaviour. It may not be what a good hitter should do. He's not working the count, he's not forcing the pitcher to throw something good he can attack or risk putting him on base. No, Drew is doing nothing. He's simply standing there. O'Brien emphasizes this attitude by saying, when Drew does swing, that he "finally takes the bat off his shoulder".

*: Hey, how about this? In the same game that O'Brien makes such a big deal about Drew watching 14 straight pitches go by, Darnell McDonald took 17 consecutive pitches! After popping out to short in the third, Microwave took a strike and four balls in the fifth, four straight balls in the seventh, four straight balls in the eighth, and two balls, a strike, and a third ball in the ninth. I had NESN on, so I don't know if O'Brien was even aware of this. I doubt he knew.

But now we need data. According to always amazing Fangraphs, Drew has swung at 36.5% of the pitches he has seen this year. That is the second lowest percentage on the Red Sox; only Marco Scutaro has swung at fewer pitches (33.4%). But Drew's % is not wildly low. Mike Cameron, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Victor Martinez are all below 41%.

Drew has swung at 20.8% of pitches outside of the strike zone, which is in the lower half of Red Sox batters, though it is a very high rate for him. Adrian Beltre (36.6%) and Jason Varitek (31.2%) have swung at the most and Scutaro is at the bottom of the list, with a mere 14.8%.

But O'Brien's issue with Drew is that he (Drew) is examining his cuticles or thinking about watching paint dry while being rung up on strikes, so how often does he swing at pitches inside the strike zone?

First of all, most of the pitches Drew sees are not strikes; only 44.4% are within the strike zone. And he offers at 56.2% of those -- which is unremarkable. It's about the same as Cameron (56.9%) and Martinez (57.1%)*.

*: Scutaro swings at the fewest pitches inside the zone, as well (51.0%). Which means our new shortstop swings at about one of every six pitches outside the strike zone while ignoring half of the pitches in the zone. Is O'Brien obsessing on Marco's clear aversion to any sort of activity in the box, his blatant why-do-I-have-this-stick-in-my-hand-and-what-is-it-used-for attitude? (I'm guessing: No, he is not.)

However, Drew has the second-worst contact percentage of pitches in the zone (84.9%) and overall pitches, trailing Ortiz in both categories. So the problem is not that Drew takes too many good pitches. His percentages in those situations are nothing abnormal. It's that when he swings, he doesn't hit the ball often enough.

But that's not what O'Brien is making a fuss about, is it? We also hear the same thing with NESN's Don Orsillo. When Drew struck out looking in the sixth, Orsillo noted that (paraphrasing) "We are seeing a lot more of that this year than before."*

*: I'll bet that's not true, or if it is, it's so small of a difference that you could not truly take note of it solely by comparing your memories from 2009, or 2008. Does any website keep track of types of Ks? (For the curious, Drew has struck out 16 times swinging and 10 times looking.)

But maybe O'Brien has a point. Perhaps taking all those pitches is a negative. Maybe J.D. Drew is hurting the team and he should change the way he has played the game for decades and begin hacking at pitches he would otherwise take. He might be a greater asset to the Red Sox that way.*

*: Oop, no he wouldn't. Looking at Drew's career stats, we find that while he is swinging at fewer total pitches this year (so far, anyway) than at any other year in his career, he is trying to at get pitches outside of the strike zone more often than ever before (except for 2003).

I want to know: Does Dave O'Brien think it would be better for the Boston Red Sox if J.D. Drew completely altered his mentality at the plate -- possibly compromising what has been one of the best OBPs on the team since 2007? Is it a positive or a negative to not swing at pitches outside of the strike zone? Based on last night's comments, O'Brien clearly doesn't know the answer to his own question.

I can think of two other Red Sox hitters, both left-handed hitters like Drew, who were infamous for refusing to swing at anything they perceived as even a millimeter outside the strike zone. They were criticized for walking, for selfishly padding their stats*, rather than swing at something and possibly drive in a teammate. One guy was Wade Boggs, whose OBP over the five-year period of 1985-89 was .454, an average which would have topped the AL in eight of the last nine seasons.

*: Although back in those days, who the hell cared about how often you got on base? Batting average ruled! Walks had no value. You wouldn't even be on record as having gone to the plate if you walked, that's how worthless it was. It never happened. (This is still true, of course.) Fly out, walk twice, steal a base, maybe score your team's only run in dramatic win; who cares? You were 0-for-1.)

The other guy is obvious. His batting eye and plate discipline were so otherworldly, we have a famous (and likely apocryphal) story about him batting against a rookie pitcher, who was annoyed at the plate umpire for not getting strikes called on what seemed to be very good pitches. Finally, the umpire told the noob to shut the hell up, "Mr. Williams will let you know when it's a strike."

But at least, J.D. Drew is polite and plays a very good right field. Imagine if his fielding was sub-par and he was constantly at war with the media and was known to spit at the hometown fans. That would be horrible. Because no major league hitter wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Ted Williams.


laura k said...

Brilliant post, thank you.

I first heard of JD Drew in the days when I listened to NYY games on the radio. Mr Kay loathed Drew and went to great lengths to bad-mouth him. It seems like since those days, I've rarely heard a positive word from an announcer about Drew.

Also, from anyone, the expression "doesn't take the bat off his shoulder" is such an ignorant, negative way to express what is an integral part of hitting. It implies the batter is just standing there, doing nothing - when in fact he is doing his job.

In my NYY days, I had a friend who used to complain about leadoff hitters who "don't take the bat off their shoulders". I'd say, well, does he walk a lot? What's his on-base? A leadoff hitter is supposed to get on base, right?

He'd say, He's supposed to hit his way on, not just stand there with the bat on his shoulder.

I assume this is a pretty common assumption?

Patrick said...

I remember hearing that first blurb my OB, and thinking he got anti-Truped.

OBP means little to you if you believe in the 'productive out'.

allan said...

I smoothed out a few spots and added the "oop" ital section re his career %.

allan said...

Another Reason To Like Drew:

He is the only Red Sox player to have no music played as he comes to bat or comes out of the bullpen.

fc said...


allan said...

What I said yesterday about Bobby Valentine applies here. There is no reason in the world why O'B can't go look up some info on Drew and any other players.

Either he (a) doesn't know the info exists, (b) knows about it but doesn't feel like putting in the time to find it and understand it, or (c) has negative opinions about Drew and no gaul-durned facts are going to get in his way.

All of which reflect quite poorly on his ability to do his job.

johngoldfine said...

Yes, I agree with l-girl: brilliant. Or we could just skip the facts and go with impressions and gut feeling and barroom talk....

andy said...

wow loved how you wrapped that up.
well done.

i had tuned into the game on the radio a few moments before drew hit his 2nd homerun. the weird thing is, without the context of the rest of dob's comments, i thought he was giving drew praise for his unbelievable ability to not swing at bad pitches...and then pop 2 homeruns when he saw something worth swinging at.

apparently that was not the case!

thanks for the post.