Talking Baseball

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Posted by Dave on Thursday, May 27, 2004

Returning to My Roots: Some Sox Thoughts

Here at Talking Baseball, it's not abudantly clear where our allegiances lie. We write about a host of subjects, almost never revealing who our hometown teams are. Well, although I root for my fantasy team with a greater passion than most (if Posada and Sheffield hit four home runs in a Yankee win, I'm thrilled), I still cheer on my Boston Red Sox. Born in Boston and raised in Worcester (an hour west of Beantown), how could I not? All the Sox I've been watching has raised a couple questions that I've been musing about recently.

Why Is Johnny Damon Stealing?

By now, it should be evident that the Red Sox have become one of the more sabermetrically oriented organizations this side of the Mississippi - so why is Damon still trying to swipe bags? It's been a well-known fact that stealing is generally not advantageous unless it's done by a player who's successful 70%-75% of the time. Damon has been anything but successful thusfar - he's been caught 4 times and has stolen successfully only 5 times - a 55.5% clip (no calculator necessary, if I may boast). If Damon's running into outs and sacrificing runs, why do we continue to send him?

Well, it would seem that Damon's yet another victim of sample size. As Aubrey Huff or Derek Jeter could tell you, diminished sample sizes can often make a player look worse (or better) than he is. Johnny Damon has had an impressive run (pun intended) as a base-stealer. If you exclude Damon's abbreviated stay in Oakland, he has successfully stolen no worse than 83% of the time in the last 5 years. So, it would be reasonable to assume that he'll improve his success rate for stealing.

Even if he doesn't, however, the Sox may still encourage him to steal. How could running into outs be beneficial to the team? Well, as with a lot of economic situations, there are externalities. Damon's increased agressiveness on the basepaths will still create more stolen bases. Stolen bases do not translate to offense very well, but only a select number of general managers realize this. When general managers envision a prototypical lead-off guy, they imagine a speedster like Damon more frequently than they envision an on-base machine like Jeremy Giambi (Beane's famous experiment).

True, Damon's sporting a .388 OBP this year, but we can't expect that to continue either. In the last three years, his OBP hasn't eclipsed .356, and at age 30, he's not getting any younger. While his defense has been above-average, at least, it's still difficult to say that Damon is legitimizing the 16 million he'll be paid over the next two years (including this current season).

The Red Sox are all too aware of Damon's illegitimate contract as well. They want him off their books so they can acquire players with legitimate contracts - like Carlos Beltran. The more Damon looks like a viable replacement for Carlos, the greater the probability that we can acquire the deadline jewel in Beltran. To look like a viable replacement, maybe even an attractive one, Damon needs to look like a good top-of-the-order option. If Damon's stolen bases plummet, Allan Baird (the GM of the Royals) is likely to be hesitant in taking on Damon. However, if the Sox encourage Johnny to run, it's more likely he could be dealt for Beltran. We may need to open our pocketbook and cover a bit of Damon's salary next year, but having Beltran's better bat and glove would be yet another cog in the Sox juggernaut; one that should defeat the Yankees this time around.

Why Aren't Trot and Nomar Back Yet?

As Sox Nation becomes increasingly perturbed with the absence of Trot Nixon and Nomar Garciaparra from the line-up, the Sox keep winning - and winning comfortably. Subtract the shellacking they experienced tonight at the hands of the Athletics and Mark Mulder, and they lead the AL in run differential by a large amount. Even with tonight's loss, they are at 29-18 - tied with the Angels for the league's best record. As many prognosticators felt, this Sox team - along with those despised Yankees - are in a class by themselves in the Land Of The DH.

With the fantastic Sox play thusfar, it's unsurprising that management and their rabid followers have not panicked about the Trot-less and Nomar-less lineup. Clearly, the Red Sox can't expect to keep winning with their absences. But, if they can play this well without two of their premier players, then there is little urgency to see them come back. With the cushion the Sox have created, however, its given Nixon and Garciaparra the comfort in knowing that they can rehab slowly and not strenuously. Due to the early season success of the Red Sox, I wouldn't expect Garciaparra or Nixon back until they are both fully healed; it's evident that the team can perform just fine without them.

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