The three-year, $39 million deal that the Sox gave to Shane Victorino in December was subject to considerable scrutiny. No other club was willing to come close to the $13 million a year that the Sox gave the 32-year-old. As such, the contract was viewed widely as the biggest free agent overpay of the offseason.
On Tuesday, Victorino continued to offer what has now been a season-long rebuttal to such critics. He turned in the single greatest performance of his career in the Sox' 13-2 eruption against the Orioles, sending two homers screaming over the Green Monster (his second career multi-homer day, the first having come five years earlier against Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks) as part of a 3-for-3 game that also included a double, a walk, a hit by pitch, four runs scored and seven driven in. For the year, Victorino is hitting .292 with a .346 OBP, a .446 slugging mark and 11 homers -- all marks above his career norms of .277/.341/.431.
So, about that notion of an overpay ...
"I don't pay attention to those people," said Victorino. "There are always going to be doubters. You can't please everybody. But if I can go out there every night, do my best, come inside, look myself in the mirror and say I gave 100 percent, that's the only person I need to answer to. Everyone's going to have their opinions. Doubters will always be doubters, I'm going to keep plugging along, keep trying to help this team win, and that's what I'm going to be focused on."
He's done that, of course, playing a critical role in the Sox' season-long ride in first place with both his exceptional defense in right field and his solid offensive production. His performance has pointed toward the idea that while the Red Sox undoubtedly proved willing to offer the 32-year-old a more significant contract than any other team, that reality led most to overlook another interesting aspect of the deal: The Red Sox were buying low.
That seems absurd to say. No one else was going to give Victorino a $13 million-a-year deal after he had just set career lows in average (.255), OBP (.321) and slugging (.383). Yet in a way, that reluctance represented an opportunity.
Even with his offensive slump in 2012, Victorino represented a player whose defensive ability (a player with the range of a center fielder who was willing to play right) and baserunning (he was 39-for-45 in stolen base attempts in 2012) gave him value. But beyond that, the Sox felt that one poor season did not negate the evidence of a career of steady production.
After all, at the start of his 2012 season, Victorino would have been expected to receive a four- or perhaps five-year contract, likely for an average annual salary at least in line with what he got from the Sox, based upon his history as a three-time Gold Glover and two-time All-Star who hit .282 with a .348 OBP and .443 slugging mark over a six-year stretch from 2006-2011.
"Consistent track record I think is what you can count on with him," said Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo. "I don't know if last year was a down year. He was more of a role player in certain situations and got hurt. It was an easy bet to say he was going to have this kind of year because this is pretty much where he's been each and every year. We knew the energy, we knew the focus, we knew the passion, and we were betting on another type of year after the year he had last year."
To the Sox, the fact that Victorino's market was going to be impacted considerably by a bad 2012 season represented, in some ways, an opportunity. The team's best free agent signings, by and large, have been players coming off of bad years whose markets were impacted considerably as a result. Adrian Beltre, of course, is the foremost example for his near MVP-caliber performance on a one-year, $9 million deal in 2010. Others such as Victorino's predecessor in right, Cody Ross, who came to Boston on a one-year, $3 million deal, also have been impactful acquisitions.
Victorino represented more risk than either of those players by virtue of the fact that he was being signed for a three-year term. Still, the Sox saw a chance to outbid the market for a switch-hitting outfielder with a solid career track record at a time when doing so would cost considerably less than had he just concluded an All-Star campaign.
"Usually that's a pretty good bet in baseball, as opposed to the other way around," Sox principal owner John Henry explained in February. "Usually free agents are signed and don't do that well. If you look at historically, free agents have been overvalued for the last 15 to 20 years, because they sign long-term contracts if they have great years and sign short-term contracts if they have poor years. There's regression to the mean in baseball. It's well-known."
The Sox have gotten just that from Victorino -- albeit in somewhat unexpected fashion. The veteran has dealt with a host of injuries throughout the year to his back, hip and hamstring, issues that have become sufficiently pronounced that he's largely abandoned switch-hitting in recent weeks, batting almost exclusively from the right side. Yet despite his first extensive look at right-handed pitchers while batting right-handed in more than a decade, Victorino is hitting .293 with a .396 OBP and .488 slugging mark as a right-handed hitter against right-handed pitching in 48 plate appearances.
He's dealing with pain, but it's not showing in his performance.
"How much am I playing hurt?" Victorino repeated to a questioner. "That's for me to know and you not to know. I just go out there every night. I'm going to play the way I feel, go out there, give it all I can, leave it all on the field. There's no answer for that question.
"I'm still working to try to get back to the left side," he added. "People may differ, but I'm still a switch-hitter. That's what I was brought here to do."
Actually, Victorino was brought to the Red Sox to be a productive player capable of impacting the game in a number of ways. And to date, at least in year one of his three-year deal, he's done that in a fashion that suggests he's not merely living up to but outperforming his contract.
His defense has been surpassingly good. Many advanced defensive metrics suggest he's been the best defensive outfielder in baseball, having saved upward of 20 runs. His offense -- thanks to a surge in the very month where he's scrapped switch-hitting -- has been back in line with what he did as a key contributor for the Phillies' perennial contenders. His baserunning has remained excellent.
The net result of his multi-faceted contributions? According to Fangraphs, of all position players who were signed as free agents last year, Victorino has been the single best in terms of the bottom line of adding wins to a team.
His combination of offense, defense and baserunning has been worth 4.3 wins above a replacement-level player in right field, according to Fangraphs -- the single highest total for any of last offseason's free agent position players.
He has been, in that sense, a consummate buy-low, as opposed to recent buy-high outfield disasters such as Carl Crawford (who signed for seven years and $142 million after a career-high 7.4 WAR (as calculated by Fangraphs) in 2010) or Josh Hamilton (who has posted an atrocious .235/.292/.424 line in his first season of a five-year, $123 million deal with the Angels).
Indeed, in an offseason that was loaded with strong defensive options in center and right, it's hard to view Victorino as having been anything but the best signing of the bunch to this point. (See graphic.)
"The results speak for themselves," said Lovullo. "He's a pretty special player."
That's no guarantee of what Victorino will do going forward. After all, he's been playing through such a wealth of injuries, and has shown such abandon in his style of play, that there are necessarily questions about his longevity. But to this point, a snapshot of this moment in time suggests a very good player who has defied those who doubted the merits of the deal to which the Red Sox signed him.
"He's a force," said hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. "Especially, his power numbers are starting to pop up a little bit more. He's starting to hit the ball really hard. Hopefully he maintains it the rest of the season."