For nearly three years now, J.D. Drew’s contract has been alternately viewed as the subject of ridicule and befuddlement. Yet for the Red Sox, there is one thing that the five-year, $70 million deal is not: an object of regret.
For reasons that Drew and the Red Sox recognize as beyond their control, the right fielder’s game is subject to incredible scrutiny. Perhaps it is the unchanging demeanor that is interpreted as indifference, the absence of visible eruptions, the willingness to take a walk in a key situation or the time out of the lineup with injuries that would not keep other players off the field.
All of those elements surely play into the notion — popularized by some damning comments from Cardinals manager Tony La Russa about Drew’s indifference to his talent — that Drew is not worth what he is paid. The notion is widespread among fans, media members and even rival talent evaluators. It is still commonplace for scouts or executives of other clubs to scoff at the deal that Drew signed with the Sox three winters ago.
The biggest problem with that perspective, however, is that it has nothing to do with what Drew actually does on the field, or, for that matter, with the perception of the people who are paying Drew’s paychecks. To this point, the Sox insist, Drew has been worth everything that he’s been paid, and then some.
“What he’s done qualitatively and when you even factor in the amount he’s played over these three years, yeah, he’s come out to a tick more than $14 million per year,” Sox general manager Theo Epstein said in an interview on the Dennis & Callahan Show on Thursday. “There’s always been a descrepency between how valuable a player he is and how he’s viewed by a certain element of the fan base, and the media in particular.
“There’s been a lot of strides in the game in terms of how people properly value players based on more meaningful statistics. Drew is sort of a touchstone so to speak for that because you actually look at the underlying performance and things that really matter as far as winning games and not winning games, he’s been over the length of the contract one of the 10 most valuable outfielders in baseball. Over the last two years I think he’s been one of the top two or three in the league, and this past year, again, one of the top two or three most valuable outfielders in the American League.”
At first glance, the notion seems improbable. But so long as home runs and RBI (more on that stat in a bit) are not viewed as the be-all, end-all of valuing a player’s contributions, the framework of the argument for Drew’s value becomes apparent.
THE ON-BASE MACHINE
Based on offense alone, Drew has been one of the elite outfielders in the majors since arriving in Boston. Whether evaluating him over the last year (.392), last two years (.399) or last three years (.390), Drew ranks fourth among major league outfielders (meaning players who have spent at least 50 percent of their games in the outfield) in OBP.
Drew’s knowledge of the strike zone also permits him to be an extra-base threat. Though he is not a slugger in the traditional sense of a 30-plus home run hitter, his 24 longballs were a more than respectable total in 2009, particularly considering that he went deep with roughly the same frequency (once every 18.8 at-bats) as Kevin Youkilis (every 18.2 ABs) and David Ortiz (once per 19.3 ABs).
Drew, in fact, is coming off of a great season that managed to fly almost completely below the radar. His OBP was slightly better than that of Jason Bay (.392 to .384), and his slugging mark (.537 to .522) was only slightly worse.
Down the stretch, he was as good as anyone in the Sox’ lineup, or Major League Baseball. From July 26 through the end of the regular season, Drew hit .360 with a .458 OBP and 1.157 OPS, one of the best sustained stretches of his career. During that 53-game stretch, he walloped 12 homers.
In 2009, he ranked second among American League outfielders (defined as players who spent at least half their games in the field, thus ruling out Adam Lind) in OPS, and fourth in the majors. Over the last two years, he ranks first in the AL and third in the majors in the category, and during his entire three-year tenure with the Sox, his .875 OPS is third in the AL (behind only Magglio Ordonez and Vlad Guerrero) and 10th in the majors.
Almost all of the other players on the list of the top OPS in baseball are sub-par defensive players who are limited to left field by virtue of their range deficiencies. Drew, on the other hand, is a more well-rounded player than most of those colleagues. The only players at (or above) his level defensively in that group of top offensive outfielders are Justin Upton and Carlos Beltran.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RBI TOTAL?
There’s no denying it: it is little short of startling that Drew’s RBI totals in Boston have been so pedestrian. In 2009, he drove in 68 runs, a modest total that still represented a new personal high for him as a member of the Red Sox, following consecutive seasons in which Drew drove in 64 runs.
So what gives?
Over his career, Drew has shown a slight tendency to hit for a higher average and with more power with the bases empty than with runners on base. With runners aboard, his OBP has gone up.
That tendency has become pronounced since coming to the Sox. Drew’s average and slugging percentage both plummet with runners on base, but his on-base percentage increases significantly as he takes a ton of walks with runners aboard. (See chart.)
The question thus becomes: is that a bad thing? In the eyes of the Sox, apparently not.
“Somebody who tends to walk a lot tends to drive in fewer runs than somebody who puts the ball in play a lot. In Drew’s case he’s an extreme because he walks at a tremendously high rate,” said Epstein. “Ted Williams has been criticized over and over again, hey runner on third and less than two outs you have to expand the zone and swing at something that’s a ball just to drive the runner in.
“Well, Williams wouldn’t do that. He would take his walk and he was criticized for it. Wade Boggs was criticized for it. J.D. doesn’t do it. Some hitters come out of their approach and put the ball in play in RBI situation and drive in runs and some hitters don’t do that. Drew is the type of hitter who doesn’t do it, and to be honest with you as an organization we don’t mind if guys don’t come out their approach.
“It might cost you not driving in runs here or there but in the long run, staying in one’s approach which is getting in a hitters count, getting a pitch you can drive and then driving that ball, and if not then taking your walk, in our mind that’s more fundamentally more important.”
With runners on base, a base hit — especially a homer or extra-base hit — represents the best possible outcome because it creates the greatest likelihood that one of the baserunners will score. Yet a walk is nearly as positive an outcome, since it creates more baserunners, allows (on occasion) runners to advance and, in the terminology of Sox manager Terry Francona, it “keeps the line moving.”
The worst possible outcome, however, is that a batter make an out (or, even worse, two outs via a double play). So, the fact that Drew decreases the frequency with which he makes outs when runners are on base could be interpreted as positive, rather than a fault.
In that vein, it is worth noting that the Red Sox find RBI in their own right to be an all-but-meaningless statistic. (Also worth mentioning: the Sox are not alone in that regard, as most teams have now come to view the traditional stats of average, homers and RBI as dated, or at least not entirely useful without some greater context.) While that flies in the face of traditional baseball logic, the Sox refuse to be wedded to a philosophy that places more of a value on a run-scoring groundout to second than a walk.
“If we both grew up in schools that taught us the Earth was flat and then all of a sudden when we went out to get a job as a surveyor and the first thing they taught us in school was that the Earth was round, it would be tough for you to accept that,” Epstein explained by way of analogy. “But over time, you would start to operate in which the world is round and make better decisions based on that. That’s sort of the way the game is evolving.”
Unlike offensive stats, which are measurable in a way that it’s fairly straightforward to achieve consensus about a player’s statistical worth, defense remains a puzzle. Virtually every team employs its own system of measurements to rate a player’s defense, and so there are wildly different characterizations of a player’s defensive abilities.
Even so, by most statistical measures, Drew’s ability to glide across the outfield — particularly the expanse at Fenway Park — is above average, or even well above average.
Fangraphs uses "ultimate zone rating" to measure how many runs a player saves on defense compared to an average player at his position. Drew, since the start of his Red Sox career, is measured as having saved 13 runs over his three seasons, well above average (and superior to, among others, heralded defenders such as Mike Cameron and Torii Hunter).
John Dewan’s plus/minus ratings, which similarly compare a player against an average performer at his position, views Drew as having made nine more plays than the average right fielder with the Sox, good for five runs saved — again, suggesting an above-average defender.
That fact alone separates Drew from most of the other outfielders whose company he keeps based on his offensive numbers.
Drew’s postseason line in three postseasons with the Sox is solid and has added to his overall value. He’s hit .286 with a .346 OBP, .459 slugging and .805 OPS against the elite pitching that teams inevitably face in playoff series.
He’s crushed four homers — all meaningful ones, including the grand slam in Game 6 of the 2007 ALCS, a ninth-inning, go-ahead homer in Game 2 of the 2008 ALDS, and a game-changing three-run homer in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS that set the stage for his walk-off hit in the Sox’ comeback from a seven-run deficit that day.
In fact, Drew has more go-ahead ninth-inning hits (3) than any other player in postseason history (two with the Sox). No other player in MLB history has more than one.
THE CONTRACT (OR, ‘THE MARKET IS THE MARKET’)
Drew had the good fortune (or sense) to opt out of his contract at a time when Major League Baseball was flush with cash. Hundred dollar bills were being used as napkins at the GM meetings following the 2006 season, and the market thus saw a rush of monster contracts that now seem about as misguided as that last tequila shot at closing time.
Drew was actually one of six outfielders that offseason to sign a deal of at least five years. Five of those contracts were for free agents, and one (for Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells) was an extension:
Drew’s contract was largely in line with the market that offseason. The industry decided that five-year contracts for outfielders were the norm, and Drew’s $14 million a season — while a hefty price tag — was a far cry from the $22 million a year haul of Alfonso Soriano, the $18 million a season that was bestowed on Vernon Wells (starting with the 2008 season) or even the $16.7 million a season that Carlos Lee got from the Astros.
When accounting for all facets of the game — on-base skill, power, defense, etc. — Drew has emerged as clearly the most valuable member of that free agent class. The website Fangraphs.com has a rather fascinating model that assigns a financial value to a player’s performance based on how much better (or worse) he makes a team offensively and defensively.
In the case of Drew, Fangraphs suggests that the outfielder has been worth $44.8 million, or slightly more than the $42 million he has earned through his first three years with the Sox. That number accounts for the fact that he has averaged just 129 games per season in his three years with the Sox. None of the other outfielders signed that winter, according to Fangraphs, has performed at a level that would justify the cost of his contract, and in some instances (most notably Wells due to his poor performance to date and Soriano because of a declining skill set just three seasons into the eight-year term of his contract), the deals are viewed as potentially catastrophic.
The Sox endured some funny looks about their decision to sign Drew to such a long and lucrative deal, but in retrospect, he does appear to have been the best player available that winter. Moreover, because of his athleticism, he has yet to exhibit a defensive decline, something that cannot be said of Carlos Lee or Alfonso Soriano.
Since that offseason, it is also worth noting, no other elite, well-rounded, in-their-prime free agent outfielders have emerged to make the Sox rue their investment. Torii Hunter comes the closest, having signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Angels before the 2008 season. But he is both more expensive than Drew and, by most measurement systems, has not been the player that Drew has been over the last couple of years.
When on the field, Drew has been a significant contributor to the Sox, someone who has improved the team’s ability to score runs and to prevent them. In so doing, he has — in the eyes of the Sox — lived up to the contract that he signed three years ago, and there haven’t really been other available players in free agency to make the team regret its decision to commit its millions to Drew.
That all could change over the next couple of years, but for now, at least, one can make a case that the 33-year-old has performed up to the considerable demands of his deal.