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A hindsight look at the Red Sox offseason using Occam's razor

Despite high expectations, the Red Sox are off to a rough start so far in 2015, as many of their offseason acquisitions haven't lived up to expectations. In hindsight, where did they go wrong in their offseason planning, and what could they have done to avoid making these mistakes?

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The Boston Red Sox are a mess right now. They are in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, including back-to-back sweeps by division rivals Orioles and Blue Jays. Their 27-38 record through Monday puts them nine games out of first place in their division and six games behind their next closest competitor, the fourth place Orioles.

Despite finishing in last place in the AL East in 2014, the Red Sox were not supposed to be this bad again in 2015. After a busy offseason, many considered the Red Sox to be the favorites in the AL East this season. Going into the season, Fangraphs had the Red Sox projected at 87-75, five games ahead of the Yankees, their next closest competitor in the AL East. They had the second-highest playoff odds in the American League at 62.8 percent, behind only the Mariners (70.3 percent). Now, their playoff odds are just 12.7 percent, better than only the White Sox and the A's in the American League.

Since many predicted the Red Sox to be good in 2015 because of their busy offseason, it makes sense to look at these moves in hindsight to see where the Red Sox went wrong. Indeed, some Boston writers have already done this, looking at what the team could have looked like if questionable moves were replaced by ones that look better in hindsight. In general, I am not a fan of this kind of hindsight analysis, but I fully recognize that there may be a little hindsight bias in what I am about to say, no matter how much I try to avoid it.

Going into the offseason, the Red Sox biggest need was starting pitching. The team had traded away Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jake Peavy at the trade deadline, leaving them with only Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly as locks for the 2015 rotation. Top pitchers like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields were available as free agents, with Cole Hamels as an option via trade.

Naturally, the Red Sox went out and signed Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, the top two free agent position players, to long-term contracts. Both players were signed on the same day in late November, before any big moves had been made on the pitching front. Sandoval would fill a hole at third base, as Will Middlebrooks was below replacement level in 2014 and the team was uncomfortable with giving the starting job to prospect Garin Cecchini. The Hanley Ramirez signing was especially curious, though, because there didn't appear to be an obvious position for him to play. Because of his defensive issues, Ramirez no longer profiled as a shortstop and seemed better suited to third base. With Sandoval on board, third base was not an option of course, so the Red Sox ended up pushing Ramirez to left field.

At the time this move was made, the Red Sox already had an overcrowded outfield, with Yoenis Cespedes, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Rusney Castillo, Jackie Bradley Jr., Brock Holt, and Allen Craig all capable of contributing in the outfield. While Ramirez was definitely a better hitter than all of these players, he had never played the outfield in his career, and his signing would make trading one or more of these other outfielders a necessity. The Red Sox ended up doing this, filling one of their rotation spots by trading Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello.

After the initial shock of seeing the Red Sox sign the two best position players on the free agent market, many people, including some in the sabermetric community, began to praise the Red Sox for their creativity. After all, offense, especially power, was down throughout baseball, and the Red Sox had more of it than just about any other team. Many people pointed out that a run scored is worth just as much as a run prevented and that the added runs scored by bringing on Ramirez and Sandoval would be worth just as much as runs that could be prevented by signing a top starter. After all, value is value, no matter where it comes from, right?

This brings me to to the idea of Occam's razor, which I hinted at in the title of this article. According to Wikipedia,

"Occam's razor  is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian. The principle states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove to provide better predictions, but—in the absence of differences in predictive ability—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better."

Occam's razor can be stated in different ways and applied to different fields of study, but in its most basic form, it is the idea that the simplest explanation is often the right one. It isn't too hard to see how this can be applied to the Red Sox. For a team stocked with position players (some better than others) and in desperate need of top end starting pitching, the simplest solution, of course, would have been to add a top-end starter or two, probably through free agency, and go from there. Instead, their offseason became much more convoluted, as they spent a boatload of money on more position players, traded a surplus position player for a starting pitcher, gave up two depth starters with potential (Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa) for a #3-4 starter at best (Wade Miley), and rounded out their rotation with a washed up Justin Masterson.

On paper, it looked like the Red Sox had pieced together a team capable of competing for the AL East crown. In doing so, the Red Sox had made several important assumptions, which (if you buy into the concept of Occam's razor) should be avoided as much as possible. Here are just a few of the assumptions the Red Sox made over the course of the offseason:

Hanley Ramirez can play left field

This is certainly the easiest assumption to criticize, as Ramirez' defense has reached near-historic lows. Despite being an above average offensive contributor in 2015 (114 wRC+), Ramirez has put up an fWAR of -0.6. You can pick whatever defensive metric you want (-13 DRS, -11.3 UZR) to tell you just how bad Ramirez has been in left field. With David Ortiz locked in at DH and Mike Napoli at first base, there is no obvious position for Ramirez at this point.

Pablo Sandoval's decline since 2011 is not for real

In giving Sandoval $95 million over five years, the Red Sox were betting that Sandoval would not continue to decline as he had since 2011. In 2009 and 2011, Sandoval put up five-win seasons for the Giants, but since then, he has not been more than a three-win player. His offense has steadily declined (149 wRC+ in 2011, 118 in 2012, 116 in 2013, 111 in 2014), and he has no longer shown the ability to hit from both sides of the plate. That has continued in 2015, as he has been no better than a league average hitter. In addition, his defense this year (-8 DRS, -9.5 UZR) isn't too far behind Ramirez's, which explains why he has a negative fWAR (-0.4) as well this season.

Hanley Ramirez will be better than Yoenis Cespedes

The Ramirez signing led to the Cespedes-Porcello trade, but if the Red Sox didn't think Ramirez was an improvement over Cespedes, they probably wouldn't have signed him in the first place. In his three years in the majors, Cespedes was consistently around a three-win player, peaking at 3.3 fWAR in 2014, and going into 2015, ZiPS had Ramirez and Cespedes projected to be of similar value (3.0 WAR for Ramirez, 2.7 WAR for Cespedes). So far in 2015, Cespedes is having his best season to date, with a 135 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR. While he probably won't continue at this pace (hsi BABIP is .367), he has been extremely valuable for the Tigers, who are paying him about half what the Red Sox are paying Ramirez this season.

Wade Miley is more than a back-end starter

Miley had a breakout year in 2012 (3.15 FIP, 4.2 fWAR), but he has been mediocre since then. Despite topping 200 innings in 2013 and 2014, Miley failed to be worth more than 1.9 fWAR either season. His walk rate nearly doubled from 2012 to 2014, and his FIP was 3.98 both seasons. Miley's xFIP was slightly better, though, and the Red Sox were probably hoping that Miley would give up fewer home runs pitching outside of Chase Field. While his home run rate is down, his results this season haven't improved, as he has been barely above replacement level so far in 2015.

Justin Masterson isn't broken

Before 2014, Masterson was a very valuable player, putting together a four-year stretch from 2010-2013 where he accumulated 12.2 fWAR with the Indians. Last year, he dealt with some injuries, and his average fastball velocity fell by three MPH while his walk rate was an ugly 11.7 percent. Even so, the Red Sox gave him $9.5 million and a guaranteed rotation spot, hoping that he would bounce back. The trends have continued this year for Masterson, as his walk rate is still terrible and his average fastball velocity is down another three MPH. He is currently working his way back from shoulder tendonitis, but given how bad he has been, it is unlikely that he will be back in the rotation if and when he returns.

* * *

There was a good deal of risk in just about every move that the Red Sox made this offseason, and so far, none of them have worked out well. In fairness, I don't think anyone could have predicted the collapse of players like Ramirez and Sandoval or the underperformance of Porcello, who had been remarkably consistent throughout his career. In addition the team has dealt with injuries, including the loss of their top two catchers, which doesn't make things any easier for the pitching staff.

Still, the Red Sox took a very unconventional approach in the offseason, choosing to add more value on the position player side and leave their biggest weakness, their starting rotation, relatively exposed. Yes, it is true that runs scored are worth just as much as runs prevented. Yes, there is wisdom in adding valuable players to a team, no matter what position they play.But it is also important to remember this: the value of an upgrade depends on the value of the player being replaced.

Hanley Ramirez was seen as an upgrade over Yoenis Cespedes and the other outfielders the Red Sox had on their roster, but the upgrade was marginal. On the other hand, the Red Sox had three open spots in their rotation, with internal options that were not projected to be much better than replacement level.  Therefore, adding a 3-4 WAR player in the rotation would have much more valuable than adding a 3-4 WAR player in the outfield.

With that being said, a big upgrade in the rotation may not have been possible for the Red Sox, and given how much has gone wrong for the team this year, it might not have mattered. Ruben Amaro Jr. was probably demanding way too much for Cole Hamels, and the Red Sox may not have been comfortable giving a big long-term contract to any of the free agent starting pitchers. Still, the team made a competitive offer to Jon Lester even after signing Ramirez and Sandoval. They could have easily had enough money to sign Lester or Max Scherzer if they so desired, especially if they hadn't given so much money to Ramirez and Sandoval. For a team that was seemingly all-in on pulling off a worst-to-first turnaround in 2015, the inability of the Red Sox to add an ace-level starting pitcher and fill their biggest need was certainly puzzling.

It was fascinating to watch the Red Sox offseason unfold, and many people bought into the seemingly innovative approach that the Red Sox were employing. In reality, there is a fine line between innovative and ill-advised, and the Red Sox may have learned that the hard way. As members of the sabermetric community, we are always looking for innovations in the industry and creative ways to analyze players. Teams often do the same thing to gain an advantage over their competitors. Still, we must not forget that there is value in logical simplicity. There is a reason that the concept of Occam's razor survives to this day: sometimes the simplest explanation is the right explanation.

. . .

Nick Lampe is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Viva el Birdos. Before this article, he had never discussed concepts from the philosophy class his liberal arts college required him to take, and he probably never will again. You can follow him on Twitter at @NickLampe1.