There is every reason in the world for me to love the Boston Red Sox fan. One, I love Boston. Love it. Love walking around Boston, love being around people from Boston, love the accent, love The Sports Guy, love it. Two, the Red Sox hired two of my absolute favorite people in baseball -- Bill James and Allard Baird. Three, the Red Sox play baseball the way I believe in baseball -- especially with Fenway Park as the home park. And four, they're good. Is it so wrong to love a team that is actually GOOD?
Right or wrong, I do not love the Red Sox. I cannot just pick a team to love -- it doesn't work that way for me. I believe in sports loyalty. And I was born for sports misery.
This is especially disheartening because I have now found another reason to love the Red Sox: Theo Epstein. I have always liked and appreciated Theo from afar. He's obviously very smart, very good at his job, and his grandfather and great uncle wrote Casablanca. But it has always been from afar ... until I heard him discussing J.D. Drew on the radio show "Felger and Massarotti" this week.
I'll be honest: I have never been an especially big fan of Drew. I don't dislike him, but he has just never been someone I have spent a lot of time thinking about. In many ways, that makes him the perfect subject. When you are looking at baseball players you like, it's easy (and tempting) to scroll through and find statistics that back up what you want to believe. That's human nature. But when you're utterly unmoved about a player, you won't go through the same effort. Drew is a good but brittle player. I have nothing invested in him emotionally.
And so when Theo -- in a clear effort to steer the conversation toward a point he wanted to make -- said that Drew was second among everyday American League outfielders in OPS (behind only Boston's Jason Bay), I thought: "Hmm, where is this going?"
As it turned out, it was going to Epstein explaining something that is probably the No. 4 theme on this blog -- why RBIs are no way to evaluate baseball players.
"Sometimes you get stuck in the world of evaluating players through home runs and RBIs. And it's not the way that I think most clubs do it these days. And if you look at underlying performance of a lot of our guys, they bring more to the table than just the counting stats. And J.D.'s certainly having another good year for us. He's up around a .900 OPS right now, and he's playing really good defense in right field. He deserves an awful lot of credit for that, he's been pretty darned good for the three years that he's been here if you look at the underlying performance."
The radio guys here protest a little ... they point out that while Drew's OPS is usually good, they aren't sure that it has led to PRODUCTION -- namely runs scored and RBIs. And this is when Theo really takes over. I bold out a few of my favorite thoughts in this wonderful little lesson:
"That's not true. With RBIs, yes. Based on his skill set, he's always going to have underwhelming RBI totals. I couldn't care less. When you're putting together a winning team, that honestly doesn't matter. When you have a player who takes a ton of walks, who doesn't put the ball in play at an above average rate, and is a certain type of hitter, he's not going to drive in a lot of runs. Runs scored, you couldn't be more wrong. If you look at a rate basis, J.D. scores a ton of runs.
"And the reason he scores a ton of runs is because he does the single most important thing you can do in baseball as an offensive player. And that's NOT MAKE OUTS. He doesn't make outs. He's always among our team leaders in on-base percentage, usually among the league leaders in on-base percentage. And he's a really good base runner. So when he doesn't make outs, and he gets himself on base, he scores runs -- and he has some good hitters hitting behind him. Look at his runs scored on a rate basis with the Red Sox or throughout his career. It's outstanding.
"You guys can talk about RBIs if you want, I just ... we ignore them in the front office ... and I think we've built some pretty good offensive clubs. If you want to talk about RBIs at all, talk about it as a percentage of opportunity, but it's just simply not a way or something we use to evaluate offensive players."
I have talked many times here about a fan's desperate wish -- desperate wish -- to have the team see the game the way the fan sees it. I don't mean specifics -- fire the coach, bench the QB, go for it on fourth down and so on. I mean see it in the macro, in a larger way. If I'm a basketball fan, I would love a team that believes in pushing the ball up the floor. If I'm a football fan, I would love a team that believes in pressuring the quarterback and working the middle of the field. If I'm a baseball fan, I would just love to know that my GM really and truly believes that one thing -- that it's really, really, really important for a baseball player to not make outs.
That seems so simple to me, so utterly basic, so law of gravity. But I know that there are GMs in the league -- more than you would ever believe -- and lots of other people in and around baseball who do not believe this. It isn't exactly that they are opposed to players who get on base. They certainly want guys to get on base. No, it is that they believe that OBP -- the ability to not make outs -- falls behind other more mystical talents such as the ability drive in runners in clutch situations or be a leader in the clubhouse or play the game the right way or whatever. I'm not saying these more mystical skills do not exist. Maybe they do. But I know that if you give me a baseball team of people who do not make outs, that team will score a lot of runs. A team of guys who play the game the right way will score a lot of runs too -- assuming that "playing the game the right way" includes not making outs.
Anyway, I thought Theo put it perfectly. There's no question that the Red Sox have some huge advantages over most teams in baseball. They have and spend a lot more money than most, which allows them to be better in so many ways. But they're awfully smart too. One argument I have never understood is the one where people say that money doesn't matter because some big money teams lose: "Oh, if money is so important, how come the Mets haven't won more? The Cubs spend a ton of money, and they didn't win. The Astros." And so on. To me that's a false argument -- people have been wasting money since, well, since the invention of money.
But matching money with solid reasoning and serious brainpower, that's an awfully tough combination to beat ... even in a game as volatile and unpredictable as baseball. The Red Sox win every year. And I suspect they will keep winning every year. And I suspect that it would be a whole lot of fun to be a Boston Red Sox fan.