This past offseason was a crowded one for the Red Sox, with several old faces moving out the door and many new ones coming in. While players like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and (believe it or not) Jonny Gomes received most of the headlines, the one singing that seemed to slip under the radar was the 1-year, $9 million contract the Red Sox dished out to SS Stephen Drew.
Shortstop has been a carousel of oddities since the Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, something anyone who’s spent time watching the team knows all to well. The difference this offseason is that it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, with Baseball America top-10 prospect Xander Bogaerts right around the corner and waiting in the wings. Bogaerts’ presence in the system has had somewhat of a hypnotic effect on both the press and the fan base – as most people seem content to the point of ‘yeah whatever’ with regards to whoever was tapped to fill the position this year.
In spite of that future-forward thinking, there certainly was a big need for a short-term solution at the position heading into this year. The collective prowess of Pedro Ciriaco, Jose Iglesias and Ivan DeJesus Jr simply wasn’t satisfying enough for management, so they set about finding someone to fill the gap. Truth be told, Drew is as good a pick as any.
Coming off a terrible season last year, Drew is a player motivated to get back on track with the hopes of netting a larger, more lucrative contract either in Boston or elsewhere for the 2014 season. He’s been a pretty good player for the majority of his career, and with there being plenty of signs that he’s due for a bounce back, the Red Sox might find that this year’s stop gap short stop could be something a little bit better than that. IN fact, he could be a valuable piece that with a good season, could help put the Red Sox right back into playoff contention. However, going about the businesses of having that kind of a season is going to begin with an improvement at the plate. In order for Drew to regain his value, he’ll have to hit.
From 2009-2011, Drew was the epitome of an average Major League hitter, producing .266/.322/.433 slash line with a 98 wRC++ over that time span. After a horrific ankle injury sidelined him for nearly all of 2011, Drew struggled in 2012, barely managing a meager .223/.309/.348 in abbreviated stints with the Diamondbacks and A’s while also seeing his defense take a considerable hit. The Red Sox have placed a bet that last year was a mirage and that the 29 year old can bounce back this season to his usual career performance – especially at the plate.
The good news is, that once you take his peripherals into consideration, it seems like a really well placed bet.
A lot of Drew’s poor performance at the plate seemed to be driven largely by a career-worst BABIP of .275, a full 30 points below his career .305 mark. Not only should that regress to the mean this year, it seems like a lock to when you consider his whopping 27.6 LD%. Drew was hitting the ball hard in 2012, but it appears that the overwhelming majority of those balls in play headed straight to fielders, and not to places where they weren’t. Sprinkle in his higher than normal BB% and a steady decrease in his GB%, and he seems like he’s certainly due to bounce back considerably in 2013.
The only area of concern seems to be his increasing number of strikeouts. Since 2009, Drew has seen his K% balloon from 14.6% all the way up to 23.2%. The good news here is that it’s not due to an inability to make contact or that he’s whiffing a lot. In fact, his contact %’s and SwStr%’s have been mostly stable.
What has changed with Drew seems to be a more cautious approach at the plate, where he’s decided to swing at considerably fewer pitches than he did before. Not only is he chasing fewer pitches outside of the zone, but he’s also becoming more selective about the pitches he sees in it. That resulted in an increase in Z-Contact% even though he swung at 5% fewer pitches last year.
What does it all mean? It means Drew is being picky to an almost carnal degree – refusing to swing at anything he doesn’t really like. In some ways his strategy is paying off as the higher LD% would indicate he’s making better contact. However, the downside to it is that he probably strikes out looking a ton. What will be interesting to see will be how the approach will play with his numbers once he stops having such poor luck. Regardless of how that all plays out though – what we’re likely to get is exactly the kind of hitter I described here. The process seems sound, so hopefully this year, the results are more of a reflection of that.
While there might have been some explanations for Drew’s shoddy play at the plate, his defense cratered last year to the tune of a -5.2 UZR. A lot of people like to point to the ankle injury causing decreased range and mobility, but to me, it seems premature to assume that. UZR can be oddly volatile year to year, so for all intents and purposes, it could have just been a rough year for him defensively. Players have horrible defensive years for no reason whatsoever, so it becomes more difficult to explain things away on either side of the coin.
My non-judgmental approach to Drew’s defense this season gets a little backing from the friendly, although hardly-gospel Fangraphs fan scouts. Not only did they rate his range, speed and first step lower this past season, they also seemed to let their negative sentiment seep into their views of his hands, release and arm strength as well– all of which would have little to nothing to do with his ankle injury.
Could it be that he’s just declining at the position altogether? Possibly. Could it be a bunch of fans letting a few observations seep into other observations about his skills? That’s possible, too. Could it be his ankle? Maybe. Could it just be a total fluke? Sure.
The long and the short of it is that we simply don’t know. We’ll have to watch him this spring and keep tabs on him all year. Unfortunately, the numbers really don’t tell us anything at this point. So while his offense seems likely to bounce back, the ‘gambling’ part of the Drew singing will be with his defense.
So now that we’ve got a baseline on Drew overall, we can take a quick glance at his new digs in Fenway and determine what kind of impact the park might have on his overall performance.
Fenway has long been known to be friendly to right handed hitters due to the presence of the Green Monster and less friendly to left handed batters due to its deeper right field. While Drew has benefitted heavily from Chase Field’s shorter right field porch, he’s never posted a HR/FB% above 10%, which would suggest that he’s probably not likely to get any kind of a power bounce back in Fenway. While both parks are hitter’s havens and both treat left handed hitters well on the whole, Chase Field is a friendlier place for Drew than Fenway would be hypothetically. Factoring in his dead-pull tendencies, and it’s safe to say that we can probably assume a significant power resurgence isn’t in the cards for Drew in 2013.
Fenway also slightly increases strikeouts for LHB, which means that it’s unlikely that we’ll see much change from his overall tendencies last season. I’d expect his K% spike to maintain itself better than some of the other abnormalities in his statistical outlay. The good news is that he should be able to find lots of doubles provided that LD% stays high. He’s always been capable of finding gaps, so while his HR spike is probably gone with the wind, he should find other ways to be productive.
Nearly all the projections on him next year have his K% sitting around 20%, which is lower than the 23% we saw this year. With Fenway bound sustain his K% more than mitigate it, I’d say the most pessimistic of those projections w/ regards to his K% would probably be the ideal indicator. Oliver seems to have a reasonable line, with Drew hitting .252/.328/.404 with a wOBA of .319 and a 21% K%. Compared to everyone else who has him around 20% and with significant SLG dips, I think Oliver has it right. His newfound approach should induce better contact and more extra base hits, but his K% should dog him most of the year. If he can sustain that kind of a line and have a nice bounce back in the field, the Red Sox could have found themselves a reasonable bargain. If not, well… we can always hope Xander Bogaerts puts it all together overnight.