John W Henry New Owner watches from the stands Liverpool 2010/11 Everton V Liverpool (2-0) 17/10/10 Photo: Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

When Winning Isn’t Enough

Perhaps the biggest take away from the 2010 season was that the Boston Red Sox’ popularity has waned significantly since their 2004 World Championship. Not surprisingly, with the fan base’s angst relieved, the daily fervor and obsession began to fade — taking with it the team’s profitability.

2007’s championship dealt another blow, as success (and, to another degree, championships) became somewhat routine.

The Red Sox’ 2010 campaign hammered that point home as television ratings and overall interest in the team took a considerable hit. Theories as to why this occurred often cite poor performance as the primary culprit.

However, this logic seems to gloss over the fact that, by all accounts, Boston’s following was diminishing even while the club was in the playoff hunt. If the playoff chase is primary mover in team interest, then ratings and team interest shouldn’t have fallen until September. However, they were slumping far earlier as both fair-weather and hardcore fans, alike, dropped out of the running.

This left the organization in a precarious position. In a market big on bite but relatively small on population, that ravenous fanbase was what kept Boston among the elite in profitability and, by corollary, personnel spending and success.

With this new and unfamiliar uncertainty, the organization seems to have mounted a response:

Go out and make headlines.

The Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford acquisitions may be a telling peek into the club’s changing paradigm — one where personnel moves have as much to do about building a winner as they do about generating excitement.

And if this off-season is any indication, the club plans on reviving their lethargic fan base by giving them some news toys — something to get excited about.

And though these acquisitions are, by all accounts, great moves for the team, there is something a bit unsettling about their nature.

In many ways, the departure from the club’s tight-pursed, efficient approach suggests a bit of weakness.

Theo Epstein doesn’t enjoy signing long, expensive deals for free agents. Theo Epstein doesn’t like giving up premium prospects for expiring free-agents-to-be.

Under the Epstein Doctrine, players are merely serial numbers who combine to form a model of efficiency for the rest of the league to follow.

However, this current offseason (the Carl Crawford deal in particular) has been an abandonment of that canon, which begs the question: has the Red Sox’ business model changed?

Are the Boston Red Sox feeling an uncomfortable squeeze from a shrinking fan base?

It may be so. It may be that the team needs to arouse it’s fan base to hit internal sales and profitability quotas. It would make sense, as both players were acquired just days before tickets went on sale to the general public — did we mention the Christmas buying season is in full swing?

Whatever the case may be, 2011 could be setting the stage for some changes in operations over the next few seasons — or they could be setting the stage for more financial uncertainty.

If the Crawford and Gonzalez signings “work” in drumming up interest in the club, we may see more big free agent splashes in years to come; while low-profile, but similarly valuable, deals such as Mike Cameron’s take a back seat.

This is a particularly interesting scenario since there is no telling how long the halo effect of these signings will last. One year? Two years? Several months?

It’s anyone’s guess.

If, on the other hand, they fail to increase viewership and revenue streams, then there is a possibility that the Sox will have to rein in spending over the next few years while they sort out their new position in baseball’s financial hierarchy.

If the decrease in popularity lasts for a prolonged period, this could have dire affects on the team’s on-field success as the front office pulls back from personnel spending. This, in turn, would mean fewer playoff appearances, which may drive down interest, revenue streams, and team spending.

A vicious cycle … and all unfortunate reminders that, at its heart, baseball really is a business.

Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford at the Plate

What a week.

The additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez make the Red Sox’ lineup one of the most formidable in the league. Crawford’s bat profiles very well as a top of the order hitter, while Gonzalez should challenge 120 RBI from the middle of the lineup.

Not surprisingly, both players check out as safe bets for 2011.

Gonzalez’ star looks to rise from the favorable offensive environs (as fellow writer Darryl Johnston pointed out on Wednesday), which should go a long way toward boosting his power numbers. He should have no problem challenging 40 homers in Fenway.

And, if he can, in fact, realize improve his power over seasons past, he may see a slight uptick in his walk totals. Data has shown that home run and isolated slugging percentages have a strong correlation with low zone percentages. Therefore, if Gonzalez becomes a 45 HR hitter in Fenway (as opposed of a 35 HR type in San Diego), he could see his OBP rise over the .400 mark — with an outside shot at a 1.000 OPS.

If there is one knock on Gonzalez, it’s that he may benefit from reigning in his new-found aggressive approach. Had A Gonz managed to keep his O-Swing to a more manageable 26 percent (instead of 31.8 percent in 2010), he could have seen his OBP rise to as .413.

But that’s nitpicking.

Now that he’s in a media market fitting of his talent, he’ll be a household name in no time.

America, meet Adrian Gonzalez.

While he’s a very different hitter than his new teammate, we can make strikingly similar remarks about Crawford’s aggressive approach at the plate. While he has few flaws in his offensive game, perhaps one weakness is his penchant for offering at pitches outside the zone.

With an O-Swing of 35.6 percent last season (up from 31.0 in 2009), Crawford could stand to keep the bat on his shoulder a little more. As a result, pitchers baited him into chasing more often, resulting in a Zone Percentage decrease of six percent.

The Sox may want him to be more patient this season, but it’s anyone’s guess whether or not this will actually matter. While in many cases a rise in O-Swing can take a chunk out of a batter’s OBP, Crawford saw enough of a decrease in Zone Percentage to almost completely offset the effect on his walk rate.

Therefore, if Crawford reverted back to his old level of 31.0 percent O-Swing, two things could happen.

One, he could see an increase in his walk rate to a nine percent — with an OBP north of .375.

The other, pitchers will adjust to the trend and stop throwing out of the zone, resulting a little to no change.

Given the options, maybe an adjustment is worth a shot. With Boston’s philosophy concerning patience at the plate, there’s a pretty good chance of that happening.