To start the 2016 season, one has to–absolutely has to–assume that Hanley Ramirez will be the Red Sox’s starting first baseman. One of the team’s massive free-agent acquisitions last season, Ramirez is due approximately $66 million over the next three seasons in addition to a $22 million vesting option for 2019. As you almost certainly know, Hanley had a terrible start to his Sox career, and most of the attention went to his flailing, failing defense in left field. Don’t get me wrong, Hanley’s defense was worthy of almost all the scorn it received … I’ve seen a lot of bad defense in left in my time (try watching Todd Hundley and Daniel Murphy out there), and this was some of the worst. Now he’ll try his hand(s) at first base, where he’s almost definitely going to be better, if only because he can’t possibly be any worse.
The real worry from his 2015 performance wasn’t his defense, at least in my eyes. It was his hitting. This past season, Hanley coughed up a .252 True Average, which amounts to a slightly below-average offensive season. That is not okay. It was the worst season he’d ever had with the lumber, and his on-base percentage dipped under .300 (to .292) for the first time in his career. At the same time, young Travis Shaw stepped up and performed admirably in limited action for the Sox, hitting 13 homers in 65 games and posting a .278 True Average in relief of the ineffective Mike Napoli. Though Shaw was never seen as a sure thing in previous seasons as a prospect, he looked very solid in his half-season or so last year.
So now we come to the nut of my article, two long paragraphs in: is there a possibility that the Red Sox would be smarter to hand the first base job to Travis Shaw to start the 2016 season, rather than converting their highly-paid veteran to the position? Should the Sox consider Hanley Ramirez a sunk cost and move on, or try to wring his value out at the expense of Mr. Shaw?
Before we get into the psychic costs and benefits of such a move, we absolutely must at least try to crunch some numbers. Yes, Travis Shaw was a better hitter AND fielder than Ramirez last year, but last year is not everything. It’s a sample, and in Shaw’s case, it’s not a very long one. The best thing we can do is go to PECOTA’s projections, and see about the tale of the tape. Let’s start with our proxy for raw offense: True Average. We’ve already detailed the two players’ output during 2015, but PECOTA sees a flip-flop coming in 2016. The projection system imagines a .280 TAv for Hanley, and a .257 TAv for Shaw. If you believe in the power of projections versus simply relying on the previous year, you have to give an edge to Han-Ram. Shaw appears to be a league-average hitter, where Hanley is significantly better than that.
If you believe in the power of projections versus simply relying on the previous year, you have to give an edge to Han-Ram.
We should also probably address the issue of Shaw’s reverse platoon split in 2015, which helped buoy his offensive explosion. Where most lefties have trouble hitting southpaws, Shaw had a very high batting average and enormous power against them. While that’s fun and terrific to watch, it’s not something that’s usually sustainable. You can imagine that this is an area where PECOTA projects him to regress, as a .330 TAv against lefties doesn’t look likely to happen again.
Oh, let’s quickly knock out baserunning runs here: Hanley was a completely average baserunner last season, Shaw probably cost the Sox a run according to BRR. While that’s roughly a wash, and Ramirez is getting older and older, Shaw’s never been a good baserunner in the past. We may still want to give Hanley a very slight nod here. But only a slight one.
Now we arrive at the magic of defense, and this is where things get interesting. Do you believe that Hanley Ramirez will be a good defender at first base? Do you believe he will be average? Honestly, if you believe either of these things, I think it’s a no-brainer to make Hanley the everyday first baseman … because the arrow still points to Hanley’s offense over Shaw’s. However, if you believe he could be below-average or bad … then I think we may want to re-think the Sox’s decision.
If you look at WARP, and PECOTA’s projections, you’ll find that the values for each player are predicated on Hanley being average (0 FRAA), and Shaw being slightly below-average (-1 FRAA). I don’t buy that. Shaw’s minor-league FRAA numbers are pretty decent, including 4.2 FRAA at Pawtucket last season and 2.2 FRAA last year. He’s proven to be a survivable defender at third base … but I guess Hanley did a few years ago too, so maybe we need to throw out that data point. At any rate, projecting Shaw to be maybe a run or two above average instead of below, especially if he’s playing mostly every day, seems to be a safer bet than taking the under.
What if you really do have a wash between the performance of a young, talented guy trying to make the most out of his chance versus a highly-paid veteran looking to recapture some of his old magic?
Hanley, on the other hand, is a wild card. He could be fine. It’s eminently possible. But he could be awful too. If the first looks in Spring Training show a player who’s going to be a strong negative in the field (think -5 to -10 FRAA), then the team would be giving up anywhere from more than half a win to over a full win by running Hanley out over Shaw. And that just might be the difference between the two players’ offense. Then you’ve got a wash.
So, what if? What if you really do have a wash between the performance of a young, talented guy trying to make the most out of his chance versus a highly-paid veteran looking to recapture some of his old magic? If–and I’m not saying they will, but if–the numbers turn out the same, which one should you roll with? From my outsider’s perspective I say you roll with the guy with experience and who is a veteran who could either galvanize or tear apart your locker room. The expectation for Hanley is that he will be an everyday player, while Shaw doesn’t have those expectations yet. The price of keeping Hanley around is expensive, and the team’s fans know that, while the price of keeping Shaw around is minimal. In this case, I imagine that it’s better to stick with the guy who has proven himself time and time again at the big league level over the guy who’s new to this whole thing, even if his 2015 was pretty great.
The last thing I want to point to is the two players’ range of PECOTA projections. As I said before, Hanley’s has a neutral view of defense while Shaw’s is very slightly lower, but the range still is very enlightening. To get to a TAv of .261 for Hanley–remember, this is higher than the median projection for Shaw–we have to dip all the way down to Ramirez’s 20th percentile projection. Shaw’s upside appears to be a .298 TAv, while Ramirez’s is as high as .308. The veteran, not the young player, appears to be the higher-upside option. The 90th percentile WARP on Ramirez (3.9) is likely a full win higher over a full season than Shaw (3.0).
In the end, we should probably remember that the Red Sox are pretty smart, and make logical decisions, the Porcello/Sandoval/Ramirez offseason notwithstanding. The decision to forge ahead with Ramirez may seem like a strange one at times with a talented young replacement in the wings, but the numbers say that Ramirez is likely to offer more upside, no matter how bad last season’s debacle was. Sometimes, the gut decision could even be the right one!
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