The Red Sox, and what the Houston Astros can learn from their success
As recently as seven years ago, had you told me that the Boston Red Sox would be the best organization in Major League baseball, I would probably have laughed at you.
In 2002, the Red Sox had just finished second in the AL East. Thirty-nine players played for the Red Sox that year, only ten of whom had been drafted and developed by the Sox. Of eighteen pitchers, only three – including zero in the starting rotation – had come up through the organization. Those three relievers accounted for just 143 innings of the 1,446 that the pitching staff had thrown in the season. Left-hander Casey Fossum pitched 106.2 of those 143.
Though the Sox were competitive, they were doing it without much of a farm system. Because they had cobbled together a lineup mostly out of free-agent signings, trading away prospects, and waiver wire acquisitions, they had the look of the Yankees Lite. Their strategy seemed to be to outspend everyone in baseball with the exception of the Yankees, and then to play the underdog and complain about how the Yankees were buying championships.
Their farm system was a shambles, perenially ranked near the bottom. The six minor league affiliates were a combined 314-377 (.454) in 2002, with only the Augusta Greenjackets finishing with a winning record at 69-67. They had an average finish of 9.5, and none of them finished higher than 8th in their divisions.
In 2008, the Red Sox finished second in their division again, earning a Wild Card spot and advancing to the American League Championship Series, where they lost in seven games. Forty-seven different players suited up for the Sox, and though that only included 3 starting position players (C Jason Varitek, 1B Kevin Youkilis, 2B Dustin Pedroia), it did include 24 players who broke into the majors with the team.
Their six minor league teams finished a combined 373-313 (.541), with an average finish of fifth in their respective divisions. No team finished worse than eighth. No team did not post a winning record. Additionally, the Lancaster Jethawks (now a Houston Astros affiliate) made it to the California League finals.
Moving into 2009, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie should receive strong consideration to be the everyday starters at centerfield and shortstop, respectively, making five of the Red Sox starting nine homegrown prospects. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, considered by many to be the model of farm-system efficiency, had just four (Iwamura, Longoria, Crawford, Upton).
Had you asked a Red Sox fan how they felt about the team in 2002, they probably would have been very positive. They’d just finished second in a tough division, and though they hadn’t made a playoff appearance since 1999, they were continually in the hunt. They hadn’t finished lower than second in the division since 1997.
They spent money, they had All-Star caliber players, and they competed in their division. But they couldn’t break through and win it all. Injuries at key positions could decimate them, because they had a weak farm system, despite a few standout players. They couldn’t pull everything together at the same time.
Houston Astros fans, does this sound familiar?
What changed for the Red Sox between 2002 and 2009? How was this franchise, whose major league team was solid, but whose minor league system was incapable of filtering through enough quality players to add much-needed depth to compete solidly in the playoffs, , able to turn things around and become what I believe is the best organization in baseball?
There are many factors, of course, but three big ones leap to mind:
1) John Henry. In 2002, the Red Sox had just been purchased by an ownership group headed up by John Henry. Henry certainly hadn’t impressed many as the owner of the Marlins from 1999-2001, but when he took over the Red Sox in 2002, he assembled a top-notch front office, headed by CEO Larry Lucchino from the Padres. Henry had grown up a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and had been involved in baseball at many levels – first as owner of the minor league Tuscon Toros, subsequently as co-founder of the Senior Professional Baseball Association. For a while, he also headed up a group vying for an expansion team in Denver, which would later become the Colorado Rockies. He had also owned a small interest in the New York Yankees before becoming sole owner of the Marlins.
What was different about his tenure with the Red Sox? Simply put: money. He had a much bigger market, a more-dedicated fan base, significantly higher revenue, and the added funds of his co-owners, television producer Tom Werner and the New York Times Company.
2) Billy Beane. Before the 2003 Winter Meetings, the Red Sox hired Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane to fulfill the same function for their organization. Beane accepted the offer for $12.5m a year over five years – the largest contract ever offered to a Geneal Manager. The new Oakland GM, Paul DePodesta, argued at length with the Red Sox and their new assistant GM, Theo Epstein, about the compensation the Red Sox would give the Athletics. He refused to give away Beane for anything less than two minor leaguers, including a single-A player named Kevin Youkilis, the “Greek God of Walks.”
During the negotiations, before a contract had been signed, Beane changed his mind and returned to the Athletics. Epstein was promoted to the General Manager position, despite being just 28 years old. The hiring of Billy Beane wasn’t significant in itself, but rather because it showed that the Front Office had dedicated themselves to Beane’s philosophy, that a sabermetric approach to building an organization – combined with their deep pockets – was an approach that could not be topped.
So far, they’ve been right.
3) Bill James. James might have been little more than a token hire when Henry signed him as the Red Sox “Senior Consultant, Baseball Operations.” He w
as 54 years old and had never played professional baseball. He’d never been involved in the front office of a baseball team. But he was the father of sabermetrics, going back to his self-published Baseball Abstracts beginning in 1977.
James was responsible for many new statistics that tried to explain baseball production better than the typical “triple crown” statistics. Runs Created, Range Factor, Defensive Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, Pythagorean Winning Percentage, Game Score, Major League Equivalency, Brock2, Similarity Scores, Secondary Average, Power/Speed Number, and Approximate Value are all Bill James inventions.
Henry had grown up reading the Bill James Baseball Abstracts, and had found himself fascinated with this new way of looking at the numbers of baseball. The fact that it took so long for a Major League Baseball team to hire James is one of the greatest confusions in modern sports, but when the Red Sox finally did it in October 2002, they sent a very clear signal that they were serious about competing.
The Astros’ owner, Drayton McLane, is a very hands-on owner with a rigid view of baseball. In a day and age where many teams are “seeing the light” on sabermetrics and most GM positions are filled with first-timers who have shown a dedication to advanced baseball knowledge, McLane hired former Phillies GM Ed Wade. Wade is a good General Manager – he built the overwhelming majority of the Phillies’ 2008 championship team.
But as the Red Sox have proven over the last six years, a sabermetric approach – combined with the ability to spend money on the right players – is about as potent a combination as baseball has seen.
After all, it’s turned them into the best organization in baseball.