The Tale of Two Drews

The Red Sox employed outfielder J.D. Drew from 2007-2011 and signed his brother, Stephen, to a one-year contract prior to the 2013 campaign. The Drews are ballplayers who go about their business in similar ways — they’d prefer to avoid the limelight and just hit the baseball. It’s an admirable quality, but not one that’s so cooperative with the Boston media or fans. For some inexplicable reason, Boston is enamored with players whose highs are raucous and whose lows are dismal. This was never the case with J.D., and doesn’t appear to be the case with Stephen, but the numbers say that they’re some of the best Sox contributors in recent history.

The Background

J.D. and Stephen were high profile prospects in their respective draft classes and both went to Florida State University.* Prior to signing with the Sox, the two had established themselves in the National League. Both brothers, however, followed completely different paths to their contracts with the Boston Red Sox. In 2007, the Sox signed J.D. at the pinnacle of his career to a 5-year, $70 million contract. Stephen signed a low-risk, high-reward deal with the Sox for 1-year at $10 million prior to 2013. He’s the shortstop for now — Xander Bogaerts is the future. Boston fans can’t help but notice the similarities between the two brothers, which extends beyond the striking resemblance to one another and the shared uniform number (#7). Stephen plays the game much same way as J.D. did, with a smooth and dispassionate style that makes hitting and fielding a baseball seem as simple as driving a tractor (because this is all I like to imagine J.D. does now that he’s stepped away from the game). The two have nearly identical left-handed swings and are known around baseball to share one elite quality: their approach to an at-bat and their knowledge of the strike-zone.

Batter’s Eye

J.D. Drew was heralded as one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball when he signed with the Red Sox in 2007. This means he had an excellent understanding of the strike-zone and had the ability to take close pitches for balls to reach base. Less was known about Stephen when he arrived in Boston, as he was a lower-profile signing. But after his first 84 games, it’s clear that he possesses the same skill. The skill can be quantified by using a PITCHf/x statistic called O-Swing%. The stat measures the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike-zone. If you need more info on O-Swing%, FanGraphs has a good summary. But suffice it to say that the lower a hitter’s O-Swing%, the better handle he has on the strike-zone (there are a few exceptions; for example, Miguel Cabrera does not see very many pitches in the zone, but is still skilled enough to square up balls that are off the plate. He has one of the highest O-Swing% in the MLB). I’ve plotted BB% (a hitter’s rate of drawing walks) vs. O-Swing% for each hitter with at least 300 plate appearances this season and super-imposed J.D.’s numbers he racked up with the Sox (2007-2011):

BBOSWing

We can make a couple of observations. First off, BB% clearly trends with O-Swing% — this makes sense: those who swing less often at pitches outside the zone are more likely to walk. Second, we see that Stephen possesses the same plate discipline as J.D., ranking around the 15th percentile in O-Swing%. In fact, both brothers’ BB% is slightly higher than we might expect based on the linear regression (i.e. the data points lie above the trend line). Finally, we notice that if J.D. played in 2013, he would lead the league in O-Swing%. That’s right: J.D. Drew would have the best eye in Major League Baseball if he strapped on the spikes and decided to have another go. Players who are more likely to walk (i.e. who have a high BB%) are more likely to have a higher OBP, one of the fundamental stats for determining a player’s value. It’s not difficult to see why the Drews got the big bucks from Boston.

Fans (including myself) were under the assumption that if you have a great eye, you strike out less. This is not such a ridiculous proposition: if you have an elite knowledge of the strike-zone, then surely you should utilize it with two strikes. But a simple plot of K% (the rate at which a hitter strikes out) vs. O-Swing% demonstrates otherwise:

KOswing

A blob. The two statistics are not correlated in the slightest. To Sox fans, it seemed that J.D. Drew often took the third strike with the bat on his shoulder — the “Master of the Backwards K”. Since Sox fans knew he had a great eye, it seemed as though this happened at an alarming rate, as the expectation was that a lower O-Swing% should also lead to a lower K%. The two stats are not correlated and Drew did not strike out at an alarming rate at all — if he decided to step into the batter’s box in 2013 he’d be right around the league average in K%. Because J.D.’s eye was touted (for good reason) as one of the best in the league, many fans unfairly jumped to conclusions about how often he should strike out. Also, if we take a look at where Stephen lies in the data spread, we see that he strikes out at a much greater rate than his brother, but seems to take less heat from Red Sox Nation. This might be because Sox fans love players with a flair for the dramatic — something Stephen has shown he possesses whereas J.D. never did.

The “Anti-Clutch”

The biggest hit I remember from J.D. Drew was a grand slam in Game 6 of the 2007 ALCS, which turned the tide of the series. As for walk-offs, I remember one biggie: a line-drive over the head of the right-fielder in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS against the Rays to cap a massive Sox comeback. Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston reminds us that there was, in fact, one more, but goes on to summarize J.D.’s reputation brilliantly: “Mr. Excitement, he was not.”

“The Anti-Clutch” was the nickname bestowed to J.D. Drew by my dad, who was often frustrated with his performance in tight spots. But my dad’s a stubborn guy and may have been swayed by one strikeout (he also championed the nickname “Master of the Backwards-K”). Certainly he hasn’t done a fair analysis of the relevant statistics, so I’ll do it here. CLUTCH is a complicated statistic that attempts to quantify a player’s performance in high-pressure situations. It utilizes WPA (win probability added) and LI (leverage index, a measure of just how “high pressure” the situation truly is) and normalizes the league-average player to zero. You can read more about CLUTCH here, but the number generally ranges from -1 to 1. Thus, a player with a positive CLUTCH can be considered just that (clutch) but a player with a negative CLUTCH often chokes in the tight spots. So how did J.D.’s numbers look during his time in Boston?

JDDrew

Yikes. That’s all there really is to say about that, except for it likely validates the opinion of Dr. D’Andrea. For reference, Stephen Drew’s CLUTCH is 0.64 during his first season in Boston, which checks in at well-above average. Nonetheless, J.D. Drew has had a tremendous, all-star career, similar to the likes of Eric Davis, Raul Mondesi, and Kirk Gibson.

Stephen’s Trend

Jose Iglesias started the season as the Red Sox shortstop when Drew missed much of spring training due to a concussion. When Drew returned, Iglesias was optioned to Pawtucket, but was recalled when Stephen missed time in July with a hamstring injury. Iglesias was traded to the Tigers in the deal that brought Jake Peavy to the Sox, clearing the way for Drew to re-assume the everyday job on the left side of second base. Drew’s season trend, especially as it pertains to his batting average, was likely a main reason why GM Ben Cherington felt comfortable giving up Iglesias, a defensive wizard:

Stephen Drew

While Drew’s not even half the fielder that Iglesias is, he has the potential to carry a team for weeks at a time with his bat. Fitting his season trend to a third-degree polynomial (this is not a “random” choice — he has clearly had two critical points over the course of the year), we can see that Drew is heating up as the season turns to August. In the best-case scenario (the one in which Drew continues or surpasses his current surge), he could be hitting .300 by September 1st. In a more realistic scenario, Drew will continue his current hot streak, and then regress to his career average of .264 by the time September rolls around. In any case, the remainder of the season is looking promising for the Red Sox shortstop, which is a good sign for a team that’s in desperate need of production from the position. In the wake of the Peavy deal, my favorite Globe writer Chad Finn had this to say about the brothers: “And yes, I’m kind of chuckling at the thought that the unfairly maligned Stephen Drew is still here while Iglesias has moved on. The Drews, they’re survivors, man.”

*J.D. Drew was drafted by the Phillies second overall in 1997, but failed to sign a contract. He and agent Scott Boras demanded $10 million whereas the Phils were only willing to offer $2.6 million. He played with an independent league team for one year, then was drafted fifth overall by the Cardinals in 1998, signing for $7 million. Phillies fans booed him for the entirety of his career.

Vince D’Andrea is a rising senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is an avid Red Sox fan and his blog, Dave Roberts’ Dive, can be found here.




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