Musings: You're Brad Stevens And You've Got A Problem

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

YOU’RE BRAD STEVENS AND YOU’VE GOT A PROBLEM

Let’s suppose, for just a few moments, that you are Brad Stevens, the coach of the Boston

Celtics. If you are, there is no way you can be pleased about how the current basketball

season, which is winding down to the last few games of the regular season schedule

before the real season – the playoffs – begin, has played out. Oh, it hasn’t been like one

of those epic car crashes that close down the Mass Turnpike during rush hour so the

wreckage can be cleared. But it hasn’t been pretty. There have been times that the team

has shown flashes of the brilliance which was expected of it, but the consistency has not

been there. “Disappointing” would not be an inappropriate word to use in describing the

Celtics this season.

What happened?

Through the eyes of one from the outside looking in, you seem to be the same guy you’ve

always been; open, sincere and dedicated, a guy who has always inspired his teams to do

better than expected. That goes back to your days at Butler University when you led the

unsung Bulldogs to two straight NCAA championship games. As coach of the Celtics,

your teams have always done better than the pre-season pundits have predicted. Even last

year, when Gordon Hayward, the newly acquired all-star forward whom you had coached

at Butler, broke his leg just six minutes into the season and was lost for the year, and

Kyrie Irving lost significant time due to knee problems, including all of the post-season,

you and your team soldiered on, compiled a better-than-expected record, and made a

deep run into the playoffs.

Then came this year. You seemed to have the right personnel and they seemed ready to

play. Then the season began – in fits and starts. It’s been that way all year long; win a

few, lose a few. The team is on the bubble as to whether or not it will make it to the 50

win mark, a total exceeded in each of the last two years.

Again we wonder, what happened?

Larry Bird always had a theory – that after three seasons, in basketball, anyway, players

stop listening to their coaches. By then, according to the Bird theory, whatever pearls of

wisdom a coach might have in his arsenal would have been long since used. When he

was recruited to coach the Indiana Pacers in 1997, in his first year he led them to a 58-24

won-lost record, a franchise record, plus a spot in the Eastern Division NBA Finals, and it

earned him NBA coach-of-the-year honors. In 1999/2000, his third season, he piloted the

Pacers all the way to the NBA finals. Then, true to his word, Bird walked away from

coaching and has never returned.

Another theory is that the NBA is no longer a coaches’ league. Some thirty-five years

ago, when Bird and Magic Johnson were at the top of their games and Michael Jordan

was looming on the horizon, the league made a decision – to aggessively market its

superstars. It worked like a charm, and the NBA reached levels of popularity previously

undreamed of.

But there is an old saying: Beware the law of unintended consequences.

Over the years the league has morphed into one dominated by its superstars at the

expense of its coaches. It’s the players who call the shots these days. Long gone is the

age of Bill Fitch, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. They were strong-willed characters, all.

True, even they knew to act carefully around their superstars, but they were the bosses of

their teams, and everyone knew it. Goodbye to all that. Hello to the age of LeBron James.

LeBron gets to play in whatever city he wants to and with whatever team he wants.

That’s the way the NBA works nowadays. This year has shown that there might be some

cracks in his skills and his stamina and that he might be a mere human being after all.

He’s thirty-four years old now, and an old thirty-four at that. He’s been in the league

since 2003, entering the NBA directly after graduating from St. Vincent-St.Mary High

School in Akron, Ohio. That adds up to a lot of punishment for one body to take, even for

a body as magnificent as LeBron’s. He’s become somewhat injury-prone, and for the first

time he needs to take off an occasional play now and then to let someone else do the

work. The problem is that he’s chosen a team on which there is no one else to pick up the

slack. But he’s still the most powerful force in basketball. Do you think that his coach,

Luke Walton, would ever call him out for, say, not setting a proper pick on a defender?

No way. In fact, Walton probably needs to make an appointment just to speak to Mr.

James at all.

Superstars have always required special treatment and they always will. Even the most

authoritarian of coaches, Red Auerbach, recognized that. Auerbach was, among other

things, a master psychologist. He knew that the great Bill Russell had some quirky

elements to his personality, but that it was important to keep him focused on the game

rather than on some perceived slight. He’d often look the other way when Russell bent a

rule too far, whereas, if it had been another offender, say, Tommy Heinsohn, he’d come

down hard. He knew that it made Heinsohn mad when he did that, but he also knew that

it made him a better player.

So there you have it, Brad. Brad? Are you still with me? Good. We know that at least

some of the problems with the Celtics are not of your making. But you’re the coach and

the onus is on you to fix them. If I knew how to do that I’d be a very rich man. Needless

to say, I am not rich, not even a little bit. So your job, along with all its problems, is safe

for now.

Musings: Enjoy Yourself, It's Later Than You Think

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

ENJOY YOURSELF, IT’S LATER THAN YOU THINK

If you are the Boston Red Sox, the chances are that the player you most want to keep on

your roster for an extended period of time is Mookie Betts. And who could blame you?

He was the American Leage MVP last year, won the batting title with a .346 average,

was a 30-30 man with 30 stolen bases and 32 home runs, and collected his third

consecutive Gold Glove award.

If, on the other hand, you are Mookie Betts, the chances are that you’ll want to test the

free agent market once you become eligible after the 2020 season. And you couldn’t

blame, either. After all, Manny Machado has signed a ten year deal with the San Diego

Padres worth $300 million, an all-time record. Just a week later Bryce Harper put his

name on a thirteen year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies that pays him $330

million, topping Machado’s record.

Here is the truth: Mookie is demonstrably better than either one of those guys.

Harper, for example, batted just .249 last year. That’s ninety-seven points lower than

Mookie’s average. His defensive metrics reveal him to be only average in that department

while Mookie is well established as one of the elite outfielders in the game.

Machado has two Gold Glove awards, but he has never hit .300 in his six years as a major

leaguer, and he does not hustle on every play. In addition, he’s picked up a reputation as a

sometimes dirty player.

If those guys can break the $300 million barrier one shudders to think what kind of

money Betts, or Mike Trout who also comes up for free agency in 2020, will command.

$350 million? $400 Million? Infinity?

The Red Sox have tried to engage Mookie in talks to head off his free agency, but his

representatives prefer to test the market. There is, of course, a certain amount of risk to

that strategy. What if Betts should be seriously injured sometime in the next two years?

What if, for whatever reason, his numbers should suffer a sharp decline? The stakes are

high on both sides of the ledger. From the Red Sox (or any team’s) point of view, long-

term contracts are a recipe for disaster.

Exhibit A is Albert Pujols. In eleven years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pujols had

established himself as one of the greatest hitters of all time. He had a lifetime batting

average of .328 and hit an average of 40 home runs a year. So the Los Angeles Angels

wooed him away with a ten year contract worth $240 million. Pujols has never even

flirted with a .300 batting average since then. In seven years with the Angels he’s hit for

an average of just .260 with only 29 home runs a year. His decline has become steeper

each year; in 2018 he hit only .241 with 19 homers. He’s become injury prone and he

runs in slow motion. Clearly, the end is near for him as a player. But his fat-cat contract

has three more seasons to go.

After the 2007 season Alex Rodriguez signed a ten year contract with the New York

Yankees worth $275 million, but it wasn’t long before he became a public relations

nightmare for the Yankees and for himself over his involvement in the steroids scandal.

He was suspended for the entire 2014 season. Age caught up with him too, and the

Yankees released him in August, 2016, with more than a year to go on his very expensive

contract.

Committing long-term big dollars to a player is a risky business; it’s like jumping from a

plane with an untested parachute. Remember Pablo Sandoval? The folks in the Red Sox

accounting office certainly do; they’re still cutting checks to him at the rate of $18

million annually until the end of this year. Then he’ll get a $5 million buyoutfor next

year.

Ten year contracts are crazy, there can be no doubt. But what if it’s Mookie Betts?

Maybe, just maybe, he’d be the exception to prove the rule. After all, if Babe Ruth had

been able to declare free agency after six years in the big leagues and signed a ten year

contract, he’d have been well worth the price. In 1929, which would have been the last

year of his deal, he led the majors in home runs with 46, batted .345 and knocked in 154

runs. If Ted Williams had done the same, the final season of his ten year deal would have

been 1957, when he only managed a batting average of .388! So it can be done, or at least

it could have once upon a time.

Sam Kennedy, Dave Dombrowsky, and their minions have serious decisions to make

even before confronting the issue of Mookie’s free agency. What will they recommend

that John Henry, Tom Werner, and their partners spend next year on J.D. Martinez? He

has an opt out on his current deal that pays him $23.7 million a year. That’s a whole

bunch of money, but it’s a bargain for what he produced last year - .330 batting average,

43 home runs, and 130 runs batted in. If he does that again this season, he might

command $35 million a year on the open market, which would be a record for an

individual year for a non-pitcher. What about Chris Sale, who is up for free agency after

this season? When he’s healthy, he’s as good as any pitcher on the planet. Let’s not forget

Rick Porcello, also in his free agency year; he might not be quite a Chris Sale, but he’s

dependabe and very durable. To resign just Martinez, Sale, and Porcello after this year

could cost $100 million per year. And then there is Mookie, to say nothing of Xander

Bogaerts.

The Red Sox brass cannot and will not sign them all. They already have the highest

payroll in baseball, and, even with limited resignings, it’s going to get higher, much

higher. This year’s edition looks much like last year, which is fine by me, but down the

road it’s going to change.

Here’s what I recommend we all do in the 2019 season: learn, or relearn the lyrics to that

old song, “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.”

Musings: This Means WAR

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

This Means WAR

War is hell. So, as far as I’m concerned, is WAR.

WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is the chic, in-style statistic used to determine a

baseball player’s total value to his team. I thought it would be a good idea to look into

how a player’s WAR is determined, so the other day I googled it.

My head is still spinning.

The first thing I learned is that there is no standardized way determining a WAR. The

Baseball Reference formula, rWAR (sometimes called bWAR), is different from that

used by Fangraphs, fWAR, which is different from the Baseball Prospectus version, or

WARP. If that isn’t confusing enough, statistics such as wOBA (weighted on-base

average), UZR (ultimate zone rating), UBR (ultimate base running), and DIPS (defense

independent pitching statistics) all figure into a WAR. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to lie

down before I fall down.

I’m not against baseball statistics; in fact, I like most of them – when I can understand

them. The first stat I ever learned was this: whoever scores the most runs wins the game.

That seems pretty straight-forward, as does this: whichever team wins the most games

finishes first. So far, so good. But it’s gotten to the point where you need a PHD in

Advanced Mathematics to keep up.

Mathematics, that’s a word I don’t like. When I was in grammar school they used to call

it arithmetic. I was pretty good at it back then. I caught on to addition and subtraction

pretty quickly. I took to multiplication with no problem, and I got the hang of division,

even long division. School was fun back then; You know the old song lyric, “Reading

and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.”

But then, along about the seventh grade, the word arithmetic got elbowed aside by a more

high-fallutin’ term, mathematics, and all the fun, at least for me, went out of it. Instead of

learning addition and subtraction I found myself in algebra class. It was all downhill from

there. It even spoiled the lyric of the song.

I realize that the old fashioned baseball stats are not infallible; a player’s batting average

might not tell the full story of his prowess at the plate, but it gives you a pretty good idea,

especially when it’s combined with his on-base and slugging percentages. A pitcher’s

wins and losses don’t necessarily tell you about his effectiveness on the mound, but it’ll

give an idea of how well his team does when he’s pitching. And I have to admit that the

saves stat is ridiculous. Now, blown saves, that’s worth paying attention to.

Defensive statistics are especially troublesome to calculate, but through the use of

modern formulas and computerized data, fielders can be better positioned to where a

batter is most likely to hit a ball in certain situations. That explains the dramatic rise in

recent years of infield shifts, especially against left-handed hitters. Red Sox outfielders

now carry index cards in their back pockets to refer to in positioning themselves against

specific hitters.

But the old-fashioned way of figuring things out still has value, too. For a decade

centerfield in Fenway Park was patrolled by Johnny Damon, then Coco Crisp, and Jacoby

Ellsbury, all of whom had great speed and were terrific at chasing down flyballs, but all

of whom had weak throwing arms. Base hits to centerfield meant that runners

automatically went from first to third or from second to home. But now, with Jackie

Bradley, Jr. in center, Mookie Betts in right, and Andrew Benintendi in left, all with

strong, accurate arms, base runners better think twice about taking an extra base. It

doesn’t take a professor in Calculus to reach that conclusion. All you have to do is watch

a few base-runners get gunned down.

But let’s go back to WAR. Because there is no standardized way of defining exactly what

a WAR is, Major League Baseball doesn’t even recognize it as an official statistic. That

has not stopped its true believers from advocating its use. Let’s call them WARmongers.

They are not necessarily bad people, but, whether wittingly or not, they’re taking the fun

out of the game.

The romance of baseball is in what takes place on the field. It’s great athletes competing

against one another, the battle between the pitcher and the batter, the diving stop by an

infielder or the leaping catch in the outfield, a long home run or a runner beating out an

infield hit. It’s sitting in the stands commiserating with a friend – or even a complete

stranger – about what’s likely to happen next; or it’s sitting at home in front of the

television, leaning forward in your seat as the count reaches 3 and 2 with runners on base,

knowing that there are thousands of others leaning forward in front of their TVs, too.

It’s the simplicity of baseball that makes it great, not its complexities. There are three

outs to an inning, and it’s three strikes and you’re out. That’s all you really need to know

to enjoy a game. Sure, it helps to know if a particular batter can hit left-handed pitching

or not, or if there’s someone ready in the bullpen. It even helps, I suppose, to know what

a player’s WAR is, and whether or not it’s a bWAR or an fWAR, but we all fell in love

with the game of baseball, not the science of it.

It’s important for the people in the baseball operations department to stay up to date on

all the latest analytics, and it’s just as important for the manager to buy into all that, but

the most important thing is for the players on your side to be better than their counterparts

on the other team.

A little learning, it is said, is a dangerous thing. That’s true - and it’s why I’m sorry I ever

googled WAR.