The Sunday Baseball Column: So you want the Red Sox to be the Rays? Let's start here.

Rob Bradford
November 03, 2019 - 7:21 am
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“It’s a very strong organization. I think in the last dozen years we have probably won two and a quarter more games than they have. They do everything right. They don’t get supported but they do everything right.” - John Henry on the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Red Sox principal owner was right. With the last game in the decade officially completed the numbers are in. From 2008-19 the big, bad team from Boston won a total of 1,062 regular-season games. The Rays? Just 21 fewer.

Enter Chaim Bloom.

Henry and Co. were well aware that during that run Bloom was in the middle of the decision-making process in one capacity for the whole ball of wax. That’s a big reason why the 36-year-old is now running a Red Sox team which boasts a payroll almost four times the team left behind.

While there is far from one absolute key ingredient that Bloom might be bringing over from Tampa Bay’s secret sauce, one piece of the puzzle should offer more intrigue than most - analytics.

Even with one of Major League Baseball’s lowest payrolls Tampa Bay has always been known to have one of the largest analytics departments. For more than a few years, it was a reality some in the Red Sox organization looked at with envy. But the true difference isn’t so much about counting the employees in each department but rather how the Rays have gotten these analytics to translate onto the field.

“My sense is that everyone is trying to do the same stuff,” said Red Sox assistant general manager Zack Scott, who is in charge of the team’s analytics department. “I do a lot of research, as much as I can, to see what people are doing and I don’t mean spying or anything. I talk to counterparts and I can tell they have a lot of the same challenges we have. I can tell from people who have left the game who worked in robust analytics departments I know what they have been doing there. Every time I get that information I feel good about what I’m doing because you’re always worried you’re falling behind. I think where we have lagged our competition is on the implementation side of things and not the analytical work. Because that’s just part of it. 

“You need to build all the analytical tools to do all the research, identifying the insights. But if you can’t deliver them effectively and implement them and get buy-in and educate and all the things that come with it …”

This is a very real problem teams like the Red Sox have found themselves facing while highlighting how far ahead a few select organizations like Tampa Bay reside.

The disconnect is — and should be — one of the most powerful talking points when figuring out the evolution of baseball.

While the Red Sox were trying to keep up with the baseball elite in large part by writing checks — coming away with a World Series title in 2018 followed by a disappointing 2019 — they found themselves actually spending the last two years playing a frustrating game of catch-up.

They were, and are, chasing the Rays.

“We really ramped up on kind on implementing throughout the whole organization throughout the last year or two so that’s not much time. It takes time,” Scott explained. “Alex (Cora) wanted to do the major leagues and we really weren’t doing any of that before so we had to really ramp those efforts up and when you try and move fast it makes it harder. You’re going to hit some bumps in the road. We dealt with that. Player development, amateur scouting or wherever we’re trying to fully integrate the analytical work to work with the other stuff we’re doing in those departments there is a learning curve. (The Rays) have been doing it for much longer and they still have had implementation issues.

“For me there needs to be a clear vision organizationally. Here’s what we’re about, here’s what we’re going to do across the board and here’s now we’re going to execute it. And be clear with everyone and transparent with everyone. That’s where it really needs to start. When you try and do things the way we did where we were kind of late to the game in increasing our analytics staff, do good, quality work and move quickly, I don’t think we started well enough with that kind of … We didn’t have as clear a vision because we were still doing discovery. We were still doing expiatory analysis to figure out what we were learning and kind of doing it on the fly. It’s just a process. The teams that are regarded elite in terms of integration with analytics have been doing it longer. That’s really the big advantage. And even some of my counterparts with those teams have expressed to me challenges that they’re still kind fo banging heads against the wall to figure out the right way to strategically communicate it. We’re trying to how to effective deliver this. Where it’s simplified, not intimidating. We’re not being heavy-handed with it.”

Heading into the 2018 season the Red Sox started the process of trying to get into the same analytical conversation as teams like the Rays, Astros, Yankees and Dodgers. It took halfway through that season to truly start seeing some of the work take root, with some obvious payoffs in that postseason.

The Sox increased their analytics department to 15 employees (still well short of the Rays), while hiring Jeb Clarke to travel with the team as a representative of the group in order to answer any on-site questions the player or coaches might have. (Tampa Bay’s version of Clarke is process and analytics coach Jonathan Erlichman, who is actually in uniform.)

All of it still left the Red Sox wanting -- and needing -- more.

While the information has been more abundant, getting it to translate remains the issue.

The conversations about the conversations have already begun between Scott and his new Chief Baseball Officer. ("He has expressed his excitement to see what is under the hood. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m excited to hear your feedback because I know you guys have been doing good work over there and to see how it compares.’ I’m sure he will bring ideas and perspective that will help us," the Red Sox assistant GM said.)

Now comes the hard part: Getting the message across the right way ... some would say the Rays' way.

"A human being can’t process the amount of information we have, and this is any human being, not just players or coaches," Scott said. "So we tend to over-simplify a complex problem because we look for the simple solution but the reality of is that it is way more complex. I think we can utilize the analytical techniques to help process so much information to get to a better starting point.

"It helps them prepare more easily without thinking of 50 different variables. We want them to do the thinking and prep before. We don’t want them to do too much on the mound. If you’ve done all the work before you’ve gotten out there you can use your athletic ability to execute the plan."

AN INTERESTING DAY IN MEXICO

Day 1 of the WBSC Premier 12 Tournament in Mexico Saturday offered a few eyebrow-raising items.

C.J. Chatham started ... as a second baseman. Chatham's existence at the position throughout his time in the Arizona Fall League (along with a few games at Triple-A Pawtucket) and now in this tourney is something to keep an eye on while the Red Sox try to figure out both their second base and utility infielder spots.

Noah Song pitched an inning of perfect relief, continuing to impress while staring at an uncertain future thanks to his Naval commitment. (He is still slated to head report to Pensacola for training after the international competition.)

It's hard to think about Song without remembering the answer Lowell pitching coach Nick Green gave when asked if the fourth round pick reminded him of anyone.

"There is a name that comes off the top of my head but I don't want to make any comparisons," Green said with a smile. "I had the pleasure in 2015 to work with Michael Kopech. That's an elite arm. That's the most elite arm I've ever worked with. At that time he was touching 100. Not saying he's going to be, but the first time I stepped behind him made me have flashes of a Kopech-like fastball. ... It's the whip. The way it comes out of his hand."

Then there was Bobby Dalbec.

Playing for the first time since going through a two-week crash hitting course behind the scenes with the major league team in Sept. the first baseman blasted a grand slam run Team USA's 9-0 win over the Netherlands.

Remember the words from former Red Sox assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett when talking about the progress made by Dalbec during that two-week stint with the big league staff ...

"We got to spend so much time on him, one-on-one time. He’s a really smart kid and communicates really well so in that time you’re able to go back and forth and talk through things. The adjustments he made when he was here was really cool. Tim, him and I started a texting thread and so we’re going to keep in touch throughout as he prepares for the Premier 12. But I thought it was huge.

"These were like private lessons every day. It was a week’s worth of Bobby Dalbec and us. Spring training it’s transient. You have one guy in and one guy out. This was complete focus and we were able to prepare for it before he got here."

There was a second grand slam hit Saturday hit by a semi-familiar name: Estaban Quiroz. He is the second baseman traded by the Red Sox to San Diego in exchange for Colten Brewer. The diminutive infielder managed a solid 2019 in Triple-A, hitting .271 with a .923 OPS and 19 homers.

SOMETHING TO KNOW ABOUT BLOOM'S ROSTER

One of the issues the Red Sox' ownership identified when talking about its search for Dave Dombrowski's replacement was the organization's lack of depth at the big league level.

That's why one tidbit surfaced by Bloom at his introductory press conference should have stuck out: the fact the 2019 Rays used 57 players. That is a team-record 57 who pitched in to make the postseason with 94 regular-season wins.

What really jumps out is a look at where those players came from. A whopping total of 31 came via trades.

The number speaks to two things: 1. The Rays' confidence to do something more and more front offices in baseball aren't, have the confidence to take a chance and move on from their own guys; 2. Draft well enough to have players other teams want.

And just in case you were craving a list of the Rays' 57, here you go:

Mike Zunino: Trade
Ji-Man Choi: Trade
Brandon Lowe: 3rd round pick, 2015
Austin Meadows: Trade
Avisail Garcia: Free agent
Tommy Pham: Trade
Kevin Kiermaier: 31st round, 2010
Yandy Diaz: Trade
Cole Sulser: Trade
Wily Adames: Trade
Travis d’Arnaud: Purchased 
Joey Wendle: Trade
Daniel Robertson: Trade
Guillermo Heredia: Trade
Matt Duffy: Trade
Nate Lowe: 13th round, 2016
Mike Brosseau: Amateur free agent
Eric Sogard: Trade
Jesus Aguilar: Trade
Christian Arroyo: Trade
Michael Perez: Trade
Erik Kratz: Trade
Kean Wong: 4th round, 2013
Andrew Velazquez: Trade
Nick Ciuffo: 1st round, 2013
Anthony Bemboom: Free agent
Johnny Davis: Free agent

Charlie Morton: Free agent
Blake Snell: 1st round, 2011
Yonny Chirinos: Amateur free agent
Tyler Glasnow: Trade
Ryne Stanek: 1st round, 2013
Brendan McKay: 1st round, 2017
Emilio Pagan: Trade
Diego Castillo: Amateur free agent
Colin Poche: Trade
Chaz Roe: Purchased
Adam Kolarek: Trade
Ryan Yarbrough: Trade
Jalen Beeks: Trade
Oliver Drake: Purchased
Andrew Kittredge: Trade
Austin Pruitt: 9th round, 2013
Jose Alvarado: Amateur free agent
Hunter Wood, 29th round, 2013
Trevor Richards: Trade
Nick Anderson: Trade
Casey Sadler: Trade
Wilmer Font: Trade
Peter Fairbanks: Trade
Jake Faria: 10th round, 2011
Anthony Banda: Trade
Jose De Leon: Trade
Hoby Milner: Purchased
Aaron Siegers: Purchased
Ricardo Pinto: Waivers
Ian Gibaut: 11th round, 2015

So about making those trades (and tough decisions) in a place like Boston. Bloom addressed when appearing on OMF:

"I do think if you stay true to who you are and how you believe in treating people then a lot of good things will follow from that. Sometimes our jobs do involve tough decisions that we do get scrutinized for. That’s just part of the business. It comes with the territory. As long as we feel like we have vetted that decision and we’ve come together to a good decision we have to be OK with that scrutiny. If you feel good about your process getting there then you ought to be comfortable with it."

HOW THE NEW GUY VIEWS MOOKIE

There was a lot of talk about just how much the Red Sox' approach toward Mookie Betts and the last year of his contract was mentioned in Bloom's interview. Here is what he said on WEEI:

"We obviously talked extensively about a number of things but it wasn't really discussing what course you chart as much as it was covering the different challenges and decisions that are on the horizon. I can’t say in the interview process we got too deep into it, nor would I think it would have been right to because there is a lot about the situation that I as an outsider until today don’t know. And it would be irresponsible to have really strong opinions on it without knowing all the information, even information that we’ll get as the winter goes on. These decisions are tough. Mookie, you guys have seen him first-hand for a long time that he is a phenomenal player. I have heard that he is a really good guy. I’m looking forward to getting to know him. At the end of the day we’re going to have to look at all the factors before we figure out how to go forward. Recognizing it is a big decision, that makes it even more critical for us to really factor in everything that we need to."

The initial takeaway from this response? By all accounts, both the chief participants in these negotiations -- Bloom and Betts -- are bottom-line guys. History suggest they approach these sort of situations in very similar ways: They dig in exactly what they think is right and move forward accordingly, without letting emotion or public perception sway the approach. The guess is that because of these mentalities Betts' future with the Red Sox will be defined sooner rather than later.

SOME OTHER THOUGHTS ...

- When Rusney Castillo signed with the Red Sox some in the organization used Shane Victorino as a comparison to what the Cuban outfielder could be. As it turns out there was only one similarity: How much money each would make for their Age 32-year-old season. Castillo's predictable decision to exercise his player option for 2020 (pretty much guaranteeing one more full year in the minors due to luxury tax ramifications) he will make $13.5 million. Victorino was at the same age Castillo will be next season when he inked his free-agent deal with the Red Sox, paying him $13 million. It already goes without saying that it is a good bet Victorino's contributions to that 2013 team will far surpass what Castillo will offer in 2020.

- Great point by Dan O'Mara on Twitter regarding the now iconic sound made by Howie Kendrick's Game 7 off the foul pole. It was such an underrated aspect of the moment, while also offering the reminder of another clang ...

- Speaking of Kendrick, he's a free agent. Despite being five years older than Brock Holt, he is a guy whose market Holt should be paying attention to. The guess is that even with the age difference Kendrick -- who totaled a .888 combined OPS over the last three seasons -- will manage to eclipse the two-year, $7 million deal he was playing under with Washington. If not? It might be a rough offseason for utility guys.

- New Red Sox reliever Josh Osich is an intriguing addition. Why? He is one of five current big leaguers to share my birthday (Sept. 3). Only a select few can understand what it was like to have their birthday fall on what is often times the first day of school.