Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox

Way back in 2002, when Jason Giambi was in his first season with the Yankees after signing (for the time) a huge free agent contract, people doubted him. Filling the Super-Big Shoes of Tino Martinez is a bid deal; a core Yankee and close personal friend of Derek Jeter, after all.

Giambi got off to a slow start in New York in that first season. Well, “slow” being a relative term. Giambi was hitting “only” .282/.378/.456 (126 wRC+) at the end of April, which spelled disaster for many scribes following the Yankees. Of course, Giambi ended the season with at .314/.435/.598 (175 wRC+)… but midway through May (and he killed it in May, anyway, with a 206 wRC+) people were grumbling.

Then came the May 17 game against the Twins in New York. In bottom of the 14th inning, late at night with the rain coming down and very few people left in the stands, the Yankees were down 12-9. The bases were loaded as Giambi (already 3-7 on the night) came to the plate. Giambi drilled the first pitch from Mike Trombley over the wall for an extra-innings, come-from-behind, walkoff grand slam. The “Giambi has finally earned his pinstripes” stuff started right away, naturally. I am not sure it took, given that Giambi would be the subject of grumbling over the next few years with injuries, PED stuff, and, of course, the Yankees failure to win a World Series with him on the team. Never mind that he hit .260/.404/.521 with 209 homers with the Yankees (Don Mattingly himself only hit 222 in his own Yankees career, and in about twice as many plate appearances). Whether or not it finally took, at the time of the grand slam, at least, it was hyped as Giambi’s Big True Yankee Moment, one which still has resonance.

Although it was not nearly as dramatic in just about any dimension: expectations, contracts, or game situation, but last night, shortstop Stephen Drew may have become a True Red Sock in somewhat similar fashion with a grand slam. Sure, it happened in the top of the third with the Sox already up 4-0, but it still generated a reaction.

Drew’s revival with the bat the last couple of weeks has started to garner “maybe we were too harsh on him” buzz. Drew started the season poorly and hurt for the Red Sox, and some were ready to “call it” on Drew and install Adeiny Hechavarria‘s twin brother, Jose Iglesias, as the everyday shortstop in Boston. Drew, of course, is the younger brother of former Red Sox “choker” J.D. Drew, who never really caught on with the Fenway throngs. Maybe if he’d hit a big homer himself in the playoffs or something…

After a disappointing end to his time with his original team, Arizona, Drew signed a one-year deal with Boston for $9.5 million, and looks like he is filling his role nicely. It’s early and sample size and so on, but it is worth taking a look at his numbers so far anyway to see to what extent Drew may or may not be back in his pre-2011 form, and how he fits into the Red Sox situation.

Stephen Drew comes from quite the baseball family. His older brother J.D. is (in)famous, for many reason – not the least of which occurred when was drafted second overall in 1996 by the Phillies but didn’t sign. Drew was eventually drafted fifth overall in 1997 by St. Louis and signing, forever earning scorn and derision from the Phillies faithful. In that same 1997 draft, another Drew brother was picked at the end of the first round, and although Tim never panned out, he was a Baseball America’s number 91 prospect in 2000. When Stephen was taken 15th overall in 2004 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Drews became (and remain) the only three brothers all drafted in first rounds of their respective drafts.

Stephen, then, had quite the baseball pedigree, and certainly seemed to be living up to it in the minors. Baseball America ranked him as their number five overall prospect in 2006, and he had quite an impressive Major League debut mid-season, hitting .316/.357/.517 (114 wRC+) as a 23-year-old while playing shortstop. The 2007 Diamondbacks surprised just about everyone by winning the National League West, but Drew had a poor season, hitting .238/.313/.370 (70 wRC+) while playing questionable defense. Although the 2008 Diamondbacks returned to earth, Drew regained his form in a big way. Although he walked less and questions about his defense remained, his power returned to 2006 levels, and he finished the season with a .291/.333/.502 line (109 wRC+) — very impressive for a shortstop.

The ups and downs continued for the next few years in Arizona. While no one has ever been blown away by Drew’s fielding, he seemed to get things together to be close enough to average so that questions about moving off shortstop calmed down. But his bat was frustrating. In 2009, his power dropped again, and while .261/.320/.428 (87 wRC+) with average-ish defense is fine for a shortstop, the expectations were higher. Then Drew turned around and had his best season in 2010, fielding decently and hitting .278/.352/.458. Things were looking up going into 2011, but he was hampered by injuries (capped by a nasty, season-ending broken ankle) limiting him to just 86 games, although his performance overall was decent — he hit about as well as he did in 2009.

Things really fell apart last year for Drew. Not only was he struggling to return from his ankle injury, but one of the Diamondbacks owners publicly complained about Drew taking his time coming back from that injury, going so far as to question Drew’s integrity. Drew did play about 40 games for Arizona, but was horrible, (.193/.290/.311, 59 wRC+) and was unsurprisingly traded for next to nothing to Oakland, where he was better if not great (.250/.326/382, 97 wRC+).

Drew was a free agent this past off-season, and the Red Sox needed a shortstop, apparently not having that much faith in Iglesias for the time being and (snicker) having traded Mike Aviles for John Farrell. Although they are obviously very different players in terms of style and overall quality, Drew’s contract with the Red Sox is reminiscent of Adrian Beltre‘s one-year deal with them for the 2010 season: a player who had previously had some impressive years coming off of a down year and looking to re-establish his value. It certainly worked out spectacularly for Beltre, who subsequently signed with Texas and now may be underrated and one of the best players in baseball. Again, Drew is no Beltre. But is is showing signs of recovering the form of his good-season self?

After 113 plate appearances with Boston this year, Drew’s line stands at .245/.336/.418 (102 wRC+). Nothing mind-blowing in itself, but nice for a guy who is probably close to average as a shortstop at this point, if no better. It does not appear Drew is benefiting from the biggest Hot Streak Generator, BABIP — he currently sits at .313, which is not that high in general, and his career BABIP is .305.

One area of concern for Drew is his strikeouts. While in his earlier days in Arizona it was not much of a problem, and one would expect strikeout rates to rise slowly after player’s mid-20s (Drew is 30), from about 17 percent in 2010, Drew’s strikeout rate has jumped to about 21 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2012 all the way to almost 26 percent so far this year. Now, all three of those seasons are partial due to injury or just to being the beginning of the 2013 season, so it has to be taken with a grain of salt and regressed. However, the there is a pretty clear drop-off in Drew’s contact rate starting in 2011, and both strikeout rates and contact rate (which, naturally, correlates strongly — that it, the more contact the less a player will strike out) require smaller samples to stabilize than just about anything else. On the bright side for 2013, though, Drew is making about the same rate of contact now as he did in the previous two seasons, so while his contact skills have probably eroded, he is probably close to his 2011 strikeout rate than his current 2013 level.

While strikeouts are quite important as as a peripheral skill indicator for hitters, they are not the only one, and can be made up for with power and patience. As for the former, Drew’s isolated power (which also becomes relevant fairly quickly, if not quite this quickly) is currently .173, his best since his last good season in Arizona back in 2010. On the positive side, he is hitting home runs on contact at the best rate of his career. Still, even leaving aside sampling issues, the speed and standard distance of those (three) home runs is not any better than in other recent seasons, according to ESPN Home Run Hit Tracker.

Drew’s isolated power is currently boosted by two triples. That can be seen as a good or bad thing. Obviously, they are good in themselves, but as an indication of where Drew is at currently, it is a mixed bag. On the bad sad, the rate of doubles and triples on hits in play is very subject to random variation, so they maybe giving a false idea of Drew’s true talent extra-base power. On the flipside, pre-2011 Drew hit a lot of triples, hitting 35 from 2008-2010, and being on a similar pace in 2011 prior to the ankle injury. That ankle injury and general aging may have slowed him down, so the old Drew should not be expected, but he still may have something there.

If the strikeout issue is mostly bad news for Drew and the power is ambiguous, there is one positive development on offense for Drew so far this season: walks. Already in his disastrous 2012, his walk rate was the best of his career by far at just over 11 percent. So far this year it is over 12 percent. While walk and strikeout rates are their own best predictors, once again his plate discipline peripherals bear out an improved approach the last couple of seasons. Starting in 2012, Drew is swinging at significantly fewer pitches than in the past, which correlates with improved walk rates — even better than O-Swing (swings at pitches outside of the strike zone as defined by the metric), although Drew’s O-Swing is also better the last two seasons than those before. As with strikeouts, walks also go up as a player ages, although that is generally a good thing. Still, it is a pretty big jump, and walk rate correlates strongly.

Stephen Drew has never really been a superstar, and was more of a “low floor” than “high ceiling” guy from the start. He also needs to stay healthy. Drew has shown that he can handle shortstop at least adequately, though. It is early, and the strikeout rate is at least something of a troubling sign. However, perhaps taking time coming back from his ankle injury, no matter how angry it made the Diamondbacks (and they sure settled Justin Upton‘s hash, right?), may have been the right choice in terms of helping him get back to himself at the plate and on the bases. Whatever his physical problems, Drew has also made improvements in his plate approach that can offset his patience. If he can maintain those improvements and stay healthy, he should do well in free agency in the off-season, as even average shortstops are always in demand.

As for the Red Sox, things are working out well for them, too. They needed a stopgap shortstop, and while every team could spend $9.5 million on a stopgap, Boston could have (especially after dumping so many big salaries), and did. They have Iglesias waiting in the wings, if they believe in him, and in the meantime, have a pretty risk-free player in Drew holding down the fort as they are surprisingly in contention. As with stuff the Mike Napoli deal, the Red Sox are utilizing their budget to make short, low-risk commitments to keep the team at least respectable until the farm starts producing. And hey, if they manage some contention in the mean time, so be it.

How well the Sox manage to maintain this in what looks to be an AL East year-long dogfight is worth watching, as is Drew’s bat.