The Boston Red Sox made hay this year by hitting on a bunch of free agents signings and creating a team that appears, or is at least credited as being, greater than the sum of its parts. Platoon guys and character guys who didn’t quite look like they would be the great team Fenway Park eventually produced.
The Red Sox are now thought to be in pursuit of Brian McCann, the long-time Braves catcher testing free agency for the very first time. A lot of what McCann offers appeals to the Red Sox and their sensibilities. One Sox fan laid out his personal list of reasons for the Sox making a move on McCann. It’s hard to argue with many of the points.
The more I think about it, the more I feel like all these points are related. And the more closely related the points are, the more important it becomes for teams to not only target good players but targeting the correct players.
There is a limit to which data scientists can parse the skills and abilities of baseball players. The information might be proprietary but, honestly, how many different conclusions might their actually be? Forecasting injuries and decline is another thing and of equal importance, but deciding which player is good and which player is not doesn’t add up to rocket science.
What can teams do to best extract the value and performance they expect and pay for? This is where the points converge, in my mind. As Sullivan lays out, Brian McCann is a good clubhouse guy and a player facing a position change in the not too distant future. As an aging playing, McCann might see a bump in production once he starts limiting his reps behind the plate, eventually moving out from behind the dish permanently as he enters the “dead money” years of his deal.
This is where the free agent process gets tricky and the psychological side of the business comes to the fore. Yes, Brian McCann is a clubhouse leader and noted for his great makeup (fans who point to his hilarious/unhinged behavior after home run celebrations miss the larger point that McCann remains beloved by his teammates.)
Transitioning from Everyday Catcher to Part Time DH and Sort Of First Baseman requires an adjustment in mentality from the player – it requires buy-in. A player could end with zero interest in bringing the next generation up to speed on big league life, especially as their playing time declines in the process.
It’s all well and good to envision McCann slowly making his way to first base for the good of the team and eventually mentoring players like Blake Swihart or Ryan Lavarnway as the Red Sox pass the catching torch. But professional athletes, even the most gung-ho team-first guys, don’t age well.
The best laid plans, in other words. The Red Sox (or Rangers or whoever splashes the cash for Brian McCann) must get a read on the ability of a potential free agent to accept not only their heaping sums of cash but their plan, their vision for the player’s role in the future. Live together, die alone.
For my money, this is the highlight of the Red Sox chemistry experiment. Any smart GM can make the pieces fit together, but when players buy-in and the internalize their roles, responsibilities, and limitations – that is the lubricant that keeps the machine running smoothly.
This is the true value of chemistry of baseball. Find players who not only fit into a platoon but want to be in that role. Having veterans show your future core pieces The Right Way to Play only helps if the veterans are actually interested in Playing the Right Way.
Maybe this is nothing. Maybe the Red Sox just got lucky and baseball is no different than any other sport – you can trick the players into looking out for your best interests for a little while but eventually they all need to get theirs. No amount of coaching or coaxing will convince a player to sacrifice future earnings if they players feels his playing time threatens a potential payday.
The Red Sox have a lot to gain in signing McCann and, given the huge salary he will demand, a fair amount to lose as well. They will surely do their homework to make sure Brian McCann will be the right fit with their club – both now and the future. A strong bond forged at the beginning of a contract can go a long way to paying off the leaner years near the end of his career.