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Money player

Why the critics of J.D. Drew may be off-base

When it comes to on-base percentage - which Theo Epstein and the Sox value greatly - you have to hand it to J.D. Drew. When it comes to on-base percentage - which Theo Epstein and the Sox value greatly - you have to hand it to J.D. Drew. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 14, 2010

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The locker sits at the end of the row, closest to the door that leads to the field, not far from the door that leads out of the park. It is perfectly positioned for J.D. Drew, a player who sometimes seems in need of an escape route. There is rarely anyone in his space, his presence a rarity in a clubhouse filled with more outspoken players, more visible players.

So while the narrative of the clubhouse is being told, athlete to athlete, athlete to reporter, Drew is largely absent. His contributions are left to speak for him on the field - with the occasional flick of a dry, sneaky sense of humor - even as the conversation surrounding his achievements runs to the negative, the sarcastic, the dismissive.

It would be hard to say that the outfielder is beloved in Boston, or that he was in previous stops in St. Louis and Atlanta and Los Angeles. There is pure hatred for him in Philadelphia.

He does not get the same admiration as his predecessor in right field, Trot Nixon, a man who fit the Boston mold. He is not a dirty-uniform player, a hustle guy, a guy who demonstrates much emotion at all. He is not likely to hit .300 or drive in 100 runs. Yet those around the game, including his employers, are hardly concerned with that. They prefer to concentrate on what he is: one of the better all-around outfielders in the game, and one of the best at getting on base.

“We have somebody who can play a good right field at Fenway Park, which is hard to find, and get on base at a really high level and hit for power,’’ general manager Theo Epstein said. “That’s a rare combination, someone who could hit in the middle of our lineup and play that position. So it’s a valuable asset to the club. He’s done a really good job since he’s been here.’’

Concentrate on Drew’s walk totals, on his on-base percentage, on his slugging, on his baserunning, on his defense, and therein lie the reasons that his front office believes he has been well worth $42 million over the first three years of his five-year deal.

But also understand that, in some ways, it’s more about what Drew is not doing than what he is doing. He is not making outs. And, in this game, for this team, that is wildly valuable.

RBIs not important
He does not hit mammoth home runs, or steal loads of bases, or inspire legions of fans to buy his jersey. He engenders more controversy than support in many corners. And still, he reaches base better than almost anyone.

“He is not a guy that’s necessarily going to carry a team,’’ said a National League scout. “He’s been a very good complementary player on some very good teams. They have had superstars that have pretty much taken a lot of the limelight away from him. There are things in his abilities that do stand out. But you just don’t see them every single day.

“You see [Albert] Pujols, his run production, you go to the ballpark anticipating what you’re going to see with Albert Pujols. You probably don’t do that with J.D. Drew.’’

But that’s not why the Red Sox signed Drew. They don’t need him to carry the team. They need him get on base, run the bases, and play defense. They need him to use skills that Epstein has referred to as subtle. The numbers, however, are anything but.

Just 10 players had an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .900 or greater in 2008 and ’09: Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Holliday, Chase Utley - and Drew.

Over the three seasons since he signed with Boston, Drew has gotten on base at a .390 clip. That stands as fourth-best among outfielders in baseball in that span, behind only Manny Ramirez (.412), Holliday (.403), Magglio Ordonez (.397), and tied with Adam Dunn.

And while the lack of RBIs remains a strong criticism, Epstein maintains that the statistic doesn’t matter to the front office. Sure, the team needs to score runs to win, and they’d love it if Drew drove more in. But they’re unconcerned overall with his ability to pick up RBIs because players who walk a significant amount and don’t expand their strike zone, like Drew, are destined not to produce as many.

In fact, his OBP rises with men on base, from .388 to .397. His batting average, however, is higher with the bases empty (.280 vs. .286).

“Based on his skill set, he’s always going to have underwhelming RBI totals,’’ Epstein said last September in an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “When you’re putting together a winning team, that honestly doesn’t matter. When you have a player that takes a ton of walks, who doesn’t put the ball in play at an above-average rate and is a certain type of hitter, he’s not going to drive in a lot of runs.

“If you look at a rate basis, J.D. scores a ton of runs. And the reason he scores a ton of runs is because he does the single most important thing you can do in baseball as an offensive player, and that’s not make outs.’’

Overpaid or overlooked?
The offseason of 2006-07 was, in short, a period of abysmal deals around baseball, highlighted by those given out to pitchers Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, and Kei Igawa. But the outfielder market - in terms of bad contracts - wasn’t much better. Instead of signing Drew, Epstein could have chosen Alfonso Soriano ($136 million, eight years), Carlos Lee ($100 million, six years), Gary Matthews Jr. ($50 million, five years), or Juan Pierre ($44 million, five years).

According to the value estimations on fangraphs.com, in the three years since those deals were signed, Soriano has earned $33.4 million (8.0 wins above replacement player), while being paid $41 million. Lee has earned $40 million (9.2 WAR), while being paid $43 million. Matthews has earned -$5.2 million (-1.1 WAR), while being paid $26.2 million. Pierre has earned $15.4 million (3.6 WAR), while being paid $25.5 million.

And Drew? Even with a rough 2007 in which he “earned’’ just $5.6 million (1.4 WAR), Drew has earned $45.4 million (10.3 WAR) in Boston, while being paid $42 million. So, in the warped world of baseball finances, the argument could be made that Drew is underpaid. Or, perhaps, that he is compensated equally to his value.

It’s clear that the Sox would make the deal again. Even allowing for some dropoff in performance in the final years, they still would sign the 34-year-old for the same money, still want him to be their right fielder - especially in the postseason, where Drew has made his name in the biggest spots.

Drew has gotten the hit so many times that some in the organization privately wonder why David Ortiz has gotten all the praise.

There was the two-out grand slam off Fausto Carmona in Game 6 of the 2007 American League Championship Series, the ninth-inning tie-breaking homer off Francisco Rodriguez in Game 2 of the 2008 ALDS, the home run and game-winning RBI in the Sox’ epic comeback in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS, the homer in a loss in Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS.

At least one member of the Sox organization was so confident in Drew’s abilities that against David Price in the eighth inning of the 2008 ALCS, he considered Drew exactly the person he wanted at the plate, even though it didn’t work out.

“I think he’s a guy that rises to the occasion,’’ the scout said. “I’ve seen him play quite well in the playoffs. I’ve seen him get some awfully big hits for this ball club. I think he has risen up to the expectations that I would certainly give to him based on when I first saw him. He’s fulfilled my expectations. I think that probably there may be some people that would disagree with that.’’

The mantle of expectation
The dismissal of Drew’s value can be traced partially to Drew himself. He (along with agent Scott Boras) made the decision not to sign after being drafted second overall by the Phillies in 1997, bringing down the enmity of the City of Brotherly Love, and marking him with greed. But more than that, it’s the unfulfilled promise that rankles people when they consider just how exceptional he was thought to be.

“I think he’s got dramatic skills,’’ said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. “In fact, when I first saw him in his rookie year, you could put him in the discussion with a Mickey Mantle. Not quite Mantle, but I mean he had that kind of swing with power and explosive speed.’’

La Russa cautions that his recollections must be taken with a grain of salt. Drew is not Mantle. He never has been Mantle. But the thought that he could have been, that legend status was within reach, is difficult to forget. It’s hard to give him a pass, allowing him to simply be what he is: very good, not great.

It was La Russa, though, who took a shot at Drew in the book “Three Nights in August.’’ There, La Russa chastised the young player for being willing to “settle for 75 percent.’’ He seems to regret that statement, explaining that he wanted to keep Drew away from money’s trap of complacency.

But those are hardly the only knocks on Drew. There remains the concern that he is not on the field enough. Drew, though, has played in 140, 109, and 137 games in Boston, for a front office that targeted him for about 135. The Sox understand Drew’s limitations, and plan for them with an adequate backup who also can spell him against tough lefthanded pitchers.

“I think he’s received an unfair tag about injuries,’’ La Russa said. “I know in our experience every time that he was hurt, he was hurt. I don’t think he ever willingly dodged some games because he was tired and a little ouchy. I just think his body has betrayed him.’’

If anyone can understand that sort of betrayal, it is Rocco Baldelli. The outfielder, who befriended Drew while in Boston, has been plagued by health concerns and has been doubted. He gets what Drew has gone through. He doesn’t like it.

“A lot of the time it doesn’t have to do with desire to get on the field; a lot of the time it has to do with the body that you’re given,’’ Baldelli said, not specifically referring to Drew. “When people talk about you - people that don’t really know you and question your desire - it makes you so angry when people question your integrity and your desire.

“Because when people are questioning, they’re questioning your character. I think people should be very, very careful when they dare to question people’s character.’’

More of the same
It frustrates those around Drew, his teammates, his organization, his benefactors in the game. This is not to say that all is right with him. There are some who don’t trust him. There are some who always will believe Drew is soft. There are few players that draw out ire the way he does.

“People’s impressions of what guys are really like aren’t always true,’’ Baldelli said. “And sometimes, even if they are true, they don’t mean anything. Simply because a guy has a certain way about him or personality doesn’t impact what goes on on the field. I can say just from getting to know J.D. that J.D. cares immensely about how he does. You don’t have to be throwing helmets and being an outspoken kind of person to care about what you do.’’

It’s unclear how much the negativity bothers Drew. He simply gets to the park, takes batting practice, does his job. And he does it about as well as any right fielder in baseball. Except, the question remains: When superstardom is assumed, and a player becomes only very good, why is that considered such a failure?

For the Sox, that doesn’t matter. But given the makeup of the team this year, the questions surrounding Ortiz and the offensive dropoff in the outfield, Drew might be relied upon even more. He must counter some of his teammates’ strikeout tendencies by keeping his OBP where it always is.

And whether or not he says anything to anyone, whether or not he slams his helmet, Drew likely will be on base at a .390 clip. He likely will have an OPS around .900. He likely will continue to irritate some fans. And he likely will continue to be valued by his general manager and his team, even with a $70 million contract on his back.

“I think a lot of times there’s a tendency to pigeonhole players or label them based on things we think we know about them by the way they act,’’ Epstein said in the radio interview. “Then in J.D.’s case, you combine that with the fact that his game, the things that he does extraordinarily well, which actually really help teams win, are subtle.

“Home runs and RBIs, just to keep it in the most basic terms that are really obvious to people, everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, this guy is 30 and 100.’ The fact that J.D. is going to have close to a .400 on-base percentage, close to a .500 slugging percentage, no one talks about that.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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