One of the satisfactions about this pretty great Red Sox season so far has been discovering new things about older players.
I should say older players who are new to Boston. It may surprise you, but I watch a lot of baseball – the MLB.tv package, most often the Dodgers game, is the soundtrack when I’m writing from my home office late at night. And I feel like I have a pretty decent base of first-hand knowledge on just about every player in the majors, particularly the veterans.
But I have to admit, there have been many small revelations and flat-out surprises to me among this core of quality, accomplished, solidly middle-class grinders that Ben Cherington brought to the Red Sox this season with his brilliant, substance-over-style blueprint.
But most of all, I didn’t know Shane Victorino could still do this.
Hey, did you? Did anyone, besides Shane Victorino and Ben Cherington?
This moment is an appropriate one to acknowledge that Cherington’s decision to sign the chipper 32-year-old outfielder to a three-year, $39 million contract in December has gone from being one of the most curious and panned signings of the offseason to one of the most fulfilling.
Victorino had himself a game Tuesday night against the Orioles, homering twice – including the 100th of his career – driving in seven runs, scoring four times, earning a walk, and even derisively flipping the ball back toward hapless Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen after getting drilled with a pitch.
It was a tour de force performance in a wildly fun 13-2 victory that reminded you one more time: This team really does have a chance to accomplish great things.
Great things aren’t new to Victorino, either. It was easy – and perhaps even fair – to overlook the superb player he had been for so long in the aftermath of his difficult 2012 season. Splitting time between the Phillies and Dodgers, he hit just .255 with 11 homers and a .704 OPS in 154 games.
He did steal 39 bases, but his OBP was just .321, and even with the knowledge that he dealt with a hand injury for much of the season, he did appear to be a player whose hard-edged style of play was taking a toll.
ESPN’s Keith Law suggested he might be a fourth outfielder going forward, noting his declining bat speed. He ranked him 29th among all free agents, behind the likes of Michael Bourn (4th), Ryan Dempster (11th), Shaun Marcum (23d), and Kevin Youkilis (24th.) B.J. Upton at No. 2 isn’t looking so great nowadays, either. It might be easy to criticize Law’s ranking of Victorino with hindsight, but it wouldn’t be fair – in fact, it’s tough to find those who thought he’d have this bounce-back in him.
Cherington was one, and while he may have been alone on an island at the time – Josh Hamilton was still available – the reasons for his appeal are obvious in retrospect.
He was just one year removed from an outstanding all-around offensive performance. In 2011 for the Phillies, he went .279/.355/.491 with 17 homers, 16 triples, 27 doubles, and 19 steals in 132 games. That’s a daydream for what Jackie Bradley Jr. may be at his peak.
And all along he has been a defensive right fielder, the best the Red Sox have had since Dwight Evans.
It’s to the point that you wonder if he has a shot to get the runner at the plate on what should be the most routine of sacrifice flies. Damned if he didn’t almost throw out the Orioles’ Danny Valencia on such a play in the third inning Tuesday night.
As the Providence Journal’s Brian MacPherson noted on Twitter, Victorino has a fWAR of 4.8 this season. That equates to a value of $23.8 million, which makes him somewhere between a bargain and a steal.
For comparison, here’s Hamilton ’13: 1.1, $5.7 million.
For further comparison, Carl Crawford was worth about $300,000 over his entire time with the Red Sox. Pretty sure he got paid more than that.
There’s so much else to like about Victorino beyond that he has been worth every penny of his contract and then some. He’s a happy-go-lucky contributor to the changed culture. He has the best at-bat music (“Three Little Birds”) on the team. His sore hamstring prevents him from driving the ball lefthanded, so he simply bats righthanded against righties and currently has an .884 OPS in doing so.
Maybe Red Sox fans didn’t know they were getting this. I certainly didn’t, and being clued in has been great fun. But in looking back at Cherington’s comments the day Victorino was introduced … well, here you go, just read ’em:
“There were some times last year maybe he didn’t feel quite the way he wanted to,” Cherington said. “What we wanted to do this offseason, as you guys know, is not just add to the outfield, but add to the outfield with a guy who is a center field-quality defender, and do that with a guy who can run the bases and hit and add the energy that Shane does, that’s a really good fit for a lot of different reasons.
“We know the kind of player he has been over a long period of time. We know the kind of player he has been over the years and we’re looking forward to seeing him out here. He’s a big part of what we’re trying to do. He’s been a big part of good teams, and not just one, and he’s going to be a big part of what we’re doing.”
I mean, that’s prescient in about five different ways. The GM, he knew what Victorino could do.
For the rest of us, it’s been fun catching on to all the clues along the way.