EXTREME OPS: The Boston Red

EXTREME OPS: The Boston Red Sox yesterday traded third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to the Arizona Diamondbacks for starter/closer Byung-Hyun Kim, marking the first major deal of Theo Epstein’s tenure as Bosox general manager. The deal, in Boston and elsewhere (such as Rob Neyer’s column) has gotten rapturous reactions, with Neyer even absurdly likening it to Boston’s infamous trade of Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen.
Now despite acquiring a player whose most memorable career moment up to this point was a two-night meltdown in Yankee Stadium, I feel as though this trade has a very good chance of working out well for the Red Sox. But at the same time I can’t help noticing that Hillenbrand is getting the shaft, just has he has gotten the shaft, really, ever since coming out of nowhere to become the Sox’ starting third baseman two years ago.
A rarity in Boston in recent years- a homegrown prospect who became a regular and produced at the big league level- Hillenbrand has been nothing but an exemplary player for his whole career in Beantown- yet the Sox have been tried desperately to unload him for as long as anyone can remember. Why? The Cult of Sabermetrics, that’s why. The fascinating yet very unproven method of statistical theory favored by Epstein (and more or less invented by Sox adviser Bill James) caused the Red Sox to brand the low-OPS Hillenbrand as essentially worthless, and thus he’s been shipped out.
I’m not saying I don’t at least partially buy into the sabermetric phenomenon- clearly, it’s right a lot of the time. But I think it’s bad for the game to consider OPS and other “new math” stats the be-all-and-end-all of judging talent, especially considering that exactly zero teams have ridden sabermetrics to a championship, and exactly one team (Oakland) has become a consistant winner because of it. So if Shea Hillenbrand becomes a perennial All-Star with the D-Backs while Kim blows it against the Yankees in September, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
On top of that, there’s a certain elitism, I think, associated with sabermetric triumphalism: now, all of a sudden, according to most sportswriters these days, the world’s primary baseball experts aren’t coaches or managers or scouts, but rather guys with masters degrees from Harvard (Yale, in Epstein’s case) who’ve never set foot on a baseball field in their lives. All of sudden, the old archetype of the baseball card-collecting, boxscore-reading baseball fan going with Dad to games has given way to the guy who approaches baseball the way others would regard astrophysics.
I’m about to read “Moneyball” (like Gleeman, I’m planning to do so in one sitting); I’ll let you know if it changes my mind.

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