Red Sox clear winner in Kim-for-Hillenbrand trade
By Rob Neyer
Jeez. From the latest poll results, you'd think the Sox just traded Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen. Again. True, Bagwell was a third baseman and so is Shea Hillenbrand. Also true, Andersen was a relief pitcher and so is Byung-Hyun Kim (or at least, he used to be). There's only one small problem with the analogy, which is that it's a complete load of crap. Bagwell was young and had a pretty good chance of becoming a star, while Hillenbrand is 27 and has a great chance of becoming 28. Andersen was old and pretty obviously near the end of the line, while Kim is young and pretty obviously could be a star well into the next decade.
I'm being fair to everybody but Hillenbrand. He does have a .284 batting average in the major leagues, which is certainly something. But when I hear Hillenbrand described as "All-Star third baseman Shea Hillenbrand," I have to stifle my gag reflex. Hillenbrand is an All-Star the way Scott Cooper was an All-Star, which is to say that in 20 years if somebody tells you that Shea Hillenbrand once was an All-Star, you'll want proof. I mean, the fact that Shea Hillenbrand's been an All-Star and Bobby Abreu hasn't merely points out the capricious nature of sports.
What's wrong with Hillenbrand? One vowel and two consonants: O, P, and S.
The O stands for on-base percentage, the P stands for plus, and the S stands for slugging percentage.
OK, so we all know that OPS isn't perfect, largely because it considers slugging percentage exactly as important as on-base percentage, when of course OBP is significantly more important. But while OPS might be a blunt tool, in this case the blunt tool will do just fine.
Among the 89 American League players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Hillenbrand's .778 OPS ranks 48th -- a bit worse than the median -- right between a catcher (A.J. Pierzynski) who's a pretty good hitter for a catcher and a "proven veteran" (Jeff Conine) who shouldn't be playing every day.
Yes, but hitting isn't everything, right? Well, Hillenbrand doesn't play particularly good defense at third base. He doesn't run particularly well. He doesn't wear down pitchers by working the count. Hillenbrand is almost exactly what the stats say that he is: a pretty good hitter for average, but without much power and without any plate discipline at all.
Which is to say, he's the sort of guy you keep around until 1) he gets expensive, or 2) somebody offers you something good for him. The Red Sox kept him around this long because he wasn't bad and he was cheap, but to keep him now -- with somebody actually offering something good -- would border on criminal negligence.
Byung-Hyun Kim is good. He's 24 years old, he's probably the hardest-throwing submarine pitcher that ever lived, and as a major-leaguer he's has a 3.26 ERA and 380 strikeouts in 323 innings.
Friends, this deal was a steal, the biggest robbery since ... well, maybe since the Astros stole Jeff Bagwell from the Red Sox.
And if that were the end of the story, I'd stop writing and you could get back to work, or whatever it is you do when you're not reading this column. But it's not the end of the story, because now that the Red Sox have Byung-Hyun Kim, they have to figure out what to do with him. As a starter this season, Kim's got a 3.56 ERA, which of course ain't too shabby in the HGH Era. Of course, Kim also saved 36 games last year, and over the last three seasons he posted a 2.95 ERA as a relief pitcher.
Oh, and did anybody else notice that Boston's bullpen has pretty much been awful? Boston's relievers have posted a 5.38 ERA this season, which wouldn't be the worst in the American League, except that nobody in the American League has been worse.
It's generally accepted that a great relief pitcher isn't as valuable as a great starting pitcher, and it's also occasionally accepted that a great relief pitcher isn't even as valuable as a good starting pitcher. Kim was a great relief pitcher, and to this point he's been a good starting pitcher. So in most circumstances, I'd heartily encourage the Red Sox -- yes, they're breathlessly waiting for my advice -- to continue the Diamondbacks' great experiment with Kim as a starter.
This isn't most circumstances. Did I mention that the Red Sox bullpen has been awful? Yes, I did. Did I mention that there aren't any obvious candidates in the Red Sox bullpen to prevent this from continuing? No, I didn't. But there aren't. Or rather, there wasn't until now. In 2002, Byung-Hyun Kim was one of the most valuable relief pitchers in the game. Maybe that doesn't mean anything. It's entirely possible that Kim's has the stuff and the stamina to become a fine starting pitcher. But we know Kim is a great relief pitcher and we know the Red Sox need a great relief pitcher.
We don't know if the Red Sox should, at least temporarily, send Kim back to the bullpen. It sure is worth thinking about, though.