When the Phillies closed the book on the Shane Victorino era there wasn’t much backlash. Despite his popularity during the team’s run to five division titles and two World Series from 2007-11, fans, analysts and management itself seemed inclined to let him walk.
Victorino was coming off the worst year of his career, hitting .255/.321/.383 for the Phillies and Dodgers, setting a career-high in strikeouts and a career-low in batting average and OBP. It was a contract year and he failed to perform. His struggles with right-handed pitching continued, as he often made weak contact from the left side. He also frustrated with his approach at the plate -- the early swings and all of the pop-ups stuck out more than they would have had he not batted after Jimmy Rollins.
It was time to let someone else pay Victorino, and the Red Sox obliged, inking him to a three-year, $39 million that was almost universally panned.
ESPN’s Keith Law said the deal was “doomed to fail.”
“Shane Victorino's three-year, $39 million contract with the Boston Red Sox vaults to the top of the rankings of the
worst contracts signed so far this offseason,” Law wrote last December.
“Victorino is a platoon outfielder at this point, and paying him $13 million a year, even with the rapid salary escalation we're seeing this offseason, is mad as pants. His bat speed was noticeably slower in 2012, especially later in the season, and despite being a switch-hitter, he doesn't really hit right-handed pitching.”
The contract has worked out pretty well for Boston, and if the Red Sox continue on their path and make or win the World Series, the $39 million will be worth it. The Red Sox finished with the AL’s best record this season at 97-65, and the World Series will run through Fenway Park if they can get past the Tigers in the ALCS, which is tied at a game apiece.
Victorino hit .294/.351/.451 with 15 homers, 61 RBIs and 82 runs in 122 regular-season games in becoming the latest Phillies outfielder to rebound in another city. Pat Burrell did it in San Francisco en route to a World Series. Hunter Pence did, too. Raul Ibanez had an historic age-41 season with the Mariners.
Victorino successfully stole 21 of 24 bases this season and his right-field defense was elite, by all accounts. He gave the Red Sox the dynamic 1-2 punch at the top with Jacoby Ellsbury that Phillies fans remember from his prime batting behind Rollins.
The Phillies weren’t wrong last offseason for opting for a different outfield arrangement. They weren’t going to offer Victorino $13 million per year on a multi-year deal, and Victorino also reportedly found a four-year, $44 million offer from the Indians. Law was far from the only critic to bash his signing with the Red Sox. He just most eloquently outlined the risks involved with it.
Something substantial changed, though. Victorino finally stopped switch-hitting with the Red Sox. It was a topic of contention during his final years in Philadelphia, but Victorino kept batting from the left side against right-handed pitchers despite hitting .229 as a lefty vs. righties in 2012, and having an OPS of nearly 300 points lower from that side in both 2011 and 2012.
From a personal standpoint, it made some sense for Victorino to continue to switch-hit. He had done it his entire professional career, and as a player seeking a new contract, the identity of “switch-hitter” added to his value. But once he had signed the new deal and made his guaranteed dollars, that billing didn’t matter as much.
Did it work? Well, Victorino hit .274/.317/.389 as a lefty vs. righties this season, and .300/.386/.510 as a righty vs. righties. That's not a large sample size -- it's only 100 right vs. right plate appearances -- but Victorino has a history of success batting right-handed that shouldn't be completely mitigated by platoon splits.
He was a catalyst again in Sunday night’s thrilling Red Sox win, in which Boston came back from down 5-0 thanks to an eighth-inning David Ortiz grand slam. Victorino reached base twice and scored Boston’s first run. In six playoff games with the Red Sox he’s hit .333 with two steals, three RBIs and three runs.
With every postseason run Victorino scores, Phillies fans think about the outfield that could have been. Victorino and Pence were each traded at the 2012 trade deadline and both had resurgent, productive seasons. Meanwhile, Phillies rightfielders ranked 22nd or lower in practically every offensive category -- batting average, OBP, runs, RBIs, total bases, OPS.
Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Victorino finally made the necessary adjustment to his game. It was an adjustment he never all-the-way considered in Philadelphia, likely in part because of his contract situation.
Just remember extenuating circumstances like these when analyzing this winter’s free-agent class. Players coming off down years don’t all stink. They won’t all be bad buys, even if the first wave of reactions indicates exactly that.