“Breaking Balls Are for Rhodes Scholars, by J. Papelbon” – Keith Law
If it’s any consolation, watching Game 3 was just as brutal in person. Maybe more. The first two games weren’t any picnic, of course, but losing Game 3 that way was a serious kick to the crotch.
But we’ll have time to get into all of that later. What I’m going to try here is a new strategy heading into the offseason. One of the obstacles to more recent posts around these parts is the sheer size of some of the posts, and by extension, the time spent collecting the numbers. The thinking is that by tackling just one question at a time, it’ll be easier to crank out (slightly) more frequent posts. We’ll see if it works, of course, but that’s the plan.
So no detailed postmortem for now, no long analysis of the plans for 2010, no funeral dirge for the season now expired. Instead, I’m going to take a brief look at one simple issue: Papelbon’s pitch selection.
Before I continue, let me be clear: this is not an attempt to pin the series loss on Papelbon – if there’s any single culprit, it was the offense – or to turn him into a scapegoat for the team’s problems. Nor is it a recommendation that he be traded, as was a common reaction in the minutes after the game. It’s simply a look at one obvious elephant in the room.
The short version is probably known to most of you: Pap has, in recent years, been relying more and more heavily on his fastball. Here’s a piece from last September looking at just this subject. Why bring it up again now? Because out of 28 pitches thrown on Sunday, 27 were four seam fastballs. The 28th? Two seam fastball. The velocity histogram says that he threw a few offspeed offerings, late, but by then it was too little, too late.
But that’s a small sample size, you might argue. Too true. So here are a few more numbers for you. His percentage of fastballs thrown, by year, since 2006: 73.5%, 78.1%, 81.2%, 81.5%. Now, his percentages of split-fingered fastballs thrown, same years: 19.7%, 15.7%, 12.6%, 9.3%. While it’s true that he used his slider a bit more this year, at 9.2% compared to last season’s 6.1%, it’s clearly not at the expense of the fastball. That pitch being thrown, according to the data we have, better than eight times out of ten these days.
Why? That, to me, is a question that needs to be asked. Maybe you get a substantive answer, and maybe you don’t, but I would love to see someone get both Papelbon and Farrell on the record on the subject. Not because of what happened Sunday – because of what might happen going forward.
It’s demonstrably true that Papelbon has an excellent fastball. It’s got good velocity, better movemement, and he generally commands the pitch well. Or at least he did until this season, when he reportedly had altered his delivery to minimize the stress on his shoulder and arm. The early season returns on this mechanical shift were not promising, but it must be said that his walks and batting average were both significantly improved in the second half (18 BB 1st half / 6 2nd – .230 BAA / .189).
But it is also true that – with the possible exception of Mariano Rivera – no one’s fastball is good enough to be relied on exclusively. And yet that is essentially what Pap is doing, a little bit more each season.
Is it that he wants to emulate Rivera? Is it an injury or the fear of one? Is it a lack of confidence in his secondary offerings? Is it Varitek’s fastball bias? Who knows.
Whatever the reason, the strategy needs to be reevaluated. Not because of the outcome-based analysis that is inevitable in the wake of such a crushing defeat, but because we have a set of statistically significant data that says he’s getting worse. His walks per nine were the highest since 2005, and since he began relying more heavily on the fastball last year, his batting average, on base and slugging percentages allowed are up significantly.
Again, Papelbon was not the reason we lost to the Angels. But he was a big part of the reason we’ve won the last few years, and on his current trajectory, it’s not clear that he’ll be as significant an asset going forward. For his sake and for ours, he needs to think carefully about his pitch selection.
Truth be told, none of the following matters. Seriously. Remember last year? According to the numbers, we didn’t have much business being in a series with the Angels, let alone winning it. We all know how that turned out.
Still, inquiring minds want to know what we think of the matchup. Maybe it’s because the puerile conventional “wisdom” continuously spewed by the professional media – “we’re in their heads!” – sounds suspiciously like what we heard from Yankee fans pre-2004. Or maybe it’s because we’ve come to understand that while the numbers from the first season don’t dictate the outcome of the second season, neither are they irrelevant.
Either way, wicked clevah is back – per your request, or over your protest, whichever- with a barely informed take on the matchups between yours and my Boston Red Sox, and our eternal foe, the Los Angeles Angels. Oh, and by the way, if you’re waiting for the “of Anaheim,” I wouldn’t hold your breath. With no further delay, on to the breakdown.
Red Sox Hitting
The good news is that you can probably ignore the splits versus the Angels staff listed above. It includes far too many one or two game sample sizes to be meaningful in any realistic sense, and is included for the sake of completeness more than anything else. The bad news is that we are not, as currently consituted, an offensive juggernaut. We’re more than adequate, but lack the thump of lineups of yore – particularly if Varitek plays. Which I hope he does not, for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure I buy the rumors that Varitek’s advantaging fastballs in his game management to offset his diminished arm strength – and I certainly don’t have the numbers to make that case – but the fact is that he is essentially a liability now both at the plate and behind it.
What the 2009 flavor of the Red Sox is, however, is reasonably balanced. We’re third in the league in runs, second in OBP, and second in OPS. All of that is good. The bad is that the Angels, as we’ll see, are pretty comparable – they scored more runs, but rank third to our second in OBP and OPS.
The gist is that the 2009 Red Sox, particularly with Victor Martinez starting in place of Jason Varitek, are a club that can and will score runs against the Angels staff. What’s difficult to foresee is whether or not they’ll produce adequately in a short series. This club, as anyone who’s watched the season unfold will ruefully acknowledge, has been prone to streaks both hot and cold. As of Thursday, assuming that’s when we get underway, we’ll need to produce, and produce quickly. If we have another cold stretch, we’ll be going home early.
Red Sox Pitching
Pitching and defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. We’ll have to hope that’s not entirely true, because as Theo lacknowledged this week, we’ve gone from being a terrible defensive club to one that’s still not stellar: “By our numbers, we’re still not the defensive club we want to be. But we’re better. On certain days with certain lineups out there, we can use defense as a weapon to help out our pitching staff.”
Because of the attention to this problem – and in spite of it, early – our pitching has been generally very good. The rotation has gone from surplus to deficit, starting a one legged Wakefiled down the stretch. And the bullpen has seen its more than few declines in individual performance. But on balance, we’re as well positioned as any other club in either league heading into the postseason when it comes to pitching.
Do I know what we’ll get from Beckett or Buchholz following their last outings? Not at all. And that’s without talking about Matsuzaka, who’s luck with the bases loaded – like the center – cannot hold. But I trust Lester to get us started on the right note, and I feel confident that between Beckett (though his velocity is, as far as I can tell, down by a one to two MPH) and Bucky, we’ll get one quality outing, and it’s not out of the realm that we could get two. Which gives us a good shot, particularly in a short series.
The bullpen, meanwhile, has been without question the finest assembled in Theo’s tenure. While the gambles on Penny and Smoltz provided little, additions like Ramirez, Wagner and, to a lesser extent, Saito, have been crucial in giving us the depth necessary to not work Oki and Pap into the ground. I don’t know what they’ll do about the rest of the staff, but I’m hopeful that Delcarmen doesn’t make the roster. Even before the car accident (thank Jebus he’s ok), he was not right. MDC’s not reliable when he’s throwing 95+; when he’s topping out at 93 and averaging 91, he might as well be throwing BP.
But with Pap rounding into form – his .167 batting average against in September was his best month of the season, and he’s walked only six people since the All Star break compared to eighteen before – and Wagner, Ramirez, Okajima capable of providing quality innings, the pen is as deep as it’s been. Bard, to me, is the wildcard. Here’s his batting average against by month: .233 (May), .237 (June), .103 (July), .302 (August), .292 (September). Before the break, hitters averaged .193 againt him; it’s been .270 since. Or, as Keith Law summed it up: “Dan Bard, Aug 4th to today: 16 IP, 20 H, 5 HR, 11 BB, 22 K, .313/.416/.594.” That’s what we in the business know as “suboptimal.” If he can correct the ailment, be it mechanical or psychological in origin (I’ve seen no evidence that it’s velocity related), I can see him getting some high leverage innings. Until then, however, he should be relegated to a lower profile role in the pen.
One other notable asset to our staff: every man on it – with the potential exception of a Byrd if he makes the roster – has the ability to miss bats. To the point that they’re second in the league in strikeouts. The lowest K/9 of the likely roster members is Buchholz at 6.65, and – his performance to date notwithstanding – he has the ability to strike people out on any given night. Perhaps the ability is overvalued, but strikeout pitchers are at something of a premium in the second season.
Again, I don’t think the Angels will be getting too geeked over Hunter, Kendrick, and Napoli’s combined 1.135 OPS. Well, Napoli’s maybe: he terrifies me. But again, with the sample sizes essentially miniscule and therefore statistically meaningless, we’d do better to look to the more significant season worth of data we have on the Angels offense. Which, regrettably, tells us that they’re good. Not too different from our offense, in fact.
Whether or not the talking heads are correct and Abreu’s sheer presence has convinced the previously walk averse Angels of the value of not making outs, the fact is that this Angel’s offense is quite capable. Their team batting average is nearly thirty points better than ours, while we own a ten point advantage in slugging percentage. OBP is essentially a wash.
Add it up, and they’re a potentially dangerous offense capable of working pitchers, getting on base and scoring runs. The OBP in particular is a concern, when coupled with their vaunted dedication to smallball and our more than adequately demonstrated inability to control the running game.
Pitching-wise, the Angels have had their challenges this season. Adenheart, a talented young pitcher, was killed by a drunk driver early in the season in an awful tragedy. Shields, a staple of past Angels bullpens, is on the DL. Ditto for Escobar and Moseley. Arredondo has been for now left off the roster, less effective than he was a year ago.
Still, the Angels have cobbled together both a credible rotation and a capable bullpen. The staff has not distinguished itself over the course of the season: it’s 9th in ERA, sixth in earned runs, ninth in strikeouts, and 11th in batting average against. They’re helped out, however, by their defense: as you can see above, three of the four starters own ERA’s lower than their Fielding Independent Pitching rates. And every one of them has pitched well against the Red Sox at one time or another: even Lackey, who’s had bad luck at Fenway, pitched quite effectively there in his last appearance in Boston though losing the game.
The bullpen, meanwhile, is fronted by a closer with unimpressive numbers. It’s true that he probably struck out Nick Green, saving the game, but on the season Fuentes has surrendered a less than stellar 53 hits and 24 walks in 55 innings pitched. Throw the save numbers out: he’ll get the job done more than he won’t, but he is the antithesis of a shutdown closer. Which could be magnified in the postseason.
The addition of Ervin Santana, however, could be a real boon and help them stabilize the setup innings. While his strikeout rate was down this year as a starter, in short bursts one would expect that weakness to be mitigated. Though he struck out only two in his last start on the 28th, he maxed out at 95.8 MPH. The rest of the arms in the bullpen are capable if not overwhelming. Bulger – assuming he makes the roster (he’s got a sore shoulder) – and Palmer use a wide arsenal and change speeds enough to get people out, while Jepsen can dial it up to the mid 90’s but is fastball reliant.
They’re good, and more than capable of shutting us down, but they are not dominant.
What to Expect
This is not the Angels team we’re used to seeing. Sure, they’ll still play small ball more than they should, but the offense is less easily kept off the bases than in the past. With an improved offense and a consistent pitching staff, the Angels deserve their berth and our respect. It’ll be a battle.
P.S. If I get a chance, I’ll take a look at the benches and the respective defenses, but in the meantime, this will have to do. Questions? You know here to find me.
Update: If you’re an Insider, ESPN’s Keith Law has his previews up for both the Angels and Sox.