Some Early Numbers

Three turns through the rotation, with Aaron Cook chomping at the bit and Matsuzaka’s rehab clock rolling, here’s what our rotation’s xFIP numbers look like:

  • Lester: 4.59
  • Beckett: 4.26
  • Buchholz: 5.21
  • Doubront: 3.62
  • Bard: 4.02

The performances of Doubront and Bard, in particular, are making the Cook decision harder. Which is, as they say, an excellent problem to have. One that would have been quite welcome, oh, say, last September.

Some other things that interested me from our early season numbers:

  • Vicente Padilla has the highest K/9 rate on the tea (10.8), and his BB/9 is a reasonable 2.16. Unfortunately his HR/9 is also 2.16, but some of that may be a function of being somewhat unlucky on balls in play (.375 BABIP).

  • Clay Buchholz has been a bit unlucky (.329 BABIP, 5.21 xFIP against an 8.87 ERA), but he’s just not pitching well. He’s not striking anyone out (4.43/9), he’s walking a ton (4.03/9) and he’s giving up more homers per nine than Padilla (2.42). Part of it might be fastball velocity: this season’s 91.9 MPH would be the lowest since 2007. He’s also using his cut fastball a lot more – last year he threw he 13% of the time, this year it’s 24%. Buster Olney of ESPN has speculated that he’s still hurt, or adjusting from the injury, because he’s nearly abandoned the two seamer that was key to his original resurgence. Either way, he needs to start pitching like he can.

  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia has never been a big on base guy – his lifetime OBP is .305 – but in the early going he’s even worse than that. His .275 is the lowest of all of the starters, and unlike Youkilis (.292 OBP), he’s probably not going to recover all that much. That said, like last season, he’s been stinging the ball when he does make contact. His isolated power number (.306) leads the club, and his .551 slugging lags only Ortiz and the surprising Ryan Sweeney. The net? A wOBA that is fifth on the club among players with at least 50 ABs. Even with Shoppach’s good start – he’s slashing .308/.419/.500 at the moment in 31 plate appearances – Salty’s been adequate for the catcher position. WAR has him exactly as valuable, in fact, as the Tigers’ Avila or the Yankees’ Martin. Though I wonder if the pitchers would argue that, given the emerging research into pitch framing as a skill. For those wondering about Lavarnway, by the way, he’s at .286/.408/.413 down in Pawtucket. He’s getting on base at a good clip, in other words, but not hitting for quite as much power as in years past.

  • Like many, I was disappointed in the Marco Scutaro transaction. But while I was skeptical of Mike Aviles‘ ability to play the position as a regular, the more problematic part of that trade for me was the lack of a return for the asset. That part still bothers me, but Aviles performance thus far hasn’t been a problem. While Peter Abraham calls him a “Major league backup” type, he’s played like a starter. He and Ortiz are the only players on the roster who’ve already been worth a win, and Aviles is actually the only shortstop in the American League to be that valuable. Among AL shortstops, in fact, Aviles is 1st in ISO, 2nd in SLG and tied for 2nd in wOBA. And unlike Derek Jeter who’s gotten off to an incredible start – putting up a .386/.421/.591 line – Aviles hasn’t really been that lucky; his BABIP is .306, while Jeter’s is an unsustainable .405. His fielding numbers, meanwhile, are a positive, not a negative. It’s still early, of course, and just because Aviles is playing well doesn’t mean that the Scutaro transaction made sense, but shortstop thus far hasn’t been an issue.

  • Speaking of David Ortiz, he’s obviously been on fire. As Abraham said today, it’s remarkable to think that in 2010, Ortiz was probably weeks away from an outright release. You don’t need to know his BABIP’s .435 to know Ortiz will come back to earth in the weeks ahead, because it doesn’t take a genius to understand that he’s probably not going to hit .400 for the season. Still, one encouraging sign have been his L/R splits. Consider his OBP versus left-handed pitching in the 2007-2010 stretch: .390, .308, .298, .275. It’s no wonder, in fact, that Francona was reduced to pinch hitting Lowell for Papi that year, because Ortiz had become helpless against same sided pitching. Last season, however, he rebounded, putting up a robust .329/.423/.566 against lefties. This year, most predicted a regression towards his former levels of performance. Which may still happen, because it’s early. But thus far he’s at .440/.462/.680. If he can repeat even last year’s performance, he’ll be in great shape at the plate.

It's Nobody's Fault But Valentine's

No matter what the media would have you believe, Bobby Valentine’s current problems are not about Terry Francona. Nor even Curt Schilling. They’re about Bobby Valentine.

Was Schilling a hypocrite when he popped off about Valentine having never been in the locker room, exactly the kind of move he hated as a player? Yes. Is it likely that he’s unfairly biased against Valentine because of his relationship with Francona? Again, yes. But here’s the problem: none of that means that Schilling is wrong. And in the wake of that controversy, Valentine is doing nothing but proving Schilling correct.

The popular narrative about last season was, and to some degree is, that the Red Sox’ failure was attributable to a lack of accountability that festered under Tito’s free hand. Peter Abraham apparently subscribes to this theory, saying yesterday:

Everybody knows what happened in 2011. The Red Sox weren’t ready for the season to start and then they quit on each other at the end.

Is there some truth to that assertion? With certainty. But was that the reason 2011 ended in disaster? Or is the more likely explanation that normal clubhouse behaviors became magnified in the wake of a historic collapse that was the product of a true perfect storm?

What if, for example, Doubront hadn’t showed up out of shape, then gotten hurt? What if Hill had lasted more than 9 (scoreless) games? What if Jenks pitched in more than 19 games, and pitched like Jenks? What if Drew hadn’t faded so suddenly? What if Kalish and Linares hadn’t been hurt and therefore unable to replace him? What if Buchholz hadn’t had a stress fracture in his back, missing half a season? What if Youk had been playing at third instead of Aviles? What if Bard and Lester hadn’t all lost the strike zone at the same time? What if Gonzalez hadn’t shown the ill effects of the home run derby, a surgically repaired shoulder, or both? What if Carl Crawford had finally, eventually been even 80% of Carl Crawford? Hell, what if Darnell McDonald hadn’t been picked off in the top of the ninth inning that first series in Cleveland after being swept by Texas?

The answer is that the Red Sox probably would have made the playoffs, Tito probably would still be the manager and Theo might even still be the GM. In spite of – or is that because of? – Francona’s leniency.

The popular narrative, in other words, is lazy, not attempting to explain why the Red Sox were the best team in baseball for fourth months, nor to understand the failure as a cumulative event. It’s a gross oversimplification that seeks to assign blame for an event that was the product of dozens of cascading errors. One that mistakes symptoms for cause. If any one of dozens of factors had played out differently, Valentine probably wouldn’t be the manager.

None of that happened, however, which is how Bobby V happened. In a classic management blunder, ownership over-rotated and hired the exact opposite of the manager they determined was the problem – his two World Series titles notwithstanding.

The really surprising thing wasn’t that management’s chosen anti-Francona experienced issues, nor even that they occured so soon. No, the real surprise was that after almost a decade out of major league baseball – an exile due in part to his inability to control his mouth – Bobby Valentine, a sixty-two year old man, was after all these years unable to control his mouth.

What the Globe’s Peter Abraham got right was that Valentine’s bizarre indictment of (and later apology to) Youk was a mistake. What he got wrong was the implication – perhaps born out of Valentine’s own denials – that this was somehow manufactured by Francona’s admirers, or those operating off of Bobby V stereotypes. Bobby brought this on himself, and needed no help from anyone to do it.

There just isn’t a rational defense for his comments. Like so many of the things that come out of Valentine’s mouth – remember when he had to apologize to Jeter in spring training?, there was no upside to them. Whether it was intended as motivation or was the product of someone who can’t help himself, the impact was a media firestorm and an angry, immediate rebuke from the clubhouse in the person of Pedroia. All this, nine days into his tenure. Which begs the question: if Bobby’s as smart as everyone thinks he is, why can’t he just shut his trap?

One other thing that Abraham got right: if Valentine doesn’t learn to keep his mouth shut, it’s going to be a long season. Those who wished for a manager that would be harder on the players are going to discover that it’s best to be careful what you wish for.