Have Faith…in Regression to the Mean

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }



The Red Seat, originally uploaded by Starving Photographer.

If I’d told you before the season that 21 games into the season that Buchholz would be our best starter – easily, that Darnell McDonald would have played more games that Ellsbury and be second in OPS to Varitek…on the team, what would you have said? What if I also told you that we would have scored 95 runs, but given up 113? That our vaunted defense would be -14 in defensive runs saved, tied for worst in the league with the Brewers? That our last six wins were one run affairs, against Baltimore, Texas and Toronto? That they’d leave us still one game under .500?

You’d figure we’d be further than 3 back from the Yankees, right? And that the Yankees would be in first place, not the Rays, correct?

But that’s why they play the games. This game is weird. I mean, how else do you explain Beckett’s identically terrible numbers this April to last?

In the wake of Buchholz’ gem tonight, you’d think I’d be leading the cheerleading squad. Not so much. We’ve stacked the deck against us, what with all this playing like shit. FanGraphs says we’ll finish in third, and frankly there are nights when it’s been tough to argue the point.

Still, the most important thing to remember is – as we talked about last week – is that the mean catches up with everyone in the end. For better, and for worse. So just like these folks with The Greater Good (and incidentally, if you haven’t seen that movie, you need to), I ask you to repeat after me: Regression to the Mean. Looking for evidence of that, I took a quick look at our BABIP figures for the season. And found it.

You know how hot JV’s been? Well, it just so happens that his batting average on balls in play is .400. Meaning that when he makes contact, he’s hitting about .110 better than is normal. Or in layman’s terms, he’s been pretty lucky, and is likely to get worse. Which is bad for us.

Good for us, however, are the BABIP’s posted by two of our coldest hitters: Drew and Ortiz. As it happens, they are 2 and 3 for lowest figures on the team Drew at .227 and .233 respectively. Meaning that they are likely to get better. Which is good for us.

As you might suspect, with the pitching, defense and offense all pretty awful in the early going, a regression to the mean would be just what the doctor ordered for us.

Will it be enough to make the playoffs? Who knows. It’s way too early to be writing off our chances on account of a six game deficit, but there’s no getting around the fact that the Rays and Yankees are good. Really good.

But have faith, my friends. We’ve had the second worst starting ERA in the league, two thirds of our starting outfield hasn’t seen the field in two weeks, and Beltre’s got close to one third of last year’s errors one eigth into the season. These too shall pass. It’s a long summer, and all we need is for our guys to start being our guys. Which we’re seeing signs of already.

In the meantime, buckle up and try and enjoy the ride.

WTF?

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }



opening day, originally uploaded by sogrady.

You’re thinking it, I’m thinking it, and you can be damn sure Tito’s thinking it. If I’d known that the only home game we would have won to date would be the one I attended – that’d be Opening Day, for those who haven’t been keeping up with current events – I probably would have made an effort to get to more games.

But seriously, who would – could – have called this? 4-9, 6 games back of the division leading Rays. I sure didn’t. To try to ground the discussion, let’s look at where we are, and where we might expect grounds for improvement.

What’s Gone Wrong?

In a word, everything. And no, that’s not hyperbole. There is quite literally nothing we’re doing right at the moment.

The offense? Being 17th in the league in average is bad enough, being 20th in OBP is worse. Far worse. When the bright spot in your offense is a 9th place finish in slugging percentage, you’ve got problems. Frankly I was surprised we were only 15th in the league in strikeout percentage; Drew and Ortiz are between them striking out in 42.5% of their at bats. As an aside, I do find it interesting that everyone’s written off Ortiz while it’s just a slump for Drew, just as I find it curious that Lester’s just not good early while Buchholz is again being popularly consigned to the bullpen or someone else’s roster. The psychology of player evaluation is a really fascinating phenomenon. But we’ve got bigger problems to look at at the moment.

So the offense is not good. How about the vaunted defense? If anything, it’s worse. We’re 27th in Defensive Runs Saved, 18th in Fielding Percentage and we’re in such desperate shape at throwing out runners that there’s already talk of bringing up Mark Wagner, whose CHONE projected line is .232/.298/.341.

But at least the pitching is good, right? I wish. Our ERA could be worse, I guess, at 18th in the league, and actually our 25th ranking in FIP suggests that we’re actually lucky it isn’t worse. Not surprisingly, given those numbers, we’re bad at striking people out (27th in K/9) but much better at walking them: 10th best team in the majors at issuing the free pass. In case it’s not clear, being good at walking people is not a desirable skill.

Nor was there, as I had hoped before looking, any indications that the above numbers, both offensively and pitching-wise, are flukes. Our hitters’ BABIP is .287, and our pitchers’ is .279. Meaning that we have neither been exceptionally lucky or unlucky.

We are what we are, in other words. Except that we’re not.

What’s Likely to Go Right?

All of the above. The most plate appearances anyone on the club has is Pedroia at 57. That’s not as small a sample as the two games that had the writers penning Papi’s obit, but it’s statistically not significant.

It’s early. I know that’s hard to believe when we’re a few weeks into the season, already back by six games and with our offseason plan looking as intelligent as real estate investing circa 2010.

But before you take a leap from the Zakim, consider the following:

  1. Our hitters and pitchers alike will regress to the mean. For better and for worse. Pedroia’s sadly not going to put up a 1.159 OPS for the year, but neither is Drew going to put up an OBP of .233, V-Mart a SLG of .367, or Youk an average of .238. These things will fix themselves over time.
  2. No one likes to make excuses because of injuries, but remember that that two thirds of our starting outfielders this weekend were bench players. So when you see Hermida butchering balls in left, remember that he is not the starting left fielder, Ells is. And thankfully, he’ll be back because Beltre didn’t kill him. As will Cameron, after his current senior ailment – kidney stones – remedy themselves. Will that fix Scutaro’s jitters or V-Mart’s tendency to sail throws “just a bit outside?” Nope. But again: they’ll regress to the mean. Although in V-Mart’s case that’s not good news.
  3. A couple of folks have bitched that this is all the front office’s doing; if only we signed Jason Bay, we’d be right there with the Rays and Yankees. Setting aside the question of how a single player could fix all that has gone wrong thus far, there is the problem with the numbers. Namely, Bay’s. Thus far in a Mets uniform, he’s putting up a .217/.321/.283 line, while leading both leagues in strikeouts with 18 (narrowly edging our own Drew). Our left-fielders, meanwhile, have put up an unimpressive and still superior .240/.255/.400. So not only is Jason Bay not walking through that door, it probably wouldn’t help much if he did. Like everyone else, he’ll regress to the mean – which in his case means he’ll get a lot better – but in the early going, it doesn’t appear as if he’d be a difference maker.

What’s Not Likely to Improve?

I am worried with a capital W about the pen. The starters, I think, will ultimately be fine. Beckett’s been better, Lester’s history says he’ll be better, Lackey just had a bad start today, and between Wake, Buch and Matsuzaka – throwing well in Pawtucket, from reports – I feel pretty good. One through five (or six), we’ll have a chance to win most days, however much it doesn’t feel that way right now.

Likewise, our offense will hit. It’s looked brutal in the early going, but it is always does when 70% or 80% of your lineup isn’t hitting. Moreover, I think the front office will be aggressive if it looks like that’s a problem, and adding offense in season is always easier than adding pitching.

But we may be forced to give something away to get some help in relief, because there’s no real help available on the farm. Tazawa’s out with Tommy John. Richardson isn’t exactly lighting it up with a 1.80 WHIP at Pawtucket, and Kelly – for all of his poise – was born in 1989 (though I find his innings limits intriguing). I’ve been worried about our pen since the offseason, not least because our PECOTA projections were terrifying. And yes, I’m aware that PECOTA’s had its issues this offseason.

ESPN’s Jeremy Lundblad has the best breakdown of the issues out of our pen that I’ve seen. You really should read it, but the short version for the link averse? Delcarmen’s lost about three miles an hour off his fastball since 2008, and his usage reflects that. Ramirez Uno’s K rate is in sharp decline, and his walk rate is up. Also not good.

Oki’s still great versus lefties, but he’s become mortal versus righties. Which probably explains why he’s given up the 8th inning to Bard. And speaking of, while Lundblad’s not particularly worried about the young fireballer, I am. His K rate is down sharply in the early going, never a good sign, although that could just be a blip. His HR rate is higher as well. Like Keith Law, I’ve struggled to understand how people who watch him pitch right now think he’s ready to take Papelbon’s place. He just doesn’t command well enough yet.

Which brings us to Pap. You might recall that last season I, along with a great many other people, worried about the fact that Pap had basically reverted to a one pitch pitcher. Well, the good news is that he is indeed throwing the split more: 17.9% thus far, well up from last season’s 9.3%. The bad news is that his pitch selection may be impacting his performance – negatively. As Lundblad put it,

Papelbon has issued four walks in four appearances so far this season. In 2008, he didn’t issue his fourth walk until June 22, his 33rd appearance. Factor in just one strikeout, and this is the first time in Papelbon’s career that he has more walks than strikeouts.

Add it up, and I think the pen will be this team’s weakness.

Big Picture?

We’re going to play better, and things will turn around. I’m not going to guarantee 95 wins like a lot of people – the BP guys’ latest simulations are currently predicting an 80 win season and 24% chance of the playoffs, but we’re clearly better than that. Just as we’re better than this.

Will it be enough to make up six games in the toughest division in baseball? Who knows. But we can’t worry about that right now. Our only concern should be getting these guys playing better.

Meaning don’t boo them, it’s not going to help anything.

Pondering the PECOTA Projections

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }



baseball for baby bob, originally uploaded by Shutter Daddy.

You may not have realized, but today is Christmas. For baseball fans, anyway. Baseball Prospectus just published its PECOTA projections, as well as the anticipated team records. I’ll have a lot more on this later, but some highlights for you in the meantime.

BP has the Red Sox finishing 2nd. Not to the Yankees, the Rays. They have the empire finishing third. Projected records for the clubs: Tampa 96-66, Boston 95-67, and New York 93-69. Not that I relish the idea of finishing 2nd, but given that they don’t have another AL club cracking 90 wins, that would mean a playoff berth.

And before you scoff at these rankings, remember that BP predicted the Rays success in 2008. Yeah. Before they were good.

How’d We Get There?

As expected, BP has the Red Sox staff and defense much improved, giving up the second fewest runs in the league (737 runs to the Rays 729). But the offense is no slouch either. BP expects a cumulative .275/.356/.448 line, good enough for 882 runs. The only clubs in the AL projected to best that number are the Yankees (917), the Rays (885), and the Rangers (883).

Add it up and you have what the front office is clearly shooting for: a club that keeps the score down, but can put enough runs on the board to win consistently. Here’s hoping they’re right.

Player Highlights

Notable aspects of the projections for our roster.

THE LINEUP:

  1. Ellsbury: BP sees more power in ’10; from .415 last season to .431.
  2. Pedroia: .866 projected OPS for the little guy; the 18 HRs would be a career high.
  3. Youkilis: 24 HR, .500 SLG, but a .387 OBP that would be his lowest since ’06.
  4. Ortiz: Mild rebound anticipated: .238/.332/.462 to .265/.369/.486
  5. Drew: Declines in OBP and SLG, from an ’09 OPS of .914 to .813
  6. Beltre: They see 19 HR and a .773 OPS from the 3B – Lowell was 17/.811
  7. Cameron: 18 HR in 515 AB, only 8 SB
  8. Martinez: it’s really nice to forecast a .798 OPS from the catching spot
  9. Scutaro: his anticipated .753 OPS is almost a hundred point improvement over ’09′s .655, and then there’s the defense

Comments: the offense is deeper than you’d think, particularly when you consider Hall (.244/.310/.413) and Hermida (.269/.352/.455) off the bench. For the Lowrie fans, PECOTA is not optimistic: .253/.333/.397. If that holds, we’ll be glad Scutaro’s on board.

THE ROTATION (note the IP):

  1. Beckett: 195 IP, 170K, 49B, 3.52 ERA
  2. Lester: 178 IP, 140K, 62BB, 3.66 ERA
  3. Lackey: 199 IP, 144K, 52BB, 3.55 ERA
  4. Matsuzaka: 107 IP, 92K, 52BB, 4.35 ERA
  5. Buchholz: 164 IP, 141K, 62BB, 3.71 ERA
  6. Wakefield: 97 IP, 55K, 38BB, 4.63 ERA

Comments: who wouldn’t like that rotation? I’m particularly pleased at the projections for Buch. If those hold up, we’ll be very glad that Cafardo, Mazz and co aren’t in charge, because he’d be throwing for another club. It would appear, also, that PECOTA is anticipating that we’ll make liberal use of spot starters in Wake and Bowden, who they project for 24 starts between them.

THE BULLPEN:

  1. Papelbon: slightly better WHIP, higher ERA – HR rate up as well
  2. Okajima: 3.41 ERA, 19BB/46K in 55 IP
  3. Delcarmen: 3.64 with an unpleasant 1.3 WHIP
  4. Ramirez: 3.55, with peripherals similar to MDC’s otherwise
  5. Bard: kinda scary, 4.23 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and a poor 49/36 K/BB ratio

Comments: If there’s one area we might prioritize for help – barring a trade for Cabrera or Gonzalez, of course – it’d be here. Maybe one of Bonser, Atchison, Castro, Bowden et al pan out, but PECOTA doesn’t think so.

Hitting the Links

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }



Stretching the Arm, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

‘I had no idea we got [John] Lackey until [trainer Mike] Reinold came down to see me, just a few days ago,’ [Papelbon] said. ‘I swear to you. I don’t know anything about the ballclub, but I know the words to the ‘Mickey Mouse Clubhouse’ song.’

Adrian Beltre deal? He hadn’t heard. Casey Kotchman about to be traded to the Mariners? Nope. Mike Cameron? ‘Cameron, Mike Cameron?’ he said. “We got him? I swear to you, I didn’t know.’” – Gordon Edes, Papelbon’s recurring nightmare

Me neither, Paps, me neither. What, that’s less than plausible? Fine, blame the back to work crush.

Anyway, there’s way too much news to cover quickly, so for now I’m just going to hit you with a couple of links you might be interested in. I’ll follow up with a review of the macro offseason plan later, and tackle Beltre/Lackey/Cameron following. Suffice it to say I’m happy, relatively speaking, with the way things are going. Now, to the links!

First, one on – who else? – Buch. The esteemed Eric Van of SoSH fame on wicked clevah’s pet project:

Let’s compare Clay to Sabathia.

At the exact same age, Sabathia had established himself as an MLB workhorse starter. He already had five full years of MLB pitching under his belt and had a career 106 ERA+ and was coming off a 104 season. Folks looking at his stuff thought he’d get better, sooner than later, and they were right. He had a 139 ERA+ the next year and has been 140 starting then.

Clay Buchholz’s age 24 half-season is probably more impressive than Sabathia’s full year. Under any other circumstances he would have been recalled after just a few starts in Pawtucket, and from what we know about MLE’s he could have been expected to put up excellent numbers had he made those AAA starts for the Sox. When he was recalled, he put up a 111 ERA+ in his half-year.

But wait, you say … Sabathia had been doing this forever! How can you compare the two?

Exactly.

C. C. Sabathia graduated HS at age 17. Who knows how many innings he pitched in HS? Presumably quite a few.

By the time he was 19 plus a few months, C.C. had thrown 234 additional innings in the minors.

What was Clay Buchholz doing at the same age? Mostly playing the OF. The guy is faster than Jacoby and apparently a pretty good hitter. While (as amarshal points out) he did pitch in HS, it wasn’t his sole focus and apparently not even his emphasis, since it hasn’t been widely reported. And he didn’t pitch an inning his freshman year in college.

During the summer he turned 20, C.C. threw 180 innings in the majors. Clay Buchholz went back to the mound as a JuCo sophomore — still splitting time in the OF, though — and threw 86 insane innings, got drafted by the Sox, and threw another 41 IP.

By the time they were both 24, C.C. had been pitching full-time since he was, what, 14? And had all his HS innings and 234 in the minors and 776 in the big leagues. Clay Buchholz had been pitching full-time since he was 20 and had fewer HS innings (in all likelihood), 86 college, 344 in the minors, and 99 in the majors. That’s 1010 versus 529 plus a likely edge in HS. And six more years of concentrating full-time on his craft.

Given the incredible advantage Sabathia had in experience, what do you make of the fact that Buchholz was better at age 24?

Jon Lester had 474 professional innings when he was derailed briefly by cancer, very close to the 529 Clay had in college and pro ball coming into this year. In this comparison Lester’s a year younger than Clay but he again has the advantage of having been dedicated to pitching since high school. His 2007, like Clay’s 2009, was split between Pawtucket and Boston, but Clay was better at both levels. You know what happened to Lester starting in 2008.

Tim Lincecum had a ton of HS and 342 college innings under his belt when he split his first pro season between the minors and the show — and put up a 112 ERA+ for the Giants. Admittedly, again, he was almost two years younger, but again, he’d been focusing on pitching (rather famously in his intensity) years longer than Clay.

Felix Hernandez had 581 pro innings coming into his second full season with the M’s. And he then had, you guessed it, a 112 ERA+. People were starting to get impatient with him, but the next year (after another 200 IP) he went to 122 and then this year he skyrocketed. Granted, he did all this at ages 3 years younger than Clay at a comparable point in post-HS experience — but, again, Felix became a full-time pitcher at a much younger age than Clay.

Verlander is the only guy that phragle mentioned who was better than a 112 ERA+ with a significantly fewer amount of post-HS innings (and sustained it; Greinke had a 120 his rookie season but that’s a more complicated story, of course).

Buchholz has been unbelievably good given his lack of experience.

If you care to, find us a prospect who was just as heralded in terms of stuff, and who had as much success at a comparable point in post-HS experience, and didn’t get hurt, but stalled and never got much better. Only if there are a bunch of guys like that can you argue that Clay is not an excellent bet to become an elite pitcher. Because there are certainly a whole bunch of guys like that who did get much better.

So yeah, I’m still a believer.

Dave Cameron, of USS Mariner fame (and if you haven’t heard of that, trust me, he’s tremendous), on the new sabermetrically inclined Sox:

The age of the Giambi brothers is over. Sure, these teams would still love to have a middle-of-the-order thumper who can get on base and hit the ball 500 feet with regularity, but they aren’t going to pay the market price for power when similar value comes at a discount in another package. The value purchase now is to re-create the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, a tremendous defensive team led by speed merchants who ran their way into the World Series despite a glaring lack of home run hitters.

Whitey Herzog, who managed that Cardinals team, would never be mistaken for a “Moneyball” disciple. But if Herzog were still putting together rosters in 2010, the teams that would most resemble what he would want are the teams that use statistical analysis to help inform their decisions. What was old is new again, and 2010 will be the year that the scouts and statheads finally come to an agreement on how a team should be built.

We use a bunch of statistics around here that some of you may not be familiar with. So, in case you’re curious, explanations of UZR and WAR.

And now on wicked clevah, the Gammons section.

Over on EEI, the Commish predicted we’d be better because of – you guessed it – our defense and pitching:

I think they’re better this year. I’ll tell you why. The whole run-scoring thing, I’m not that worried about. I think that the depth of the lineup will be very good. I think the depth of the roster is much better. It’s amazing to me they finished second, they had the second-best record, the second-best run differential, and they had 55 games started by [Brad] Penny, [John] Smoltz, [Paul] Bird, a bad [Daisuke] Matsuzaka, [Michael] Bowden and [Junichi] Tazawa. In 55 games, more than one-third of their games, their starting pitchers had a 6.28 earned run average, and they still had the second-best run differential and record in the league. They could change that a lot.”

For his old employer the Glober, he talked about the possibility of adding a bat:

If they need somebody I think they will. Right now they don’t seem very worried about it. If Ellsbury continues the progress he made getting to fastballs in the second half of hte season, they believe the top third of the order will produce more runs than any time in the recent past. They have a lot better left/right balance and they believe the defense will make up for any difference between the HR totals of Jason Bay and Beltre. People talk about their lack of power last year but they hit almost 50 more homers and scored 5 more runs than they did when they won the WS in 2007.

At his new home on MLB.com, @pgammo reiterated the pitching-and-defense mantra:

I think Boston has won, because of the immense difference their defense will make. They are pitching-oriented, and they added Lackey. They think Clay Buchholz could be a No. 2 or 3 starter. So you’ve added all that defense with Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron, and you’re also able to get Beltre on a one-year deal. I think it’s a great deal by Scott Boras to get Beltre into a ballpark where he might hit 30 to 35 home runs and win a Gold Glove and give him a chance to really make some money in free agency, but it’s a great short-term deal for Boston. They’ve really improved themselves.

And speaking of defense, ours is projected to be a lot better. How much better? 84 defensive runs saved better, according to the respected John Dewan. The SoSH gang has more on that piece here.

Meanwhile, the not respected Dan Shaughnessy embarassed himself – again – as articulated by Rob Neyer. Who also, every so subtly, eviscerated Nick Cafardo here.

And at least until we get to the players, that’s all I have for you at the moment.

Gonzo's Gone…and You're Panicking? Seriously?

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }

Look, I liked watching Gonzalez pick it as much as you did. Maybe more. But the angst over his departure? I just don’t get it.

Nobody wants another season of Nick Green starting at short, we can all agree on that. But seriously, this is a career .689 OPS player we’re talking about. For context, Adam Everett, who is even better defensively, carries a .648 career OPS. Did I mention that he’s available?

On a related note, I’ll admit it: the the assertion that Scutaro is a foregone conclusion here, in the wake of Gonzalez’ departure, baffles me.

Think about it: Theo’s on record as saying he believes that Lowrie is a credible option as their starting shorstop, but that he can’t be relied upon given his injury history. He’s also on record as saying that Iglesias – the $8M Cuban defensive sensation – is their shorstop of the future. Why would the Sox then feel compelled to a.) surrender the picks (assuming he’s offered arbitation) and b.) commit to the years necessary (three, from what I’m seeing) to land Scutaro?

Nothing’s impossible, but this strikes me as unlikely.

I think it’s far more likely they go with Lowrie plus a safety net. Much as we thought they’d do all along. And is Everett, as an example, that much worse an option than Gonzalez? Offensively, both Everett and Gonzo are, effectively, outs. Why not get the better glove, then, given the fact that we need to improve our defensive efficiency? Or if you prefer some offense, go get O-Cab, also still on the market (and yes, I’ve heard some pretty sordid details of his off-the-field activities last time around).

Either way, I just don’t see how you build the case that says that this is somehow a disaster for the Sox. If the front office believed that Gonzo was their only realistic option at short, don’t you think they would have signed him already? The front office is many things but stupid generally isn’t one of them. And this club sure as hell doesn’t have problems signing free agent shortstops.

No, most of the reactions I’ve been seeing are over-rotations that ignore both the options we know about – Cabrera, Everett, et al – as well as the ones we don’t (Y Escobar?).

In the wake of the front office’s less than brilliant results in staffing the shortstop position the last few years, I’m not prepared to argue that the plan for next year will be a good one. But the arguments that I’m seeing, that the Red Sox don’t have a plan, well, they just seem foolish.

If Nick Green, or next year’s Nick Green, Tug Hulett, is our starting shortstop next season, feel free to come back and say I told you so. But me, I’m willing to bet that the front office has a better plan than that.

The Shortstop of the Future is When? On Jose Iglesias

fan

Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures that get you through the day…like watching Jose Iglesias take infield practice.” – Jason Grey, ESPN

That Theo’s had a revolving door at the shortstop position since Nomar left town is well known. What’s far less certain, at this juncture, is when and how that issue will be resolved. Because for all of his efforts this season, a major league team that features Nick Green as its starting shortstop has problems.

The one time shorstop of the future, Jed Lowrie, is coming off two straight injury marred seasons. So while the club would no doubt like to pen his name into the lineup as next season’s starting shortstop, they are undoubtedly working on a Plan B, lest we end up with another year of the aforementioned Green.

Whoever Lowrie’s safety net is, the bet here is that it will be short term. Maybe a discounted return appearance for the shortstop flavor of Gonzalez, maybe an Omar Vizquel, or maybe, in the words of Frank the Tank, it’ll be something cool we don’t even know about. But as we saw when the club decided against outbidding the Twinkies for the forgotten JJ Hardy, the Red Sox seem to believe that our shortstop of the future is already in the fold in Cuban defector Jose Iglesias. Whose father, in case you’re interested, is a Boston fan.

There are better than 8 million reasons to suspect that’s the case, but if you had any doubts, Theo’s been surprisingly – shockingly, almost – candid on the subject.

Epstein said that as they search for a shortstop for this season, it’s with the knowledge that Iglesias is the shortstop of the future.

Two questions occur: one, is this a good thing? Two, if the future isn’t next year, when is it?

The answer to the first question depends on the expectations you have for the shortstop position. Or if you want to be more sophisticated in your approach, the makeup of the roster around the shortstop position: get more offense from other spots, of course, and you need less from the shortstop.

Given the premium that teams have been placing of defensive efficiency of late, however, defense would seem to be the clear priority for would-be candidates regardless of roster construction. Fortunately, Iglesias by most accounts has that in spades.

The BP guys killed him a bit when he hit the market, saying:

Iglesias has a similarly strong tournament record, drawing attention for his flashy glovework at shortstop, with one scout grading his fielding as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. His arm is enough to stick at shortstop, but his range is somewhat limited by his fringe-average speed. Iglesias makes the most of his ability, with instincts that enhance his tools and excellent makeup. He bats from the right side and while his overall offensive package leaves a bit to be desired, most scouts agree Iglesias will hit enough to allow him to profile as a big league regular. He has decent pop in his 5’10 frame, at a maxed-out 180 lbs., though he can get pull-happy at times. An international scouting director called Iglesias’ total package, “Ryan Theriot with better hands.” Iglesias is a defensive-oriented overachiever and executives say he would be more of a 2nd-3rd rounder if eligible for the recent draft.

But pretty much everyone else loves him at short.

Here’s his manager in the AFL:

“He’s got great hands—I mean, unreal hands—and they’re quick,” said Mesa manager Brandon Hyde, who managed Double-A Jacksonville (Marlins) this summer. “They’re quick and they’re soft, and his feet work. His footwork is lightning fast, with a good arm. You put those things together and you’ve got a really good shortstop.”

And if that’s not enough hyperbole for you, here’s an NL scout: “He may have the quickest hands I’ve ever seen. Get a closet for his Gold Gloves.” And a Cubs report: “he is the best defensive shortstop to come along in years.”

That’s the good news. The bad news? No, it’s not just that he’s a Cuban, and their track record – Kendry Morales and his 2009 .924 OPS aside – hasn’t been great in recent years. The concern, for us, should be that the bat isn’t generating quite the same reviews.

Here’s Keith Law:

I don’t see the argument that he’ll never hit, but it would be hard to project him as more than a hitter for average and maybe some doubles power. He’s very short to the ball with almost no load and has quick wrists, so getting to the ball and driving it to the outfield shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not a swing that’s going to generate power and he doesn’t square balls up consistently, although the latter could come with time. I could see an Adam Everett downside here unless he proves to be a degenerate hacker at the plate.

And Jason Grey:

$8.5 million or not, the 19-year-old still has to show he’s not Rey Ordonez. He’s the best defensive shortstop in the minors right now, but even when he squares the ball up, it doesn’t really go anywhere. He’s short to the ball with a good eye, but doesn’t get a good load. There’s at least some speed (he’s a 60 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale), so he could eventually be an empty batting-average guy who puts up some stolen bases.

Gammons, for his part, relays the following:

In one person’s words, “hyper,” and will have to work hard at his plate discipline. Like so many young Cuban players, Iglesias swings at almost everything.

For all of the poor reviews, however, it should be noted that he’s hitting in the AFL. Reasonably well, actually. .295/.348/.459 in 16 games. True, the AFL is not generally regarded as predictive – due both to the small sample sizes and the uneven quality of the competition – but it’s always better to play well than not. Less positive than his overall line is the 4 BB’s in 61 ABs, particularly since he’s striking out twice as much.

Am I excited about the potential addition of an Adam Everett-ish bat to a lineup that has been – to put it charitably – periodically anemic the past two seasons? Not exactly. But the world in which a 32 year old Alex Gonzalez – he of the career .689 OPS – is viewed as an attractive option is clearly not a perfect one. I’ll take the younger version if it saves me from having to watch us sadly overexpose a fine utility player at the position, thanks.

If we assume then, as I think is safe, that the club is not assuming that shortstop position will be a substantial source of offense whenever Iglesias arrives, it follows that they’ll be looking to augment our production in some of the other roster spots. Does that mean Bay is going to be back? Maybe. But it certainly means that players who offer substantial offense from a defensive roster spot will be major target should they reach the market. Players like a Joe Mauer, who could be available in 2011.

Right around when Iglesias could be arriving. Hmmm…

In Case You Haven't Been Keeping Up With Current Events

image courtesy Erik Dasque

(image courtesy Erik Dasque)

We just got our asses kicked, pal.

Spare me the “we scored as many runs as they did” arguments: the Yankees just savaged us with a plastic hamster. If you are lucky enough to score four runs off an in-form CC, you need to take advantage of that. Instead, Beckett was completely unable to stop the bleeding, surrendering runs in six of the eight innings he pitched. The bludgeoning was so bad, in fact, that I’m kind of surprised to see that no one is speculating along the same lines as yours truly. The first pitch dongs were one thing, but the curveball Cano hit out last night was not a bad pitch: decent break, caught the outside edge of the plate, and yet was crushed. I have to believe the Sox are at least asking the question of whether he was tipping (the Cardinals, apparently, believe that Smoltz was), but none of the media thought of it so maybe he did just pitch that badly. Or, more accurately, has been pitching that badly.

Because while it was bad that our ace got his teeth kicked by our most hated rivals while the offense managed to scrap together a few runs off their #1, what’s worse is that this, in some respects, it’s not a surprise. The big Texan’s had a distinctly odd season. The fiancee and I – oh, did I not mention that? yeah, I got engaged, it’s awesome – saw him dominate the Rays in the season opener. He followed that gem with four starts in which he gave up 4,3, 8 and 7 runs, respectively. That was good for a 7.22 ERA in April. And who’d he give up 8 against, you ask? I’ll give you a hint: they wiped the floor with him last night as well.

Anyway, since the start of May, Beckett’s generally been excellent (ERA’s by month: May 2.38, June 1.51, July 3.35). Or rather he had been, until his last start at Toronto, a 5 and a third, 7 run clunker. Throw in the start previous, in Detroit, and Beckett’s given up 10 home runs in his last three starts, after giving up 10 in his first 22 starts combined. That, my friends, is what we in the business call a problem.

So what’s the problem? Damned if I can tell. PitchFX tells us his velocity seems ok: 94.5 and a half on the fastball, topping out at 96.5. Nor is there anything obvious in the plots. We know he’s throwing strikes – they were the balls leaving the park at a high velocity. But he’s also out of the zone enough that they can’t tee off. No, I don’t know what’s wrong. I haven’t done a deep look at the numbers, but nothing jumps out at me from what I’ve seen.

Which makes me wonder – based also on the approaches the Yankees took to the plate last night – if he isn’t tipping his pitches. If that seems implausible, think of it this way: it’s either that, or he’s suddenly and inexplicably pitching very, very badly. I prefer the former.

Either way, I’m sure Farrell and company are hard at work on the issue as I write this, which is good. We need Beckett to be Beckett, because we’re going to need everybody performing to get to the postseason. Speaking of…

The Postseason

My problem with the folks that pronounce definitely that we’re either out of the division race or still in it is that they’re both wrong. We’re not technically out of it, but we’re not in it, really, either. As of this morning, the Monte Carlo simulations run by Clay Davenport and the fine folks from BP, we’ve got a 3.09% chance of winning the division. Let’s be generous and round that up to 3.1%: we’re still not likely to win this thing, although mathematically, it’s still possible. Yes, we’ve played the Yankees well – this weekend and the last series notwithstanding, we’re 9-6 against them. But they’re destroying everyone else, and we are most certainly not. Hence the seven and a half game lead.

The obvious question then is whether we can secure the wild card, and the answer is that we can, but that our competition is stiff. The same projection has us at a 52% probability to win the wild card, with the Rays at 24% and the Rangers at 15%. That sounds good, but a.) that’s only a 1 in 2 chance of making the playoffs, and b.) we’re one bad week – and sweet Jebus knows we’ve had plenty of those – away from being where the Rangers are now.

So yes, we can make it, but our margin for error is effectively non-existent. We can’t have any more team wide slumps, no major injuries, and our rotation can’t afford any more Smoltz-esque starts. And speaking of Smoltz…

Smoltz

As could have been predicted, Smoltz’s generally awful performance coupled with the team’s coincidental malaise led to a bunch of “Theo screwed everything up this offseason” commentary. Smoltz, like Penny, was – in my view – a good bet that just didn’t pan out. Nor would it have, I don’t think. Yes, as Nick Steiner gleefully covers – he’s a Cardinals fan – the ex-Brave’s first outing for the Redbirds was a gem: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, and 9 K’s. But as he acknowledges, this is a.) the NL west, b.) the worst team in the NL west, and c.) the best pitcher’s park in the game.

Were there positive signs when Smoltz was throwing for us? Absolutely. He was striking people out, not walking too many and his velocity was acceptable, if not overwhelming as in the past. But, as I said on the fangraphs blog, we just couldn’t afford to keeping losing games while he got himself straightened out. If we were sitting in the Yankee’s seats right now, with a comfortable margin in the division, I have little doubt Smoltz would still be here, and maybe pitching more to his peripherals. But in the meantime, he was getting crushed and killing our bullpen.

So I was fine with the signing, just as I’m fine seeing him go. Because one of the kids is, at this point, probably a better choice for a rotation spot.

Buchholz

To answer your first question, no, I do not feel “vindicated” about my assessment of one Clay Buchholz. While I am, of course, please that he’s pitched very credibly and kept us in games against – in succession – Sabathia, Verlander and Halladay, the simple facts are that his performance is not going to be sustainable unless he improves. When you’re walking almost as many as you strike out per nine – 4.7 vs 5.6 – you’re going to have problems. So he needs to at least quit putting guys on base, and it would help – his new two seam, groundball machine notwithstanding – if he struck a few more guys out.

But am I exceedingly glad that the media – or at least the Cafardo and Mazz contingent – isn’t running things? You bet. Cafardo? “I make the Clay Buchholz-Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal right now.” Forget the nerve damage – that couldn’t have been foreseen. But Salty’s line this year? .236/.293/.375 for a .668 OPS. And remember, it’s not clear that he’ll be able to remain a catcher. Mazz, you might recall, was rather in favor of a Clay Buchholz and Jason Bay for Matt Holliday swap. Holliday’s numbers in the big boys league? .286/.378/.454 for an .831 OPS, which is right in line with 2005-2007 numbers away from Coors Field.

Or maybe you remember when Cafardo said this: “With Justin Masterson making a solid impression in the majors and Buchholz down in Triple A, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of the two starters the Sox are higher on at the moment.” Even while he followed that with a caveat that the Red Sox valued him too highly to trade, the statement made zero sense to anyone who views a player’s potential beyond what they are doing right now.

Masterson’s a good player, and one that I was sorry to see go. But in three starts with Cleveland, he’s had two decent starts and one very bad one, and – more troubling – he still can’t get lefties out (.323/.401/.463 in ’09, numbers which have declined from his .238/.365/.422 in ’08). This was apparent last year when Cafardo wrote those words – all you had to do was look at the numbers – but the media seemingly can’t be bothered to look beyond what they see on the field that day, that minute.

Is Buchholz as valuable as Stephen Strasburg? Not even close. But am I glad that the front office viewed him with a bit of perspective that the media apparently can’t be bothered with? Hell yes. Just as I’m excited they improved the defense behind the kid. Which brings us to Josh’s question.

A-Gon

Like the Globe’s Adam Kilgore – who’s doing a very nice job, incidentally – I was curious, initially, to see whether Gonzalez would be an actual upgrade in the field. At the time, A-Gon’s UZR/150 was below that of Nick Green. But it’s apparent to both of us that this move had delivered as expected, and the math agrees: A-Gon’s up to 6.5 runs above average, better than Green’s 5.2. Interestingly, the forgotten Lowrie’s at 21.3.

Anyway, while age the knee surgery may – undoubtedly has, actually – subtracted from Gonzalez’s once exceptional range in the field, he’s at least been surehanded in the field. It might be that Green’s errors stick out all the more because they’ve been so brutal and ill timed, but I’m happy to have Gonzalez back, particularly considering the cost. Shortstop prospects, we have, and we didn’t give up any of the good ones. We did, however, give up some talented kids to get us a new catcher.

Martinez

Much attention has been paid this past week to Martinez’ role, as his insertion at catcher had – until Saturday and Sunday – welded Varitek to the bench. Which is, frankly, where he needed to be, given what he was bringing to the table offensively and – it must be said – defensively. Johnny Bench, Martinez is not, but the kid can hit, and as Schilling said on WEEI the other day, he caught the last two Cy Young award winners, so he’s no idiot.

Were Hagadone and Masterson a steep price to pay for the transaction? Indeed. Hagadone, coming off Tommy John surgery, is the rare high velocity lefthander, and if he can add a third pitch to the slider, has upper rotation written all over him. Masterson, his lefty difficulties notwithstanding, is a hugely versatile pitcher, capable of seamlessly shifting back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation and back.

What we got back, however, as Keith Law covers, is versatility and flexibility going forward:

For Boston, he could replace Jason Varitek, or could fill in at multiple positions, playing every day but splitting time across catcher, first base and DH, especially the last when a left-hander is on the mound. He’s a legitimate switch-hitter and controls the strike zone, so at worst the Red Sox just got a catcher who can get on base and who’s under contract for a reasonable $7.5 million next year.

This is, as Theo might put it, a move made with both today and tomorrow in mind. Which makes it tough to argue with, in spite of the cost.

As for the Kotchman deal, don’t look at me: I still don’t get that one. I know he’s controllable for two more years, but LaRoche must have made himself very unpleasant to get turned around inside of two weeks.

Before I close, two quick items: one good, one sad.

I, like the rest of Red Sox nation, would like to wish Jerry Remy a fond welcome back following his return to the booth Friday night. I also give him a lot of credit for speaking publicly about his depression. This can be a shameful affliction for many under the best of conditions, and the baseball industry is, well, how do we say it: not terribly progressive. While I haven’t, fortunately, suffered from it, a lot of people that I know have, and it’s my hope that revelations like Remy’s will act to destigmatize depression for those who have it. So welcome back, and thank you.

On the sad news front, my sincere condolences to the family of Greg Montalbano, one time Northeastern pitcher (and Carlos Pena teammate) and Red Sox prospect (and Kevin Youkilis teammate). After suffering for cancer for several years, Greg succumbed last week. From everything I’ve read, he was a good man with a very healthy perspective on his lot in life. He will, like all good people, be missed.

In Case You Were Wondering…

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }



Lowrie Steps Out, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Where I’ve been, remember that it’s Memorial Day weekend and both the dock and the boat are in the water. And yet I’m still here slaving away over a hot laptop.

So don’t say I never did anything for you.

Anyway, answers to some other questions, In Case You Were Wondering.

How the Red Sox survived the poor performance of the rotation in the early going…

The answer – or part of it – is schedule strength. As of May 14th, the Red Sox had played the second easiest schedule in the majors according to Jason Stark, as measured by their opponents winning percentage (.45248). The Angels were the only club over .500.

On the good news front, we’re done with our left coast swings already.

Whether Matt Garza just gives us a hard time…

The answer is…sort of. As ESPN’s Christopher Harris noted:

It’s just too bad [Garza] can’t face the Red Sox every time out. After dominating them in the ALCS last year, Garza has given up four runs in 21 2/3 innings against Boston so far in 2009, giving him a 1.66 ERA against them and a 5.13 ERA against everyone else. (His non-Boston WHIP is a respectable 1.22, though not quite as good as his versus-Boston 0.83.)

On the good news front, we won’t see him again until at least August.

When Lars Anderson might be ready…

The answer is: not for a little while yet. Through 27 games, his line was .232/.304/.357 for a .661, not what you want out of a corner infielder. Or a utility infielder, really.

On the good news front, he’s added eighty points of OPS since (.738 entering today) and John Sickels isn’t particularly concerned about the slow start. Nor is, for that matter, Director of Player Development Mike Hazen:

“He’s just hit a slide here,” Hazen said. “Before that, he was fine. He’s doing fine. Everybody goes through the lull at some point during the year. It’s still the time in the season you can go 0 for 5 and your batting average drops 30 points. He’ll be fine.”

Whether or not Nick Cafardo has changed his tune on trading Clay Buchholz…

The answer is: unclear. But Cafardo is unambiguous when expressing his opinion that Buchholz is where he ought to be down in Pawtucket:

A lot of clamoring to get Buchholz up to the big leagues, but what’s the hurry? One of the problems with young pitchers these days is that they haven’t had enough seasoning. There was a time when teams felt a kid had to pitch at least 500 minor league innings. Buchholz has pitched 379 1/3 in the minors and 98 2/3 innings in the majors, so he’s just about there. He’s dominated the minors – 26-12 with a 2.30 ERA – but is 5-10 with a 5.56 ERA in 20 major league games. It won’t hurt Buchholz to stay down a tad longer.

On the good news front, even with his last start which was a clunker (4.1 IP, 7H, 3ER, 2BB, 5K), Buchholz is dominating AAA. He’s putting up a 1.60 ERA with 42 strikeouts to balance 12 walks, surrendering seven earned runs in seven starts. I wonder if Penny reads wicked clevah.

Whether we’re going to trade for a bat…

The answer is: not yet, but maybe. Gammons described the situation as follows:

The Red Sox will scout out some potential bats, but right now they are not going to trade Clay Buchholz and won’t discuss Michael Bowden (the two pitchers have a combined 1.04 ERA at Pawtucket) unless the bat they get is very young. The Nationals have let it be known that Nick Johnson is available, but Boston won’t trade Buchholz. The Sox have looked at some outfielders like Ryan Spilborghs and Matt Murton, but the asking price continues to be their young starting pitching. If Ortiz is struggling come July, they may change their minds. Clubs will soon be asking for left-hander Nick Hagadone, who threw 98 this week in extended spring coming off Tommy John, but Boston won’t trade him. They will bring him along carefully and not rush him to the majors this season as a David Price-style September addition.

On the good news front, well, there isn’t much here. Papi needs to figure it out, quickly, because the Sox can only hide him for so long.

If the Sox might not dangle Manny Delcarmen, who seems to have been finally relegated to lower leverage situations by Francona after numerous trials…

The answer is: possibly. Gammons again:

Boston might be willing to move Manny Delcarmen, who might be able to close in the National League, but they’d trade him only for a significant bat.

On the good news front, the Crisp/Ramirez swap has been stellar thus far. In 42 games with the Royals, Coco’s hitting at a .234/.348/.405 clip, which isn’t terrible but not terribly far from replacement level. Ramon Ramirez, on the other hand, has been nothing less than excellent. In 22.2 IP, he’s allowed 2 earned runs while striking out 13 against 7 walks. From the same Gammons’ piece:

One scout says Ramon Ramirez “may be the best trade of the offseason. He could easily close if anything happened to Jonathan Papelbon.”

If we have the worst shortstop defense in the league…

The answer is: pretty much. Of the 47 players that have at least ten games played at the position this season, Nick Green is fourth worst by fielding percentage while Lugo is fifth from the bottom. Green, at least, fares a bit better in range factor – placing 22 out of 47 with a 4.25 (yes, he’s ahead of Jeter) – but Lugo’s abysmal in that category as well, still fifth from the bottom. To be fair to Lugo, however, the Zone Rating metric likes him, putting him #9 to Green’s #31, though one suspects that’s just a sample size error.

Sooner or later this has to be addressed: while there are some clamoring for a bat to replace Papi’s, the shortstop defense is to me the far bigger problem. We’ve proven already that the lineup can score runs while getting essentially zero from Papi, but our defensive efficiency is already costing us runs and – worse – games.

If Lowrie’s return is delayed at all, expect Theo to address this at the All Star break at the latest.