Catching Up

By now, you’ve all probably seen that the good folks over at Baseball America rated our farm system second to Tampa’s stellar stable. So we’ve got that going for us. Which is nice. And while my enthusiasm is tempered by the realization that should the Santana trade be completed we’d slide back south of 10th, it’s still an achievement worth recognizing and appreciating.

In looking over the list of our Top 30 Prospects, however, it’s a stark reminder that when it comes to the catching position, we’re not exactly stacked. Pitching, we have. Fortunately. And though we’re a bit light in the power department (what with Anderson maturing slowly and picks like Jason Place not having panned out yet), we’ve got credible candidates in both the outfield (Ellsbury, Kalish, Moss, etc) and infield (Anderson, Lowrie, Tejeda, etc).

Then there’s the catching spot.

As far as I can tell, that’s going to be a bit of a problem. An untimely one, as well, with both the presumed current catching tandem of Mirabelli and Tek up for free agency after this year.

From the sounds of it, a reupping of Tek at $10M+ per could be in the works, and Mirabelli’s future – as always – is in the hands of one Timothy Wakefield.

Should they both depart, however, this is what we have on hand:

  • Dusty Brown:
    Known primarily for his defense, Brown showed enough offense last season in Portland to justify a spot on the 40 man. True, .268/.344/.453 in 250 AA AB’s for a 2000 draftee isn’t exactly lighting it up, but the Sox seem enthused about his abilities behind the dish. Farm director Mike Hazen said of Brown, “We really like his ability behind the plate. There’s just not a lot of good catching across baseball. We just feel like Dusty is a good catcher.” A bit of a back-handed compliment, perhaps, but with the state of catching generally and our organization specifically, we’ll have to take what we can get.
  • George Kottaras:
    The catching prospect sent over by San Diego in return for a month or two of David Wells, seems to have hit a bit of a wall and dropped right off of the Top 30 list this year. A defensive work-in-progress generally better known for his offense – his on base skills in particular, Kottaras posted .241/.316./.408 line at Pawtucket last year. Not awful, particularly for a catcher, but given his defensive lack of excellence, not particularly reassuring either. One thing worth noting: Kottaras’ was weighed down partially by a poor start – .196/.272/.304 in the first half – but rebounded nicely with a .318/.389/.582 line in the second.
  • Mark Wagner:
    The owner of the 20th spot in on this year’s Top 30 list, has generally been rated by John Sickels as a Grade C prospect. For context: Sickels doesn’t give out D’s or F’s. In Wagner’s defense, however, he’s still young and has been solid since turning pro, handing in a cumulative .291/.378/.460 in 3 minor league seasons. True, one of those seasons was at the launching pad that is Lancaster, but a .939 OPS at any level is still an accomplishment (Manny’s ’07 number? .881). Even better? Offense isn’t his only trick, as he BA tabbed him as our Best Defensive Catcher.

What if we don’t retain Tek? None of the kids are projected to be ready in ’09, so we’d probably have to go the free agent route. Tim Dierkes over at MLB Trade Rumors has suggested Kenji Johjima as a potential target, but I was surprised to discover that he gave up a couple of homers and better than 40 points of OBP to our current backstop. Surprised is precisely what I should have been, however, given Joe-mama’s performance against us: .375/.464/.708. David Ortiz, in other words.

Outside of Johjima, I’m not sure what the options are. But ultimately I think the Sox will look to lock up Tek, as the Yankees did with Posada, because Hazen’s right: there just isn’t much catching around.

Matsuzaka's Strikeout Rate: The Splits

Over lunch today, I happened to mention to Alex that after looking at Matsuzaka’s strikeout rate, I was reasonably optimistic that the Japanese pitcher would step up and perform closer to the level of a #2 starter. At which point he asked the question I should have: what were his first half/second half splits?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don’t do this for a living.

Anyway, it’s always interesting to see what the league makes of a pitcher the second and third time around the league, after the players have the chance to see his stuff in person and the scouts have the opportunity to observe in detail his patterns, strengths and weaknesses. Particularly with a pitcher like Matsuzaka, who brings more than the usual arsenal of pitches to the table.

So without further delay, the numbers:

Time Innings Ks BBs K/9 BB/9
Pre All-Star 119.2 123 38 9.29 2.87
Post All-Star 85 78 42 8.26 4.45
Season 204.2 201 80 8.86 3.53

From which we can see that he did indeed tail off in the second half, but not as much as I expected, frankly, given the brutal nature of a couple of his second half starts. Frankly, if he does nothing but sustain the second half K/9 rate, I’m happy, though the walks need to come down. All in all, for a pitcher navigating his second turn around the tougher of the two leagues, it wasn’t bad at all.

In short, a closer look at the splits – as I should have done from the start – doesn’t dissuade me from my initial optimism. I think he’s poised for a step forward; maybe even a big one.

Did You Know? The Matsuzaka Edition

A great many words have been written regarding Matsuzaka’s transition from Japanese league phenomenon to Boston Red Sox starting pitcher. Way too many, in all probability. So all that I will say regarding said transition was that it was more or less what I expected. A bit less consistent than I might have predicted, and the control less sharp than had been forecast, but at the end of the day his line for an American League rookie pitcher was – as far as I’m concerned – excellent.

Which brings us to this year. Perhaps not quite as many words have been wasted on his sophomore season to be, but there are certainly no shortage of predictions available. The ZiPS line, for example, looks pretty reasonable to me: a 3.95 return in 196 IP over 29 GS, with 177K’s against 60 BB’s over that span.

Not only does it eyeball as realistic, that’s a fair return on a second year pitcher, in my book. But one interesting tidbit that I hadn’t realized until today: Matsuzaka struck out more batters last year than Beckett, 201 to 194. Granted he had an extra four innings to do it – which says something by itself about the workload he shouldered as a rookie – but his rate per nine was higher, 8.84 K/9 vs 8.70.

It’s tempting to argue that Beckett’s strikeout rate was the end result of the widely acknowledged change in his patterns, including increased usage of the other pitches in his arsenal, such as his change up or two seamer. But actually, the last time it exceeded 9 per 9 innings was 2003. Apart from the train wreck that was 2006, he’s been fairly steady in the 8’s.

So Matsuzaka’s the better pitcher, right? Obviously not. But given the importance of strikeout rate as a metric for evaluating pitcher success and predicting future performance, let’s just say that I’m reasonably optimistic that Matsuzaka can – as Beckett did this year – take a step forward performance wise, matching his ZiPS line at worst, exceeding it we’re lucky.

Can We Drop the Whole "The Red Sox Are the New Yankees" Thing Now?

Following the $100M+ the Red Sox shelled out for Daisuke Matsuzaka last offseason, I – like many Red Sox fans – was besieged with claims from (jilted) Yankees fans that “we were just like them.” That by virtue of that single capital expenditure, we were at once on equal financial footing with the Evil Empire. The media, true to form, picked up on this theme, debating such brain teasers as “would it be as fun to win now,” or “have we sold our souls?” Which obviously, I’ll ignore.

Herculean as my efforts were, however, I was entirely unsuccessful in persuading Yankees fans and good people alike that the two clubs remained quite distinct, in fact, in financial terms.

For while it’s convenient for fans of small market clubs like the A’s and Twins to lump all of the big market teams into a single bucket, the fact remains that we weren’t within hailing distance of the Yankees in terms of payroll numbers (the Matsuzaka posting fee aside, which I’ll get to in a moment). This inclination is understandable, given the respective payroll deltas. According to an AP report today, the gap between our roster and Tampa’s last year, for example, was $123.6, against the $62.9 million the Yankees spent above and beyond our costs.

So how are we different, in light of those numbers? Well, fortunately Allan Wood over at the Joy of Sox answered that question for you this past August:

Meaning you could take the Red Sox’s current payroll, add the salaries of

Ichiro Suzuki
Miguel Tejada
Kevin Millwood
Barry Zito
Albert Pujols
Dontrelle Willis

and still be about $1 million shy of the Yankees’ current payroll.

And that was with a payroll differential of $66M, not $62M.

We spend more than most every other club, it’s true. But please, can we drop the fiction that we’re the same as the Yankees?

Oh, and that monster posting fee which doesn’t get counted against officially reported payroll? Well, amortizing the fee over the 6 year life of the deal, I come out with a figure of $8.5 million per season. A hefty chunk of change for you and me, but not one that alters the above argument meaningfully.

Put Your Insomnia to Work

By now, most people are aware of the brutal start times for our season opener – which are, for marketing reasons that I don’t happen to agree with – being held in Japan. The A’s/Sox contests over there will begin at 6:07 AM, which is bad for the Boston folks, but positively brutal for those of us on Mountain Time. 4:07 AM? Seriously?

The Pacific Time folks actually have it easier, as they can just stay out late.

Now comes word that the remaining single game season tickets – you know, the ones left over after I was completely shut out of the last ticket sale – go on sale Saturday morning. For the lucky East Coast dwellers, the start time is 10 AM. But those of us saddled with MT baggage are facing a steep 8:00 AM Saturday wakeup.

Ugly, but possibly a chance to use my insomnia for good, rather than evil.

Why I Don't Want Johan Santana, But Would Be Fine With Him

Look, if we end up with Johan Santana – and sign him – I’m not going to complain. Pick your metric, he’s been the best pitcher in the league for several years now…by a wide margin. And of course I’m just as geeked about the possibility of slotting Beckett/Santana/whomever in a potential playoff series as the next guy. Maybe more so, given my self-admitted “problem” with baseball. But at the end of the day, I hope he ends up with the Mets. Seriously.

The problem with this position is that if or when you take it, the uninformed or superficial assume that you’ve gone koo koo for cocoa puffs, where cocoa puffs = Red Sox prospects. That you haven’t considered the matter logically, but rather have a weird and deeply confusing mancrush on Jacoby Ellsbury.

My Navajo brother aside, there are two very good reasons to be at least concerned about a potential trade for Santana. The first is that it doesn’t seem to make economic sense:

For the Red Sox, a trade is even more difficult to rationalize, driven by the lower free-agent valuation of Santana in a sold-out Fenway Park. Santana’s financial value to the Red Sox is in the range of $18 million to $20 million versus his annual value of over $30 million to the Yankees. Starter Jon Lester’s value may be lower than Hughes’ value because Lester has fewer years remaining until free agency, and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s value is likely less than Hughes’ due to the premium paid to starting pitchers. However, neither of these facts changes the reality that the free-agent cost of Santana alone is likely more than his worth to the Red Sox. It may be that the only reason they are involved in trade talks is to bid up the acquisition price of Santana for the Yankees.

That whole piece is excellent, incidentally.

Just as important as the cost, is the predictability of the returns on that cost: i.e. the injury risk. Like many, I’m concerned by his late season fade (check his September splits). I seriously doubt that he forgot how to pitch, meaning that the most logical conclusion is that he wasn’t entirely right. Keith Law seems to share those concerns, saying:

“I haven’t read any of the others (I was on vacation), but I’d take A-Rod, Beckett, and Sabathia (because I’m a little concerned about how Santana finished 2007).

The good news is that I trust our front office – as I would not trust some others, say Houston’s – to have thought about all of this in far more detail than I ever would or could. As Seth put it:

I will, however, say this: I’ve always been reticent about jawing off when I have no real idea what I’m talking about…and such is the case with all of the sundry Santana trade permutations. I don’t mean the specifics of a possible trade — no one knows those except for Theo, Bill Smith, and Brian Cashman. I mean that I don’t know enough (and what’s more, haven’t done the work) to be able to make any kind of responsible or intelligent observations about whether this or that scenario makes sense. I don’t have the drilled-down numbers on Jacoby; I haven’t run the projections on Santana; I sure as hell don’t have any sense of what the pool of pitching talent is like in next few amateur drafts; I don’t know where else the Sox (or the Yankees) would spend that $130 mil or so it’ll likely take to lock up Santana…well, you get the idea. And even if I did have all of this info and even if I had done all of this work, I still would be so many light years behind where the Sox front office is in terms of brainpower, man hours spent hunched over spreadsheets, cumulative knowledge, and on and on, that it would be silly for me to start soapboxing about why this or that scenario makes sense.

It’s important to know what you don’t know, and in my case vis a vis Santana and the possible trade permutations, that’s just about everything. But neither will I concede that trading for him is an open and shut “hand over whatever the Twins ask for.” That’s just the kind of thinking that kept us out of the promised land for decades, so let’s skip it. Though some might lament the invasion of the game by the guys with “pocket protectors,” I don’t happy to be one of them. But then, I like winning World Series.

Filed Under "Things I Didn't Know"

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Game 4: Lowell scores in the 5th, originally uploaded by guano.

Item #1: Mike Lowell’s wife’s name is “Bertica.” For serious. See the quote here. Wikipedia confirms, which is important as it’s Cafardo.

Far be it from me to poke fun at either member of the happy couple: I have nothing but respect for Mr. Lowell – as a player (though I agree with ZIPS that he’s in line for a substantial downward correction) and person – and I’m quite sure the the Mrs. is no less deserving.

It’s just that I’ve never heard of anyone – real, fictional, or imagined – saddled with a name like Bertica. Honestly, if I had to pick between being a boy named Sue or a girl named Bertica, I’d pick Sue seven days a week and twice on Sunday. I might even pick Trinka – as in former Sox wife-or-girlfriend Trinka Lowe – over Bertica, though that’s a tough call.

Anyway, all due credit to her for surviving the unfortunate appellation.

P.S. Thanks to Flickr user guano (no, not joking, and yes I appreciate the irony) for the Creative Commons licensed shot.

Hughes > Buchholz?

Yankees phenom Phil Hughes had an interesting year last year, beginning the ’07 season as the near unanimous top minor league pitching prospect and finishing it with a very respectable 4.46 / .235 BAA line in 72.2 innings, during which he K’d 58 against 28 free passes. All in all, despite some injury setbacks, you’d have to call it a solid introduction to the big leagues for a young pitcher.

Still, it was nearly as unanimous that by the end of the year, he’d been surpassed by the likes of Joba Chamberlain within the organization (who frankly terrifies me), but even worse, Clay Buchholz without.

For his part, the Sox’ slim righthander K’d an even more impressive 22 in 22 and two thirds innings before being shut down due to shoulder fatigue, although I hadn’t realized he’d walked 10 in the same span. Even more impressive, the average against Buchholz? A mere .184. Oh, and there was that game in which he allowed no hits; did you see the bender that closed it against Markakis? Sweet jebus, that was unholy.

Anyway, whether you’d take him over Joba is a point worthy of debate (Keith Law would take Joba), no doubt, but I agree with the general conclusion that you’re pretty happy with either.

And also with the general conclusion that – at least as of today (how quick this can change) – you’d probably prefer either to Phil Hughes. Which is more of a testament to how good those two are than any failing on Hughes’ part, but still.

All of that said, however, there is one area in which Hughes clearly surpasses both Buchholz and Chamberlain – at least to the best of my knowledge. He blogs, and they do not.

So let’s pick it up there, Clay. Rumor has it you’re a bright kid, in spite of the HS mistake, and I’d prefer that we not get outdone by the Yankees in any medium.

Why Rudy's Campaign is in Trouble

Though the writing’s been on the wall for a while now, the occasional New Yorker still seems perplexed by Rudy’s also-ran status. Well, fortunately we have an explanation for you: it’s all about the Red Sox.

Well, ok, as John Stewart covers in the tail end of the video over on the Huffington Post, it’s probably attributable to something a bit more substantial. But the Sox connections really aren’t helping.

First, there was his baffling decision to root for the Red Sox in the World Series. Because he’s quote unquote “an American League fan.” Look, I appreciate that back in the good old days, the Senior / Junior circuit divide meant something (something other than the NL getting beaten like a drum, I mean). That the All Star game meant something, unlike today’s version which – in spite of the ever credible Fox’s assurances – doesn’t mean anything. But a Yankee fan rooting for the Red Sox? It’s just not done. Maybe he hadn’t checked the road attendance figures for Red Sox games – what with running for President and all – but I could have told him: one more fan isn’t going to make much of a difference to us, dude, I promise. But while I’m not much of a political strategist, it might make a difference to your campaign. Just maybe.

More recently, the New York Post – that journalistic ivory tower – provided us with this hilarity:

Some Rudy Giuliani volunteers bused here from New York City struck out as they went door to door in advance of Tuesday’s Granite State primary while wearing caps or jackets of the hated New York Yankees.

Trivial? Possibly. But ask yourself this: do you want someone who sends people wearing Yankee garb to New England homes running this country?

Exactly. And that’s why his campaign’s in trouble. That, or, what Stewart said.

Motto of the Red Sox Front Office: Whatever Works?

Like every front office in the league, the folks who call Yawkey Way home have their pluses and minuses. I confess to never understanding, as an example, the affection they had – for some years – for Julio Lugo, who is not a bad player but to me undeserving of that level of attention. Let alone contract.

But though Theo declined to take my advice on that score – or, admittedly, any other – I remain fundamentally impressed with his willingness to rethink everything, and borrow shamelessly from approaches that have yielded results. This openness to reinvention, not of the wheel but rather antiquated, archaic practices, was to me the primary philosophical takeaway from the once lauded if now clichéd Moneyball.

As a life philosophy, it’s a bit blunt, but more front offices around the league would benefit from the simple realization that if something isn’t working: try something else.

The latest datapoint supporting the conclusion that the Red Sox front office is the baseball equivalent of the English language – which for all of its other faults, steals liberally from other languages to augment itself – comes to us courtesy of Joe McDonald from the Providence Journal.

The piece describes in some detail our offseason rookie development program, which incorporates community exposure, media training and other non-baseball educational activities with the relevant workouts. The important bit, to me, that McDonald extracted from director of player development Mike Hazen is the admission that the program itself is entirely unoriginal:

“This is something that is fairly unique within the game…There are a few other teams that do this and we’ve adapted what we do from the Indians, who have been doing it for about 10 years. We’re not ashamed to say we’re trying to model some things after their player-development system and we’re trying to grow on it. I’m sure there will be other clubs that do it in the future.”

Nor should they feel any shame, in my opinion: quite the contrary. Sifting through the techniques and practices of competitors for ideas and potential improvements should be the most logical exercise in the world, but Hazen’s comment is reflective of a culture that has permeated baseball for years. A culture afflicted with what is known within the technology industry as NIH: Not Invented Here.

If we’re lucky, the Yankees will be unable to learn from what is working for their hated rivals, in spite of suggestions from its fans. As long as Cashman is in place, however, I don’t expect that to be the case, since he and Theo seem to be not just cordial but positively like minded. Which is why I count myself amongst Hank Steinbrenner’s biggest fans, because when his GM is saying things like:

“The dynamics are changing with us…When I signed up with this current three-year deal, and this is the last year of it, it was with full authority to run the entire program. George had given me that. But things have changed in this third year now with the emergence of Hal and Hank Steinbrenner, and that started this winter.”

I don’t know about you, but my first thought is: short-timer.

Which would be an excellent development, in this Sox fan’s opinion.

P.S. A belated thank you to Michael Dolan‘s Indians for their most excellent rookie program. Really came in handy last year.