Whither Clay Buchholz?

Clay Buchholz

There’s really no other way to say this: Clay Buchholz has been a miserable pitcher in 2012. Sunday’s two run, 6k, one walk affair notwithstanding, Buchholz’ 2012 campaign has been a train wreck so far. Aside from Ubaldo Jimenez, he’s been the least valuable pitcher as measured by WAR (-0.3). Among AL starters, only five are giving up more home runs per nine. Among MLB starters, no one has a higher ERA than Clay’s 7.19. Most alarming, perhaps, is his MLB worst (starter) WHIP of 1.83: each and every inning, he’s putting almost two guys on base by walk or hit. Tough to win games that way, though he’s managed to squeeze out four thanks to his MLB best run support which is just this side of two touchdowns per game.

The question isn’t whether he’s been bad, however, it’s what to do about it. The talk show shouters, of course, would have us dump him for spare parts. More rational commentators would have him succumb to a phantom injury and get himself sorted in the minors where we wouldn’t need the offense to scare up ten runs to win every five days. That approach might yet be the correct one, but Sunday’s start offered at least some hope that Buchholz will start being Buchholz, sooner rather than later. Looking closer at the numbers, there are a few other signs that he might regress at least towards being league average, which would sadly be a massive improvement over his performance to date.

  • BABIP: Buchholz’s career average on balls in play is .289, which is almost exactly what it should be. This season, however, batters are hitting .342 on balls in play. Which, translated, they’re hitting fifty points better than they should be when they make contact. Unless the laws of baseball have been repealed, this is likely to rectify itself over the balance of the season, which in turn should forecast better numbers from Buchholz.

  • xFIP: If it’s true that xFIP – which controls for defense and expected home run totals – has one of the highest correlations to future ERA of any metric, Buchholz should be happy. His xFIP of 4.97, while still poor, is far more palatable than his bloated (and league worst) 7.19 ERA. Buchholz’s xFIP is actually better than that of teammate Daniel Bard, which is obviously damning with faint praise, since the reliever turned starter has lost nearly five miles an hour of his fastball and is walking as many as he strikes out. Still, xFIP offers some hope that Buchholz may have better days ahead.

  • Velocity: Anecdotally, it has appeared that Buchholz’s velocity has been ticking upwards in recent starts. The odd 94 here, 93 there, offered some hope that his arm strength has been coming back, slowly but surely. The metrics offer some support for this; the last time we looked at his average fastball velocity, he was at 91.8 MPH. Today, he’s up to 92.

  • BB/9 / K/9: This is admittedly grasping for straws, but if you look at the graphs of his BB/9, K/9 and K/BB, they’re beginning to trend in the right direction.

Ultimately, there’s nothing in the data that points to Buchholz reverting to his 2010 form in the immediate future. There are signs, however, that he is trending towards becoming at least a league average pitcher again, which is a start. And while his performance in the number three spot in the rotation has been a major disappointment, it’s been offset to some degree by the emergence of Doubront as an above average number four. In spite of his absymal performance to date, then, I’m inclined to put more faith in his history than his ten starts this season.

I know he’s been awful, but have some patience.

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.

Have Faith…in Regression to the Mean

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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.

Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves: Buchholz versus Wakefield

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Peter Abraham is right to be asking the question, because even the average fan at the game last night was asking the same question: who goes to the pen when Matsuzaka returns? My suspicion is that his answer – Wakefield – is also correct.

And to his credit, he looked at the issue from a number of angles. I wish, however, that he’d gone just a bit further with metrics he used. So let’s do that here.

Buchholz easily wins if ERA’s the metric, 1.80 to 6.38, but as Abraham noted ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. So let’s look at FIP, which normalizes the ERA to account for variances in league, defense and so on. Buchholz’ FIP is 4.51, which certainly feels more like how he’s pitched. Wakefield, meanwhile, is at 4.54. Translated, this indicates that Buchholz may have gotten a bit lucky, Wake a bit unlucky. And that even adjusting for luck, Buchholz has pitched more effectively. The ratios are a bit more mixed: Buch has the edge in K/9, 7.20 to 5.40, but Wake is walking fewer at 3.44 BB/9 to 5.40.

One could make the argument, I suppose, that Wakefield has been profoundly unlucky when it comes to BABIP. In 2010 hitters are averaging .340 on balls in play. Given that his career average is .282, they’re hitting about fifty points better than they should.

But while that’s likely to regress to the mean, resulting in a statistical improvement, it’s not likely enough to make him a better choice than Buchholz. According to the stats, anyway.

Because as much as it might be easy to run a club by the numbers, Francona – bless him – knows better than that. There are a myriad of factors that will go into his decision, the numbers being but one of them. I think he’ll end up with Wake going to the pen, but it’s not as if the situation is cut and dry so there’s room for disagreement.

All that I wanted to do here was add some context to Abraham’s statistics argument, which seemed to me to be lacking.

WTF?

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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.

The Cost of and Need for Adrian Gonzalez

Some of you have apparently gotten the idea, from the last two pieces, that I’m against acquiring Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres. Not so.

Far from it, in fact. All that I’m asking for – as always – is some perspective. Some examination of the economics involved, the mechanics of the transaction.

The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn, for example, a writer that I have a lot of respect for, is arguing for an acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez at, essentially, any cost:

If Theo has to part with Casey Kelly (is he closer to the next Frankie Rodriguez or closer to the next Zack Greinke?) or Ryan Westmoreland (are the injuries officially a concern?) or frankly, anyone in the organization with legitimate aspirations of playing in Fenway Park someday, he must do it.

Emphasis his. He reiterated this view ten days later, saying:

I’ve explained my feelings on this before, and nothing has changed: It is going to take a bounty of riches to get Gonzalez from the Padres, in part because he is a wonderful, underpaid player in the heart of his prime, and in part because new Padres GM Jed Hoyer probably has as much familiarity with the Red Sox farm system as anyone not named Theo Epstein. But I’ll shout it again: He is worth it. Give them Clay Buchholz, Ryan Westmoreland, Casey Kelly, and another SoxProspects.com favorite or two, and do not look back.

As you probably guessed, I do not subscribe to this view. Candidly, I think at best it’s the kind of pre-Theo regime thinking that led us to win nothing for eighty years. At worst, it’s a panic move.

Every asset has a cost, and not every cost is worth paying.

I’ve looked at Gonzalez twice now, so I won’t rehash my analysis of him. Suffice it to say he’s an outstanding offensive first baseman when he’s facing right-handed pitching, below average otherwise. Defensively, he’s an asset.

What of the other pieces to a transaction, however? What of the cost and the need?

Cost

As should be expected, Finn sets up his at-any-cost acquisition scenario with an ostensible reminder of the unpredictability of prospects.

Make no mistake: Gonzalez will bring, as Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman cleverly called it this summer when his name first showed up in trade rumors, the madre lode. And yet, chances are Gonzalez will prove worth whatever package the Red Sox part with. All prospects are essentially lottery tickets, even the truly elite. In the 2002 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America founder Allan Simpson rated his top 10 prospects this way:

  1. Josh Beckett, RHP, Marlins
  2. Mark Prior, RHP, Dusty Baker’s Arm ‘n’ Limb Meat Grinder Emporium
  3. Sean Burroughs, 3B, Padres
  4. Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers
  5. Wilson Betemit, SS, Braves
  6. Ryan Anderson, LHP, Mariners
  7. Juan Cruz, RHP, Cubs
  8. Josh Hamilton, OF, Devil Rays
  9. Mark Teixeira, 3B, Rangers
  10. Carlos Pena, 1B, A’s

Joe Mauer was 14th, Marlins shortstop Miguel Cabrera — yes, shortstop; imagine that now — was 31st, one spot below KC’s Angel Berroa, and Gonzalez was 34th, one spot ahead of the Angels’ Casey Kotchman.

So, yeah . . . lottery tickets. Case rested.

Finn may rest his case, but let me have a crack at it. Personally, I look at that and see a pitcher that almost single-handedly won two world series titles ranked one, a pitcher that would have had a stellar career were his arm not abused two, and an eight-nine-ten that anyone would kill to have in their offense. Throw in the fact that Blalock had one .900+ OPS season and three north of .850, the fact that Betemit and Cruz are still playing, and I don’t think the list says what Finn thinks it says.

While it’s ugly and obvious, in hindsight, that Cabrera and Mauer should be near the top of the list and Berroa not on it, better than fifty percenty of the individuals on that list are, or were, successful major leaguers. And most of those performed at an elite level for at least a season in their careers. Not a bad success rate for an organization that knows nothing about the players but what they can glean from their performance and interviews with the staff.

My bet is that Theo, McLeod and co know a bit more than Baseball America about their players than Baseball America. With all due respect to that fine organization, of course.

So yes, prospects are unpredictable. But not that unpredictable. At least relative to their major league counterparts. Here’s what Baseball Prospectus said about Gonzalez in 2005, for example:

Once a Grade-A Prospect in Florida, Gonzalez came to Arlington as part of the Ugueth Urbina trade and is now far from a can’t-miss. He’s still only 23 this season, but he’s at a point where it’s time to pick it up with the bat if he wants to have a career as an MLB starter.

One problem with discussions of “prospects,” in general, is just that: it’s general. Let’s look at a more specific example, closer to home. One in which there was a premium player on the market that we were rumored to be interested in. One Johan Santana.

With the Minnesota Twins insisting on center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in any trade for pitcher Johan Santana, the Red Sox have altered their offer and have told the Twins they are willing to include the outfielder.

But sources say the Red Sox have also told the Twins they will not trade left-handed pitcher Jon Lester and Ellsbury together in the package they are offering.

The Red Sox included Ellsbury in one of their proposals a week ago, but the Twins asked the Red Sox for two players among the group of three prospects — Ellsbury, Lester and pitcher Clay Buchholz. Boston then offered Lester, center fielder Coco Crisp, minor league shortstop Jed Lowrie and a minor league pitcher.

On the one hand, the article on the other serves to prove Finn’s point: were we really valuing Ellsbury’s 2009 .770 OPS and his -14 UZR/150 equally with Jon Lester?

On the other, it’s an accurate illustration of the cost of such trades. Would you prefer to have a.) Santana, or b.) your starting centerfielder, starting shortstop candidate, #1 and #3 starters and a bullpen arm (Ramirez via Crisp)? I prefer the latter, personally.

Which is why I’m less excited than Finn to give up “Clay Buchholz, Ryan Westmoreland, Casey Kelly, and another SoxProspects.com favorite or two.”

Need

The conventional wisdom says that the Red Sox are in deep shit, offensively. Let’s take a quick look at the projections for next season, assuming a.) no further trades or acquisitions (including no Bay) and b.) Lowrie as the shortstop:

CHONE projects our offense as a collective .274/.354/.441 offense for a .796 OPS. Bill James, meanwhile, is more optimistic, projecting a .280/.368/.462/.831. For context, the Yankees led the league in OPS last year at .839.

Now before you get excited, remember: the above projections are just for starters. They don’t include all the bench, roster filler – or worse, pitcher – at bats. If we just take the starters from last year, as an example, their OPS was .852. The actual? .806.

Still, the projections indicate that our offense – even without help – isn’t awful. Last year’s CHONE predictions, for example? .817 OPS.

In other words, we’re giving up 21 points of projected OPS to a year in which we scored the third most runs, had the second highest OBP, SLG and OPS. and hit the fourth most home runs.

Is there room for improvement? Undoubtedly. But neither can you, I think, build the case that we’re doomed absent a Gonzalez type. And yes, that’s even if we don’t resign J Bay.

The Net

Do I hope we can acquire a premium offensive asset, someone like Adrian Gonzalez? Yes indeed. The prolonged offensive slumps were, more than anything else, what held the club back this year. But am I willing to hand over four or five legitimate prospects for the privilege? I am not. Our top two prospects, a past number one prospect / #2/#3 starter (and potential ace at Petco), and another prospect is too rich a haul by far for two years of Gonzalez, in my opinion. Particularly since his value is only likely to decline from here, as he’s a.) unlikely to exceed his current performance levels and b.) he’s getting closer to free agency.

Acquisitions are essentially an equation. A complicated one, to be sure, but an equation nonetheless. Divided by the market conditions, the two sides – Padre’s needs (asset and financial) + Asset (Gonzalez) value and Red Sox needs and Asset Value – need to balance. The proposals I’m seeing thus far skew too far – way too far in my view – towards the Padre side of that equation.

We’ll see if Theo and co. agree.

The Second Season Begins: The wicked clevah 2009 ALDS Preview

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.

Angels Hitting

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.

Angels Pitching

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.