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.

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

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And we’re back. What, you thought I was going to post in the middle of the 11 game winning streak and risk screwing that up?

C’mon. You know better than that.

Sure, that ended a while back, but you try selling a loft and organizing not one, not two, not three but four moves. Anyway, in spite of what ahl and his pink hat taunting might argue, this particular entry was planned over the weekend. In other words, hating on the blog will not get you posts on demand.

Unless they were already planned, in which case it will. Anyway, on to In Case You Haven’t Been Keeping Up With Current Events.

General

  • Offense: You know the basics: after an abysmal start, the offense has performed acceptably: 5.78 R/G (2nd in the AL), .371 OBP (1st), .834 (1st), and we’re fifth in home runs and third in stolen bases. This, in spite of essentially nothing from Papi and our catching tandem. While I would not be opposed to an upgrade here – yes, I’d still love to see Miguel Cabrera once Detroit figures out that their local economy isn’t coming back before the End Times – our is capable and reasonably versatile.
  • Pitching: Expected to be a strength, our pitching thus far has been a substantial weakness. The defense, which I’ll get to in a moment, is admittedly doing them no favors, but the rotation has up until the past few starts simply been poor. Raise your hand if you thought Beckett and Lester would own ERAs north of 6 this far in. Matsuzaka making an appearance on the DL was comparatively predictable, as were Masterson’s struggles the last few times out (kid pitchers need to make adjustments). The question is what we do at this point. The answer? Not much, I think. Unless they’re injured, Beckett and Lester will continue to run out every fifth day and they’ll get it figured out, I think. Or at least Beckett will; I’m frankly worried about Lester’s innings jump, just as I was last season and this spring training. Wake’s been stellar thus far, and Penny’s shown enough the past two starts that someone may trade for him. The bullpen – Pap’s struggles aside – has been uniformly excellent, although the rotation’s struggles are burning them out.
  • Defense: There’s no way to sugarcoat it, to paraphrase a recent reality show: we’ve just been bad. In the AL, we’re fourth from the bottom in Fielding Percentage, second from the bottom in caught stealing, and third from the bottom in defensive efficiency. And it’s not all the shortstop position: this one’s a team effort. This is perhaps my greatest concern with the team right now, because it’s going to be difficult to fix the pitching if we keep giving the bad guys extra outs.

Bard

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the kid with the big arm is with the big club. But while I haven’t always been a believer – as it’s not so long ago that the kid had as much idea as I did about where the ball was going – I’m in favor of this promotion. Not that he’s ready to assume Pap’s mantel – he may never be – but it’s definitely time to see what we have. Keith Law apparently agrees:

Tom (Watertown, MA) : You think Daniel Bard has the mental fortitude to succeed in a high-leverage bullpen role in Boston? He seems like the type that may not be cut out for that kind of pressure…

SportsNation Keith Law: That’s been the knock on him, and when I’ve seen him in pro ball, it’s been an issue. I understand he is throwing incredibly well in AAA, so it’s probably time to find out, right? Call him up, start him in mop-up, work him slowly up towards a leveraged role.

Couldn’t agree more. Bard definitely has – as he’s allowed in interviews – much left to learn, but it’s not clear he’d get the necessary instruction in Pawtucket: in 16 IP, he struck out 29 guys, walking 5. Let’s see what he can do for us.

And not have him face Richie Sexon with the bases loaded, preferably.

Buchholz

How about an update for wicked clevah’s personal hobby horse? In 27 IP (he tweaked a hammy), Buchholz has struck out 27 while giving up 12 hits and 4 earned runs for a batting average against of .126 and an ERA of 1.33. The kid’s alright, methinks. The only black mark is that he’s walked 10 guys: he needs to improve that or the big league hitters are going to force him to throw something right down the pipe with all the guys on base.

Lowrie

I’ve heard it suggested here and there that Lowrie could have played through his wrist injury. Gammons’ kind of nips that one in the bud:

Red Sox players take turns checking out the bone removed from Jed Lowrie’s wrist. Huge. “I had [Dustin] Pedroia floating around in there,” says Lowrie. “How in the world did you play?” asks David Ortiz.

Get well soon kid. Seriously. Have you seen our shortstops?

Lugo

What do you want from me? I told you he was bad, and that was when he was healthy. What on earth are we going to do with him if he can’t move?

Masterson

Today’s internet rumor du jour comes courtesy of the fabled “message boards” and Klaw’s ESPN chat:

john (charlotte, nc): I heard today on the “message boards” they’re reports out of Anaheim that the Angels are offering Brandon Wood to the Red Sox for Justin Masterson…if this is even true, does it make sense?

SportsNation Keith Law: Those “message boards” are super-reliable, too. Why would the Red Sox want another corner infielder?

I’ll be honest: I like Masterson a lot, but if I thought Wood could play shortstop I’d have to consider this, at least trying to interest the Angels in Bowden instead. Wood’s not going to hit for average, but he’s a legit power threat. From the answer, though, it would appear that Law thinks he needs to move.

Papi

Yes, I’m watching the same games as you, yes, I’m worried, and no, I have no idea when or if he’ll come out of it. This isn’t like Pedroia or Ellsbury last year, where the age profile and history says it’ll ultimately be fine. I don’t know that he’s cooked, but he just doesn’t look right at the plate. To me or the Baseball Prospectus guys:

Despite hitting more fly balls and liners than in previous seasons, Ortiz hasn’t had the timing to make solid contact and instead has hit just .221 while popping out on more than 16 percent of his fly balls. He has yet to homer, even though we are approaching mid-May in a year when the long ball is flying out of parks everywhere. He hasn’t been able to hit the ball the other way nor take advantage of the Green Monster for wall balls and towering homers, either, because pitchers are challenging him inside, knowing that he’s having trouble catching up. Pitchers also are challenging him earlier in the count; Ortiz is seeing first-pitch strikes 58 percent of the time, right at the league average and well above the rates he had seen the previous few seasons, when he was one of the dominant sluggers in the game.

Ortiz is seeing more pitches per plate appearance, but he isn’t seeing better pitches to hit and is chasing more balls out of the zone. Although he has been able to hit balls out of the zone at the same rate as in previous years, he’s not making good contact on them. The old Ortiz would have sat on those pitches and forced a pitcher to go back in the zone, but with more pitchers putting him in the hole early, he hasn’t been able to control the count.

All told, this means that the league is less afraid of Ortiz than it used to be, and that’s not a good sign for either him or Boston. If you listen to Magadan talk about where the bat-speed issues are coming from, Ortiz still should be able to make the league pay for this indiscretion once he sorts himself out, but the longer he takes to reach that point, the more likely it will be that his bat speed has truly diminished.

All of that said, I’ll go on the record as saying that I think Francona’s doing the right thing, which also just so happens to be the only thing he can do. You can’t take a player like Ortiz and drop him to seventh or eighth, in my opinion, after a month and a half. If we hit June, fine, but let’s see what happens between now and then.

Penny

Remember when I said this?

What will be interesting to me, beyond the obvious “where will Smoltz fit when he’s ready?,” as I’ve already argued that that someone will be a.) injured or b.) rested, is whether or not we’d consider trading one of the pieces to a contender. Not that I’m saying it’s likely, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the following things happen: a.) Penny pitches like a 2/3 starter in the fifth starter spot for the first two months, b.) Buchholz pitches dominant baseball at Pawtucket, c.) Smoltz remains on track for a June re-entry.

Wouldn’t you have to consider making Penny available at the deadline in that scenario? Particularly if the lineup proves to be somewhat to significantly anemic? You’d have Smoltz coming back with Buchholz as insurance. Sure, it’d be better to hang on to them all, but Penny’s not locked up for next year, so you might want to maximize your return on that investment, maybe with an eye toward the longer term (controllable power).

Well, I do. Anyway, Buster Olney’s apparently getting on that bandwagon:

Something to watch: Boston’s pitching surplus might lead to an early-season trade. Clay Buchholz has been absolutely dominant in the minors so far this year, and very soon, Daisuke Matsuzaka will return to the big leagues.

Eventually, it figures that Justin Masterson will go back to the Boston bullpen, and that will create the spot in the rotation for Matsuzaka. If the Red Sox want to create another for Buchholz, they would always have the option of taking offers for a veteran pitcher who has had quality starts in four of his six outings. That guy is Brad Penny, who might be a nice fit for a team like the Milwaukee Brewers or the Mets. That’s all speculation at this point.

Speculation, it might be, but we have holes we need to fix. If Penny or a package including Penny could bring us someone who could at least catch the ball at short, it could be an upgrade of two positions.

One of them – please God – being shortstop.

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

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Bailey Triples, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Greetings: I bid you a fond welcome to this week’s ICYHBKUWCE. Which is coming to you, please note, precisely a week after the last entry. That’s right: one week, people. Bow before my production capability.

The timing seems appropriate, however, as tomorrow will leave us one day from Opening Day. Meaning that, in addition to planning the trip down there, I’ll have to carve up the time to do my season preview. Jebus knows where that’s coming from. Anyway, let’s get on to the post.

Bard

You’ll recall that, while loving Daniel Bard’s arm, I’ve remained skeptical of his ability to consistently throw strikes. Because as hard as you throw, major league hitters can hit it if they know it’s coming. Fortunately, the North Carolina product’s made strides the last few years on the strike throwing front, cutting his walks per nine from a horrifying 14.85 in 2007 to a workable if still suboptimal 4.78. Those who wonder why he’s going down, incidentally, would do well to pay attention to that number.

But his slow progress on the business of not hitting the backstop has me more excited when I read things like the following from Jayson Stark:

One of my favorite spring pastimes is polling scouts on the hardest throwers they’ve seen. And the undisputed radar-gun champion of Florida is Red Sox flash Daniel Bard.

“I had him at 99 [miles per hour] five pitches in a row,” said one scout. “He was just cruising along at 95-96 until a guy got in scoring position. Then bam, he just reached back and hit 99 five straight pitches. He was like [Curt] Schilling used to be back when he was in Philadelphia.”

Because while it’s provably true that pitching is about a lot more than velocity, it sure doesn’t hurt to be the hardest throwing guy out there.

Baseball Prospectus

Some of you may know that I’m a big fan of the folks over at Baseball Prospectus; if you hadn’t realized that yet, you will when I do the season preview. I love the application of statistical analysis to the game I love: to the extent that I actively wish I’d taken math in college. In any event, there are some changes in the works over there, so I’d just like to take a minute to wish everyone involved the best of luck. I’m still a happy, paying subscriber.

Buster Olney Loves Us

Or more specifically, our pitching. Here’s a few choice quotes from the last week or so (all subscriber only, sorry):
First:

Clay Buchholz continues to be dominant. The Red Sox value their rotation depth, including the annual production of Tim Wakefield. But Buchholz has been so good this spring that you do wonder if they’ll put Wakefield on layaway, whether it be at the back end of their bullpen or on the disabled list, and insert Buchholz into the No. 5 spot. While Wakefield is generally a hit-or-miss kind of pitcher at this stage in his career, depending on his health and how his knuckleball is moving, Buchholz has the ability to control games. And Boston’s clear strength is its rotation: The Red Sox could run out a frightening five of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Brad Penny and Buchholz.

Next,

The Red Sox have another good pitcher from Japan, as Daniel Barbarisi writes. Look, nobody knows what is going to happen with David Ortiz this year, or J.D. Drew, or Mike Lowell, but here’s a bet that you could take to the bank: The Red Sox are loaded with pitching.

Last,

Justin Masterson is happily awaiting a decision on his role, Amalie Benjamin writes. The Red Sox are set up well after stockpiling arms, Sean McAdam writes. Boston’s pitching depth is nothing less than stunning.

I don’t know that I’d go so far as stunning, but I’m in agreement that our depth – in both the rotation and the pen – may be the best that I’ve seen. It will doubtless be taxed, and may actually seem insufficient, because we’ve got a few MASH regulars on the staff. But I also don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that, should a Bard emerge midseason as a viable option for some type of role in the major league pen, that we see one of the stockpiled arms traded.

What would MDC fetch, I wonder, from a contender in another league? Might a team desperate for a closer give up the farm for Saito? Worth pondering.

And So Does Jayson Stark

More of the same.

Community Doings

Good to see Brazilian Pedro (just to distinguish you, sir) make it into RedSox.com beat reporter Ian Browne’s mailbag with a question inspired, at least in part, by incessant chattering about Buchholz.

Pretty cool.

Rotation

As most of you are aware, the front four spots in the rotation have been set, in Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield. No surprises. What remains to be determined is the fifth starter. Buchholz’ short luck – he’s having a dominant spring, but is likely to get squeezed out if Penny’s healthy – has been well chronicled, as has been Masterson’s assignment to the bullpen (which I agree with).

What will be interesting to me, beyond the obvious “where will Smoltz fit when he’s ready?,” as I’ve already argued that that someone will be a.) injured or b.) rested, is whether or not we’d consider trading one of the pieces to a contender. Not that I’m saying it’s likely, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the following things happen: a.) Penny pitches like a 2/3 starter in the fifth starter spot for the first two months, b.) Buchholz pitches dominant baseball at Pawtucket, c.) Smoltz remains on track for a June re-entry.

Wouldn’t you have to consider making Penny available at the deadline in that scenario? Particularly if the lineup proves to be somewhat to significantly anemic? You’d have Smoltz coming back with Buchholz as insurance. Sure, it’d be better to hang on to them all, but Penny’s not locked up for next year, so you might want to maximize your return on that investment, maybe with an eye toward the longer term (controllable power).

Wilkerson, Bailey, Carter

It’s been a tough winter for a lot of veterans, and Wilkerson is no exception. Expected to battle for the spot vacated by the recently operated on Kotsay, he’s now apparently left the club – it’s presumed – after being told he wouldn’t be making the club. Which might be too bad, because if he could even put up a shadow of his career line Bill James’ project .770 OPS, he would have been useful in a reserve role, particularly given the fact that he can man center. But you have to show the club something, and he didn’t in the at bats he got.

Which leaves Bailey and Carter fighting it out for one last spot – assuming Green’s locked up the utility role behind Lowrie, until Lugo returns. What do the systems project for those two? Chris Carter has a CHONE predicted OPS of .784, Marcel of .772, and ZIPS of .815. Ex-catcher Jeff Bailey, meanwhile, is at .770, .773, and .804 for the respected systems, and – interestingly – has a James’ number to boot of .830. Given the relative lack of differentiation between their anticipated offensive output, and Bailey’s superiority (relatively) with the glove, my bet’s on him. True, Carter’s leading the club with six dingers this spring, but, well, it’s spring.

Will be interesting to see who makes it, though.

Yankee Defense

While we – by design – focus most of our attention on the good guys around here, I liked this little tidbit enough from Stark to pass it along:

GLOVE AFFAIR: The most-heard observation about the Yankees this spring: That team could have serious, and potentially fatal, defensive issues. They’re range-challenged in left, in right and at shortstop. They have reliability issues at second. Alex Rodriguez is now a major question on every level. And nobody knows what kind of defensive catcher Jorge Posada is capable of being over the long haul. There are rumblings the Yankees are poking around again on Mike Cameron’s availability.

Defense matters, as it’s critical to run prevention. So while I’m still as afraid of the Yankees as the folks from BP are, this is a thread that could bear watching.

Postscript

You gotta hand it to the fine folks at fave Surviving Grady for their headline writing: So Brad Penny, Takashi Saito and Josh Beckett Walk Into a Karaoke Bar…

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

fenway_at_night

(This one’s for pedro: glad you enjoy the blog, sir, and don’t worry: I haven’t retired. – sog)

Seems like I have to report on the subject pretty regularly round these parts, but I am not, in fact, dead. Nor have I given up on the blog: where else would I bitch about Boston sportswriting and run baseball related numbers that no one could possibly care about?

No, a variety of elements have conspired to keep me absent from these parts since…well, let’s not talk about how long it’s been: it’s just good to be back. While some of you (hi ahl!) might argue that the new lady is the reason for my lack of activity here, it’s really been a function of work, travel, a new commute, and, happily, the lady. The same lady that is taking me to Opening Day for the first time in my life and, I assume, hers, just in case you’re questioning her commitment to the cause.

But while there may less time for me to spend in these parts, I fortunately (or unfortunately) don’t have less to say. My recommendation for the three of you that are still around is to invest in an RSS reader so that you don’t have to keep visiting the page to see if I’ve updated, because until I can find office space down in Portland, time is going to be at a serious premium.

Buchholz

What would a post from me be without a few words on one Clay Buchholz? More specifically, words relating to commentary from one of the members of the Fourth Estate on said Buchholz? Nothing, that’s what. So without further delay, here‘s the analysis of the players value from your senior member of the Boston Globe’s baseball staff (Nick Cafardo) as of March 9th:

I make the Clay Buchholz-Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal right now.

Most of you know where I’m going with this by now, but I still can’t fathom how the professional writers come to their conclusions. We’ve already seen how Bucky’s numbers in his first 80 professional innings are better than Lester’s, and it’s not like he’s stunk up the joint this spring. Far from it, actually.

Sure, Salty’s been decent if power challenged in 34 spring training ABs, putting up a .385/.471/.294 line. But Buchholz – whose mound presence Mills went out of his way to praise this week – has given up 1 earned run in 13.2 IP, while striking out 12 and walking 3. Just for comparison, Beckett’s struck out three fewer guys in almost five more innings. Yes, yes, it’s a.) a small sample size and b.) spring training. But you’d still prefer that the numbers be better than not, and Buchholz may have learned something from last year.

Which makes it exceedingly odd that the writers still want to run him out of town. But hey, I’m not a professional writer, so what do I know?

Bullpen

Call me crazy, but for what seems like the first time in Theo’s tenure, I actually like our pen. There are a metric ton of question marks, obviously: can Oki keep it up for another year? Will Ramirez sustain his seemingly unsustainably low HR-allowed rate? Will MDC ever be as consistent as his stuff says he should be? Will Saito – whose numbers in the NL are, dare-I-say-it, Papelbonesque – eventually deliver part of his arm to home plate in addition to the ball? What’s Masterson going to do in his second time around the league? Can Paps stay away from the doc? And so on.

But overall, I like the options that Tito is going to have from both the right and left sides. When the worst K/9 ratio PECOTA projects for your relief staff is Masterson at 6.3, you might have a decent pen. Plus, we have a rising Daniel Bard waiting in the wings for a potential late season audition, pending additional work on his control (command being a bit less vital when you’re throwing a hundred). Obviously, this is good news for anyone who read this space last year: less bitching about our pen, maybe even fewer posts featuring pictures of gas cans.

Catching

Settled as our bullpen might be, that’s how up in the air the catching is. At present, we’re going with a Tek/Kottaras tandem, which either means a.) a trade for another catcher is in the works (as Cafardo argues today), or b.) that Theo’s looked at the splits. Tek’s primary offensive issue at this point is hitting lefthanded: as a RHB in an otherwise dismal 2008 campaign, he put up a .284/.378/.484 line in an admittedly small sample size (95 ABs). Lefthanded, he cratered, with an abysmal .201/.293/.323. Kottaras, as noted in this space in the past, hits from the lefthand side, and his splits show it: career, his OPS is 46 points better vs righties than lefties (.808 to .762).

So while it’s entirely possible that a new catcher is on the way, if I were a betting man I’d bet on Kottaras to open the season with the big club. Not only do we need a lefthanded catcher, we need one who can handle knuckleballers, because as Will Carroll observed, “Deal for a catcher and you still have the knuckle issue. Could a new guy learn or would he have to be knuckle-ready?” Kottaras, remember, has experience catching a knuckler in Charlie Zink, and while Wake and the would-be Wake are entirely different pitchers with entirely different knuckleballs, it would seem that the rookie catcher showed enough to get Bard released. Mazz may have been convinced that Bard would be able to handle Wake the second time around, but I never was. And with him gone, it seems like the club wasn’t either.

Whether or not we end the season with the tandem of Varitek and Kottaras, of course, is not something I’d care to project. But whoever is sharing the duties, I expect them to a.) be able to hit right-handed pitching and b.) to get some serious playing time on account of that ability.

With Kottaras out of options and Bard unimpressive with the one pitcher he’d absolutely need to caddy, the choice was probably easier than we think.

Rotation Depth & Lester

Lots of folks seem to be getting antsy about our perceived rotation “problem” – the fact that, by midseason, barring any injuries, we’ll have potentially seven candidates (Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Smoltz, Penny, Buchholz, maybe even Bowden if you can get by his delivery) for five starter spots. My opinion? Don’t sweat it. As we learned – to our great misfortune – following the exit of Bronson Arroyo, these logjams have a way of working themselves out. And even if no one succumbs to elbow tightness, back spasms or arm fatigue, I’m a firm believer that all of the top three starters – Lester in particular – will be given in-season vacations by the club in an effort to keep them fresh and/or keep their innings down.

The ALCS So Far

beckett

It’s pretty simple: Beckett is not healthy. I don’t know if it’s his elbow, his oblique, or something else, but the man is not right. To argue anything else is to insult our collective intelligence, because the available evidence supports no other conclusion. It’s not that he’s surrendering runs; even the best postseason pitcher of this generation will do that, from time to time, and this Rays club is solid one through nine. It is, rather, the manner in which he’s going about his business. You’ve probably read by now that over the course of 93 pitches, Beckett got precisely one fastball by a Ray. One. Also, that his velocity is significantly reduced; he’s reportedly operating from 90-93 at this point.

It’s far from impossible to make the transition from power pitcher to finesse pitcher; that’s effectively what we’ve seen Schilling do the last few seasons here. But I seriously doubt that can be done – or at least done effectively – in playoff games. The stakes are simply too high, and the hitting that much better. Given that Beckett’s not likely to become Jamie Moyer in time for a potential Game 6 start, I hope our manager and the front office are asking themselves the heretical if necessary question: is Beckett our best option as a starter at this point? Or might we get more out of Byrd?

All of that would occur privately, of course. I expect none of Francona, Farrell or Beckett to claim anything other than that the pitcher is fine, because as much as it’s obvious to you, me and the Rays’ hitters that that is demonstrably false, it gains them nothing to allow that the pitcher’s injured. The media in general, I think, has been less inclined to question the official word than one might expect in the days leading up to yesterday’s start, but that’s all over in the wake of a second subpar outing.

The question at this point is what happens next? The good news is that we emerge from Tampa with a split. If you’d told me in advance that we’d get one in spite of a less than five inning start from Beckett, I would have called you a liar. The bad news is that without Beckett, our chances of taking the series are compromised.

Tomorrow’s Lester outing is, as anticipated, a must win game. If we can take that, we would then have to win two out four games started by Wake, Matsuzaka, Beckett and Lester – though it’s possible that Beckett could be bumped in favor of the young lefty if we were facing elimination. Certainly possible – particularly if Matsuzaka pitches as he did in Game 1, but we must win tomorrow. If we don’t, we’re in serious trouble, I think.

In other news, not that I doubted he’d turn things around, but it was nice to see Petey unload yesterday. If we can sustain some of the offense that we got in the early going yesterday – tough to do, since it principally came off a pitcher with a diminished arsenal – I like our chances going forward. The starters, with the exception of Beckett for the reasons noted above, are doing their job, and the pen has greatly exceeded my pessimistic expectations. But to take this series, we’re going to need runs. Quite a few of them, I think. And a fair number of them are going to have to come from Petey, since the Large Father – like Beckett – isn’t the Large Father at the moment.

The wicked clevah ALCS Preview

Aaaand the Pitch!, originally uploaded by TheBusyBrain.

We could talk about Game 4, but why? It’s not as if it would be news to you. You saw Lester do his thing, Varitek tag Willits, and Lowrie single off the same Shields that made him look foolish at the game I attended. And you went nuts just like I and the other 30 Sox fans gathered at the Riviera did. If you didn’t, you’re almost certainly in the wrong place.

Besides, we’ve got bigger things on our mind than recapping a series won. I can’t speak for you, but I’m far more interested in the Tampa scouter than the Angels’ bitterness. One of those things is relevant, after all, and one is not. So let us look forward, then, rather than backward. Because while it is meet and right that the players should celebrate the shit out of the series win, you and I have work to do. Not that I didn’t celebrate, mind you.

With the obvious caveat that 18 games is not that much bigger a sample size than the nine that proved more or less irrelevant during the ALDS, here are a few numbers, and a few comments. On to the wicked clevah ALCS Preview…unless you’d prefer to click through 15 pages of Nick Cafardo analysis.

The Season Series

Was far less one sided than was the Angels season matchup, actually. But for Pap’s brief and unproductive infatuation with fastball, we would have split at worst. As it is, they took the head to head matchup with us 10-8, which was the bad the news. The good news is that over the course of those 18 games, we outscored the Artists Formerly Known as the Devil Rays by 20 runs, 87-67. Which means precisely dick where the standings and the division title are concerned. Still, it’s worth noting that Tampa’s average margin of victory was 2 runs while the Sox typically won by 5.

If you think you hear a but coming, well, aren’t you just the sharpest tack in the box.

The Injuries

Do not bode well for the good guys, obviously. Lowell has been subtracted – mercifully, I think, after watching him gimp through Game 3. Drew is day to day. Beckett is not healthy, in my completely uneducated and uninformed opinion. What about an educated and informed opinion? Well, the folks from Dugout Central think he might be hurt. The Rays, meanwhile, aren’t much healthier than any other club playing in October, but they enter the series with significantly less injury concerns than our guys. Which puts us at a decided disadvantage, as Keith Law noted in his series scouter:

At full strength, Boston would be the favorite despite Tampa Bay’s home-field advantage, but Boston is not close to full strength. Lowell is out, which hurts the Sox’s infield defense and gives his at-bats to Sean Casey or Mark Kotsay. Beckett is on the roster but not at 100 percent. Ortiz is still struggling to hit stuff on the outer half the way he has in the past.

If you deduce from the above that he’s not picking us to win, you’re correct. He has the Rays moving on in 7. And for the record, he correctly predicted the results of the first series.

The Rays Lineup

Is not stellar, it’s true. Their collective season line of .260/.340/.422 was outperformed – significantly – by our own .281/.359/.450. Also, they’re significantly left handed. Law:

The Rays lean heavily to the left as a lineup, a big advantage against Boston except when Jon Lester is on the mound. If Daisuke Matsuzaka won’t use his changeup, and if Josh Beckett is struggling to throw to his glove side, those left-handed bats — like Carlos Pena and Akinori Iwamura — should have a field day.

The Rays, however, never did fall apart down the stretch as predicted by many of the less savvy analysts. Quite the contrary, in fact – they actually improved down the stretch. After posting a .260/.336/.409 prior to the All Star break – at which point they were breathing down our necks in second place, you might recall – they improved their on base abilities slightly and their slugging significantly, at .261/.345/.441.

All in all, this is a lineup that while potentially unimpressive on paper, has won ballgames consistently all summer – and may be improving still.

Here’s what their presumptive starters did against us this season:

POS NAME AVG OBP SLG OPS
C Navarro .190 .250 .206 .456
1B Pena .314 .429 .647 1.076
2B Iwamura .319 .385 .551 .935
3B Longoria .245 .373 .367 .740
SS Bartlett .254 .286 .328 .614
LF Crawford .234 .308 .362 .669
CF Upton .128 .255 .256 .512
RF Gross .204 .291 .408 .691
DH Floyd .125 .276 .125 .401

Murderer’s row, they are not. But they’ve got guys who hit us well – Pena in particular – and managed to do enough damage to take an 18 game series from us.

The Rays Pitching

The pitching staff of this club was, in my view, the single most important factor in their 2008 ascendance. Over 1457.2 IP, the Rays posted a highly respectable staff ERA of 3.82, and allowed a line of .246/.314/.400. Notable is a rather pronounced home/road split. At home, the Rays are exceptional, with opposing hitters only putting up a .230/.301 /.365 line, which jumps to .261/.327/.435 when they’re on the road.

While the success of the rotation can probably be chalked up to maturation – Shields, Kazmir, Garza et al have always had ability – the bullpen is more difficult to explain. Balfour was picked up via waivers in spring training, Howell is a failed starter, and so on. Whatever the cause, however, Tampa’s staff has been as excellent as it has been unexpected on the year. Or maybe you thought Sonnanstine would or could beat Beckett twice.

Anyway, here’s how they’ve performed against us this in 2008.

PLAYER STARTS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Shields 4 .256 .318 .397 .715
Kazmir 4 .324 .433 .689 1.123
Garza 4 .250 .316 .429 .744
Sonnanstine 2 .152 .216 .196 .411

Check out the Sonnanstine numbers in particular; the kid is like kryptonite to us. Not that the front three are slouches either. Our average margin of victory might have been five runs, but with the exception of a late season shelling of Kazmir, they generally didn’t come off these guys.

The Sox Lineup

As mentioned, we’re banged up. In ways obvious – Lowell being absent – and not. Papi, as an example, hasn’t really been the same since returning to the lineup with a wrist that made a clicking noise. He has been far from poor, at .277/.385/.529, but it’s just not Papi. Consider that from April 22nd, when he began pulling out of his pronounced early season slump, to May 31st, his last day in the lineup before going on the DL, he put up numbers like we’re used to seeing: .313/.408/.626. Nor was he in the ALDS what he was in the same series last year: this year’s version hit .235/.350/.294, last year’s .714/.846/1.571 (not a typo). Some of it, of course, is that he’s not getting younger. But it also seems reasonable to suppose that his newfound mortality is at least in part a consequence of his injured wrist.

With that sunny comment, let’s look at how our guys fared against the enemy pitchers.

POS NAME AVG OBP SLG OPS
C Varitek .167 .246 .259 .505
1B Casey .286 .444 .286 .730
2B Pedroia .296 .378 .451 .829
3B Youkilis .232 .382 .429 .810
SS Lowrie .179 .361 .214 .575
LF Bay .235 .278 .765 1.042
CF Ellsbury .292 .347 .369 .716
RF Drew .324 .447 .649 1.095
DH Ortiz .243 .300 .585 .895

We’re not lighting it up any more than the Rays are, in other words. You might notice that I’ve started Kotsay over Casey and/or Cora, which is due to his offense (.730 OPS to Cora’s .536 and Kotsay’s .431), but again we’re talking exceedingly small sample sizes so I have no idea what the lineup will actually look like.

The Sox Pitching

Was, as discussed in the ALDS preview, non-terrible. Tampa edges us in ERA, 3.82 to 4.01, but we struck out hitters at higher rate (7.36 K/9 to 7.06). Which is, as the Baseball Prospectus Secret Sauce indicates (see here for Neyer’s explanation), more than slightly important. True, our staff had their issues against this club – this game in particular was a swift kick in the nuts – but our overall numbers against Tampa hitters are ok, in general.

Of course, we know more now than we did at the close of the season. We know that Lester is throwing well, that Beckett is not, and that Matsuzaka is pitching exactly as he did during the regular season – struggling to get through five. We also know that Wake, who struggled in September – not making it through three innings on two occasions – is getting the fourth start. The order, as you’ve no doubt heard, is Matsuzaka/Beckett/Lester/Wake, which puts Beckett and Lester in a position to pitch games six and seven, should either or both prove necessary.

PLAYER STARTS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Matsuzaka 3 .228 .366 .298 .664
Beckett 5 .209 .244 .364 .609
Lester 3 .240 .313 .320 .633
Wakefield 3 .279 .361 .525 .886

Pretty good, with the exception of Wake. Of course are numbers were terrible against the Angels, and we pitched quite capably, so the above should be taken with a grain or three of salt. There are many variables at work here – many of which contradict each other. Take Wakefield: his numbers this year against Tampa are, to put it mildly, not strong. But lifetime, he’s 19-5 against Tampa in 41 starts, allowing a line of .226/.296/.364. So which do you put more faith in? The more recent small sample size, or the less current but more statistically significant metrics? You got me. What can we expect from Beckett? Same answer. And so on.

Ultimately, I expect us to pitch capably, if not dominantly. Where that gets us is anyone’s guess.

The Prediction

You know the drill – no predictions. Though there is bad news on that front; the smartest guys in the (ESPN) room – the same two that correctly picked us in the first round – are picking the bad guys these days. Law has us falling four games to three, while Neyer has us out in six. It gets worse: Steve Phillips picked us to win. More specifically, the ESPN simulations have us losing Game 1 52% of the time.

From where I sit, the series may come down to Beckett. If we assume that Lester at least gives us a chance to win in his two starts, and that we might reasonably expect to take one of the three Matsuzaka/Wake starts, our erstwhile ace becomes the key. If he pitches like he did Sunday, we’re in serious trouble, in my view. If, on the other hand, he’s at a level closer to what we saw last year, it would dramatically reduce the pressure on everyone else.

Offensively, we’re going to need more from Papi and Petey both. A lot more. We were frankly lucky to advance, in my view, getting as little as we did from those two against the Angels. It’s not reasonable, after all, to expect Bay to sustain his ALDS OPS of 1.356, meaning that offense will have to come from other sources. If the little guy and the large father can get back on track, it would be another means of reducing the number of high leverage innings our staff must throw.

Like most observers, I expect a tight series. We may not be the favorites, banged up as we are, but we’ll have a chance to win. This time of year, that’s about all you can ask.

Did That Just…Oh My God IT'S OUT: Game 2 Reaction

Speaking for each and every one of us, Denton said this:

F#@KING JD DREW WHOM I LOVE LIKE A BROTHER OR PERHAPS A WOMAN OF QUESTIONABLE BACKGROUND AFTER I’VE HAD MANY DRINKS JUST DRIVES A TWO-RUN HOMER OUT OF THE PARK AND THE RED SOX TAKE THE LEAD HOLY SHIT I’VE LOST IT

So let it be written, so let it be done. After a long, brutally drawn out night spent nursing four beers and dreams of failure at Byrnes’ Irish Pub in Bath, ME, we are shipping up to Boston, improbably up 2-0.

Any by we’re, I don’t just mean in a metaphorical sense, as in we the Red Sox. I mean, we as in me and the Red Sox. Or, if you want to be like that, the Red Sox and I.

That’s right: thanks to what is essentially a miracle, I will be making a shockingly unanticipated visit to Fenway Park to see Josh Beckett – who is now, apparently, a definite – take the mound. Thanks to the largesse of a friend and wicked clevah reader.

A few comments (of dubious value):

  • Let’s give credit where credit is due: Matsuzaka did his job Friday night by keeping us in the ballgame. That said, watching him pitch is just excruciating. His games are all too typically a high wire act, and last night was no exception. Add in the additional weight of a playoff game, and it was a long night. In my clearly inexpert opinion, his difficulty largely stems from the fact that he lacks – or lacks consistent command of – a true swing and miss pitch. His K rates demonstrate more than adequately that he has the ability to generate strikeouts, but in games like last night’s he seems consistently unable to put away hitters after getting them in two strike counts.
  • Schilling said exactly what I was thinking on the drive home last night: “the league MVP or runner up has not had a hit yet.” One reason – a healthy Beckett would be another – to be optimistic in tomorrow’s contest. Another? The little guy is 7-18 against tomorrow’s starter for a lifetime .389/.389/.444 line. I’m not worried about Petey: he’s going to hit sooner or later, and with two wins, we haven’t missed him terribly yet.
  • No one will – or should – claim that we don’t miss Manny Ramirez offensively. His postseason performance with the Sox speaks for itself. But much as was said at the time of the trade, while Bay is no Ramirez, he’s not a bad player. And right now, if you were to vote for a series MVP, wouldn’t it have to be Bay? Also notable: Bay is 1-3 lifetime vs Saunders, which would be less interesting if the hit wasn’t a home run. That’s one of three home runs we’ve hit lifetime off the pitcher (the other two came from Crisp and Youk).
  • I confess to being sorry to have made this particular Angels fan unhappy. But if I have to pick between that and making everyone’s favorite beat writer happy, it’s not even a conversation. Sorry, lady: you’re cute, but you’re no Amalie.
  • Chad Finn on Tito:

    I was almost as encouraged by the inclusion of third-string catcher David Ross on the final roster as I was by the news that Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew were among the final 25, for this reason: It’s a clear sign that Tito Francona intends to pinch hit for the mummified remains of Jason Varitek when the situation calls for it. One of the countless things I admire about Francona as a manager is that he consciously changes his approach in the postseason. He manages with more inning-to-inning urgency, whereas from April to September he always has the big picture and the long season in focus. There were a handful of times during the regular season when I’d catch myself screaming at the Samsung after Francona refused to hit for Varitek in a key situation. (Varitek, of course, either whiffed or grounded into a routine double play, depending if there was a runner on first). Ross’s presence on the roster is all the proof I need that Tito is about to change his ways again.

    Precisely. And you need look no further for evidence of this, I think, than Mike Lowell’s DNP last night. This decision was clearly excruciating for Francona, in part because Lowell even hobbled adds something to the club, but more the respect the third baseman has earned. But Tito, as he might not do during the regular season, is clearly managing for the moment.

    Exactly as he should be doing.

  • JD DREW! That’s twice in the last two postseasons that I’ve seen K-Rod taken deep by one of our boys. And twice in the last two postseasons that Drew has hit a big, game changing homer. That this one wasn’t a four run job like last year’s does nothing to diminish its importance: it was huge, because extra innings – and, presumably, an MDC appearance – lay dead ahead.
  • A couple of folks at Byrnes were nervous when Pap threw a few balls in the dirt. Personally, I was elated, as that indicates that the days of the fastball-only approach may be over for the time being, as the split moves back in.
  • Speaking of MDC, does anyone else think it’s interesting that he hasn’t pitched yet?
  • And speaking of absences, did anyone note that senior Globe writer Nick Cafardo was sent to Tampa, rather than the series we’re actually playing in? I know his is a more national beat, and that I know next to nothing about the staffing of sports beats, but dare I hope this means that someone feels the same way I do about Cafardo? Adam Kilgore, by the way, a new addition to the Globe team, is excellent so far. IMHO, anyway.
  • If you’re going to make the argument that – in hindsight – the hole that the Angels have dug for themselves is due to poor roster construction, poor managerial tactics, or something similar, shouldn’t you at least mention the fact that both games could have gone the other way? Or is that a case of the facts getting in the way of a good story?
  • And because I can’t post without talking about numbers, lifetime our guys have put up a .670 OPS against Saunders in 130 ABs. The best (minimum 5 ABs): Crisp at 1.000, Youk at .931, Pedro at .833, Drew at .733, and Cash at .733. That’s the good news. The bad is that Lowrie, Lowell, Ortiz, Ells, Tek, and Casey are all OPSing at .500 or under. All of which, based on the results to date, means precisely dick. But just so you feel prepared.

Game 3

Yes, the pressure is on the Angels. Yes, we’re playing at home. Yes, our ace is throwing against their #3 starter. And yes, we can probably expect Pedroia to chip in before the series is ended.

But tomorrow’s game is very far from a given. As noted in this space before, we’ve thrown Beckett against weaker starters this season and come out on the losing end. And Saunders – for reasons that are unclear to me – generally performs well against our lineup. Besides, who knows better than us that 2-0 does not a series win make?

So no guarantees here that we’ll wrap it up. Quite the contrary, in fact: I expect the Angels to come out loose because that’s all they can do, and I expect a solid outing from Saunders. Beyond that, I leave it to Beckett’s right arm.

While I can’t guarantee a win, however, I can guarantee that I’ll be doing everything in my power to secure one. Which might not be much, but is something.

Lester = Nails: Game 1 Reaction

I love being wrong. Truly. Particularly when it results in us taking the first game of what will be a tough series, whoever ends up moving on.

While I focused on his poor showing against the Angels this season in my preview, Lester battled through some early command problems, settled down, and essentially destroyed a pretty solid lineup. True, perennial irritant Garret Anderson had a couple of hits, and there was the unearned run courtesy of a nervous Lowrie, but the lefty standing in for Beckett was – there really isn’t any other word for it – nails. Beckett himself couldn’t have done much better.

Which was excellent timing, because Lackey – inexplicably pulled after 97 pitches – was outstanding himself. Apart from an outside fastball to Bay, who looked truly awful against the breaking ball in his first two at bats, the Angels’ ace pitched a solid ballgame.

The question that everyone – including myself – has at this point is: what happens from here? Senor Churbuck seems optimistic, arguing that I didn’t account for my Navajo brother’s (sorry, ahl) resurgence at the plate. Which is true; Ells was all over the basepaths last night, and the insurance run he knocked in was big.

As is typical, I have no idea what happens next. To advance, our job is pretty straightforward: we need to win two of the next four ballgames.

The matchups, again, will be:

  1. Matsuzaka vs Santana
  2. Beckett (in theory) vs Saunders
  3. Lester vs Lackey
  4. Matsuzaka vs Santana

If Beckett is Beckett, or a close enough approximation thereof, our chances in Game 3 are good. It’s very far from a given – remember that Beckett has lost to luminaries like Andy Sonnanstine and Brian Moehler this year – but the matchup, on paper, has to be considered a good one for us.

Should we win his start, that obviously means we would need to take one of two Matsuzaka starts and another from Lester. Possible? Absolutely. Likely? I’m not sure I would go that far.

Remember that while a win is a win, last night was not exactly a drubbing. There were several points in that game – Lester’s early command issues, Ellsbury’s unreal grab of a sinking liner, Vlad’s blind man’s baserunning – which potentially would have led to a different, less favorable, outcome.

I’m happy we won, you’re happy we won, and merciful Poseidon is happy we won, but the kids didn’t exactly light it up. 8-35 is good for a .229 batting average; most nights that’s not good enough. Not that the Angels were that stellar either, mind you, at 9-36.

All of which is a fancy way of saying that we got a little lucky, which is nothing to be ashamed of in the postseason, and that in another Lackey v Lester game, it’s reasonable to expect that things could go either way.

Which brings us to Matsuzaka v Santana; to my mind, the least favorable matchup of the three. Even if we throw Matsuzaka’s poor start against the Angels this year out – because Lester certainly outperformed his – there’s Santana to consider.

Always a talented pitcher, Santana has had something of a bizarre career. Exhibit A was last season, when he was dominant at home (3.27 ERA) and essentially useless on the road (8.38 ERA). This year, however, he’s put things together and had a fine season. 3.49 ERA, 214 strikeouts, 47 walks, and a .237 allowed average in 219 innings pitched. His home / road split even reverted: 4.03 at home, 3.02 on the road. Yeah, you got me.

He didn’t throw against us this year, but how do we hit him historically? Not bad, actually. 26-77, good for a .338 average, to go with a .414 OBP and a .597 slugging percentage. Crisp is 2-2, Cora 2-3, Ortiz 5-9 with a home run, and Kotsay (who, reportedly, is playing first) is 7-18 with two doubles. Casey, Tek, Pedroia and Ells, meanwhile, are hitless in a handful of at bats.

But none of the above, of course, means much. If it did, Lester would have gotten shelled last night. This is the playoffs, those are small sample sizes, and who knows what the hell will happen.

Tomorrow night is big, obviously. If we can steal both games against the Angels best pitchers, with our ace yet to throw, we’re in excellent shape. It’s not a must win: if you’d told me we’d split to open the series, I probably would have taken it. But a loss would put immense pressure on the Angels, who are already dealing with questions about all of the playoff exits, the recent history, etc etc, ad nauseam.

So from a predictive standpoint, to answer the question: am I more optimistic than I was prior to the series start? Certainly. With one game won, our odds cannot help but increase. But a win tomorrow night would make me even more positive.

Adjustments? Or Random Statistical Variation?

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john lester & dice-k, originally uploaded by BostonTx.

I’ve received emails from a few of you regarding the past two games. Which is cool. But thus far, I haven’t seen anyone make my point for me: that the really interesting things about the past two games had nothing to do with Papi. Or Tek.

While I still think some of the projections for the Smiling One are optimistic – occasionally aggressively so – it was obvious to more or less the whole town that he wasn’t going to go ofer the season. Or even the week. And that the power would come. Likewise, He Who is Part Tree probably wasn’t going to be striking out better than 80% of the time for the season, old as he may be.

Just as obviously, Matsuzaka and Lester aren’t going to throw 2 and 3 hitters every time out. Two starts doesn’t even begin to describe the microscopic nature of the sample size.

But I’m curious, I’ll admit. Chuck the results; the A’s aren’t exactly this year’s version of this year’s Tigers lineup (Bannister’s impressive shutout notwithstanding).

What I’m more interested in was the approach of both starters. Both kids – I’m offically allowed to use that term as both are younger than me – followed the Red Sox mandate under Epstein, Farrell and co of pounding the strikezone. I haven’t run the numbers, because my connection here at the airport is moderately to heavily cranky, so take this with a shaker or two of salt, but it seemed that both pitchers threw a higher percentage of fastballs than in previous starts. Where higher reads as much higher.

Which is interesting, given that the conventional wisdom regarding both pitchers in the offseason – ratcheted up a notch after their respective season openers – was that each was unnecessarily tentative. Reluctant to trust their stuff and the defense behind them. That both, in other words, were not pitching up to their talent levels.

One start does not a season or career make, of course. Let alone one against a club not expected to contend in the weakest division in the big boy pants AL. But I’m still struggling to contain my hope – good thing, maybe the best of things it may be – that yesterday’s outings are harbingers of an important adjustment for these two.

Mostly because if they can but approximate the performances they gave yesterday, and Beckett is Beckett, we’re not in bad shape.

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

Why this video? Because now that the meaningless games are officially out the way, that’s what I want: an Encore.

And yes, I know this is two weekly features back to back. So sue me.

Anyway, this week’s edition of In Case You Haven’t Been Keeping Up With Current Events, such as it is, comes to you from the road. Where the road equals Georgetown, ME. While tomorrow will see me journey to yours and my favorite city, it won’t be until next week that I actually catch a game live.

That’s right: should I be able to wrangle the travel – and I think I’ll be able to – next Wednesday night I’ll be seeing the good guys take on the Tigers. Whose lineup, frankly, is just unfair. But we’ll get there.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve got for you.

Best 1-2 Punch of the AL? Not in Boston

With all due respect to the Fire Brand of the American League’s Guest Columnist Bottom Line Rob, I could not disagree more with his assessment of the best one/two starter tandems in the good half of the league.

Nearly as I can determine, he seems to base it primarily on wins. The combination that I – and apparently MVN’s Tim Daloisio as well – would pick, Bedard/Hernandez from the M’s, is dismissed with the following:

Neither of these guys have come close to winning 20 games, but with J.J. Putz as their closer and a solid offense, both youngsters have the stuff to each that goal. That said, Seattle was 2nd to the Yankees with a .287 team BA last year, but they only scored 794 runs… and that makes it tough for any pitcher to earn the win.

Which may be true, but not at all how I’d judge the pitchers.

Let’s look at how his qualified pick – Beckett/Matsuzaka – fared against mine and Tim’s Bedard/Hernandez choice last seasion. First, Boston’s guys:

Player K/9 BB/9 BAA IP
Beckett 8.70 1.79 .237 200.2
Matsuzaka 8.84 3.52 .249 204.2

Not bad at all. Matsuzaka walks too many guys, and neither is a premium strikeout pitcher, but that’s a pretty good front of the rotation. And that’s without the improvement in Matsuzaka I expect to see this season, even if it wasn’t apparent in his first outing.

Now what about the Seattle kids?

Player K/9 BB/9 BAA IP
Bedard 10.93 2.82 .217 182
Hernandez 7.8 2.51 .280 190.2

For my money, better. True, the M’s duo is giving up 30 innings to Beckett and Matsuzaka, but I wouldn’t bet on that being the case in ’08. Bedard was sidelined with an injury not expected to affect him this season, and Felix is young. Like two years younger than Clay Buchholz young.

Looking at the numbers from ’07, Bedard more or less outpitched Beckett – who had a Cy Young quality season – numbers-wise, and Hernandez struck out one fewer but walked one fewer in roughly comparable innings relative to Matsuzaka.

As a 21 year old. Against major league competition.

So while I like our rotation as a whole against the M’s, I’m with Tim: if I had to pick between our front two and their front two, I’d take the latter. Though I’d want to get Beckett back once the postseason started.

Going or Staying: Kielty

When Kielty signed with the good guys this offseason, I was convinced that a Crisp deal was not only in the works, but in the books. Which shows you what my prediction skills are like.

The question now is what Kielty’s fate will be. The Globe is reporting that it’s dependent on demand:

Kielty said he plans to remain in LA for a couple of days with family while awaiting word on his job prospects. If another job doesn’t materialize, he’ll go to Pawtucket, which opens its season Thursday. (link)

As for the odds that another job materializing, one of the MLB Trade Rumors folks speculates as follows:

With all the rumors swirling recently about teams in need of outfield help, I have to believe that Kielty will land a major league gig. PECOTA projects a line of .253/.331/.418 based on 159 plate appearances and Kielty can play all three outfield spots. (link)

On paper, I agree with that assessment, but I think there’s more to the equation here. If not, why would Kielty have signed here in the first place? He must have known there would be demand, and yet he took a job here, presumably banking on the fact that one of Crisp/Ellsbury would end up gone. Which, frankly, was a reasonable assumption.

Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Kielty. It’s not that he’s indispensable, but I think he is an excellent complementary piece assuming that Crisp eventually is traded. I’m not sure who’d serve as the fourth outfielder in Kielty’s absence. Moss is credible, but probably can’t handle center regularly as Kielty can.

In my perfect world, we extract something useful for Crisp, and move on. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Pitch Counts and Injuries

There’s been a lot written about pitch counts and the risks to young pitchers the past few years. Witness this little tidbit from Neyer from a recent ESPN Chat:

As you know, the new paradigm suggests that young pitchers risk injury when their innings increase significantly from one season to the next. Carmona went from 103 innings to 215 innings. That doesn’t mean he’s going to get hurt, but it’s something worth worrying about.

That conclusion is even more interesting in light of Carmona’s playoff meltdown. But I also wanted to draw your attention to a recent piece on a very special – and very ominous – pitching club that one of our guys was on the verge of joining in ’07: the 3500 club. Here’s how Brett Greenfield describes it:

Certain pitchers exhibit warning signs from year to year. I’ve always wondered why certain pitchers’ careers take a turn for the worse. Some hurlers just throw too many pitches.

I’ve compiled a list of pitchers who have thrown 3500 or more pitches in a single season since 2005. There only appears to be a handful of them each year. However, there are several recidivists.

When I display for you the list of pitchers who are on this list and you see how their careers have taken a turn for the worse because of overuse, you’ll know why nobody wants to be a part of this club.

The ’07 members? Dontrelle Willis, Daniel Cabrera, Gil Meche, CC Sabathia, Aaron Harang, Scott Kazmir, Jake Peavy, Carlos Zambrano, Dan Haren, Barry Zito, John Lackey and Bronson Arroyo. Great, you’re thinking: Matsuzaka’s not on the list. Well, I’ve got bad news for you: he just missed. Fangraphs has his total pitchcount last year at 3480.

Not convinced that he belongs? Well, Baseball Prospectus has him atop their Pitcher Abuse Points table, some 19000 points ahead of the #3 finisher, AJ Burnett. The other guys in the top 5? Zambrano at #2, Halladay at #4, and Harang at #5.

All guys that work a lot.

I’m not quite recanting my Matsuzaka improvement predictions, but I’ll confess to being worried.

Predictions

I’m no great fan of predictions – actually, I actively hate them. You might have noticed given that I’ve done none myself (though I do think Verlander should be the favorite for the Cy) – but I’ve seen forecasts that are literally all over the map.

Case in point are the good folks over at Baseball Prospectus. The projected records have us finishing at 91-71, along with the Indians and Tigers, while the Yankees run away with the league at 97-65 and the Angels take the West with and 85-77 record. No word on who the wild card would be in such a scenario.

But at the same time, today BP’s Joe Sheehan projected us finishing ahead of the Yankees, strictly according to runs scored/allowed projections, at 96-66 to their 95-67.

Who to believe? None of them, as far as I’m concerned. As the Great Gammons says, any significant downtime to Beckett or Tek (yes, the same Tek who struck out 9 of 11 ABs in Japan – patience, people), and we are in serious trouble – projections or no projections. Hell throw Paps and Oki in there. Papi too.

You get the point: predictions are like battle plans. They never survive the first encounter with the enemy.

Terumasa Matsuo: Who is He, and What Can He Do?

Honestly, I have no idea. Backing up, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up with current events, we signed a 26 year old Japanese pitcher from one of their independent leagues. No scouter on him yet – I’m working on it.

In the meantime, here’s what Rotoworld had to say on the news:

According to Boston’s press release, the 26-year-old Matsuo was the Shikoku Island League MVP in 2007, when he led the league with 15 wins and 159 strikeouts. He had a 1.72 ERA and allowed 85 hits in 152 innings. In 2006, he had an 11-2 record with a 1.82 ERA, 134 strikeouts and 98 hits issued in 138 innings in 2006. Obviously, it’s not nearly the same level of competition as the Japanese Pacific or Central Leagues. He’s not someone to rush out and grab in keeper leagues. (link)

Normally, I’d be less optimistic, but we’ve shown some ability to scout Japan in recent years, so who knows.

More on him when I have it.

The Obligatory Crisp Update

Lastly, the news that I’m sure you’re just as sick of reading as I am writing: teams are interested in Coco, but no one’s shown any inclination to pull the trigger. The latest rumor, courtesy of the Globe’s Nick Cafardo:

The Cubs would still love to get their hands on Coco Crisp, but for now, youngster Felix Pie is their man in center. Sox assistant to the general manager Allard Baird spent a lot of time in Arizona last week scouting the Cubs, among others. (link)

Much as I love his defense – and I really love his defense – I’d almost trade Crisp at this point just so that I wouldn’t have to digest any further trade rumors.

I said almost.