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.

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

As assumptions go, the one that says that everyone reading this knows we’re 1-1 for the season seems pretty unlikely to make an ass out of either you or me. It also seems reasonable to guess that you’re all aware that this week has yet to see a In Case You Haven’t Been Keeping Up With Current Events.

So I’ll forgo informing you of the former, and instead deliver an abbreviated version of the latter. That work?

Injury News

Good news, for once. Crisp is playing, as you’ve seen. And Beckett K’d 6 minor leaguers in 4 scoreless innings today, which you may not have.

McCracken

Many or all of you may not have heard of Voros McCracken, but suffice it to say that he’s the creator of Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS), a very interesting statistic. He also is a former member of our resident nerdery, one whom chose to fly the coop. Apparently, he wasn’t a terribly happy camper:

In terms of my work with the Red Sox it was mostly enjoyable but occasionally frustrating. Being able to have the ear of an MLB GM is something most of the people who do what I do aspire to and it was indeed very {searching for a word} exhilarating? On the other hand the money was lousy, and at times I was left without any real idea of what kind of effect I was having on things. When you work on something for five months, deliver the final product and hear little back about it, it can be disheartening.

One of the things that kind of bugged me with the Red Sox was a somewhat implied expectation that I’d come up with something like DIPS on a regular basis. Whether that’s reasonable for someone else or not, I personally just don’t have that in me.

There are echoes of Bill James’ interview in there, and I’m wondering if it might not behoove us to give our number crunchers a slightly better sense of the value of their input. A bit management 101, I realize, but still.

Pitching Performances from Japan in One Sentence

I promised not to rehash the loss, and I won’t, but some quick reactions to a few of the pitching performances – theirs and ours – in the first two games.

  • Aardsma:
    He lit it up early last year too, but I’m not complaining.
  • Corey:
    Probably needs to be perfect; wasn’t.
  • Foulke:
    Still have a soft spot for him, and still can’t figure how that delivery works.
  • Harden:
    On the rare occasions he’s healthy, it’s rare for him to pitch poorly.
  • Lester:
    He’ll have better days this season, but also worse ones.
  • Matsuzaka:
    Like last year, not exactly pounding the strikezone.
  • Oki:
    Heard his crazy Japanese entrance song; seriously, WTF?

  • Papelbon:
    Not a strong outing; couldn’t be less concerned.

Trade Rumors

More trade rumors swirling this week.

First, Crisp:
[Tampa] are also taking a look at Coco Crisp; Tampa Bay is loaded with a wide range of pitching prospects, so it would seem that Boston could find a fit if it wanted to make a deal.” (link)

Seems far fetched to me, but Crisp would be excellent for their young pitchers, and they’ve got a full cupboard to deal from.

Then the pitchers:
Speaking of the Sox, the team is drawing interest in three right-handed pitchers who are out of options — David Aardsma, Bryan Corey and Kyle Snyder. Any of the three would make sense for a pitching-hungry team such as the Giants, Astros or Cardinals. The Sox, who can’t keep them all, don’t figure to seek a great deal in return.” (link)

This one’s interesting because if I’m not mistaken we have to make a roster move shortly, as the extra spots we were granted for the Japan trip expire.

Lastly, this puzzler about Matt Murton:
There is talk that the Red Sox may strike a deal with the Cubs for Matt Murton eventually, and the Cubs may deliver Murton to a place where he could play.” (link)

I get why we like Murton, but where, precisely, is he supposed to play?

Matsuzaka's Strikeout Rate: The Splits

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

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

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

So without further delay, the numbers:

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

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

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

Did You Know? The Matsuzaka Edition

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

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

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

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

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