Some Early Numbers

Three turns through the rotation, with Aaron Cook chomping at the bit and Matsuzaka’s rehab clock rolling, here’s what our rotation’s xFIP numbers look like:

  • Lester: 4.59
  • Beckett: 4.26
  • Buchholz: 5.21
  • Doubront: 3.62
  • Bard: 4.02

The performances of Doubront and Bard, in particular, are making the Cook decision harder. Which is, as they say, an excellent problem to have. One that would have been quite welcome, oh, say, last September.

Some other things that interested me from our early season numbers:

  • Vicente Padilla has the highest K/9 rate on the tea (10.8), and his BB/9 is a reasonable 2.16. Unfortunately his HR/9 is also 2.16, but some of that may be a function of being somewhat unlucky on balls in play (.375 BABIP).

  • Clay Buchholz has been a bit unlucky (.329 BABIP, 5.21 xFIP against an 8.87 ERA), but he’s just not pitching well. He’s not striking anyone out (4.43/9), he’s walking a ton (4.03/9) and he’s giving up more homers per nine than Padilla (2.42). Part of it might be fastball velocity: this season’s 91.9 MPH would be the lowest since 2007. He’s also using his cut fastball a lot more – last year he threw he 13% of the time, this year it’s 24%. Buster Olney of ESPN has speculated that he’s still hurt, or adjusting from the injury, because he’s nearly abandoned the two seamer that was key to his original resurgence. Either way, he needs to start pitching like he can.

  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia has never been a big on base guy – his lifetime OBP is .305 – but in the early going he’s even worse than that. His .275 is the lowest of all of the starters, and unlike Youkilis (.292 OBP), he’s probably not going to recover all that much. That said, like last season, he’s been stinging the ball when he does make contact. His isolated power number (.306) leads the club, and his .551 slugging lags only Ortiz and the surprising Ryan Sweeney. The net? A wOBA that is fifth on the club among players with at least 50 ABs. Even with Shoppach’s good start – he’s slashing .308/.419/.500 at the moment in 31 plate appearances – Salty’s been adequate for the catcher position. WAR has him exactly as valuable, in fact, as the Tigers’ Avila or the Yankees’ Martin. Though I wonder if the pitchers would argue that, given the emerging research into pitch framing as a skill. For those wondering about Lavarnway, by the way, he’s at .286/.408/.413 down in Pawtucket. He’s getting on base at a good clip, in other words, but not hitting for quite as much power as in years past.

  • Like many, I was disappointed in the Marco Scutaro transaction. But while I was skeptical of Mike Aviles‘ ability to play the position as a regular, the more problematic part of that trade for me was the lack of a return for the asset. That part still bothers me, but Aviles performance thus far hasn’t been a problem. While Peter Abraham calls him a “Major league backup” type, he’s played like a starter. He and Ortiz are the only players on the roster who’ve already been worth a win, and Aviles is actually the only shortstop in the American League to be that valuable. Among AL shortstops, in fact, Aviles is 1st in ISO, 2nd in SLG and tied for 2nd in wOBA. And unlike Derek Jeter who’s gotten off to an incredible start – putting up a .386/.421/.591 line – Aviles hasn’t really been that lucky; his BABIP is .306, while Jeter’s is an unsustainable .405. His fielding numbers, meanwhile, are a positive, not a negative. It’s still early, of course, and just because Aviles is playing well doesn’t mean that the Scutaro transaction made sense, but shortstop thus far hasn’t been an issue.

  • Speaking of David Ortiz, he’s obviously been on fire. As Abraham said today, it’s remarkable to think that in 2010, Ortiz was probably weeks away from an outright release. You don’t need to know his BABIP’s .435 to know Ortiz will come back to earth in the weeks ahead, because it doesn’t take a genius to understand that he’s probably not going to hit .400 for the season. Still, one encouraging sign have been his L/R splits. Consider his OBP versus left-handed pitching in the 2007-2010 stretch: .390, .308, .298, .275. It’s no wonder, in fact, that Francona was reduced to pinch hitting Lowell for Papi that year, because Ortiz had become helpless against same sided pitching. Last season, however, he rebounded, putting up a robust .329/.423/.566 against lefties. This year, most predicted a regression towards his former levels of performance. Which may still happen, because it’s early. But thus far he’s at .440/.462/.680. If he can repeat even last year’s performance, he’ll be in great shape at the plate.

Have Faith…in Regression to the Mean

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The Red Seat, originally uploaded by Starving Photographer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WTF?

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opening day, originally uploaded by sogrady.

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

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

What’s Gone Wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Likely to Go Right?

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

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

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

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

What’s Not Likely to Improve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Picture?

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

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

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

The Red Sox Offense, Circa 2010

Obviously, the focus has shifted to run prevention. Just as obviously, Jason Bay is a better hitter than Mike Cameron, whatever the latter’s run prevention advantages.

But while I think it unlikely that Theo’s done tweaking the roster, I frankly don’t think the one we have right now is all that bad. It’s not the Yankee’s lineup, to be sure, but neither is it Seattle 2009 lineup.

Here’s Keith Law on our roster construction for next year:

Between the Lackey deal and the reported discussions with Mike Cameron, Boston’s front office appears to have changed its approach to roster construction away from the OBP/slug-heavy clubs around which they won two World Series toward run prevention through superior pitching and defense. We’ve already seen Boston sign Marco Scutaro, an above-average defensive shortstop who was even better than that before a heel injury ruined his 2009 season, in addition to paying heavily for Cuban teenage shortstop Jose Iglesias, a pair of moves they hope will secure the shortstop position for the next seven or eight years.

And here’s Buster Olney on the same subject, today:

The Red Sox have tried to sign Adrian Beltre — widely regarded by talent evaluators as the best third baseman in the majors — but they may not be successful in reaching the middle ground between what they want to pay Beltre and what agent Scott Boras is asking for (an eight-figure annual salary). If they can’t get a Beltre deal done, they will go with Casey Kotchman at first base and Kevin Youkilis at third. Either way, the Red Sox will be in position to fight it out with the Mariners about who has the best pitching-and-defense team in the majors. A rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz could be backed by an infield of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro and Beltre (or Kotchman), and an outfield of Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew.

Conversely, the Boston lineup could have the least amount of impact we’ve seen in Theo Epstein’s time as general manager. The Red Sox have posted the following team OPS marks over the past seven seasons, starting in 2003: .851, .832, .811, .786, .806, .805, .806.

These are the OPS numbers of 2009 for what the Red Sox lineup might look like:

SS Scutaro — .788
2B Pedroia — .819
1B Youkilis — .961
C Martinez — .861
RF Drew — .912
LF Cameron — .794
DH Ortiz — .794
3B Beltre — .683 (or Kotchman, .721)
CF Ellsbury — .770

It’s possible that the lineup would be pretty good — if Drew stays healthy, if Cameron continues to be productive at age 37, if Ortiz hits more consistently than he did in the first half of 2009. Keep in mind that the Red Sox (and other big-market teams) always will have flexibility to go out and make in-season deals. Are the Red Sox as good as the Yankees, in the aftermath of the Lackey and Cameron agreements?

Maybe not.

It seems fairly clear, though, with more moves to come, that Boston is one of the four best teams in the AL, with a couple of months to go in the offseason.

Olney, probably for the sake of convenience, ignores the possibility of platoons. But given that folks that will be penciled into the lineup next year have rather pronounced splits, I thought I’d take a quick look at the roster possibilities. Obviously I am not assuming a Beltre acquisition, but have anticipated the signing of Cameron and the acqusition of Max Ramirez for Lowell. A couple of other notes: one, the lineups are obviously unrealistic, because Tito is highly unlikely to platoon his regulars this heavily. Two, we have sample size problems, most obviously with Lowrie and Ramirez. Third, these numbers are career, not last year, so they do not reflect recent declines – or improvements, for that matter – in player performance. Last, the batting order has been given essentially zero thought.

All that being said, I think the roster, even without (likely) further additions, is both flexible and adequate. Unless Ortiz returns to his former level, it’s not going to be a scary offense, it lacks pop and we’re not stellar against lefties, but we should score runs. Again: this is even if we do nothing else. So let’s not all panic about the presumed loss of Bay just yet, shall we?

More on the signings and the front office’s plan later.

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.

Beckett Not Being Beckett: The Game 3 Reaction

Fenway says hi

I’ll admit it: seven hits in 12 innings was not precisely what I had in mind for my first in person postseason appearance at the park this season. After all, I brought a lifetime 5-1 playoff record to Fenway last night. I recognized that the Angels pitching was excellent – and that our offense can be pitched to, now more than ever – but, well, you saw what happened.

About as fun as a kick in the crotch.

On the one hand, if you’d told me we’d be up 2-1 after three games before the series began, I would have taken it. On the other, we lost a Beckett start, and if Lester can’t clinch tonight we’re looking at a Game 5 started by Matsuzaka. Which is almost more than I bear.

Twelve innings and a one run loss make it seem like the game was close, but in truth, it wasn’t. Ells’ first hit should never have dropped, and without that we don’t score four and we don’t go to extras. Sadly, we were unable to steal the game we didn’t deserve to win, with out best chance dying in the glove of Rivera (or was Willits in by then?) when Lowrie flied out to right off K-Rod with the bases loaded.

Anyway, I doubt reliving the game inning by inning would be all that cathartic, so let’s move on to the post-game comments:

  • Beckett:
    The Texan righthander says that physically he’s fine. Which is entirely unsurprising, whether it’s true or it isn’t. For my part, I say that the available evidence contradicts that claim. Easily.

    When Saunders is throwing harder (96) than Beckett (topped out at 94, sat at 92) according to the Fenway Park gun there’s something wrong. Set aside the results for a minute – while he labored in giving up nine hits over five, Beckett did keep us in the game – he just didn’t look like Beckett. His velocity was down, his command was poor, and he – like Matsuzaka the start before him – could not put batters away. Beckett started the game with one fastball in his first ten pitches and couldn’t cover first base; if that doesn’t scream “problem” I don’t know what would. If you asked the Angels privately, I would bet you a case of Smithwick’s that each and every one of them believes Beckett is still hurt.

    Which begs certain questions: if he’s not healthy – as I assume that he’s not – why not hold him for a Game 5 start and throw either Byrd or Wake? Lose that and you would then have to take one of two pitched by Lester and a more fully rested Beckett. And if he’s not healthy, why was he starting at all? Not only were we behind the 8 ball all day, the start cost us seven innings and 109 pitches from the pen. If last night was a consequence of Beckett trying to do too much and misleading his manager and the training staff as to his physical readiness, it’ll be a shame.

  • Bullpen:
    Much maligned by yours truly during the season, the relievers have pitched brilliantly for the most part. They haven’t been perfect, and have been as lucky (think Vlad’s first-to-third try) as they have been good, but last night was an excellent illustration of their turnaround: seven innings, three hits, one run. Can’t ask for any more than that.
  • Lowell:
    As you’ve no doubt read by now, Lowell looked bad last night. What was not properly conveyed was precisely how bad he looked. Lowell, who’s building a strong case as the toughest player in the league, is a shell at present, and moves as if he were hollow. His range is literally measured in feet, and his at bats are tough to watch. I have nothing but respect for him trying to play – and for gutting out the late innings walk last night – but we need to ask whether at the 30 or 40% he’s playing at currently, he’s an asset or a liability. Painful as that might be for our club.
  • Lopez:
    Just for the record, I don’t blame Lopez for last night’s outcome. His game is not facing righties, and that’s what got to him in the 12th. Why Lopez over Byrd? I didn’t quite follow Tito’s explanation, but I think it was this: Lopez needed to face the lefties coming up. If you use Byrd, he’s on in for a few batters, then it would Lopez’ turn, at which point you’ve burned your long guy (Wake was not an option because Cash had been erased). Seems a little circuitous logic-wise, but frankly there aren’t many great options in 12th inning of a playoff game in which your starter only went five.
  • Lowrie:
    Nor, for the record, do I hold Lowrie accountable for last night. Bases loaded, two out, facing one of the better closers in the game, the kid put a good swing on the ball, which is all that you can reasonably ask. The ball just hung up a few seconds long.
  • MDC:
    Giving credit where credit is due, as I’ve been a critic, MDC looked positively overpowering last night. He threw his change for strikes and made Anderson, in particular, look bad swinging through it. And while I don’t believe it was intentional, I’m glad he hit Napoli. The Angels catcher was far too comfortable in the box.
  • Napoli:
    Speaking of, I’m not sure if it was obvious on the telecast, but his first home run (I was in the dude’s room for the second) was an absolute bomb. The ball was crushed, and there was less than no doubt about it, even as it came off the bat.
  • Papi:
    I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but one common observation last night was that the Large Father just isn’t the same. He hit the ball hard a few times – flying out short of the warning track in his first two at bats – and walked late, but he’s clearly not the threat he was last season, or even early this one. Which is a problem.
  • Pedroia:
    The little guy actively took upon himself the blame for last night’s loss, which was good but hardly necessary. True, he remains hitless, and didn’t deliver in two or three spots last night that might have won us the ballgame. But a.) he’s not the only problem on offense, b.) he’s been unlucky on a few balls that were hit and hit well, and c.) they’re not giving him a lot to hit.
  • Shields:
    Was absolute nails last night. He located a fastball with good velocity (topping at 94), dropped in a mid 70’s hook, and threw in a slider for good measure. None of our guys looked comfortable, and none had particularly good at bats. That’s the good news for the Angels fan; the bad news is that he was leaned on heavily, throwing 28 pitches in 2 and a third IP. His availability tonight, presumably, will be limited.
  • Texeira/Vlad:
    Are easily outdoing their Red Sox counterparts this series. Like our ’07 Papi/Manny combo, they’re hitting pretty much everything (averages are .538 and .583, respectively). They are, frankly, terrifying at the moment.
  • Varitek:
    A few people were surprised that Tito pinch hit for Varitek. I would remind those people that a.) Tito manages – again, as he should – for the moment in the postseason, and that b.) Varitek can still hit lefties with moderate success, but is having serious trouble hitting from the left side of the plate. The move, therefore, was nothing more than a logical decision, if one that didn’t pay off.

What to expect tonight? It’s all on the starters. With an offday tomorrow if the series goes to five games, both clubs will have some flexibility with their respective ‘pens. But not a lot: the workloads have been heavy. Last night alone, the Angels’s relief core all threw around 30 pitches (Arredondo 28, Shields 28, K-Rod 33). Our workload wasn’t that much lighter (Delcarmen 25, Oki 17, Masterson 16, Pap 31, Lopez 20). If one starter goes five against the other’s seven or eight, he’s going to lose.

The good news is that we’re throwing the ace of our postseason tonight in Lester; the bad news is that the Angels are doing the same. True, Lackey’s history at Fenway is less than stellar (I’m on a train and can’t look up the numbers), but his near no-hitter this year was pitched there, unless I’m mistaken.

In other words, I expect another good, tight ballgame. Which makes for good TV. But I have to be honest: I’d settle for a big margin Sox win.

P.S. One thing to keep on the back of your mind: might Beckett be available for an inning or two out of the pen on Wed, if necessary?

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.