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.

News from the AFL

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Expo on 3rd, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Cleaning out a couple of Arizona Fall League links I’ve had sitting around for a bit.

  • How Fast Do They Throw? Average And Max Velocities For Everyone In The AFL: Richardson’s the only guy we have on the list. Max velocity was 95.3, average was 92.97. Which is a little harder than I thought he threw.
  • Tanner Scheppers looks like the real deal:
    Speaking of Richardson, here’s what Law had to say:

    Boston farmhand Dustin Richardson could fill one of the lefty spots in the Red Sox’s ‘pen next year, with an average fastball/slider combination that should make him effective against left-handed hitters; he didn’t show a third pitch he could use against right-handers but hasn’t shown much of a platoon split in his minor league career.

  • BA’s AFL Notebook: Catching Roundup:
    The less positive read on Luis Exposito:

    Red Sox catcher Luis Exposito provides a big target behind the plate for his pitchers, and the 22-year-old looks even bigger than his listed height and weight of 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. He threw out just three of 21 basestealers in the AFL, but he generally receives solid marks for his defensive tools. Though he doesn’t swing and miss excessively, scouts have some concerns about the length of his swing, and the scouting consensus is that he’s likely a backup at the big league level, with the potential to work himself into a starting role.

    “Exposito is extremely physical, extremely strong and he has a great arm” said Mesa manager Brandon Hyde, who managed the Marlins’ Double- A Jacksonville affiliate this summer. “He could be a power bat that could be a good catch-and-throw guy behind the plate.”

    Exposito split time behind the plate for Mesa with the Angels’ Hank Conger, a 21-year-old who hit .295/.369/.424 in 123 games during the regular season with Double-A Arkansas. A hodgepodge of shoulder, back, hamstring and hand injuries have limited Conger’s time behind the plate in pro ball, but it’s Conger’s defense that struck Hyde the most.

    “I was really impressed with Hank’s leadership skills and what he’s been doing behind the plate,” Hyde said. “He receives well, he blocks fantastic and he really takes control of the game. He’s a quarterback there and a leader on the field. I’ve been really impressed with his game management skills.”

  • Jason Grey’s AFL position wrap: Catchers:
    The slightly more positive read on Exposito:

    Exposito has a lot of strength and has shown very good power potential in the AFL, and he’s very strong defensively. But his swing gets long, and there are holes in it. He’ll give up the outer half a bit too often by trying to yank the ball too much. His batting average might be iffy at the higher levels, but the 22-year-old does bring some things to the table that should at least put him on your radar screen.

Just in case you were wondering what was going on out in AZ.

Gas Out of the Bullpen: Not Exactly What I Had in Mind

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Danger, originally uploaded by Clearly Ambiguous.

So the bullpen’s been, um, run prevention challenged of late: tell me something I don’t know, you’re probably thinking. Well, ok smart guy, how about some numbers (courtesy of Inside Edge, courtesy of ESPN)?:

Red Sox bullpen — 2007 vs. 2008 (regular season, through Thursday)
2007 2007 MLB rank 2008 2008 MLB rank
ERA 3.10 2nd 4.56 27th
WHIP 1.21 1st 1.46 19th
Opp. batting average .226 1st .270 27th

The fact that the bullpen has cost us nine games already (NINE games, Mrs Bueller) is likely, as Tim notes, high on Theo’s radar.

Corey and Snyder are long since banished: the former for San Diego and the latter for Pawtucket. Tavarez was recently jettisoned, and according to Jason Stark the Brewers have some interest in the Crazy One. In the same piece, Stark mentions that both Aardsma and Lopez have been shopped – though individually – by our front office, seeking either a left handed relief pitcher or prospect. Though both have had their moments, I’m not going to be broken up if either departs (particularly Lopez).

Paps, outside of one Lugo blown save and one legitimate blown save, is still Paps: i.e. one of the best relievers in the league. His numbers, frankly, are inhuman. .560 OPS against? 23 Ks and 2 BBs in 18.2 IP? Screw the consecutive speed bumps, he’s fine.

Oki, for all the flak he’s absorbed for the admittedly hideous numbers with inherited runners, has been fine when not placed in exceedingly high leverage situations (bases loaded, no one out? c’mon). This assumes that the wrist injury doesn’t linger, of course. Apres that? Well, perhaps not le deluge, but close.

MDC has recovered somewhat from his late April string of four straight scored on appearances, but his 1 hit, 1 1/3 appearance today aside, he’s clearly not emerging as the relief ace that some had hoped for (and that I didn’t expect). Still, he’s here for the duration.

Timlin, as nearly as I can determine, is cooked. With the caveat that it’s an obviously small sample size, he’s been scored on in 50% of his last 6 outings, and has recently lowered his ERA to 9.00. The other metrics? In 10 IP, hitters are putting up a .405/.426/.714 line against him. That’s 17 hits in 10 IP, along with 3 HRs and 3 BBs and 10 ERs. Lefties are hitting him worse (OPS of 1.264), but righties aren’t exactly weak with the stick (OPS of 1.019). True, we all thought he was done last year – and he probably was – but nothing in his performance thus far indicates a bounceback is imminent.

Hansen, of course, was already up and effectively took Tavarez’ roster spot. On the surface, his numbers aren’t much better than Timlin’s in an admittedly small sample size – 8.44 ERA vs the aforementioned 9 – but his sample size is smaller and a closer look reveals some reasons to hope. First, he’s only allowing a line of .238/.333/.381, which is far from terrible. Second, he’s striking people out – 4 K’s in 5.1 IP. Unfortunately, Driveline Mechanics is extremely pessimistic about Hansen’s prospects: both in terms of performance and the potential for injury.

Help, we need. Clearly. But from whence shall it come?

Of the internal candidates previously discussed in this space, the news is mostly negative.

Masterson, since his electric debut in Portland and his outstanding spot start for the big boys, has been hit. His last outing on the 15th saw him give up 9 hits and 7 earned runs in 6 IP, though he only walked 2. Since April 30th, in fact, he’s given up the following in earned runs: 4, 4, 1, and 7. Haven’t heard what the problem might be, but he’s probably not going to be a boost struggling like that.

Richardson, if anything, has been worse. I saw him throw against Bowie down in Portland on the 9th, and he allowed 8 hits and 6 tuns in 5 IP while walking 3. None of the hits were cheap, either. His last five starts, by earned runs, are 3, 4, 1, 6 and 4. Which accounts for the 4.83 ERA. I don’t have the splits, so it’s possible his numbers left on left are better, but again, he doesn’t appear poised to help in the near term.

Bard, on the other hand, might. The pitcher I’ve been notably skeptical of – he’s been walking better than a guy an inning professionally, remember – was recently promoted to good old Portland this week. Though old for the league, Bard dominated Greenville, striking out 43 of the 100 batters he faced over 28 innings, but more importantly only walking 4. The shift to the bullpen, it would seem, might be paying dividends; I’ll try to get to a few Portland games to see first hand. Will he be up? The last time they promoted a 22 year old in Hansen it set him back years, so I tend to doubt it. But with the bullpen in the shape it’s in, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Particularly if he puts up numbers at Portland similar to those we’ve seen in Greenville.

Who’s left? Well, Gronkiewicz was throwing well, but is hurt. Michael Bowden, with Masterson one of the top starter prospects at Portland, is throwing well (2.57 ERA in 42 IP with 41 Ks and 12 BBs), but doesn’t necessarily profile that well in a relief role this season because he doesn’t have a single dominant pitch like Bard (fastball) or Masterson (sinker). Hunter Jones might have been a candidate, after the lefty struck out 26 in 22.2 IP at Portland, but his Pawtucket debut was rocky (3 H, 1 ER in 1 IP).

My dark horse? Buchholz. If Colon comes back and can take his slot in the rotation, Bucky could be a real weapon – not to mention a godsend – coming out of the bullpen, and it would help keep his innings down.

As for external candidates, well, it’s best not to speak of that. Not because of how poorly the Gagne trade turned out, but rather because there really aren’t any obvious Gagne’s to trade for at the moment. Give the front office credit: while their bullpen construction is suspect, they are creative when it comes to trades.

It may take not just a portion, but all of that creativity to find a solution to this year’s bullpen crisis. Because a crisis it most certainly is. Unless you’re happy with how those nine (NINE) games turned out.

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

One Day At Fenway – Letus Extreme Film – Time Lapse – HDTV from Tom Guilmette on Vimeo.

We’ve come back in a couple of games. While we’d all prefer to not to have to come back, count me among those that does believe that doing it successfully does confer an intangible confidence to the club. What’s that worth, statistically speaking?

Maybe nothing. But maybe something. And either way, chalk us up for a couple more wins and a tie for the major league lead in wins. It’s early, so I’d make little or nothing out of that – no more than I would when we were several games back – but I am going to say I Told You So when I claimed the sky wasn’t falling.

Anyway, on to this week’s roundup.

The Bullpen Hopefuls

I waited so long to report on this that the Globe actually caught me up, but a couple of the potential late season bullpen contributors have been throwing well. In order of their proximity to the majors:

  1. Hansen:
    The one time future closer turned potential bust is quietly getting people out at a nice clip. In 11 IP, Hansen’s surrendered 1 unearned run and 2 hits, while K’ing 11, and perhaps most importantly, walking only 3. It’s too early to be excited, but it’s not impossible to imagine him to make a leap similar to the one Delcarmen executed last season.
  2. Masterson:
    Is straight lighting it up. Through an admittedly small sample size of 4 starts, the sinkerballer has a .95 ERA in 19 IP, to go along with 23 K’s and only 5 BB’s. He’s not long for Portland, sadly, as I doubt that I’ll get back to Maine in time to see another start from him there.
  3. Richardson:
    Ignored by the Globe, possibly because he’s more of a one pitch pitcher (fastball), the lefty Dutin Richardson is also throwing well for our AA club. In 3 starts covering 17 IP, he’s coughed up 4 ER while’s striking out 20 against 6 free passes. Not bad numbers, particularly given the fact that he’s a lefty.
  4. Bard:
    You might recall that I’ve been skeptical of Bard’s near term viability due to his complete inability to throw strikes. Well, given the fact that he throws near 100, count me among those that would be happy to be proven wrong. Which he may yet do, if his start is any indication. Law’s been hearing good things, saying “I’ve been hearing that Bard has been out of sight since Hawaii. His velo is back, and he’s pounding the lower half of the zone. And of course he’s throwing strikes,” and the numbers back him up. In 11.2 IP at Greenville, Bard’s K’d 16 against a mere 2 walks and 5 hits. For someone who spent last season walking better than a batter an inning, this is a positive development, small sample size or no.

The Catching Hopefuls

Beyond some of the nice pitching, there’s some decent news on the catching front. And with Kevin Cash as our primary backup, all I can say is thank Jebus. The rundown, in order of proximity to the majors:

  1. Kottaras:
    Not doing much other than leading a relatively strong Pawtucket offense in OPS with a .276/.354/621 line. The major obstacle to his ascension this season is his defensive liability; he’s not Tek, and while he’s presumably catching the knuckleballer Charlie Zink, I haven’t heard that he’s a candidate for Cash’s spot.
  2. Brown:
    Brown’s tailed off a bit since an early hot start, but .762 OPS (.244/.340/.422) at Pawtucket is at least respectable given his reputation as a solid defensive catcher.
  3. Wagner:
    Like Brown, Wagner’s tailed off a bit since the start of the season, but in his first season at AA, he’s putting up a .250/.318/.350 line. Far from setting the world on fire, but the 23 year old is keeping his head above water which is nice to see.

The Good and Bad Mechanics

Like Rob Neyer, these photos of Lopez and Oki mid-delivery make me vaguely nauseous. But I’m gratified that Driveline Mechanics has little but positive feedback on Buchholz’ mechanics.

The Kids

Kevin Thomas just covered this, but let me reinforce his contention that the kids are playing well. Ellsbury’s speed – particularly in the Yankees series – proved to be gamebreaking as advertised. And Lowrie? Well, he’s merely putting up a .429/.375/.571 line since his call up.

Yes, the kids will take their lumps as all rookies do. Some will flame out spectacularly. But for now they’re doing well plugging holes and making other assets (Crisp, Lugo) expendable in the event that we can find a good trading partner.

(thanks to Tim Daloisio for the link to the video)