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.

Untouchable Ellsbury?

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Confirming the Catch, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Obviously, we are sensing the proverbial next shoe is about to drop. If it is Adrian Gonzalez (with an outside shot at Miguel Cabrera), which would be a ginormous move by the Red Sox to cap what would be an eye-popping offseason, then what is there not to like? Well, one thing: if one of the players going to San Diego is Jacoby Ellsbury.

If Ellsbury is the hot name from the San Diego side, then Theo Epstein should just say no.

Give up Ryan Westmoreland, and include a better prospect or two at the end of the deal. Ellsbury is a special player who hit .301, stole 70 bases, and scored 94 runs last season, and one who plays a very good center field and is just 26 years old.” – Nick Cafardo

Chad Finn and I might not agree on much with respect to a potential trade for Adrian Gonzalez, but we at least see eye to eye on this much: “If you think Jacoby Ellsbury is untouchable in a deal for Adrian Gonzalez, we’re gonna have to fight.”

Which is not to say that I want to trade Ells. Lord knows I love watching the kid play as much as the next guy, because when was the last time the Sox had a guy who was literally fast enough to run down a deer? But he is what he is, as the cliche says, and what he is is a player who’s good, but unlikely to develop into a star.

You might assume a deconstruction of the Jacoby-is-untouchable argument would begin with his defense, which recently become the subject of much discussion after he won an award as the best defensive player in the majors after posting the single worst UZR/150 at his position. But I won’t. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that his terrible -18.3 UZR/150 in ’09 was statistical noise; he put up a 6.9 at the position in ’08, albeit in less than half as many innings, and the good folks from SoSH at least raise some reasonable questions about the statistical assessments of his play in the field.

But what about his offense? Here’s what Aaron Gleeman, who is very good, said about Ells when the Twinkies were contemplating trading for him as part of a Santana package:

Ellsbury essentially does everything well except hit for power and looks likely to be a very valuable player for a long time, but the question is whether the Twins should build a trade package for the best pitcher in baseball around someone who may never reach double-digit homers in a season. Ellsbury batted .365 with a .157 Isolated Power during his metal bat-wielding college career at Oregon State and has hit .318 with a .116 Isolated Power in 1,282 plate appearances a pro.

At 24 years old Ellsbury will probably develop some additional pop as he matures, but with 29 homers in 1,300 plate appearances dating back to college it’s unlikely that his Isolated Power will rise much beyond .125 or so. For comparison, Luis Castillo’s career Isolated Power is .064, so Ellsbury is far from powerless. On the other hand, major-league hitters as a whole posted a .155 Isolated Power in 2007, which would make it tough for him to possess even average power.

Of course, plenty of hitters with below-average power are still able to be very good players by providing some combination of outstanding defense, speed, and on-base skills. Those are all areas where Ellsbury figures to thrive given that he’s an excellent defensive center fielder who’s hit .300 everywhere he’s gone and has stolen 114 bases at an 81-percent clip in 283 pro games. However, there’s some question about exactly how good his on-base skills can be.

Ellsbury has drawn a non-intentional walk in 8.8 percent of his pro plate appearances, which puts him solidly above the major-league average of 7.8 percent and works out to around 50-55 walks per 600 plate appearances. If he maintains that walk rate along with a batting average at .300 or so, Ellsbury’s on-base percentage would be around .360-.370. That’s well above the MLB average of .335, but is it enough to make him a star when it comes along with a .125 Isolated Power?

If things go well for Ellsbury, he looks capable of hitting around .300/.370/.425 on a regular basis. Toss in good defense with 50-steal speed and that’s an extremely good player. In fact, it’s essentially Kenny Lofton. Like Ellsbury, Lofton is a slight, incredibly fast, lefty-hitting center fielder who was drafted out of a Pac-10 college and made his big-league debut as a 24-year-old. Despite showing even less power than Ellsbury in the minors, Lofton has hit .299/.372/.423 with 622 steals during his 17-year career.

However, while Lofton certainly seems like a good comp for Ellsbury on any number of levels, in reality he’s probably more like a good best-case scenario comp. There’s no guarantee that Ellsbury can maintain his .300-hitting ways in the majors long term, even his modest minor-league power may not fully translate to the big leagues, and walking in nine percent of his trips to the plate could prove difficult if pitchers aren’t afraid to throw him strikes.

At this point Ellsbury looks capable of putting together a Lofton-like career, but with sub par power and non-great plate discipline most of his offensive value is tied to hitting .300. If he instead bats .275 while seeing his Isolated Power drop into the .100 range and walking just seven percent of the time, then Ellsbury goes from Lofton-like to hitting .275/.330/.375. Strong defense and great speed would still make him a solid player, but that’s not someone to build a package for Santana around.

None of us wanted to hear that, at the time, coming off the the kid’s spectacular 2007 late season run, during which he put up a .353/.394/.509 line with his eye popping speed.
But what’s he done since? .291/.346/.405 and an isolated power of .114. Pretty much exactly what Gleeman predicted, in other words. He’s a good player, but he’s not a great player. Even with the steals, which it will be interesting to see if he can sustain.

Some will claim he improved down the stretch, and that’s true: he did. But by how much? He numbers from September on have him at .305/.388/.415 for an .803 OPS. That’s better than his cumulative .301/.355/.415/.770 line, for sure: it would tie for the 5th best CF OPS in the majors, if he could hold that up. But arguments that that represents “improvement” seem to be largely the product of aspirational projections. The simpler explanation, easily, is that it’s a small sample size statistical variation explainable by, say, an influx of September pitching callups.

Nor is Ells a spring chicken at 26. He’s not done improving as a player, but he’s not 24 anymore either. Which the major projections recognize: Bill James has him at .302/.360/.420 (.780 OPS), CHONE .300/.358/.410 (.768 OPS) and ZIPS .290/.344/.398 (.742 OPS). Unless they’re all wrong – and their collective average OPS margin for error last year was .034 (Bill James was the farthest off, optimistically projecting a .843 for Ells) – he’s no star. No matter what Cafardo and his “veteran National League executive” think about Ells being “special” and a “rare talent.”

And for the Ellsbury defenders that want to point to his admittedly impressive 41.4 VORP score, good for second among centerfielders and 38th in the league, we need to acknowledge that the man he could be traded for – Gonzalez – is the owner of a 57.6 VORP, which would be easily the best on our team and good for 13th in the league.

But if he’s not a star player, Ells is cheap and team controlled, at least. Isn’t he? Well, not really. Here’s Olney:

I would respectfully disagree with Nick [Cafardo] about whether Ellsbury would be a great catch for the Padres. In a vacuum, sure, you’d love to have him. But Ellsbury is going to be eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2010 season, and in 2011-12, he could make as much or more than Gonzalez will make over the next two seasons. In other words: His salary would become almost an immediate problem for the Padres, and given that he is represented by Scott Boras, the Padres would have to assume there would be no hometown discounts. Ellsbury would be a nice player for San Diego, but he would be a money pit.

So while I certainly wouldn’t trade an asset like Ells for just any player, the notion that he should be untouchable in a transaction for a talent like Gonzalez is absurd. If Hoyer would take him as the centerpiece for a deal, that’s an easy decision to make. Both purely on the players’ merits as well as in the context of our ability to replace Ellsbury on the major league roster.

Unfortunately, however, the Padre’s new GM is much better at player value assessment than Cafardo – who once recommended playing Shelley Duncan over Jason Giambi because of his “energy”, remember – so the chances of us getting Gonzalez for a package headlined by a good but not great player that’s about to get expensive are minimal. Cafardo’s got that going for him, at least.

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 Cost of and Need for Adrian Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Net

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

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

We’ll see if Theo and co. agree.

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.

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

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04-04-08-PawSox-02, originally uploaded by jasonandrewlayne.

What a difference a week makes.

Had we entered the break mired in second place, I would have made some statements to the effect that the standings at the All Star break count for little. So I’m little inclined to make too much of a half game lead. Particularly after a game in which Matsuzaka threw only 68 of 115 pitches for strikes and the offense left 20 men on base.

Still, first tastes better than second. It’s not often you make up five games in a week. And while it’ll ultimately be of minimal import, the fact that the Tampa kids are hearing footsteps is not terrible news.

Lest we get carried away, bear in mind that our club yet has serious problems. Even as we slightly underperform our Pythagorean expectations and Tampa outperforms theirs, as the Joy of Sox notes.

The bullpen is yet unreliable, as last night’s contest reminds us, and our offense – the explosions against the Twins and O’s this week aside – is streaky. Masterson should help the former and the Large Father the latter (knock on wood), but I assume that Theo and folks are working the phones.

Yes, Tampa just dropped seven games in a row, but should they, for example, pull off a Murton and Street trade, we may have a problem.

Anyway, on to this week’s ICYHBKUWCE…

Ellsbury

A number of you have suggested that Ellsbury’s struggles of late might be attributable to his June 5th injury; the diving catch that resulted in a sprained wrist. You may be right.

It’s not conclusive, but the before and after numbers leave open the possibility of a connection:

AB BA BB K HR
Before 190 .284 28 24 4
After 129 .256 5 22 1

Granted, it’s 60 fewer at bats, but still. Here’s hoping the break does the kid some good.

Lars Anderson

Though he hasn’t gotten too much ink here, Lars Anderson is, according to many, both our best power prospect and our best first base prospect. A couple of updates on his progress:

Baseball America:

Sending big Lars Anderson to the hitter’s haven that is Lancaster figured to produce some fireworks, and Anderson hasn’t disappointed. As hot as Anderson was in June, when he hit .360/.440/.490, he’s been even better in July. Anderson has already cracked four home runs in nine games this month, three of which have come away from Lancaster. He did more than hit for power this week, as Anderson reached base at least once in every game and strung together four multi-hit games. For the season, Anderson is batting .324/.416/.529, ranking him fifth in the league in average and third in on-base percentage.

John Sickels:

Anderson currently ranks seventh in the California League with a .916 OPS, with a complete line of .317/.411/.505, 18 doubles, 11 homers, 45 walks, and 57 strikeouts in 281 at-bats. The league OPS is .744, so his OPS is 23 percent above league context. A left-handed hitter, he’s destroying southpaws to the tune of .383/.462/.617. Against right-handers he’s at .290/.391/.460, an interesting reverse platoon split but one that likely indicates he won’t have to be platoooned at higher levels. I like the high walk rate along with reasonable strikeouts. His home run power may be a bit less than you’d expect from a 6-4, 215 pounder, although he’s obviously dangerous and his home run power is expected to continue to increase. He is still just 20 years old.

On the negative side, Anderson has a sharp home/road split, .359/.451/.579 at home in the friendly confines of Lancaster, .272/.365/.426 on the road. On the other hand, the home/road split has lessened of late. He spent some time on the DL with a sore wrist in May, and has been blistering hot since returning to action in June, hitting .369/.450/.533 in 30 games since returning from the wrist injury.

It’ll be interesting to see if the presence of Anderson influences our appetite for Texeira, if or when he becomes available as a free agent.

Lowrie vs Lugo

Five days ago, Allen Chace over at Over the Monster said this with respect to our shortstop situation:

I don’t think we’re going to see any changes real soon. Lugo is the starter for the time being. There are no terribly appetizing trade options, so until Lugo’s OBP goes down below, say, .330, we’re not going to see Lowrie brought up and given a shot.

At the time, I agreed. And we all know what’s happened since: Lugo strained or tore – depending on who you believe – his quad, and is out for four to six weeks. And just like that, Lowrie replaces Lugo.

The question is for how long? Probably four to six weeks. Particularly if Lowrie is as minimal a factor as he was in yesterday’s contest. Which could be a concern, as he’s been in something of a funk to open July, putting up a .176/.275/.294 down at Pawtucket in 9 games this month.

But what if the kid plays well? Lugo lamented his injury, claiming that he’d just “found his swing.” Which is interesting, since July was shaping up to be his worst month since April (.259/.323/.259). When he comes back, assuming he won’t be a hundred percent in the field, the only thing arguing in his favor for playing time will be the inexplicable $9M we’re paying him.

Odds are Lugo will get his job back. And those of you that have been around a while know that Lugo’s not exactly my favorite player. But I do think it’s worth questioning how far we’re going to go with a shortstop that was essentially terrible before he tore his quad.

Masterson’s Replacing…Who?

Last week, I expressed surprise that Buchholz hadn’t been brought up and Masterson shifted to the pen. Well, it looks as if I was a week early, because Bucky’s back and Masterson will be soon. And none too soon, though he’s not likely to help our walk numbers out there.

When I first heard the news, my first thought was – predictably – why not lsat week? My second, however, was the question Kevin Thomas is asking: “When Masterson returns to Boston, which reliever goes?”

Looking at the staff, I think the conclusion is obvious:

  • David Aardsma
  • Manny Delcarmen
  • Craig Hansen
  • Javier Lopez
  • Hideki Okajima
  • Jonathan Papelbon
  • Mike Timlin

Barring an injury, I think Hansen’s not long for our pen. If he was able to throw even a few more strikes, I might argue for a Timlin exit (as I’m of the opinion that there’s a giant fork sticking out of his back), but the young reliever’s not giving me a leg to stand on.

Couple Timlin’s marginally improved performance since his return from the DL (4 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 3 K, 1 BB) with Hansen’s ongoing inability to throw balls over the plate (26.1 IP, 25 H, 18BB, 22Ks), and I can’t see anyone but Hansen being sent down.

Not least because he’s the only one that actually can be sent down, as far as I know.

Trade Chips

Given the abovementioned issues with the roster, the Sox front office is undoubtedly doing the due diligence on who’s available. While that subject is covered in detail elsewhere – MLB Trade Rumors is always my first stop – the question of who we’re likely to be asked for is less well documented. Fortunately, Sean McAdam’s broken that down for us. His list looks like this:

Elite Prospects

  • Michael Bowden
  • Lars Anderson
  • Josh Reddick
  • Ryan Kalish
  • Jed Lowrie

Next Level Down

  • Kris Johnson
  • Daniel Bard
  • Oscar Tejeda
  • Che-Hsuan Lin
  • Mark Wagner

Could Draw Interest

  • Brandon Moss
  • David Pauley
  • Chris Carter

There are probably a couple of other players that would be of potential interest – Michael Almanzar, Bubba Bell, or even George Kottaras – that’s a reasonably complete list.

The one thing I haven’t heard many people discuss: Bowden might be overvalued at the moment, his calf injury notwithstanding. Given his performance at Double A, he might be considered by other clubs an elite pitching prospect, but his ceiling is likely considerably lower than that. That doesn’t mean you trade him; pitchers of his caliber don’t grow on trees. But it may make him more of a tradeable commodity than he would otherwise be, particularly in a deal involving young catching talent.

Varitek’s Future

One of the conversations I’ve been having over and over concern’s Varitek’s future. On the one hand, he’s been absolutely miserable with the bat this season. Out of 19 MLB catchers that have seen 250+ ABs this year, Tek is 17th in average,16th in OBP, and SLG. That’s not good.

On the other hand, there’s his celebrated reputation for working with pitchers, his tenure and stature with the club, and the fact that catching around the majors is horribly scarce.

Between those two positions, you might think, lies a compromise path that would keep our captain in a Red Sox uni for the remainder of his career.

According to Hacks with Haggs, however, Peter Gammons is skeptical:

He’s a 36-year-old guy who has played his heart out for a long time. He was not exactly a gifted hitter. He really hasn’t had a good offensive year since 2005, so where is he at this point in his career. What worries me about this for the Red Sox is that this becomes ugly as it comes to the end of the year and he approaches free agency.

I know we have people saying you have to sign him no matter what, but if you have Jason Varitek for four years and $40 million or you have Brian Schneider for one-year and $3 million, there’s no question you take Brian Schneider for the $3 million in my mind.

As much as I really like Varitek, he’s at the point where you really worry about where he’s going to be. Two years at $7 million is fine, but I think that Scott Boras is going to convince someone out there that he’ll make the difference with the pitching staff. And you’ve always got the Mets. They offered Jorge Posada five years at the age of 36, which is one of the most laughable offers of all time. I think if they get down to the end of the year and there’s no progress and Scott is looking for those four years. Jason is a very loyal guy to Scott and it could create a chasm between Varitek and the club that could be a problem coming down the stretch.

It’s not so much that I’m wedded to the idea of having Varitek; it’s more that I don’t know who we’d replace him with.

Lastly

Farewell, Bobby Murcer. Though a Yankee, you were by all accounts a classy individual and a credit to your city and club. RIP.

Predicting Ellsbury: The Trends vs The Projections

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On June 14th, Dustin Pedroia had dropped his line to .260/.311/.365. Prompting this entry. Since that post, Pedroia has gone 29 for his last 57, good for a .509 average. Over the same span, he also has six doubles, three dingers – even two steals. Better, he’s struck out once against three walks.

So it’s no surprise that I’ve been asked to write up my Navajo brother in similar fashion, as he “slumped” in June bringing his average down to its lowest point since March.

Let’s see, then, if by taking a similar look, we can help Ells return to his early ’08 form. Or, best case, his late season ’07 form.

First, the baseline: going into today’s game, Ellsbury’s line stands at .272/.348/.391. According to the occasionally flaky ESPN Player Stats function, those numbers rank him 11th, 8th, and 12th amongst all MLB center fielders. His rank in OPS tied for 10th with Nick Swisher, trailing the following nine players:

  1. Josh Hamilton .924
  2. Grady Sizemore .890
  3. Nate McLouth .889
  4. Carlos Beltran .858
  5. David DeJesus .855
  6. Rick Ankiel .835
  7. Aaron Rowand .819
  8. B.J. Upton .814
  9. Torii Hunter .785

While there are a few surprise names on that list, like Nate McLouth or David DeJesus, I find little to complain about with his placement, considering that he’s had a grand total of 127 plate appearances coming into this year.

So what’s the problem? The trending. Average is headed down, from .282 in April, to .281 in May, to .259 in June. The OBP is falling, .402 to .375 to .273, as is the SLG, .451 to .396 to .329. With the barometric readings of the center fielders performance reading “storm coming,” it’s useful to ask whether this is one of the inevitable squalls young players go through, or a longer protracted seasonal change.

To which I’ll predictably answer, I don’t know.

But as with Pedroia, I’m cautiously optimistic. For many of the same reasons, in fact.

His college and minor league track records, for one, indicate little other than that Ellsbury can play. The prevailing question among evaluators, in fact, hasn’t been whether he’ll hit, but rather for how much power. That subject, you might remember, has been debated previously in these very pages, in which I sided with Neyer over Theo, who said the following:

He will eventually have more power than people give him credit for. It’s really a matter of him taking his BP swing into the game, because if you watch his BP, he has incredible natural backspin that he generates. He’s stronger now, and his ball really carries. But even from the day we signed him, he was able to go deep into the bullpens in Fenway in batting practice.

The power question notwithstanding, it’s important to emphasize the point of the discussion, which is not whether Ellsbury will hit or have value, but rather how much. Even those that might be perceived as critics acknowledge that he’s likely to be a very useful player. Witness Aaron Gleeman, who said:

If things go well for Ellsbury, he looks capable of hitting around .300/.370/.425 on a regular basis. Toss in good defense with 50-steal speed and that’s an extremely good player. In fact, it’s essentially Kenny Lofton. Like Ellsbury, Lofton is a slight, incredibly fast, lefty-hitting center fielder who was drafted out of a Pac-10 college and made his big-league debut as a 24-year-old. Despite showing even less power than Ellsbury in the minors, Lofton has hit .299/.372/.423 with 622 steals during his 17-year career.

Everybody loves Ells, in other words. Including, as it turns out, the math guys. Again as with Pedroia, most projection systems saw good things in ’08 from the favorite of young ladies everywhere. The anticipated lines:

  • Baseball Prospectus: .288/.348/.397
  • Bill James: .329/.383/.460
  • CHONE: .299/.353/.418
  • Marcel: .308/.365/.473
  • ZiPS: .297/.349/.392

Average out the math guys’ projections, then, and what do you get? .304/.360/.428. A line which I, for one, would be more than content with.

And then there’s his speed. The most steals any of the projection systems anticipated was 43, from ZiPS. With 34 at the moment, he seems a lock to best that: as Chad Finn notes, that puts him on pace for 68. That being his half season total, don’t ya know.

The question, then, is why the decline? Is it the exploitation of specific holes in his swing? Or merely the sign of a pending adjustment?

From the projections and the minor league history, my money’s on the latter. And even if it’s not, I might take his combination of defense – Beane called it the best in the majors – and speed anyway.

Either way, let’s cut the kid some slack: of his 261 AB’s, 244 have come in the leadoff spot. Which tells me two things: one, he’s under a bit more pressure than he would be if they, say, batted him eighth or ninth as they were forced to do with Crisp. And second, that Tito and company – the ones in a position to know – think he can handle that pressure.

Given that, let’s wait and see what transpires.