The ALCS So Far

beckett

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fastball, Fastball, Fastball

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }



Papelbon Pitches, originally uploaded by waldoj.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. Papelbon is absolutely correct: this game is not the end of the world. Red is right that “that shit’s just gonna happen.” John Farrell obviously has forgotten more about pitching than I ever will. And Cafardo, as he is wont to do, is clearly blowing things way out of proportion.

My problem is far more prosaic: what gives with the fastball heavy approach? As noted yesterday, as the fastball percentage has gone up, the numbers have gone down. From inhuman levels, true, but it’s still worth noting.

As many have noted, over the past two games, Pap threw 30 fastballs in one stretch. That’s a problem. Or two problems, actually. As Keith Law puts it:

Relying exclusively on a fastball — even a good one like Papelbon’s — poses two problems. First, the hitter can mostly look at one level within the zone for a pitch to hit. Pitchers use off-speed pitches to change hitters’ eye levels, forcing them to consider that the pitch might finish up in the zone, down in the zone or below the zone. Secondly, hitters can “cheat” and start their bats a little earlier when they know — or can reasonably guess — that a fastball is coming. Johnson absolutely was doing it Tuesday, as was Aybar, although he does that all the time anyway. Papelbon has to start mixing in a second pitch, preferably the splitter, or hitters will keep timing his fastball and driving it to the outfield or out of the park.

What about Papelbon’s defense, you ask? “I don’t feel there’s a reason for me going to my second-best pitch when I’m effective with my No. 1.” With all due respect to the best closer we’ve had in my lifetime, that strikes me as absurd.

The same kind of absurd that saw Beckett throw little but fastballs in his first trip around the AL. The trip that saw his ERA jump to north of 5 and his home runs allowed to 36. Even pitchers with dominant fastballs – pitchers like Beckett or Papelbon – need something else. In shelving his secondary pitches, Pap is doing the hitters a major favor, and, one has to think, himself a disservice. Becaause there will come a time where he doesn’t have the good fastball. A time where he needs the split, the slider, maybe even both. And if he’s not throwing them, the confidence in them must suffer.

My hope, actually, is that Pap is just being stubborn. Stubborn like Beckett. Because that’s correctable. Potentially easily, after a lesson like last night.

My fear, however, is that he’s not throwing his secondary pitches because he can’t, because it hurts. Both the split and the slider torque the arm to a greater degree than the fastball, and I’m worried that may be playing its part. It’s, sadly, the most plausible explanation

Because as much as Farrell talks about how locating the fastball to four different quadrants can make it “like four different pitches,” it is not four different pitches.

Just ask Dan Johnson.

The Clay Rules?

.flickr-photo { border: solid 2px #000000; }
.flickr-yourcomment { }
.flickr-frame { text-align: left; padding: 3px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }



Clay Buchholz, originally uploaded by andywirtanen.

In discussing the news that Joba Chamberlain will begin the season in the Yankee bullpen, in a plan aimed at keeping him available while not overextending him innings-wise, Rob Neyer wrote the following:

This is simply where we’re at now, with young starting pitchers. We are not going to see Joba Chamberlain throw 180 innings in his first season as a major league starter, and we are not going to see Clay Buchholz throw 180 innings in his first season as a major league starter. What makes this even trickier, for the Yankees and the Red Sox, is October. They have to plan for seven months of high-intensity baseball rather than six.

Emphasis Rob’s. Forgoing the cliche about great minds – as I’m about 12 mentally – Rob and I clearly think alike. I said the following, after all, a week ago today:

Nor can, in my view, Buchholz be expected to shoulder a Schilling-like role at his age and experience level. The guess here is that Buchholz will be capped in ‘08 to ~165 IP, meaning that a year long starter role in the rotation would be problematic, even without the complication of potential playoff innings. If I had a gun to my head, I’d predict the Sox would begin the season with a rotation of Beckett, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Lester, and Tavarez, and integrate Buchholz down the stretch after some seasoning in Pawtucket or the Sox bullpen. And I don’t know about you, but that prospect doesn’t do much for me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I see that John Farrell taking the over on 165. From the Boston Globe:

“We had a target number of innings before the season started last year, which we’ll have this year,” Farrell said. “It’ll certainly be an increase over the 150 innings that we targeted last year. I think it’s a reasonable number to think that Clay is going to be in line for 180-190 innings, in that range.”

Is he being optimistic? Is it gamesmanship, for competitive or trade purposes? Or are the front office and Tito legitimately counting on Buchholz for 180+ IP?

Frankly, I haven’t the foggiest. But if I were a betting man, I still would not take the over on 170. 175, tops. Regardless of what Farrell may be quoted as saying to a Boston beat writer on the eve of spring training.