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 Second Season Begins: The wicked clevah 2009 ALDS Preview

Truth be told, none of the following matters. Seriously. Remember last year? According to the numbers, we didn’t have much business being in a series with the Angels, let alone winning it. We all know how that turned out.

Still, inquiring minds want to know what we think of the matchup. Maybe it’s because the puerile conventional “wisdom” continuously spewed by the professional media – “we’re in their heads!” – sounds suspiciously like what we heard from Yankee fans pre-2004. Or maybe it’s because we’ve come to understand that while the numbers from the first season don’t dictate the outcome of the second season, neither are they irrelevant.

Either way, wicked clevah is back – per your request, or over your protest, whichever- with a barely informed take on the matchups between yours and my Boston Red Sox, and our eternal foe, the Los Angeles Angels. Oh, and by the way, if you’re waiting for the “of Anaheim,” I wouldn’t hold your breath. With no further delay, on to the breakdown.

Red Sox Hitting

The good news is that you can probably ignore the splits versus the Angels staff listed above. It includes far too many one or two game sample sizes to be meaningful in any realistic sense, and is included for the sake of completeness more than anything else. The bad news is that we are not, as currently consituted, an offensive juggernaut. We’re more than adequate, but lack the thump of lineups of yore – particularly if Varitek plays. Which I hope he does not, for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure I buy the rumors that Varitek’s advantaging fastballs in his game management to offset his diminished arm strength – and I certainly don’t have the numbers to make that case – but the fact is that he is essentially a liability now both at the plate and behind it.

What the 2009 flavor of the Red Sox is, however, is reasonably balanced. We’re third in the league in runs, second in OBP, and second in OPS. All of that is good. The bad is that the Angels, as we’ll see, are pretty comparable – they scored more runs, but rank third to our second in OBP and OPS.

The gist is that the 2009 Red Sox, particularly with Victor Martinez starting in place of Jason Varitek, are a club that can and will score runs against the Angels staff. What’s difficult to foresee is whether or not they’ll produce adequately in a short series. This club, as anyone who’s watched the season unfold will ruefully acknowledge, has been prone to streaks both hot and cold. As of Thursday, assuming that’s when we get underway, we’ll need to produce, and produce quickly. If we have another cold stretch, we’ll be going home early.

Red Sox Pitching

Pitching and defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. We’ll have to hope that’s not entirely true, because as Theo lacknowledged this week, we’ve gone from being a terrible defensive club to one that’s still not stellar: “By our numbers, we’re still not the defensive club we want to be. But we’re better. On certain days with certain lineups out there, we can use defense as a weapon to help out our pitching staff.”

Because of the attention to this problem – and in spite of it, early – our pitching has been generally very good. The rotation has gone from surplus to deficit, starting a one legged Wakefiled down the stretch. And the bullpen has seen its more than few declines in individual performance. But on balance, we’re as well positioned as any other club in either league heading into the postseason when it comes to pitching.

Do I know what we’ll get from Beckett or Buchholz following their last outings? Not at all. And that’s without talking about Matsuzaka, who’s luck with the bases loaded – like the center – cannot hold. But I trust Lester to get us started on the right note, and I feel confident that between Beckett (though his velocity is, as far as I can tell, down by a one to two MPH) and Bucky, we’ll get one quality outing, and it’s not out of the realm that we could get two. Which gives us a good shot, particularly in a short series.

The bullpen, meanwhile, has been without question the finest assembled in Theo’s tenure. While the gambles on Penny and Smoltz provided little, additions like Ramirez, Wagner and, to a lesser extent, Saito, have been crucial in giving us the depth necessary to not work Oki and Pap into the ground. I don’t know what they’ll do about the rest of the staff, but I’m hopeful that Delcarmen doesn’t make the roster. Even before the car accident (thank Jebus he’s ok), he was not right. MDC’s not reliable when he’s throwing 95+; when he’s topping out at 93 and averaging 91, he might as well be throwing BP.

But with Pap rounding into form – his .167 batting average against in September was his best month of the season, and he’s walked only six people since the All Star break compared to eighteen before – and Wagner, Ramirez, Okajima capable of providing quality innings, the pen is as deep as it’s been. Bard, to me, is the wildcard. Here’s his batting average against by month: .233 (May), .237 (June), .103 (July), .302 (August), .292 (September). Before the break, hitters averaged .193 againt him; it’s been .270 since. Or, as Keith Law summed it up: “Dan Bard, Aug 4th to today: 16 IP, 20 H, 5 HR, 11 BB, 22 K, .313/.416/.594.” That’s what we in the business know as “suboptimal.” If he can correct the ailment, be it mechanical or psychological in origin (I’ve seen no evidence that it’s velocity related), I can see him getting some high leverage innings. Until then, however, he should be relegated to a lower profile role in the pen.

One other notable asset to our staff: every man on it – with the potential exception of a Byrd if he makes the roster – has the ability to miss bats. To the point that they’re second in the league in strikeouts. The lowest K/9 of the likely roster members is Buchholz at 6.65, and – his performance to date notwithstanding – he has the ability to strike people out on any given night. Perhaps the ability is overvalued, but strikeout pitchers are at something of a premium in the second season.

Angels Hitting

Again, I don’t think the Angels will be getting too geeked over Hunter, Kendrick, and Napoli’s combined 1.135 OPS. Well, Napoli’s maybe: he terrifies me. But again, with the sample sizes essentially miniscule and therefore statistically meaningless, we’d do better to look to the more significant season worth of data we have on the Angels offense. Which, regrettably, tells us that they’re good. Not too different from our offense, in fact.

Whether or not the talking heads are correct and Abreu’s sheer presence has convinced the previously walk averse Angels of the value of not making outs, the fact is that this Angel’s offense is quite capable. Their team batting average is nearly thirty points better than ours, while we own a ten point advantage in slugging percentage. OBP is essentially a wash.

Add it up, and they’re a potentially dangerous offense capable of working pitchers, getting on base and scoring runs. The OBP in particular is a concern, when coupled with their vaunted dedication to smallball and our more than adequately demonstrated inability to control the running game.

Angels Pitching

Pitching-wise, the Angels have had their challenges this season. Adenheart, a talented young pitcher, was killed by a drunk driver early in the season in an awful tragedy. Shields, a staple of past Angels bullpens, is on the DL. Ditto for Escobar and Moseley. Arredondo has been for now left off the roster, less effective than he was a year ago.

Still, the Angels have cobbled together both a credible rotation and a capable bullpen. The staff has not distinguished itself over the course of the season: it’s 9th in ERA, sixth in earned runs, ninth in strikeouts, and 11th in batting average against. They’re helped out, however, by their defense: as you can see above, three of the four starters own ERA’s lower than their Fielding Independent Pitching rates. And every one of them has pitched well against the Red Sox at one time or another: even Lackey, who’s had bad luck at Fenway, pitched quite effectively there in his last appearance in Boston though losing the game.

The bullpen, meanwhile, is fronted by a closer with unimpressive numbers. It’s true that he probably struck out Nick Green, saving the game, but on the season Fuentes has surrendered a less than stellar 53 hits and 24 walks in 55 innings pitched. Throw the save numbers out: he’ll get the job done more than he won’t, but he is the antithesis of a shutdown closer. Which could be magnified in the postseason.

The addition of Ervin Santana, however, could be a real boon and help them stabilize the setup innings. While his strikeout rate was down this year as a starter, in short bursts one would expect that weakness to be mitigated. Though he struck out only two in his last start on the 28th, he maxed out at 95.8 MPH. The rest of the arms in the bullpen are capable if not overwhelming. Bulger – assuming he makes the roster (he’s got a sore shoulder) – and Palmer use a wide arsenal and change speeds enough to get people out, while Jepsen can dial it up to the mid 90’s but is fastball reliant.

They’re good, and more than capable of shutting us down, but they are not dominant.

What to Expect

This is not the Angels team we’re used to seeing. Sure, they’ll still play small ball more than they should, but the offense is less easily kept off the bases than in the past. With an improved offense and a consistent pitching staff, the Angels deserve their berth and our respect. It’ll be a battle.

P.S. If I get a chance, I’ll take a look at the benches and the respective defenses, but in the meantime, this will have to do. Questions? You know here to find me.

Update: If you’re an Insider, ESPN’s Keith Law has his previews up for both the Angels and Sox.

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

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And we’re back. What, you thought I was going to post in the middle of the 11 game winning streak and risk screwing that up?

C’mon. You know better than that.

Sure, that ended a while back, but you try selling a loft and organizing not one, not two, not three but four moves. Anyway, in spite of what ahl and his pink hat taunting might argue, this particular entry was planned over the weekend. In other words, hating on the blog will not get you posts on demand.

Unless they were already planned, in which case it will. Anyway, on to In Case You Haven’t Been Keeping Up With Current Events.

General

  • Offense: You know the basics: after an abysmal start, the offense has performed acceptably: 5.78 R/G (2nd in the AL), .371 OBP (1st), .834 (1st), and we’re fifth in home runs and third in stolen bases. This, in spite of essentially nothing from Papi and our catching tandem. While I would not be opposed to an upgrade here – yes, I’d still love to see Miguel Cabrera once Detroit figures out that their local economy isn’t coming back before the End Times – our is capable and reasonably versatile.
  • Pitching: Expected to be a strength, our pitching thus far has been a substantial weakness. The defense, which I’ll get to in a moment, is admittedly doing them no favors, but the rotation has up until the past few starts simply been poor. Raise your hand if you thought Beckett and Lester would own ERAs north of 6 this far in. Matsuzaka making an appearance on the DL was comparatively predictable, as were Masterson’s struggles the last few times out (kid pitchers need to make adjustments). The question is what we do at this point. The answer? Not much, I think. Unless they’re injured, Beckett and Lester will continue to run out every fifth day and they’ll get it figured out, I think. Or at least Beckett will; I’m frankly worried about Lester’s innings jump, just as I was last season and this spring training. Wake’s been stellar thus far, and Penny’s shown enough the past two starts that someone may trade for him. The bullpen – Pap’s struggles aside – has been uniformly excellent, although the rotation’s struggles are burning them out.
  • Defense: There’s no way to sugarcoat it, to paraphrase a recent reality show: we’ve just been bad. In the AL, we’re fourth from the bottom in Fielding Percentage, second from the bottom in caught stealing, and third from the bottom in defensive efficiency. And it’s not all the shortstop position: this one’s a team effort. This is perhaps my greatest concern with the team right now, because it’s going to be difficult to fix the pitching if we keep giving the bad guys extra outs.

Bard

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the kid with the big arm is with the big club. But while I haven’t always been a believer – as it’s not so long ago that the kid had as much idea as I did about where the ball was going – I’m in favor of this promotion. Not that he’s ready to assume Pap’s mantel – he may never be – but it’s definitely time to see what we have. Keith Law apparently agrees:

Tom (Watertown, MA) : You think Daniel Bard has the mental fortitude to succeed in a high-leverage bullpen role in Boston? He seems like the type that may not be cut out for that kind of pressure…

SportsNation Keith Law: That’s been the knock on him, and when I’ve seen him in pro ball, it’s been an issue. I understand he is throwing incredibly well in AAA, so it’s probably time to find out, right? Call him up, start him in mop-up, work him slowly up towards a leveraged role.

Couldn’t agree more. Bard definitely has – as he’s allowed in interviews – much left to learn, but it’s not clear he’d get the necessary instruction in Pawtucket: in 16 IP, he struck out 29 guys, walking 5. Let’s see what he can do for us.

And not have him face Richie Sexon with the bases loaded, preferably.

Buchholz

How about an update for wicked clevah’s personal hobby horse? In 27 IP (he tweaked a hammy), Buchholz has struck out 27 while giving up 12 hits and 4 earned runs for a batting average against of .126 and an ERA of 1.33. The kid’s alright, methinks. The only black mark is that he’s walked 10 guys: he needs to improve that or the big league hitters are going to force him to throw something right down the pipe with all the guys on base.

Lowrie

I’ve heard it suggested here and there that Lowrie could have played through his wrist injury. Gammons’ kind of nips that one in the bud:

Red Sox players take turns checking out the bone removed from Jed Lowrie’s wrist. Huge. “I had [Dustin] Pedroia floating around in there,” says Lowrie. “How in the world did you play?” asks David Ortiz.

Get well soon kid. Seriously. Have you seen our shortstops?

Lugo

What do you want from me? I told you he was bad, and that was when he was healthy. What on earth are we going to do with him if he can’t move?

Masterson

Today’s internet rumor du jour comes courtesy of the fabled “message boards” and Klaw’s ESPN chat:

john (charlotte, nc): I heard today on the “message boards” they’re reports out of Anaheim that the Angels are offering Brandon Wood to the Red Sox for Justin Masterson…if this is even true, does it make sense?

SportsNation Keith Law: Those “message boards” are super-reliable, too. Why would the Red Sox want another corner infielder?

I’ll be honest: I like Masterson a lot, but if I thought Wood could play shortstop I’d have to consider this, at least trying to interest the Angels in Bowden instead. Wood’s not going to hit for average, but he’s a legit power threat. From the answer, though, it would appear that Law thinks he needs to move.

Papi

Yes, I’m watching the same games as you, yes, I’m worried, and no, I have no idea when or if he’ll come out of it. This isn’t like Pedroia or Ellsbury last year, where the age profile and history says it’ll ultimately be fine. I don’t know that he’s cooked, but he just doesn’t look right at the plate. To me or the Baseball Prospectus guys:

Despite hitting more fly balls and liners than in previous seasons, Ortiz hasn’t had the timing to make solid contact and instead has hit just .221 while popping out on more than 16 percent of his fly balls. He has yet to homer, even though we are approaching mid-May in a year when the long ball is flying out of parks everywhere. He hasn’t been able to hit the ball the other way nor take advantage of the Green Monster for wall balls and towering homers, either, because pitchers are challenging him inside, knowing that he’s having trouble catching up. Pitchers also are challenging him earlier in the count; Ortiz is seeing first-pitch strikes 58 percent of the time, right at the league average and well above the rates he had seen the previous few seasons, when he was one of the dominant sluggers in the game.

Ortiz is seeing more pitches per plate appearance, but he isn’t seeing better pitches to hit and is chasing more balls out of the zone. Although he has been able to hit balls out of the zone at the same rate as in previous years, he’s not making good contact on them. The old Ortiz would have sat on those pitches and forced a pitcher to go back in the zone, but with more pitchers putting him in the hole early, he hasn’t been able to control the count.

All told, this means that the league is less afraid of Ortiz than it used to be, and that’s not a good sign for either him or Boston. If you listen to Magadan talk about where the bat-speed issues are coming from, Ortiz still should be able to make the league pay for this indiscretion once he sorts himself out, but the longer he takes to reach that point, the more likely it will be that his bat speed has truly diminished.

All of that said, I’ll go on the record as saying that I think Francona’s doing the right thing, which also just so happens to be the only thing he can do. You can’t take a player like Ortiz and drop him to seventh or eighth, in my opinion, after a month and a half. If we hit June, fine, but let’s see what happens between now and then.

Penny

Remember when I said this?

What will be interesting to me, beyond the obvious “where will Smoltz fit when he’s ready?,” as I’ve already argued that that someone will be a.) injured or b.) rested, is whether or not we’d consider trading one of the pieces to a contender. Not that I’m saying it’s likely, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the following things happen: a.) Penny pitches like a 2/3 starter in the fifth starter spot for the first two months, b.) Buchholz pitches dominant baseball at Pawtucket, c.) Smoltz remains on track for a June re-entry.

Wouldn’t you have to consider making Penny available at the deadline in that scenario? Particularly if the lineup proves to be somewhat to significantly anemic? You’d have Smoltz coming back with Buchholz as insurance. Sure, it’d be better to hang on to them all, but Penny’s not locked up for next year, so you might want to maximize your return on that investment, maybe with an eye toward the longer term (controllable power).

Well, I do. Anyway, Buster Olney’s apparently getting on that bandwagon:

Something to watch: Boston’s pitching surplus might lead to an early-season trade. Clay Buchholz has been absolutely dominant in the minors so far this year, and very soon, Daisuke Matsuzaka will return to the big leagues.

Eventually, it figures that Justin Masterson will go back to the Boston bullpen, and that will create the spot in the rotation for Matsuzaka. If the Red Sox want to create another for Buchholz, they would always have the option of taking offers for a veteran pitcher who has had quality starts in four of his six outings. That guy is Brad Penny, who might be a nice fit for a team like the Milwaukee Brewers or the Mets. That’s all speculation at this point.

Speculation, it might be, but we have holes we need to fix. If Penny or a package including Penny could bring us someone who could at least catch the ball at short, it could be an upgrade of two positions.

One of them – please God – being shortstop.

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

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Bailey Triples, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Greetings: I bid you a fond welcome to this week’s ICYHBKUWCE. Which is coming to you, please note, precisely a week after the last entry. That’s right: one week, people. Bow before my production capability.

The timing seems appropriate, however, as tomorrow will leave us one day from Opening Day. Meaning that, in addition to planning the trip down there, I’ll have to carve up the time to do my season preview. Jebus knows where that’s coming from. Anyway, let’s get on to the post.

Bard

You’ll recall that, while loving Daniel Bard’s arm, I’ve remained skeptical of his ability to consistently throw strikes. Because as hard as you throw, major league hitters can hit it if they know it’s coming. Fortunately, the North Carolina product’s made strides the last few years on the strike throwing front, cutting his walks per nine from a horrifying 14.85 in 2007 to a workable if still suboptimal 4.78. Those who wonder why he’s going down, incidentally, would do well to pay attention to that number.

But his slow progress on the business of not hitting the backstop has me more excited when I read things like the following from Jayson Stark:

One of my favorite spring pastimes is polling scouts on the hardest throwers they’ve seen. And the undisputed radar-gun champion of Florida is Red Sox flash Daniel Bard.

“I had him at 99 [miles per hour] five pitches in a row,” said one scout. “He was just cruising along at 95-96 until a guy got in scoring position. Then bam, he just reached back and hit 99 five straight pitches. He was like [Curt] Schilling used to be back when he was in Philadelphia.”

Because while it’s provably true that pitching is about a lot more than velocity, it sure doesn’t hurt to be the hardest throwing guy out there.

Baseball Prospectus

Some of you may know that I’m a big fan of the folks over at Baseball Prospectus; if you hadn’t realized that yet, you will when I do the season preview. I love the application of statistical analysis to the game I love: to the extent that I actively wish I’d taken math in college. In any event, there are some changes in the works over there, so I’d just like to take a minute to wish everyone involved the best of luck. I’m still a happy, paying subscriber.

Buster Olney Loves Us

Or more specifically, our pitching. Here’s a few choice quotes from the last week or so (all subscriber only, sorry):
First:

Clay Buchholz continues to be dominant. The Red Sox value their rotation depth, including the annual production of Tim Wakefield. But Buchholz has been so good this spring that you do wonder if they’ll put Wakefield on layaway, whether it be at the back end of their bullpen or on the disabled list, and insert Buchholz into the No. 5 spot. While Wakefield is generally a hit-or-miss kind of pitcher at this stage in his career, depending on his health and how his knuckleball is moving, Buchholz has the ability to control games. And Boston’s clear strength is its rotation: The Red Sox could run out a frightening five of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Brad Penny and Buchholz.

Next,

The Red Sox have another good pitcher from Japan, as Daniel Barbarisi writes. Look, nobody knows what is going to happen with David Ortiz this year, or J.D. Drew, or Mike Lowell, but here’s a bet that you could take to the bank: The Red Sox are loaded with pitching.

Last,

Justin Masterson is happily awaiting a decision on his role, Amalie Benjamin writes. The Red Sox are set up well after stockpiling arms, Sean McAdam writes. Boston’s pitching depth is nothing less than stunning.

I don’t know that I’d go so far as stunning, but I’m in agreement that our depth – in both the rotation and the pen – may be the best that I’ve seen. It will doubtless be taxed, and may actually seem insufficient, because we’ve got a few MASH regulars on the staff. But I also don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that, should a Bard emerge midseason as a viable option for some type of role in the major league pen, that we see one of the stockpiled arms traded.

What would MDC fetch, I wonder, from a contender in another league? Might a team desperate for a closer give up the farm for Saito? Worth pondering.

And So Does Jayson Stark

More of the same.

Community Doings

Good to see Brazilian Pedro (just to distinguish you, sir) make it into RedSox.com beat reporter Ian Browne’s mailbag with a question inspired, at least in part, by incessant chattering about Buchholz.

Pretty cool.

Rotation

As most of you are aware, the front four spots in the rotation have been set, in Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield. No surprises. What remains to be determined is the fifth starter. Buchholz’ short luck – he’s having a dominant spring, but is likely to get squeezed out if Penny’s healthy – has been well chronicled, as has been Masterson’s assignment to the bullpen (which I agree with).

What will be interesting to me, beyond the obvious “where will Smoltz fit when he’s ready?,” as I’ve already argued that that someone will be a.) injured or b.) rested, is whether or not we’d consider trading one of the pieces to a contender. Not that I’m saying it’s likely, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the following things happen: a.) Penny pitches like a 2/3 starter in the fifth starter spot for the first two months, b.) Buchholz pitches dominant baseball at Pawtucket, c.) Smoltz remains on track for a June re-entry.

Wouldn’t you have to consider making Penny available at the deadline in that scenario? Particularly if the lineup proves to be somewhat to significantly anemic? You’d have Smoltz coming back with Buchholz as insurance. Sure, it’d be better to hang on to them all, but Penny’s not locked up for next year, so you might want to maximize your return on that investment, maybe with an eye toward the longer term (controllable power).

Wilkerson, Bailey, Carter

It’s been a tough winter for a lot of veterans, and Wilkerson is no exception. Expected to battle for the spot vacated by the recently operated on Kotsay, he’s now apparently left the club – it’s presumed – after being told he wouldn’t be making the club. Which might be too bad, because if he could even put up a shadow of his career line Bill James’ project .770 OPS, he would have been useful in a reserve role, particularly given the fact that he can man center. But you have to show the club something, and he didn’t in the at bats he got.

Which leaves Bailey and Carter fighting it out for one last spot – assuming Green’s locked up the utility role behind Lowrie, until Lugo returns. What do the systems project for those two? Chris Carter has a CHONE predicted OPS of .784, Marcel of .772, and ZIPS of .815. Ex-catcher Jeff Bailey, meanwhile, is at .770, .773, and .804 for the respected systems, and – interestingly – has a James’ number to boot of .830. Given the relative lack of differentiation between their anticipated offensive output, and Bailey’s superiority (relatively) with the glove, my bet’s on him. True, Carter’s leading the club with six dingers this spring, but, well, it’s spring.

Will be interesting to see who makes it, though.

Yankee Defense

While we – by design – focus most of our attention on the good guys around here, I liked this little tidbit enough from Stark to pass it along:

GLOVE AFFAIR: The most-heard observation about the Yankees this spring: That team could have serious, and potentially fatal, defensive issues. They’re range-challenged in left, in right and at shortstop. They have reliability issues at second. Alex Rodriguez is now a major question on every level. And nobody knows what kind of defensive catcher Jorge Posada is capable of being over the long haul. There are rumblings the Yankees are poking around again on Mike Cameron’s availability.

Defense matters, as it’s critical to run prevention. So while I’m still as afraid of the Yankees as the folks from BP are, this is a thread that could bear watching.

Postscript

You gotta hand it to the fine folks at fave Surviving Grady for their headline writing: So Brad Penny, Takashi Saito and Josh Beckett Walk Into a Karaoke Bar…

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

fenway_at_night

(This one’s for pedro: glad you enjoy the blog, sir, and don’t worry: I haven’t retired. – sog)

Seems like I have to report on the subject pretty regularly round these parts, but I am not, in fact, dead. Nor have I given up on the blog: where else would I bitch about Boston sportswriting and run baseball related numbers that no one could possibly care about?

No, a variety of elements have conspired to keep me absent from these parts since…well, let’s not talk about how long it’s been: it’s just good to be back. While some of you (hi ahl!) might argue that the new lady is the reason for my lack of activity here, it’s really been a function of work, travel, a new commute, and, happily, the lady. The same lady that is taking me to Opening Day for the first time in my life and, I assume, hers, just in case you’re questioning her commitment to the cause.

But while there may less time for me to spend in these parts, I fortunately (or unfortunately) don’t have less to say. My recommendation for the three of you that are still around is to invest in an RSS reader so that you don’t have to keep visiting the page to see if I’ve updated, because until I can find office space down in Portland, time is going to be at a serious premium.

Buchholz

What would a post from me be without a few words on one Clay Buchholz? More specifically, words relating to commentary from one of the members of the Fourth Estate on said Buchholz? Nothing, that’s what. So without further delay, here‘s the analysis of the players value from your senior member of the Boston Globe’s baseball staff (Nick Cafardo) as of March 9th:

I make the Clay Buchholz-Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal right now.

Most of you know where I’m going with this by now, but I still can’t fathom how the professional writers come to their conclusions. We’ve already seen how Bucky’s numbers in his first 80 professional innings are better than Lester’s, and it’s not like he’s stunk up the joint this spring. Far from it, actually.

Sure, Salty’s been decent if power challenged in 34 spring training ABs, putting up a .385/.471/.294 line. But Buchholz – whose mound presence Mills went out of his way to praise this week – has given up 1 earned run in 13.2 IP, while striking out 12 and walking 3. Just for comparison, Beckett’s struck out three fewer guys in almost five more innings. Yes, yes, it’s a.) a small sample size and b.) spring training. But you’d still prefer that the numbers be better than not, and Buchholz may have learned something from last year.

Which makes it exceedingly odd that the writers still want to run him out of town. But hey, I’m not a professional writer, so what do I know?

Bullpen

Call me crazy, but for what seems like the first time in Theo’s tenure, I actually like our pen. There are a metric ton of question marks, obviously: can Oki keep it up for another year? Will Ramirez sustain his seemingly unsustainably low HR-allowed rate? Will MDC ever be as consistent as his stuff says he should be? Will Saito – whose numbers in the NL are, dare-I-say-it, Papelbonesque – eventually deliver part of his arm to home plate in addition to the ball? What’s Masterson going to do in his second time around the league? Can Paps stay away from the doc? And so on.

But overall, I like the options that Tito is going to have from both the right and left sides. When the worst K/9 ratio PECOTA projects for your relief staff is Masterson at 6.3, you might have a decent pen. Plus, we have a rising Daniel Bard waiting in the wings for a potential late season audition, pending additional work on his control (command being a bit less vital when you’re throwing a hundred). Obviously, this is good news for anyone who read this space last year: less bitching about our pen, maybe even fewer posts featuring pictures of gas cans.

Catching

Settled as our bullpen might be, that’s how up in the air the catching is. At present, we’re going with a Tek/Kottaras tandem, which either means a.) a trade for another catcher is in the works (as Cafardo argues today), or b.) that Theo’s looked at the splits. Tek’s primary offensive issue at this point is hitting lefthanded: as a RHB in an otherwise dismal 2008 campaign, he put up a .284/.378/.484 line in an admittedly small sample size (95 ABs). Lefthanded, he cratered, with an abysmal .201/.293/.323. Kottaras, as noted in this space in the past, hits from the lefthand side, and his splits show it: career, his OPS is 46 points better vs righties than lefties (.808 to .762).

So while it’s entirely possible that a new catcher is on the way, if I were a betting man I’d bet on Kottaras to open the season with the big club. Not only do we need a lefthanded catcher, we need one who can handle knuckleballers, because as Will Carroll observed, “Deal for a catcher and you still have the knuckle issue. Could a new guy learn or would he have to be knuckle-ready?” Kottaras, remember, has experience catching a knuckler in Charlie Zink, and while Wake and the would-be Wake are entirely different pitchers with entirely different knuckleballs, it would seem that the rookie catcher showed enough to get Bard released. Mazz may have been convinced that Bard would be able to handle Wake the second time around, but I never was. And with him gone, it seems like the club wasn’t either.

Whether or not we end the season with the tandem of Varitek and Kottaras, of course, is not something I’d care to project. But whoever is sharing the duties, I expect them to a.) be able to hit right-handed pitching and b.) to get some serious playing time on account of that ability.

With Kottaras out of options and Bard unimpressive with the one pitcher he’d absolutely need to caddy, the choice was probably easier than we think.

Rotation Depth & Lester

Lots of folks seem to be getting antsy about our perceived rotation “problem” – the fact that, by midseason, barring any injuries, we’ll have potentially seven candidates (Beckett, Lester, Matsuzaka, Wakefield, Smoltz, Penny, Buchholz, maybe even Bowden if you can get by his delivery) for five starter spots. My opinion? Don’t sweat it. As we learned – to our great misfortune – following the exit of Bronson Arroyo, these logjams have a way of working themselves out. And even if no one succumbs to elbow tightness, back spasms or arm fatigue, I’m a firm believer that all of the top three starters – Lester in particular – will be given in-season vacations by the club in an effort to keep them fresh and/or keep their innings down.

Why I Still Believe In Buchholz (No, It's Not a Mancrush)

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Welcome to the Major Leagues, Clay, originally uploaded by cardamom.

Following my continuing defense of Buchholz – and my best efforts to expose the incompetent efforts of his detractors – even a few friends have begun to question whether there might not be an ulterior motive at work. Perhaps even an unhealthy mancrush.

To which I’d reply: nonsense. No one can unseat Pedro in that regard.

I’m not even opposed to trading the kid, actually. All that I want is for the player to be valued properly. Which, as even a reluctant Nick Cafardo seems to have conceded, he is, thanks to our front office.

Asked in a Boston.com chat yesterday by Dave M, “Why are the Sox so unwilling to trade Clay?” Tony Massarotti replied, “No idea. I’d do it in a minute.” Which I would characterize as a stupid, uneducated answer; not that he’ll ever know, because as we know from the good folks at Over the Monster’s interview, Tony doesn’t have the time to read blogs.

Why do I keep making that argument, however? Because young players – young pitchers, in particular – often struggle. It’s so common that I find it at least mildly horrifying that our current staff of professional writers seems fundamentally unable to remember it when forming opinions on our players.

Consider the cases of two players that we all now accept as regulars.

Pedroia

Few remember it now, in the wake of his MVP award, but El Caballito struggled mightily upon not just his first but his second introduction to the major leagues.

  • In 2006, in 31 games played, Pedroia put up a less than sparkling .191/.258/.303 line. That’s right; this year’s AL MVP OPS’d .561. To put that in contrast for you, the Mets’ Luis Castillo’s OPS this past year was .660. Who’s Castillo, you ask? Exactly, I answer.
  • In 2007, for the first 19 games to open the season, Pedroia was worse, putting up a .182/.308/.236 line for a .544. You may remember that that was when the media – and some fans, to be sure, was calling for Dustin to be replaced as the everyday second baseman by Alex Cora.

In short, over his first fifty games in the majors, Pedroia was awful, and the media was leading the charge to run him out of the yard. Fortunately, they don’t run the show, and we now have an MVP at second.

How many games has Buchholz played in the majors to date, you might reasonably wonder? Twenty. And his minor league track record is significantly more impressive than Pedroia’s.

Lester

But maybe you think that the struggles of pitching and positional player prospects are too apples to oranges. Surely Cafardo, Mazz and the rest of the crew that’s dismissed Buchholz as a flash in the pan couldn’t have missed similar prospect struggles from players that play the same position?

Well, actually they have.

Most of us have likewise forgotten that Lester’s first year in the majors was…less than impressive. To be fair, it was cut short by cancer, but I’ve read nothing to indicate that the illness directly impacted his performance. Here’s what Lester did in his first 80+ innings.

IP H BB SO ERA K/9 BB/9
81.3 91 43 60 4.76 6.64 4.76

Some bumps, some bruises, but all in all that’s not a bad line for a young pitcher adjusting to the majors. And we all saw how Lester pitched this season, with more innings under his belt. Before faltering in his first start in the ALCS, he was dominant.

And now, how about that bust Buchholz?

IP H BB SO ERA K/9 BB/9
79.8 83 39 80 4.62 9.02 4.40

Yes, you’re reading that right: at a similar major league innings mark, Buchholz had a lower ERA, was striking out 2+ more batters per nine innings, while walking fewer.

And yet the media, in their infinite wisdom, has concluded that Buchholz has nothing to offer us, and is best kicked out of town for whatever return we can get.

Because no young player’s ever struggled to make the jump to the majors, after all. And especially not here in Boston. If that had happened, and kids that struggled went on to win MVP’s and to pitch like aces, we’d remember.

Wouldn’t we?

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.

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.

I'm Back, Bitches

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In the words of Peter Griffin, “That kill me? Yeah, I was afraid of that.” Instead of a discount surgeon this time, however, it was vacation.

But I’m back now. And badder than before. Hope all you guys are getting this via a feed rather than regular visits.

Anyway, ahl has requested a remaining schedule analysis. Sadly, I don’t have time for anything as detailed as that at the moment, what with the post-vacation hangover crushing me.

That said, let’s take a (reasonably) quick look at the realities of the schedule – and a few other items – in an edition of In Case You Haven’t Been Keeping Up With Current Events.

Shall we?

Beckett

Like most of you – I feel safe in assuming – the words “Dr. James Andrews,” as recently applied to Beckett, absolutely terrified me. As the news was read to me all I could think was “please not Andrews, please not Andrews, please not Andrews.” Not because I’m convinced he’s the difference between a title and not – though we’re obviously not winning one without him, I’m not convinced we’re winning one with our bullpen as currently constituted – but more because of what it could have meant beyond this season. Losing our ace, with all due apologies to Jon Lester, for 18 months to Tommy John surgery would have been devastating.

But the news there, of course, was good. Or at least as good as a visit to Andrews gets. There’s clearly something still wrong, but at least they’ve done all the due diligence they can.

Incidentally, anyone care to place bets that it was Schilling’s experience with the club doctors that led to Beckett’s personal request to see Andrews? If so, I will happily take your money.

Buchholz

A whole slew of folks has checked in to see whether or not my expectations for Buchholz have been rethought in the wake of his flameout and subsequent demotion. The short answer? No. To quote Rob Neyer, “Buchholz is 23, and going through the sort of thing that 23-year-old pitchers often go through.” The list of pitchers – good ones – that have come up and struggled mightily is far too long to be of interest.

Did I expect him to struggle as much as he did? Nope. But does his performance, which was exceedingly poor, change the fact he has the ability to dominate in the big leagues? No again.

Yes, his command deserted him (93 hits and 41 walks in 76 IP). But he’s still striking guys out: 72Ks for a K/9 of 8.53, which is better than Matsuzaka’s 7.93 and Lester’s 6.32, and only slightly worse than Beckett’s 8.74.

Also, his luck was hideous. His BABIP for the 08 season was an appalling .366. Batters are hitting nearly 80 points better than they should, then, on balls put in play. Which screams for a reversion to the mean. Again, for comparison, Matsuzaka (.266), Lester (.303), Beckett (.330).

It is, then, still my firm expectation that the man called Clay will be fine. As Kevin Thomas reports, it would appear that he’s already righting the ship.

It may be true that There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, but I’d still rather have Buchholz than just about any other pitcher from the minor leagues.

Byrd, Kotsay, et al

True, I should be doing individual pieces on each. But I’m not, so let’s just focus on the big picture: Theo and the gang did well. Neither, of course, are studs. Nor are they likely to be major difference makers. Byrd is no Sabathia (though what’s left of him come the playoffs should be interesting to see), Kotsay is no Texeira, but you knew that.

What they are, rather, are credible reinforcements. Help for a club that finds itself shorthanded due to injury and performance issues alike.

Nor was the cost prohibitive, although Sumoza’s power is more than I would have liked to surrender, especially considering our system’s deficiencies in that regard. And frankly, I probably would have given up more to get Mrs. Kotsay on our side.

Lester

His one start blip aside, the kid’s been a stud. This is the pitcher everyone valued over Papelbon, over Buchholz, over everyone. He’s emerged a legitimate #2 starter to Beckett, and I feel pretty good when he takes the mound.

My question: what about his innings? He’s at 176.2 right now, with three starts remaining. Say he goes 6 in each: that would put him, at season’s end, at 194.2. Given that he threw 134.2 last year, 200+ innings pitched would seem to be a lot to ask. Particularly for an organization that protects its kids as ours does.

In which case, it would be logical to suspect that they’d skip him for a start or two. But how can they, realistically, when the division is more or less out of our grasp and the wild card is likely to be a down-to-the-wire affair?

A reemergence from Buchholz in the Portland playoffs could be the best thing to happen to Lester’s ’07 season. Because otherwise I’m not sure how the lefty would be available for the playoffs should we be fortunate enough to make it.

MDC

Yes, Mirabelli told Amalie last season that Delcarmen’s stuff was the best on the team, bar none, and yes he’s unscored upon in his last 7 outings (7.1 IP).

But no, I don’t trust him. And I’m not sure Tito does, either.

Sandwiched into that little run, of course, is his one third of an inning appearance at Yankee Stadium in which MDC managed to allow a hit and two walks in the time it took to get one out.

As Baseball Prospectus has written in the last, he’s missed bats at every level, and he’s got all of the tools necessary to be successful. But he’s 26 years old, and this is his fourth year seeing time with the club, and you still don’t know what you’re going to get day-to-day.

Frustrating, because we need him. Badly.

Pedroia

I would love to take credit for the little guy’s resurgence since I wrote this piece refusing to dismiss him, since he’s hitting .391/.432/.609 in that time with 10 stolen bases and more walks than strikeouts, but I can’t.

It’s all him, and bless him for it. We need more of that, as offense is going to be at a premium with our bullpen.

The Division vs The Schedule

Allan’s got the right of it, I think: this is a Wild Card race, not a battle for the division. Sure, we need to try and take the division (I fear the Angels) and, sure, it’s possible that we could take all or most of the six remaining head to head contests with the Rays and make things interesting. But it’s improbable.

We won twice as many games as we lost in August (18-9), and actually dropped two and a half games in the standings (3 GB to 5.5 GB). All you can do is tip your cap to the Rays, and focus on trying to get into the playoffs any which way we can.

Sure, our ‘pen is combustible and likely to prove our undoing, but that’s what we said in ’03 as well, and Embree, Timlin and Williamson suddenly and unexpectedly settled down. Stranger things have happened, then. Not many, but they have.

The Kids & The Playoffs

Finally made it to a Seadogs game this past week, and Lars Anderson – to my completely untrained eye – looks good. I’m always suspect of subjective phrases like “the ball comes off his bat differently,” but, well, it does. The lineout he made in the second damn near killed their shortstop it was hit so hard. Kudos to the Fire Brand guys for getting an interview with him. Sadly, Bard (back) and Reddick (ankle) didn’t play, but it was good to see Diaz (looked not so good with the bat) and others in person.

Also, on a related note, the news that all seven minor league clubs finished with winning records and four (including the Seadogs) are going to the playoffs is welcome. Our front office isn’t perfect – damn you, Lugo – but they’ve legitimately done wonders with the farm system. Which should pay dividends both immediate and long term.

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

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The blues, originally uploaded by jurek d..

We got swept. By the A’s. It sucked. I don’t know about you, but I liked it better when we were sweeping folks, rather than getting swept.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the Good Guys were stranded out on the West Coast for Memorial Day weekend – putting a serious dent in my boating and social scheduling – we only managed to put up six runs in three games.

Blame’s tough to figure here. The offense, well, we know what they did. Or didn’t do. And the starters? Wake didn’t pitch well enough to win, didn’t. Beckett did, didn’t. Lester, well, let’s just say he was more hittable than his last outing. The bullpen, however, tipped the odds seriously in Oakland’s favor. After Lopez served one up to Cust, our win probability went from ~19% to ~5%.

We’re seriously going to have to do something about the bullpen.

Speaking of, one of the candidates continues to shine.

Bard

As the Portland Press Herald’s Kevin Thomas – who, as an aside, is rapidly becoming one of my favorites of the Sox beat writers – relates, recently promoted Daniel Bard’s introduction to the Sea Dog faithful went smoothly. 2K’s in 2IP, the final batter going down on a 99 MPH fastball. In 5 IP at Portland, Bard’s K’d 8, walked 1, and given up a mere 2 hits. The 16 batters that he’s faced are hitting .125.

With the obvious and understood small sample size caveat, if he keeps this up he may force Team Theo’s hand. We’ve talked before about why the Sox would be hesitant to promote the kid – see Hansen, Craig, or Meredith, Cla – but seriously: his K/9 is 14.4. At AA.

I make no promises that he’ll keep it up – particularly the control side of the equation – but if he does, I think you have to consider whether or not he could be an ’03 Papelbon type late season addition.

Beckett

One pitcher who’s been less impressive of late has been Josh Beckett. He hasn’t been terrible, but the two outings that preceded his Oakland start, he gave up 5 and 6 earned, off 5 home runs. The homers, for me, are the most worrisome trend, as he’s on a 31 homer pace. I for one would love to avoid a repeat of ’06 season, which saw him surrender 36.

Chad Finn thinks it’s too early to hit the panic button, and I agree. But it does bear watching.

The Inside Edge folks attribute Beckett’s struggles to pitching from the stretch, noting that he’s actually giving up a lower BAA and OBP than he did last year. From the windup, opposing batters are hitting .177. With guys on base, they skyrocket to .379, with a horrific .690 slugging percentage.

But wait, it gets worse. Same situation, guys on base, but behind in the count and forced to throw a fastball, the numbers are just terrifying. The batting average is .692, and the slugging is 1.385. For real. In the same situation last year, hitters were at .303/.485.

I don’t know whether it’s a mechanical thing, if he’s tipping his pitches from the stretch, or what, but I trust that Farrell and co are on it.

Buchholz

Spitting on my idea of bringing Bucky back and throwing him in the pen – Colon, after all, was reasonably effective – the Sox sent him back to Pawtucket for a start. While I’d much prefer his innings to come from us, though I know he’s been up and down, the Sox brass – who are clearly in a much better position to know what’s good for the kid than I – clearly feels that he’s got some work to do.

Specifically, as Mike Scandura over at Fire Brand reports, on his fastball.

“(Boston) told me they wanted me to throw 60-to-65 percent fastballs, so that’s what I tried to do,” said Buchholz who worked four innings plus one batter. “I felt like there were a lot of off-speed counts where I could have thrown off-speed pitches and maybe get some swings and misses. But I stuck with the fastball and overall I felt like it worked out good.”

Other items worth noting. Buchholz’ fastball reportedly topped out at 96, and the righthander walked two against 3 K’s in his outing. Interestingly, he was apparently told he was coming down for two rehab starts. Makes you wonder what the plan is for him going forward.

Lugo

One of you kind readers had the temerity to call into question my indictment of Julio Lugo by virtue of a lack of context. Well, not really, but sort of. So for you, kind readers, here’s some context: out of 21 shortstops that ESPN’s gimpy player stats page maintains, Julio Lugo is 14th on the list in terms of OPS. The players ahead of him on the list?

  1. Rafael Furcal
  2. Hanley Ramirez
  3. Miguel Tejada
  4. Stephen Drew
  5. Jeff Keppinger
  6. Yunel Escobar
  7. Ryan Theriot
  8. Jose Reyes
  9. Cristian Guzman
  10. Michael Young
  11. Derek Jeter
  12. Bobby Crosby
  13. Edgar Renteria

There are a couple of obvious names that should be on that list ahead of him, but there are some that really should not. Keppinger? Escobar? Theriot? Christian Guzman, even?

So given further context, the point stands: Lugo’s a problem. And his error today didn’t help his case.

The good news? Last year Lugo ended the year 19th out of 22 in OPS. Bad as he is, he’s better than he was last year.

Santana

Everybody and their mother is bringing up Buster Olney’s two pieces which note that the prized and pricey lefthander’s velocity is down and that he’s throwing with more effort. Immediately following this observation comes the qualification that, even if he’s not what he was, Santana is still better than the overwhelming majority of starters in the league.

Now I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so:

Just as important as the cost, is the predictability of the returns on that cost: i.e. the injury risk. Like many, I’m concerned by his late season fade (check his September splits). I seriously doubt that he forgot how to pitch, meaning that the most logical conclusion is that he wasn’t entirely right. Keith Law seems to share those concerns, saying:

“I haven’t read any of the others (I was on vacation), but I’d take A-Rod, Beckett, and Sabathia (because I’m a little concerned about how Santana finished 2007).

And then there’s the fact that virtually all of the players mentioned in connection to a potential Santana trade – Bowden, Ellsbury, Lester, Lowrie, and Masterson – have performed well, most at the major league level, and the deal becomes even a more obvious win.

I’m not saying that Santana’s not an excellent pitcher: he is. But for how long? Long enough to outweigh the value of three or four of the above players? Plus 20M+ per? I don’t think so.

Tampa

You know what else I told you? That Tampa was good.

With today’s sweep, we’re a half game out of first place. Behind the Rays.

Last But Not Least: Our Best Wishes

On the subject of things that are more important than baseball comes some bad news: two members of the Red Sox family have been diagnosed with cancer. Greenville (Class A) prospect Anthony Rizzo will miss the rest of the season following a diagnosis of Limited Stage Classical Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and Jon Lester’s father John was also has, as his son did, lymphoma.

Fortunately, the prognosis is both cases seems to be excellent. But as a family that has seen its share of cancer – my father’s had it twice and my uncle once – the news has a terrible resonance with me.

Not that either will read this, but we at wicked clevah would like to extend our best wishes and hopes for a full recovery to both individuals and their families. There’s a reason I give to the Jimmy Fund every year. This is it.