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

image courtesy Erik Dasque

(image courtesy Erik Dasque)

We just got our asses kicked, pal.

Spare me the “we scored as many runs as they did” arguments: the Yankees just savaged us with a plastic hamster. If you are lucky enough to score four runs off an in-form CC, you need to take advantage of that. Instead, Beckett was completely unable to stop the bleeding, surrendering runs in six of the eight innings he pitched. The bludgeoning was so bad, in fact, that I’m kind of surprised to see that no one is speculating along the same lines as yours truly. The first pitch dongs were one thing, but the curveball Cano hit out last night was not a bad pitch: decent break, caught the outside edge of the plate, and yet was crushed. I have to believe the Sox are at least asking the question of whether he was tipping (the Cardinals, apparently, believe that Smoltz was), but none of the media thought of it so maybe he did just pitch that badly. Or, more accurately, has been pitching that badly.

Because while it was bad that our ace got his teeth kicked by our most hated rivals while the offense managed to scrap together a few runs off their #1, what’s worse is that this, in some respects, it’s not a surprise. The big Texan’s had a distinctly odd season. The fiancee and I – oh, did I not mention that? yeah, I got engaged, it’s awesome – saw him dominate the Rays in the season opener. He followed that gem with four starts in which he gave up 4,3, 8 and 7 runs, respectively. That was good for a 7.22 ERA in April. And who’d he give up 8 against, you ask? I’ll give you a hint: they wiped the floor with him last night as well.

Anyway, since the start of May, Beckett’s generally been excellent (ERA’s by month: May 2.38, June 1.51, July 3.35). Or rather he had been, until his last start at Toronto, a 5 and a third, 7 run clunker. Throw in the start previous, in Detroit, and Beckett’s given up 10 home runs in his last three starts, after giving up 10 in his first 22 starts combined. That, my friends, is what we in the business call a problem.

So what’s the problem? Damned if I can tell. PitchFX tells us his velocity seems ok: 94.5 and a half on the fastball, topping out at 96.5. Nor is there anything obvious in the plots. We know he’s throwing strikes – they were the balls leaving the park at a high velocity. But he’s also out of the zone enough that they can’t tee off. No, I don’t know what’s wrong. I haven’t done a deep look at the numbers, but nothing jumps out at me from what I’ve seen.

Which makes me wonder – based also on the approaches the Yankees took to the plate last night – if he isn’t tipping his pitches. If that seems implausible, think of it this way: it’s either that, or he’s suddenly and inexplicably pitching very, very badly. I prefer the former.

Either way, I’m sure Farrell and company are hard at work on the issue as I write this, which is good. We need Beckett to be Beckett, because we’re going to need everybody performing to get to the postseason. Speaking of…

The Postseason

My problem with the folks that pronounce definitely that we’re either out of the division race or still in it is that they’re both wrong. We’re not technically out of it, but we’re not in it, really, either. As of this morning, the Monte Carlo simulations run by Clay Davenport and the fine folks from BP, we’ve got a 3.09% chance of winning the division. Let’s be generous and round that up to 3.1%: we’re still not likely to win this thing, although mathematically, it’s still possible. Yes, we’ve played the Yankees well – this weekend and the last series notwithstanding, we’re 9-6 against them. But they’re destroying everyone else, and we are most certainly not. Hence the seven and a half game lead.

The obvious question then is whether we can secure the wild card, and the answer is that we can, but that our competition is stiff. The same projection has us at a 52% probability to win the wild card, with the Rays at 24% and the Rangers at 15%. That sounds good, but a.) that’s only a 1 in 2 chance of making the playoffs, and b.) we’re one bad week – and sweet Jebus knows we’ve had plenty of those – away from being where the Rangers are now.

So yes, we can make it, but our margin for error is effectively non-existent. We can’t have any more team wide slumps, no major injuries, and our rotation can’t afford any more Smoltz-esque starts. And speaking of Smoltz…

Smoltz

As could have been predicted, Smoltz’s generally awful performance coupled with the team’s coincidental malaise led to a bunch of “Theo screwed everything up this offseason” commentary. Smoltz, like Penny, was – in my view – a good bet that just didn’t pan out. Nor would it have, I don’t think. Yes, as Nick Steiner gleefully covers – he’s a Cardinals fan – the ex-Brave’s first outing for the Redbirds was a gem: 5 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, and 9 K’s. But as he acknowledges, this is a.) the NL west, b.) the worst team in the NL west, and c.) the best pitcher’s park in the game.

Were there positive signs when Smoltz was throwing for us? Absolutely. He was striking people out, not walking too many and his velocity was acceptable, if not overwhelming as in the past. But, as I said on the fangraphs blog, we just couldn’t afford to keeping losing games while he got himself straightened out. If we were sitting in the Yankee’s seats right now, with a comfortable margin in the division, I have little doubt Smoltz would still be here, and maybe pitching more to his peripherals. But in the meantime, he was getting crushed and killing our bullpen.

So I was fine with the signing, just as I’m fine seeing him go. Because one of the kids is, at this point, probably a better choice for a rotation spot.

Buchholz

To answer your first question, no, I do not feel “vindicated” about my assessment of one Clay Buchholz. While I am, of course, please that he’s pitched very credibly and kept us in games against – in succession – Sabathia, Verlander and Halladay, the simple facts are that his performance is not going to be sustainable unless he improves. When you’re walking almost as many as you strike out per nine – 4.7 vs 5.6 – you’re going to have problems. So he needs to at least quit putting guys on base, and it would help – his new two seam, groundball machine notwithstanding – if he struck a few more guys out.

But am I exceedingly glad that the media – or at least the Cafardo and Mazz contingent – isn’t running things? You bet. Cafardo? “I make the Clay Buchholz-Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal right now.” Forget the nerve damage – that couldn’t have been foreseen. But Salty’s line this year? .236/.293/.375 for a .668 OPS. And remember, it’s not clear that he’ll be able to remain a catcher. Mazz, you might recall, was rather in favor of a Clay Buchholz and Jason Bay for Matt Holliday swap. Holliday’s numbers in the big boys league? .286/.378/.454 for an .831 OPS, which is right in line with 2005-2007 numbers away from Coors Field.

Or maybe you remember when Cafardo said this: “With Justin Masterson making a solid impression in the majors and Buchholz down in Triple A, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of the two starters the Sox are higher on at the moment.” Even while he followed that with a caveat that the Red Sox valued him too highly to trade, the statement made zero sense to anyone who views a player’s potential beyond what they are doing right now.

Masterson’s a good player, and one that I was sorry to see go. But in three starts with Cleveland, he’s had two decent starts and one very bad one, and – more troubling – he still can’t get lefties out (.323/.401/.463 in ’09, numbers which have declined from his .238/.365/.422 in ’08). This was apparent last year when Cafardo wrote those words – all you had to do was look at the numbers – but the media seemingly can’t be bothered to look beyond what they see on the field that day, that minute.

Is Buchholz as valuable as Stephen Strasburg? Not even close. But am I glad that the front office viewed him with a bit of perspective that the media apparently can’t be bothered with? Hell yes. Just as I’m excited they improved the defense behind the kid. Which brings us to Josh’s question.

A-Gon

Like the Globe’s Adam Kilgore – who’s doing a very nice job, incidentally – I was curious, initially, to see whether Gonzalez would be an actual upgrade in the field. At the time, A-Gon’s UZR/150 was below that of Nick Green. But it’s apparent to both of us that this move had delivered as expected, and the math agrees: A-Gon’s up to 6.5 runs above average, better than Green’s 5.2. Interestingly, the forgotten Lowrie’s at 21.3.

Anyway, while age the knee surgery may – undoubtedly has, actually – subtracted from Gonzalez’s once exceptional range in the field, he’s at least been surehanded in the field. It might be that Green’s errors stick out all the more because they’ve been so brutal and ill timed, but I’m happy to have Gonzalez back, particularly considering the cost. Shortstop prospects, we have, and we didn’t give up any of the good ones. We did, however, give up some talented kids to get us a new catcher.

Martinez

Much attention has been paid this past week to Martinez’ role, as his insertion at catcher had – until Saturday and Sunday – welded Varitek to the bench. Which is, frankly, where he needed to be, given what he was bringing to the table offensively and – it must be said – defensively. Johnny Bench, Martinez is not, but the kid can hit, and as Schilling said on WEEI the other day, he caught the last two Cy Young award winners, so he’s no idiot.

Were Hagadone and Masterson a steep price to pay for the transaction? Indeed. Hagadone, coming off Tommy John surgery, is the rare high velocity lefthander, and if he can add a third pitch to the slider, has upper rotation written all over him. Masterson, his lefty difficulties notwithstanding, is a hugely versatile pitcher, capable of seamlessly shifting back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation and back.

What we got back, however, as Keith Law covers, is versatility and flexibility going forward:

For Boston, he could replace Jason Varitek, or could fill in at multiple positions, playing every day but splitting time across catcher, first base and DH, especially the last when a left-hander is on the mound. He’s a legitimate switch-hitter and controls the strike zone, so at worst the Red Sox just got a catcher who can get on base and who’s under contract for a reasonable $7.5 million next year.

This is, as Theo might put it, a move made with both today and tomorrow in mind. Which makes it tough to argue with, in spite of the cost.

As for the Kotchman deal, don’t look at me: I still don’t get that one. I know he’s controllable for two more years, but LaRoche must have made himself very unpleasant to get turned around inside of two weeks.

Before I close, two quick items: one good, one sad.

I, like the rest of Red Sox nation, would like to wish Jerry Remy a fond welcome back following his return to the booth Friday night. I also give him a lot of credit for speaking publicly about his depression. This can be a shameful affliction for many under the best of conditions, and the baseball industry is, well, how do we say it: not terribly progressive. While I haven’t, fortunately, suffered from it, a lot of people that I know have, and it’s my hope that revelations like Remy’s will act to destigmatize depression for those who have it. So welcome back, and thank you.

On the sad news front, my sincere condolences to the family of Greg Montalbano, one time Northeastern pitcher (and Carlos Pena teammate) and Red Sox prospect (and Kevin Youkilis teammate). After suffering for cancer for several years, Greg succumbed last week. From everything I’ve read, he was a good man with a very healthy perspective on his lot in life. He will, like all good people, be missed.

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

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.

Buchholz…One More Time

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In case it was less than obvious, I was driven insane some months ago by the media’s complete inability to grasp even the basics of player evaluation; most acutely with respect to Clay Buchholz.

But while reading Over the Monster’s interview with the Globe’s Tony Massarotti – kudos to OTM on that, BTW – I really think I’ve had a breakthrough in my comprehension of how Massarotti and his colleages can look at the same set of data and come to such different conclusions: we’re not looking at the same data.

Everything about the media’s evaluation of our players begins to make sense if you do one, simple thing: discount their minor league performance and scouting reports. If you base your analysis off of nothing more than their performance with the big club, Tony, Nick and the rest of the gang are exactly right. Phrases like, I still think “Buchholz’ greatest value is on the trade market,” or “Masterson seems like the best of the lot,” are not controversial, obtuse or perplexing, but simple statements of fact. Well, maybe not so much the former, because it flies in the face of basic precepts like “sell high/buy low,” but you get the point.

Try it. Just look at the major league numbers for a minute. Not the ones that provide context like BABIP, and not the ones are decent indicators of ceiling like K/9. Don’t look, in fact, any further than ERA, because that’s all you’ll need. Buchholz’ ERA last season was 6.75 (ignore the 1.59 over 22.1 IP in ’07). Masterson’s was 3.16. Who’s the better pitcher? Masterson. Who’s expendable? Buchholz.

Simple.

What makes life hard for me, I can see now, is that I actually consider their minor league histories, and factor them in when evaluating the player. To make matters worse, I view ERA as slightly more important than a pitcher’s W/L record – which is effectively irrelevant for the purposes of evaluation, as far as I’m concerned – but significantly less useful than, oh, BABIP, K/9, HR/9, and K/BB. And the nail in the coffin? I’m reluctant to project too much on the basis of sample sizes of less than a hundred innings at the major league level.

If I didn’t have those problems, none of the following would trouble me when I concluded that Buchholz was a bust and should be shipped for the first available need:

  • Buchholz’ BABIP – career – is .343. The average typically allowed on balls in play for pitchers of virtually any type is .290, which in English means that hitters have an average 50+ points higher against Buchholz than they should.

    One of two conclusions, therefore, is supportable: a.) Buchholz has found some new way to uniquely allow a higher average on balls in play, or b.) he’s been unlucky in a small sample size and will inevitably revert to the mean.

  • In 344.1 IP in the Minor Leagues, Buchholz has struck out 417 guys while walking 95. His ERA over that span? 2.43. In case you’re fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, those numbers are good. Exceedingly good. For the sake of comparison, Masterson – who, in spite of being the media’s flavor the month, I really like – has struck out 193 while walking 59 in over a hundred fewer innings (233.1). His ERA? 3.78. What do those numbers mean? Buchholz – per nine innings pitched at the minor league level – has struck out roughly three more guys, while walking .2 more. It’s always difficult to predict pitchers, but the ability to strike men out while walking as few as possible is one of the best indicators.
  • Aside from the statistical arguments that Buchholz is a pitcher with a higher upside than Masterson (and Bowden, in my view, isn’t even in this conversation yet), there’s the scouting report on their respective arsenals. Buchholz has two pitches that are considered plus – his curveball and changeup – and his fastball is, when he can locate it, more than adequate, with good to plus velocity. Masterson has one pitch that is considered plus – his fastball – and two that are not: his changeup and slider. Thus, while both pitchers have suggestive platoon splits in their major league history to date, the scouting reports indicate that Buchholz has more weapons than Masterson to attack left handed hitters.

Ignoring all of that, it’s easy to see why Buchholz is on the media’s shit list at the moment. Not living up to the impossible expectations created by the no hitter would be enough on its own, but carousing with Victoria’s Secret models and Penthouse pets? You’re done in this town, kid: no matter what your minor league numbers say.

Well, except for the fact that Theo’s running things. Thank Jebus.

Maybe Bucky pans out, and maybe he doesn’t: he’s a pitching prospect, after all. But to regard him, as the media quite obviously does, as done after 98.2 innings is, to me, the real insanity here.

Whither the Pen?

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monster, originally uploaded by sogrady.

As I told the Fire Brand audience on Friday, my primary concern in the playoffs – assuming we’re lucky enough to make it there, of course – is not the offense, our performances against Sonnanstine aside. Nor the starting pitching, today’s average start from Lester and his high innings total aside.

No, it’s the bullpen. Both the men in front of Papelbon, as well as the closer himself. Less so Papelbon, of course, but even he has been mortal of late. It’s my belief that he’ll get things straightened out in time. And if he doesn’t, we won’t be around long enough to suffer much.

The question is who’s going to eat the innings in front of him. Maybe you get seven to eight consistently from Beckett and Lester, but it would be foolish to expect that from Matsuzaka, loathe as he is to pitch to contact. Meaning that some combination of Masterson, Lopez, MDC, and Oki (please, not Timlin) is going to have to get some very big outs. Think Texeira, as the Wild Card is our most probable entry.

Can they do that? I have my doubts. You know what I think of MDC, and Masterson’s may be showing signs of fatigue, as Fire Brand’s Ryne Crabb writes. But just to present an opposing viewpoint, here’s Inside Edge’s scouting report (ESPN subscribers only, sorry):

Two right-handers have stepped up to fill the void in front of Jonathan Papelbon and Hideki Okajima. Justin Masterson (a second-round pick out of San Diego State in 2006) and Manny Delcarmen (a second-round pick out of a Boston high school in 2000) have provided the Red Sox with solid middle- and late-inning relief over the past few months. Since converting to relief full-time on July 23, Masterson has held hitters from both sides of the plate in check, while continuing to generate ground balls by the bushel (all stats through Thursday):

Masterson as a reliever
Miss pct. of swings Well-hit avg. Ground ball pct.
Masterson 25.8 .212 58.1
League average 19.9 .224 44.5

Delcarmen has also been at his best lately, holding opponents to a paltry .176 well-hit average overall since the All-Star break. His first-half ERA was 4.54; since the break it’s 2.10. Delcarmen has improved his performance by bearing down when behind in the count and limiting the number of baserunners that score:

BAA — behind in count Pct. of runners scoring
Pre All-Star .385 40
Post All-Star .059 32
League avg. .343 36

Delcarmen has also been very efficient, having retired the side in order in 58 percent of his complete innings pitched since the All-Star break, compared to 31 percent before.

If Delcarmen and Masterson can both step up entering the playoffs and bridge the game to Papelbon, we’ve got as good a shot as anyone. If they falter, however, it could be a short postseason. We’re not likely to sustain our regular season offensive production against the pitching we’re likely to face, so run prevention will be at a premium.

An effective bullpen would be an excellent start in that regard.