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 Were Wondering…

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Lowrie Steps Out, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

Where I’ve been, remember that it’s Memorial Day weekend and both the dock and the boat are in the water. And yet I’m still here slaving away over a hot laptop.

So don’t say I never did anything for you.

Anyway, answers to some other questions, In Case You Were Wondering.

How the Red Sox survived the poor performance of the rotation in the early going…

The answer – or part of it – is schedule strength. As of May 14th, the Red Sox had played the second easiest schedule in the majors according to Jason Stark, as measured by their opponents winning percentage (.45248). The Angels were the only club over .500.

On the good news front, we’re done with our left coast swings already.

Whether Matt Garza just gives us a hard time…

The answer is…sort of. As ESPN’s Christopher Harris noted:

It’s just too bad [Garza] can’t face the Red Sox every time out. After dominating them in the ALCS last year, Garza has given up four runs in 21 2/3 innings against Boston so far in 2009, giving him a 1.66 ERA against them and a 5.13 ERA against everyone else. (His non-Boston WHIP is a respectable 1.22, though not quite as good as his versus-Boston 0.83.)

On the good news front, we won’t see him again until at least August.

When Lars Anderson might be ready…

The answer is: not for a little while yet. Through 27 games, his line was .232/.304/.357 for a .661, not what you want out of a corner infielder. Or a utility infielder, really.

On the good news front, he’s added eighty points of OPS since (.738 entering today) and John Sickels isn’t particularly concerned about the slow start. Nor is, for that matter, Director of Player Development Mike Hazen:

“He’s just hit a slide here,” Hazen said. “Before that, he was fine. He’s doing fine. Everybody goes through the lull at some point during the year. It’s still the time in the season you can go 0 for 5 and your batting average drops 30 points. He’ll be fine.”

Whether or not Nick Cafardo has changed his tune on trading Clay Buchholz…

The answer is: unclear. But Cafardo is unambiguous when expressing his opinion that Buchholz is where he ought to be down in Pawtucket:

A lot of clamoring to get Buchholz up to the big leagues, but what’s the hurry? One of the problems with young pitchers these days is that they haven’t had enough seasoning. There was a time when teams felt a kid had to pitch at least 500 minor league innings. Buchholz has pitched 379 1/3 in the minors and 98 2/3 innings in the majors, so he’s just about there. He’s dominated the minors – 26-12 with a 2.30 ERA – but is 5-10 with a 5.56 ERA in 20 major league games. It won’t hurt Buchholz to stay down a tad longer.

On the good news front, even with his last start which was a clunker (4.1 IP, 7H, 3ER, 2BB, 5K), Buchholz is dominating AAA. He’s putting up a 1.60 ERA with 42 strikeouts to balance 12 walks, surrendering seven earned runs in seven starts. I wonder if Penny reads wicked clevah.

Whether we’re going to trade for a bat…

The answer is: not yet, but maybe. Gammons described the situation as follows:

The Red Sox will scout out some potential bats, but right now they are not going to trade Clay Buchholz and won’t discuss Michael Bowden (the two pitchers have a combined 1.04 ERA at Pawtucket) unless the bat they get is very young. The Nationals have let it be known that Nick Johnson is available, but Boston won’t trade Buchholz. The Sox have looked at some outfielders like Ryan Spilborghs and Matt Murton, but the asking price continues to be their young starting pitching. If Ortiz is struggling come July, they may change their minds. Clubs will soon be asking for left-hander Nick Hagadone, who threw 98 this week in extended spring coming off Tommy John, but Boston won’t trade him. They will bring him along carefully and not rush him to the majors this season as a David Price-style September addition.

On the good news front, well, there isn’t much here. Papi needs to figure it out, quickly, because the Sox can only hide him for so long.

If the Sox might not dangle Manny Delcarmen, who seems to have been finally relegated to lower leverage situations by Francona after numerous trials…

The answer is: possibly. Gammons again:

Boston might be willing to move Manny Delcarmen, who might be able to close in the National League, but they’d trade him only for a significant bat.

On the good news front, the Crisp/Ramirez swap has been stellar thus far. In 42 games with the Royals, Coco’s hitting at a .234/.348/.405 clip, which isn’t terrible but not terribly far from replacement level. Ramon Ramirez, on the other hand, has been nothing less than excellent. In 22.2 IP, he’s allowed 2 earned runs while striking out 13 against 7 walks. From the same Gammons’ piece:

One scout says Ramon Ramirez “may be the best trade of the offseason. He could easily close if anything happened to Jonathan Papelbon.”

If we have the worst shortstop defense in the league…

The answer is: pretty much. Of the 47 players that have at least ten games played at the position this season, Nick Green is fourth worst by fielding percentage while Lugo is fifth from the bottom. Green, at least, fares a bit better in range factor – placing 22 out of 47 with a 4.25 (yes, he’s ahead of Jeter) – but Lugo’s abysmal in that category as well, still fifth from the bottom. To be fair to Lugo, however, the Zone Rating metric likes him, putting him #9 to Green’s #31, though one suspects that’s just a sample size error.

Sooner or later this has to be addressed: while there are some clamoring for a bat to replace Papi’s, the shortstop defense is to me the far bigger problem. We’ve proven already that the lineup can score runs while getting essentially zero from Papi, but our defensive efficiency is already costing us runs and – worse – games.

If Lowrie’s return is delayed at all, expect Theo to address this at the All Star break at the latest.

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?

Did That Just…Oh My God IT'S OUT: Game 2 Reaction

Speaking for each and every one of us, Denton said this:

F#@KING JD DREW WHOM I LOVE LIKE A BROTHER OR PERHAPS A WOMAN OF QUESTIONABLE BACKGROUND AFTER I’VE HAD MANY DRINKS JUST DRIVES A TWO-RUN HOMER OUT OF THE PARK AND THE RED SOX TAKE THE LEAD HOLY SHIT I’VE LOST IT

So let it be written, so let it be done. After a long, brutally drawn out night spent nursing four beers and dreams of failure at Byrnes’ Irish Pub in Bath, ME, we are shipping up to Boston, improbably up 2-0.

Any by we’re, I don’t just mean in a metaphorical sense, as in we the Red Sox. I mean, we as in me and the Red Sox. Or, if you want to be like that, the Red Sox and I.

That’s right: thanks to what is essentially a miracle, I will be making a shockingly unanticipated visit to Fenway Park to see Josh Beckett – who is now, apparently, a definite – take the mound. Thanks to the largesse of a friend and wicked clevah reader.

A few comments (of dubious value):

  • Let’s give credit where credit is due: Matsuzaka did his job Friday night by keeping us in the ballgame. That said, watching him pitch is just excruciating. His games are all too typically a high wire act, and last night was no exception. Add in the additional weight of a playoff game, and it was a long night. In my clearly inexpert opinion, his difficulty largely stems from the fact that he lacks – or lacks consistent command of – a true swing and miss pitch. His K rates demonstrate more than adequately that he has the ability to generate strikeouts, but in games like last night’s he seems consistently unable to put away hitters after getting them in two strike counts.
  • Schilling said exactly what I was thinking on the drive home last night: “the league MVP or runner up has not had a hit yet.” One reason – a healthy Beckett would be another – to be optimistic in tomorrow’s contest. Another? The little guy is 7-18 against tomorrow’s starter for a lifetime .389/.389/.444 line. I’m not worried about Petey: he’s going to hit sooner or later, and with two wins, we haven’t missed him terribly yet.
  • No one will – or should – claim that we don’t miss Manny Ramirez offensively. His postseason performance with the Sox speaks for itself. But much as was said at the time of the trade, while Bay is no Ramirez, he’s not a bad player. And right now, if you were to vote for a series MVP, wouldn’t it have to be Bay? Also notable: Bay is 1-3 lifetime vs Saunders, which would be less interesting if the hit wasn’t a home run. That’s one of three home runs we’ve hit lifetime off the pitcher (the other two came from Crisp and Youk).
  • I confess to being sorry to have made this particular Angels fan unhappy. But if I have to pick between that and making everyone’s favorite beat writer happy, it’s not even a conversation. Sorry, lady: you’re cute, but you’re no Amalie.
  • Chad Finn on Tito:

    I was almost as encouraged by the inclusion of third-string catcher David Ross on the final roster as I was by the news that Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew were among the final 25, for this reason: It’s a clear sign that Tito Francona intends to pinch hit for the mummified remains of Jason Varitek when the situation calls for it. One of the countless things I admire about Francona as a manager is that he consciously changes his approach in the postseason. He manages with more inning-to-inning urgency, whereas from April to September he always has the big picture and the long season in focus. There were a handful of times during the regular season when I’d catch myself screaming at the Samsung after Francona refused to hit for Varitek in a key situation. (Varitek, of course, either whiffed or grounded into a routine double play, depending if there was a runner on first). Ross’s presence on the roster is all the proof I need that Tito is about to change his ways again.

    Precisely. And you need look no further for evidence of this, I think, than Mike Lowell’s DNP last night. This decision was clearly excruciating for Francona, in part because Lowell even hobbled adds something to the club, but more the respect the third baseman has earned. But Tito, as he might not do during the regular season, is clearly managing for the moment.

    Exactly as he should be doing.

  • JD DREW! That’s twice in the last two postseasons that I’ve seen K-Rod taken deep by one of our boys. And twice in the last two postseasons that Drew has hit a big, game changing homer. That this one wasn’t a four run job like last year’s does nothing to diminish its importance: it was huge, because extra innings – and, presumably, an MDC appearance – lay dead ahead.
  • A couple of folks at Byrnes were nervous when Pap threw a few balls in the dirt. Personally, I was elated, as that indicates that the days of the fastball-only approach may be over for the time being, as the split moves back in.
  • Speaking of MDC, does anyone else think it’s interesting that he hasn’t pitched yet?
  • And speaking of absences, did anyone note that senior Globe writer Nick Cafardo was sent to Tampa, rather than the series we’re actually playing in? I know his is a more national beat, and that I know next to nothing about the staffing of sports beats, but dare I hope this means that someone feels the same way I do about Cafardo? Adam Kilgore, by the way, a new addition to the Globe team, is excellent so far. IMHO, anyway.
  • If you’re going to make the argument that – in hindsight – the hole that the Angels have dug for themselves is due to poor roster construction, poor managerial tactics, or something similar, shouldn’t you at least mention the fact that both games could have gone the other way? Or is that a case of the facts getting in the way of a good story?
  • And because I can’t post without talking about numbers, lifetime our guys have put up a .670 OPS against Saunders in 130 ABs. The best (minimum 5 ABs): Crisp at 1.000, Youk at .931, Pedro at .833, Drew at .733, and Cash at .733. That’s the good news. The bad is that Lowrie, Lowell, Ortiz, Ells, Tek, and Casey are all OPSing at .500 or under. All of which, based on the results to date, means precisely dick. But just so you feel prepared.

Game 3

Yes, the pressure is on the Angels. Yes, we’re playing at home. Yes, our ace is throwing against their #3 starter. And yes, we can probably expect Pedroia to chip in before the series is ended.

But tomorrow’s game is very far from a given. As noted in this space before, we’ve thrown Beckett against weaker starters this season and come out on the losing end. And Saunders – for reasons that are unclear to me – generally performs well against our lineup. Besides, who knows better than us that 2-0 does not a series win make?

So no guarantees here that we’ll wrap it up. Quite the contrary, in fact: I expect the Angels to come out loose because that’s all they can do, and I expect a solid outing from Saunders. Beyond that, I leave it to Beckett’s right arm.

While I can’t guarantee a win, however, I can guarantee that I’ll be doing everything in my power to secure one. Which might not be much, but is something.

On Trading Buchholz…Again

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Lester Delivers to Holliday, originally uploaded by Eric Kilby.

From the same team that brought you Nick Cafardo, the Boston Globe is pleased to introduce…ex-Boston Heralder Tony Massarotti. Or Mazz, as he’s known around the Fens. And, the logo.

In a Friday chat, Mazz – like his esteemed colleague Cafardo before him – speculates on the possibility of the Rockies’ Matt Holliday ending up with the Red Sox.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad deal. We could use some power, and he’s putting up a .950 OPS this season, with a lifetime of .939. That edges Bay’s .893 season, .891 lifetime. And surprisingly – to me anyway – Holliday is even Bay’s superior in the field in virtually every metric: fielding percentage (.988 to.984), range factor (1.81 to 1.77), and zone rating (.902 to .788). Even better, Holliday’s two years younger than Bay at 28.

While Bay’s a fine player, Holliday’s better. If the Rockies would trade them one for one, you take that deal walking away.

But at what cost?

Mazz thinks adding Buchholz to Bay makes a fine deal. Which shouldn’t surprise me, as the media absolutely lives in the now, with little sense of past or future. Personally, I think that’s an absolutely terrible deal. Here’s why:

  1. Bucholz’s minor league numbers indicate the ability to not just pitch successfully at the major league level, but to be dominant. That’s among the rarest of commodities in the game, and trading it for a relatively one dimensional player – accomplished as he might be – is foolish. To defend the idea of trading Buchholz, as Mazz does, by reminding readers that we have Bowden in the fold indicates that Mazz is unable to distinguish between potential #1 starters and potential #3 starters. Buchholz is the former, Bowden the latter. You trade the Bowdens, while keeping the Buchholz’s, if you’re smart. Even if the rookie got shelled early and lost his confidence.
  2. But let’s just say – for the sake of argument – that you would contemplate trading Buchholz. Maybe you have concerns about his off the field lifestyle, or whatever. Why would you trade him now? In his career, his value has never been lower, coming off a season in which he posted a 6.75 ERA over 76 innings. You and I and Theo might look at the fact that he struck out 72 hitters over that span and see signs that he’s coming out of it, but potential trade partners will incessantly point to the runs surrendered. As they should. So a trade of Buchholz now would be selling low. Not a habit of our front office, fortunately.
  3. Worse than selling low, you’re trading a premium asset to solve a problem that you don’t have. Holliday is Bay’s superior, agreed, with the possible exception of the splits I’ll get to in a moment. But he’s not that superior. We’re talking ~60 points of OPS. Would it be nice to get more offense out of left field? Sure. But would it be nicer to have a shiny new catcher? I think so. When the front office hits the offseason and looks to next year, my guess is that left field will not be first and foremost amongst the problems they set out to solve.
  4. Then, there’s the splits. Mazz says he’s aware of them, which is good, but that he’s also aware that Holliday would be playing half his games at Fenway. Where, in a very small sample size (13 ABs), he’s been very good: .385/.429/.769. Fine. But the fact is that from 2005-2007, he was an .809 OPS player away from Coors field. This year he’s up to .895; right around Jason Bay territory, in other words. For that you want to spend 15M per or more? Buster Olney said it best: “he’s worth more to the Rockies than he is to any other team.”
  5. Oh, and he’s a Boras client. Not that we can’t or won’t sign those – there half a dozen or so just on the current roster – but it means that Holliday will only come at top dollar.

For the life of me, I really can’t fathom why the media – like the casual fans they are so quick to dismiss and disdain – insists on living only in the moment. Why they remain unable to view players in context, as does – thankfully – the front office (with the exception of Julio Lugo). And so on.

But that’s the Fourth Estate for you.

Fastball, Fastball, Fastball

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Papelbon Pitches, originally uploaded by waldoj.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just ask Dan Johnson.