Gonzo's Gone…and You're Panicking? Seriously?

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Look, I liked watching Gonzalez pick it as much as you did. Maybe more. But the angst over his departure? I just don’t get it.

Nobody wants another season of Nick Green starting at short, we can all agree on that. But seriously, this is a career .689 OPS player we’re talking about. For context, Adam Everett, who is even better defensively, carries a .648 career OPS. Did I mention that he’s available?

On a related note, I’ll admit it: the the assertion that Scutaro is a foregone conclusion here, in the wake of Gonzalez’ departure, baffles me.

Think about it: Theo’s on record as saying he believes that Lowrie is a credible option as their starting shorstop, but that he can’t be relied upon given his injury history. He’s also on record as saying that Iglesias – the $8M Cuban defensive sensation – is their shorstop of the future. Why would the Sox then feel compelled to a.) surrender the picks (assuming he’s offered arbitation) and b.) commit to the years necessary (three, from what I’m seeing) to land Scutaro?

Nothing’s impossible, but this strikes me as unlikely.

I think it’s far more likely they go with Lowrie plus a safety net. Much as we thought they’d do all along. And is Everett, as an example, that much worse an option than Gonzalez? Offensively, both Everett and Gonzo are, effectively, outs. Why not get the better glove, then, given the fact that we need to improve our defensive efficiency? Or if you prefer some offense, go get O-Cab, also still on the market (and yes, I’ve heard some pretty sordid details of his off-the-field activities last time around).

Either way, I just don’t see how you build the case that says that this is somehow a disaster for the Sox. If the front office believed that Gonzo was their only realistic option at short, don’t you think they would have signed him already? The front office is many things but stupid generally isn’t one of them. And this club sure as hell doesn’t have problems signing free agent shortstops.

No, most of the reactions I’ve been seeing are over-rotations that ignore both the options we know about – Cabrera, Everett, et al – as well as the ones we don’t (Y Escobar?).

In the wake of the front office’s less than brilliant results in staffing the shortstop position the last few years, I’m not prepared to argue that the plan for next year will be a good one. But the arguments that I’m seeing, that the Red Sox don’t have a plan, well, they just seem foolish.

If Nick Green, or next year’s Nick Green, Tug Hulett, is our starting shortstop next season, feel free to come back and say I told you so. But me, I’m willing to bet that the front office has a better plan than that.

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 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.