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

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04-04-08-PawSox-02, originally uploaded by jasonandrewlayne.

What a difference a week makes.

Had we entered the break mired in second place, I would have made some statements to the effect that the standings at the All Star break count for little. So I’m little inclined to make too much of a half game lead. Particularly after a game in which Matsuzaka threw only 68 of 115 pitches for strikes and the offense left 20 men on base.

Still, first tastes better than second. It’s not often you make up five games in a week. And while it’ll ultimately be of minimal import, the fact that the Tampa kids are hearing footsteps is not terrible news.

Lest we get carried away, bear in mind that our club yet has serious problems. Even as we slightly underperform our Pythagorean expectations and Tampa outperforms theirs, as the Joy of Sox notes.

The bullpen is yet unreliable, as last night’s contest reminds us, and our offense – the explosions against the Twins and O’s this week aside – is streaky. Masterson should help the former and the Large Father the latter (knock on wood), but I assume that Theo and folks are working the phones.

Yes, Tampa just dropped seven games in a row, but should they, for example, pull off a Murton and Street trade, we may have a problem.

Anyway, on to this week’s ICYHBKUWCE…

Ellsbury

A number of you have suggested that Ellsbury’s struggles of late might be attributable to his June 5th injury; the diving catch that resulted in a sprained wrist. You may be right.

It’s not conclusive, but the before and after numbers leave open the possibility of a connection:

AB BA BB K HR
Before 190 .284 28 24 4
After 129 .256 5 22 1

Granted, it’s 60 fewer at bats, but still. Here’s hoping the break does the kid some good.

Lars Anderson

Though he hasn’t gotten too much ink here, Lars Anderson is, according to many, both our best power prospect and our best first base prospect. A couple of updates on his progress:

Baseball America:

Sending big Lars Anderson to the hitter’s haven that is Lancaster figured to produce some fireworks, and Anderson hasn’t disappointed. As hot as Anderson was in June, when he hit .360/.440/.490, he’s been even better in July. Anderson has already cracked four home runs in nine games this month, three of which have come away from Lancaster. He did more than hit for power this week, as Anderson reached base at least once in every game and strung together four multi-hit games. For the season, Anderson is batting .324/.416/.529, ranking him fifth in the league in average and third in on-base percentage.

John Sickels:

Anderson currently ranks seventh in the California League with a .916 OPS, with a complete line of .317/.411/.505, 18 doubles, 11 homers, 45 walks, and 57 strikeouts in 281 at-bats. The league OPS is .744, so his OPS is 23 percent above league context. A left-handed hitter, he’s destroying southpaws to the tune of .383/.462/.617. Against right-handers he’s at .290/.391/.460, an interesting reverse platoon split but one that likely indicates he won’t have to be platoooned at higher levels. I like the high walk rate along with reasonable strikeouts. His home run power may be a bit less than you’d expect from a 6-4, 215 pounder, although he’s obviously dangerous and his home run power is expected to continue to increase. He is still just 20 years old.

On the negative side, Anderson has a sharp home/road split, .359/.451/.579 at home in the friendly confines of Lancaster, .272/.365/.426 on the road. On the other hand, the home/road split has lessened of late. He spent some time on the DL with a sore wrist in May, and has been blistering hot since returning to action in June, hitting .369/.450/.533 in 30 games since returning from the wrist injury.

It’ll be interesting to see if the presence of Anderson influences our appetite for Texeira, if or when he becomes available as a free agent.

Lowrie vs Lugo

Five days ago, Allen Chace over at Over the Monster said this with respect to our shortstop situation:

I don’t think we’re going to see any changes real soon. Lugo is the starter for the time being. There are no terribly appetizing trade options, so until Lugo’s OBP goes down below, say, .330, we’re not going to see Lowrie brought up and given a shot.

At the time, I agreed. And we all know what’s happened since: Lugo strained or tore – depending on who you believe – his quad, and is out for four to six weeks. And just like that, Lowrie replaces Lugo.

The question is for how long? Probably four to six weeks. Particularly if Lowrie is as minimal a factor as he was in yesterday’s contest. Which could be a concern, as he’s been in something of a funk to open July, putting up a .176/.275/.294 down at Pawtucket in 9 games this month.

But what if the kid plays well? Lugo lamented his injury, claiming that he’d just “found his swing.” Which is interesting, since July was shaping up to be his worst month since April (.259/.323/.259). When he comes back, assuming he won’t be a hundred percent in the field, the only thing arguing in his favor for playing time will be the inexplicable $9M we’re paying him.

Odds are Lugo will get his job back. And those of you that have been around a while know that Lugo’s not exactly my favorite player. But I do think it’s worth questioning how far we’re going to go with a shortstop that was essentially terrible before he tore his quad.

Masterson’s Replacing…Who?

Last week, I expressed surprise that Buchholz hadn’t been brought up and Masterson shifted to the pen. Well, it looks as if I was a week early, because Bucky’s back and Masterson will be soon. And none too soon, though he’s not likely to help our walk numbers out there.

When I first heard the news, my first thought was – predictably – why not lsat week? My second, however, was the question Kevin Thomas is asking: “When Masterson returns to Boston, which reliever goes?”

Looking at the staff, I think the conclusion is obvious:

  • David Aardsma
  • Manny Delcarmen
  • Craig Hansen
  • Javier Lopez
  • Hideki Okajima
  • Jonathan Papelbon
  • Mike Timlin

Barring an injury, I think Hansen’s not long for our pen. If he was able to throw even a few more strikes, I might argue for a Timlin exit (as I’m of the opinion that there’s a giant fork sticking out of his back), but the young reliever’s not giving me a leg to stand on.

Couple Timlin’s marginally improved performance since his return from the DL (4 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 3 K, 1 BB) with Hansen’s ongoing inability to throw balls over the plate (26.1 IP, 25 H, 18BB, 22Ks), and I can’t see anyone but Hansen being sent down.

Not least because he’s the only one that actually can be sent down, as far as I know.

Trade Chips

Given the abovementioned issues with the roster, the Sox front office is undoubtedly doing the due diligence on who’s available. While that subject is covered in detail elsewhere – MLB Trade Rumors is always my first stop – the question of who we’re likely to be asked for is less well documented. Fortunately, Sean McAdam’s broken that down for us. His list looks like this:

Elite Prospects

  • Michael Bowden
  • Lars Anderson
  • Josh Reddick
  • Ryan Kalish
  • Jed Lowrie

Next Level Down

  • Kris Johnson
  • Daniel Bard
  • Oscar Tejeda
  • Che-Hsuan Lin
  • Mark Wagner

Could Draw Interest

  • Brandon Moss
  • David Pauley
  • Chris Carter

There are probably a couple of other players that would be of potential interest – Michael Almanzar, Bubba Bell, or even George Kottaras – that’s a reasonably complete list.

The one thing I haven’t heard many people discuss: Bowden might be overvalued at the moment, his calf injury notwithstanding. Given his performance at Double A, he might be considered by other clubs an elite pitching prospect, but his ceiling is likely considerably lower than that. That doesn’t mean you trade him; pitchers of his caliber don’t grow on trees. But it may make him more of a tradeable commodity than he would otherwise be, particularly in a deal involving young catching talent.

Varitek’s Future

One of the conversations I’ve been having over and over concern’s Varitek’s future. On the one hand, he’s been absolutely miserable with the bat this season. Out of 19 MLB catchers that have seen 250+ ABs this year, Tek is 17th in average,16th in OBP, and SLG. That’s not good.

On the other hand, there’s his celebrated reputation for working with pitchers, his tenure and stature with the club, and the fact that catching around the majors is horribly scarce.

Between those two positions, you might think, lies a compromise path that would keep our captain in a Red Sox uni for the remainder of his career.

According to Hacks with Haggs, however, Peter Gammons is skeptical:

He’s a 36-year-old guy who has played his heart out for a long time. He was not exactly a gifted hitter. He really hasn’t had a good offensive year since 2005, so where is he at this point in his career. What worries me about this for the Red Sox is that this becomes ugly as it comes to the end of the year and he approaches free agency.

I know we have people saying you have to sign him no matter what, but if you have Jason Varitek for four years and $40 million or you have Brian Schneider for one-year and $3 million, there’s no question you take Brian Schneider for the $3 million in my mind.

As much as I really like Varitek, he’s at the point where you really worry about where he’s going to be. Two years at $7 million is fine, but I think that Scott Boras is going to convince someone out there that he’ll make the difference with the pitching staff. And you’ve always got the Mets. They offered Jorge Posada five years at the age of 36, which is one of the most laughable offers of all time. I think if they get down to the end of the year and there’s no progress and Scott is looking for those four years. Jason is a very loyal guy to Scott and it could create a chasm between Varitek and the club that could be a problem coming down the stretch.

It’s not so much that I’m wedded to the idea of having Varitek; it’s more that I don’t know who we’d replace him with.

Lastly

Farewell, Bobby Murcer. Though a Yankee, you were by all accounts a classy individual and a credit to your city and club. RIP.

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

It’s been a bad weak. Until the two Yankee wins, in fact, I was borderline despondent. And why not? A week ago today, Brian Moehler started against Josh Beckett, and we lost that game. Then Shields went out and beat Masterson, which could have been expected. Next Garza beat Wakefield, which was at least understandable. Wednesday, we scratched to a three run lead against Kazmir, who typically owns us, and then…the wheels came off.

That, put bluntly, was just a horror show. Easily the most painful bullpen implosion this season, and one that we’ll have to hope doesn’t come back haunt us down the stretch. Though it already is, as Tampa’s not only not faltering, but expanding on their cushion in the division.

The only consolation is that the Yankees are similarly miserable. Which, of course, is no consolation at all. Anyway, on to this week’s ICYHBKUWCE.

Odds

The ESPN gang took all the time and trouble to add odds to their standings page, so I’d feel badly if I didn’t take advantage. From here on out, we’ll snapshot the results each Sunday to gauge the Sox chances’ and my own sanity.

This week’s odds? 33.7% of winning the division, 30.9% of being the wild card, for a 64.7% chance of making the playoffs. Can’t speak for you, but I’m not terribly enthused by those numbers. Tampa’s odds? 59.1%, 21.9%, and 80.9%. Not joking.

Bullpen

In case you’re counting, now, the bullpen has cost us 15 games. Winning half of those would put us in the division lead. Same with a third of those. A quarter…well, you see where I’m going.

So please, no more talk of Sabathia, or AJ Burnett, or whomever: we need help in the pen, desperately. Yes, part of it has been starters – I’m looking at you Matsuzaka – that are throwing 100+ pitches just to struggle through five. But can you look me in the eye you feel good about turning a one or two run lead over to the bullpen after seven? I didn’t think so. When Delcarmen is your best strike thrower, Lopez is arguably your best setup option, and the return of Mike Timlin’s 6.75 ERA and .876 OPS against is a good thing, there’s no other supportable conclusion but that you’ve got problems. Serious problems.

Is it time to give up on the likes of Craig Hansen, as Rob Neyer is ready to do? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I could build the case either way.

Whatever you believe, it’s clear that we need help. It’s been said that the first few months of the season are used to tell clubs you what they need. If that’s true, Wednesday night was a Times Square size billboard saying, “NEED RELIEF ARMS STOP CAN’T STOP THE BLEEDING STOP RAYS ARE PULLING AWAY.”

We all know the story: Oki 08 is no Oki 07, Hansen can’t throw strikes as often as he can, and MDC is getting caught doing his best LaTroy Hawkins impression more often than is helpful. Etc etc etc.

Can Fuentes be the man? Who knows. But somebody has to step up. If the ‘pen costs us another 15 games in the second half, I can’t see how we’ll catch Tampa.

Personally, I’m somewhat perplexed as to why Buchholz hasn’t been brought up to start, and Masterson shifted into the pen. Almost makes you wonder if they’re showcasing the latter for a trade…

Cafardo

Frustrates me, I’ll admit. Clearly my least favorite of any of the Red Sox beat writers, I both rue and lament the day he was given the senior status over at the Globe. Not just because of things like his bizarre defense of his own slagging of Richmond, VA’s food:

Ripping Richmond dining provoked a lot of e-mails, except everyone suggested the same four or five places. That’s all you’ve got?

It’s mostly because I don’t believe he’s terribly diligent. Which, considering the fanbase, is not a forgivable sin.

Take his suggestion today that the Red Sox could effectively swap roster spots, Matt Holliday for Manny Ramirez (presumably in the offseason, though he doesn’t specify):

Is it out of the realm of possibility that Matt Holliday winds up with Boston and the Red Sox don’t pick up Manny Ramírez’s $20 million option? Both players are represented by Scott Boras.

This isn’t the first time Cafardo’s speculated on the subject; the last time he broached the subject was in the same article he mentioned his preference for Shelley Duncan over Jason Giambi.

So to answer his question, no, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Holliday’s putting up a .990 OPS, and will command dollars with Boras as his adviser, but if Manny’s not picked up we’d have ~20M to find some power. But is it too much to ask – as I did the last time – that Cafardo at least bring up the home/road splits? He’s clearly aware that such things exist, as he cites Burrell’s Citizens Bank Park line as a reason he’s a fit for the Phillies.

If Cafardo concluded that Holliday’s last three year .281/.343/.466 away split would be worth the premium he’ll command on the market, ok. I personally don’t agree, because Manny even in a down year is besting that at .279/.379/.495, but the argument is there. Particularly if you factor in age.

But it’s never even come up. Which makes me wonder if Cafardo has even looked at the numbers before pontificating on the subject.

Law

This week’s Keith Law chat on ESPN was a veritable gold mine of Sox-related information. Among the items:

  • On Michael Bowden:
    Jim (Portland, OR): KLaw, what is your opinion on Bowden now that you’ve seen him?

    SportsNation Keith Law: Disappointed. He was 88-91, below average command, flashed a plus curveball that has a chance to be an out pitch. Barely used his change, which Red Sox people have told me is his best pitch. Ugly delivery. Never saw the 94 mph I’d heard he was dealing this year, and the pro scout behind me told me he’d seen Bowden twice before (in 2008) and never had him above 88-92.

  • On Masterson and Bard:
    Howie Rhody: Sox bullpen has been terrible lately. Time to bring up Bucholtz and Bard? Send Masterson to the pen with Bard?

    SportsNation Keith Law: Buchholz in the rotation and Masterson in the pen. I wouldn’t let Bard near the majors – yes, he hit 98 for me, but walked the first two batters, showed little command, and had a below-average breaking ball. He’s further away than I thought.

  • On the Draft Signings Progress:
    Andrew (Exeter): Have you heard any news about the Red Sox tough signs?

    SportsNation Keith Law: Sounds like Alex Meyer is less likely. Navery Moore has been throwing very well in Tennessee, back up to the mid-90s, and the Sox are monitoring him – could be a surprise signing there later in the summer. Reader Matt R told me that Ryan Westmoreland has joined the Facebook group for Red Sox prospects … hmmm [ed – I can confirm that Westmoreland is in the group – I looked]. Everyone expects them to get Hissey and Gibson signed. Haven’t heard anything on Cooper or Marquis.

BABIP Gets Everyone in the End: No Exceptions

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Brandon Webb bunting, originally uploaded by SD Dirk.

From the files of questions I meant to answer, but am stupid and forgot to:

Would one expect Masterson’s BABIP to be lower since he’s a sinkerballer? Have you taken a look at other pitchers whose repertoire resembles that of Masterson and Buchholz?

Thx, ahl, for the reminder.

Your answer: I would expect it to be lower because he’s a sinkerballer. But, as admitted above, I am stupid and this expectation is wrong. Or so say the numbers.

If you’re following along at home, this discussion dates back to my claim that a portion of Masterson’s success is due to his unusually low BABIP numbers. After Saturday’s start, that sits at an even .220, where .290 or so is the expected average on balls put in play.

Some of this, I believed while writing the piece, had to be attributable to his heavy, groundball inducing two seam fastball. It seemed logical, after all, that the allowed average for a pitcher that generates little but groundouts would be lower than a similar flyball pitcher.

However logical it might seem, however, there’s no evidence that this is true. Looking close to home, I checked DLowe’s career BABIP and guess what? It’s almost exactly what you’d expect at .297. This from a pitcher that has, for his career, generated 64.5% of his outs on the ground (Beckett’s at 44.2% for comparison’s sake).

How about Brandon Webb, another extreme groundball pitcher? His career BABIP is actually higher than average, at .317. The lowest it’s been for a full season for him? .275 in ’03.

All of which tells me two things, neither of which is good for us. First, that groundball pitchers are not exceptions to the average on balls put in play, however counterintuitive this may seem. And two, given that fact, it should be expected that Masterson’s exceptional luck on balls put in play to date will correct itself. Probably with negative results on his performance.

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

rain delay

Yeah, yeah, I missed a week – that’s what happens when you hit Fenway. Anyway, more importantly the first half came to a close. About a week earlier than normal, in fact. The good news is that we ended the first half, as we did last year, in first place. The bad news is that the lead this time around was a half game, rather than the ten and a half it was last year.

Practically speaking, this has both positive and negative impacts, but I’m most concerned about the fact that it makes the resting of our starters more problematic. If you drop a game on a spot starter and you’re up by ten plus games, you might not enjoy it, but you’re not likely to lose sleep over it. With a half game lead, on the other hand, every last game is precious.

Breaking Players In

Wherever we got it, there’s little question that our player development program is paying serious dividends. It’s one thing to be able to draft well – thanks Jason McLeod – it’s an entirely different matter to progress the talent and ensure that, when they arrive, they’re prepared on and off the field.

According to Peter Gammons, in fact, as relayed by Hacks with Haggs, the Sox are among the best in the game at that:

I don’t think many other teams understand that, and I think they really get that. I have no doubt in my mind that Jed Lowrie will come back up here and be good, or that Michael Bowden will make three or four starts at some point and be very good. I really give them credit. It’s a combination of all that Mike Hazen and Ben Cherington and all of the minor league development people have done, and what John Farrell and all of the Sox pitching instruction people have done.

Buchholz v Masterson, Round 50

I like Justin Masterson, I really do. He seems like a great kid, and he’s clearly a future major league pitcher. But I’m getting very tired of hearing from the media that he’s a better pitcher than Buchholz. That might be true right now – though it’s certainly debatable – but it’s terribly unlikely to be true in future.

The performance thus far, however, leads media members, myopically focused on the present, to conclude that the one in Triple A is the one that’s expendable:

Why would the Red Sox be interested in trading for C.C. Sabathia? First, because they can. They have the money to sign him long term. They also have the prospects to give up, including what might be the most attractive player any team could include in a package – Clay Buchholz. 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.

Never mind the minor league histories, never mind the no hitter thrown just last season, never mind the small sample size: clearly Buchholz is expendable. I mean, what has he done for us lately?

So let’s look at a few numbers. You know, just to prove that Buchholz is trade bait.

Innings BAA Ks BBs K/9 BB/9 K/BB
Buchholz 65.0 .256 65 30 9.00 4.15 2.17
Masterson 42.0 .197 32 21 6.86 4.50 1.52

In short, in 23 more Major League innings pitched, Buchholz is striking out more hitters while walking fewer. But he’s allowing a batting average against that is 60 points higher, so we must trade him.

But if you’re thoughtful, you might stop and ask: why is his allowed average that much worse? And his ERA a full run higher? Which could – if you knew about it – prompt you to think about the batting average on balls put in play, a statistic which gives depth to the basic performance metrics. The average is about .290; pitchers giving up a BABIP much higher are likely to perform better over time as they revert to the mean, while pitchers giving up a BABIP considerably worse are likely to perform that way as they do too. The numbers? Buchholz’ MLB BABIP is .337, while Masterson’s number is .210. In other words, Masterson’s been very lucky, and Buchholz has been somewhat unlucky.

But apparently it’s too much to ask that a mainstream Boston beat reporter understand the concept of a small sample size or the nuances of statistics beyond ERA and wins and losses. True, the numbers say that both pitchers will eventually be useful. Also true, that they say that Masterson has been more useful over the first half of this season. But it’s quotes like the above that make me thank Jebus that Theo and co are running the club rather than the likes of Cafardo, because the numbers tell us pretty clearly that if you’re going to trade a pitcher, Buchholz is the last one you’d want to give up.

Bullpen Woes Continue

Just when you thought it was safe to dip into the Red Sox pen, well, there’s last night. After last Sunday’s game (which I attended), when the one reliable piece in the pen proved not to be and his mates picked him up for four innings, many argued that it marked a turning point.

Not so much.

Oki is still having problems – to the extent that McAdam thinks the Sox could look at the possibility of trading for Fuentes. MDC continues to be lights out one night, torched the next. Hansen is slightly more reliable, but still prone to overthrowing. Aardsma’s striking out everyone, but still being used in games where we trail, which tells you something.

Besides Fuentes and a few other high cost options, the relief market doesn’t look particularly compelling. Meaning that the time to evaluate our internal options could be within the next few weeks.

Bard, in particular, seems like a candidate for Pawtucket in the very near future, if not a trial with the big club. His first pitch today arrived at 98, and Bob Stanley was reportedly very impressed:

Pawtucket Red Sox color man Bob Montgomery said Bob Stanley recently gushed about Sox reliever Daniel Bard. “Ninety-seven, 98 miles per hour with a 12-6 curveball,” said Montgomery. “[Stanley] said he was one of the nastiest relievers he’s seen.”

Fireside Chats w/ Art Martone

I’m only a few minutes into it, but I wanted to be sure and congratulate our friends over at Fire Brand for scoring the inestimable Art Martone as a guest for their Fireside Chats podcast.

I’m a fan of the MVN guys’ work in general, and my appreciation for Art’s work goes back years. Prior to my introduction to SoSH, Art’s old ProJo columns were along with Gammons’ work a key component of my Red Sox intelligence gathering. He had the unique ability to respond rationally to situations which other fans and even journalists could not; an approach, candidly, that I’ve tried to learn from and emulate.

Great to see that combination, and congrats again to Tim and the gang.

Nixon Still Loves Us

Count me among those that is rooting hard for Trot as he fights to stay up in the majors with the Mets. My affection for Nixon goes back a long, long way – to his draft day, in fact – and I wish him nothing but the best.

And according to the Globe, he feels the same way:

Thanks to all the Red Sox fans out there. It means a lot to any athlete to be remembered that way. Thanks for ’04. I miss ya. I may not show it, but it’s pretty cool the way they remember you. I was in Portland and one guy had my old No. 7 jersey on and told me he skipped out of work. It really is a Nation.

We miss you too, sir. And we have no problem showing it.

Predicting Ellsbury: The Trends vs The Projections

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On June 14th, Dustin Pedroia had dropped his line to .260/.311/.365. Prompting this entry. Since that post, Pedroia has gone 29 for his last 57, good for a .509 average. Over the same span, he also has six doubles, three dingers – even two steals. Better, he’s struck out once against three walks.

So it’s no surprise that I’ve been asked to write up my Navajo brother in similar fashion, as he “slumped” in June bringing his average down to its lowest point since March.

Let’s see, then, if by taking a similar look, we can help Ells return to his early ’08 form. Or, best case, his late season ’07 form.

First, the baseline: going into today’s game, Ellsbury’s line stands at .272/.348/.391. According to the occasionally flaky ESPN Player Stats function, those numbers rank him 11th, 8th, and 12th amongst all MLB center fielders. His rank in OPS tied for 10th with Nick Swisher, trailing the following nine players:

  1. Josh Hamilton .924
  2. Grady Sizemore .890
  3. Nate McLouth .889
  4. Carlos Beltran .858
  5. David DeJesus .855
  6. Rick Ankiel .835
  7. Aaron Rowand .819
  8. B.J. Upton .814
  9. Torii Hunter .785

While there are a few surprise names on that list, like Nate McLouth or David DeJesus, I find little to complain about with his placement, considering that he’s had a grand total of 127 plate appearances coming into this year.

So what’s the problem? The trending. Average is headed down, from .282 in April, to .281 in May, to .259 in June. The OBP is falling, .402 to .375 to .273, as is the SLG, .451 to .396 to .329. With the barometric readings of the center fielders performance reading “storm coming,” it’s useful to ask whether this is one of the inevitable squalls young players go through, or a longer protracted seasonal change.

To which I’ll predictably answer, I don’t know.

But as with Pedroia, I’m cautiously optimistic. For many of the same reasons, in fact.

His college and minor league track records, for one, indicate little other than that Ellsbury can play. The prevailing question among evaluators, in fact, hasn’t been whether he’ll hit, but rather for how much power. That subject, you might remember, has been debated previously in these very pages, in which I sided with Neyer over Theo, who said the following:

He will eventually have more power than people give him credit for. It’s really a matter of him taking his BP swing into the game, because if you watch his BP, he has incredible natural backspin that he generates. He’s stronger now, and his ball really carries. But even from the day we signed him, he was able to go deep into the bullpens in Fenway in batting practice.

The power question notwithstanding, it’s important to emphasize the point of the discussion, which is not whether Ellsbury will hit or have value, but rather how much. Even those that might be perceived as critics acknowledge that he’s likely to be a very useful player. Witness Aaron Gleeman, who said:

If things go well for Ellsbury, he looks capable of hitting around .300/.370/.425 on a regular basis. Toss in good defense with 50-steal speed and that’s an extremely good player. In fact, it’s essentially Kenny Lofton. Like Ellsbury, Lofton is a slight, incredibly fast, lefty-hitting center fielder who was drafted out of a Pac-10 college and made his big-league debut as a 24-year-old. Despite showing even less power than Ellsbury in the minors, Lofton has hit .299/.372/.423 with 622 steals during his 17-year career.

Everybody loves Ells, in other words. Including, as it turns out, the math guys. Again as with Pedroia, most projection systems saw good things in ’08 from the favorite of young ladies everywhere. The anticipated lines:

  • Baseball Prospectus: .288/.348/.397
  • Bill James: .329/.383/.460
  • CHONE: .299/.353/.418
  • Marcel: .308/.365/.473
  • ZiPS: .297/.349/.392

Average out the math guys’ projections, then, and what do you get? .304/.360/.428. A line which I, for one, would be more than content with.

And then there’s his speed. The most steals any of the projection systems anticipated was 43, from ZiPS. With 34 at the moment, he seems a lock to best that: as Chad Finn notes, that puts him on pace for 68. That being his half season total, don’t ya know.

The question, then, is why the decline? Is it the exploitation of specific holes in his swing? Or merely the sign of a pending adjustment?

From the projections and the minor league history, my money’s on the latter. And even if it’s not, I might take his combination of defense – Beane called it the best in the majors – and speed anyway.

Either way, let’s cut the kid some slack: of his 261 AB’s, 244 have come in the leadoff spot. Which tells me two things: one, he’s under a bit more pressure than he would be if they, say, batted him eighth or ninth as they were forced to do with Crisp. And second, that Tito and company – the ones in a position to know – think he can handle that pressure.

Given that, let’s wait and see what transpires.

Don't Mess With (The Kid From) Texas: Buchholz' Delivery

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claybuchholz5 crop, originally uploaded by firebrandal.

This season, seven Red Sox pitchers have started more than five games. Six of them have ERAs below 4.20. The seventh, Clay Buchholz, pitched a no-hitter last season and currently has a 2.45 ERA in five starts since returning to Triple-A Pawtucket. Buchholz is 23, and going through the sort of thing that 23-year-old pitchers often go through.” – Rob Neyer

Precisely.

What Neyer is talking about: in 8 starts this year, everyone’s favorite 23 year old righthander that dates Victoria’s Secret models and Penthouse Pets had surrendered 49 hits and 3 homers over 42.1 IP. For those bad at math, that’s a 10.42 H/9. Not strong. Also not strong were the 20 BBs in those 42 and change innings. Not what was expected of the quote unquote best pitching prospect in the minor leagues.

Clearly, some adjustments were in order. As Neyer puts it, the kind of adjustments that most 23 year old pitchers have to make.

And to his credit, the pitcher understood this. In some candid comments following a Pawtucket start, Buchholz had the following to say about the areas on his report card marked Needs Improvement:

“The number of fastballs I was throwing was really low because I fell in love with off-speed stuff because I had success with it early,” he said. “But big league hitters catch on to it. They have video just like I have video. It’s easy to see what kind of routine somebody gets into regardless of if it’s hitting or pitching.”

Personally, I’m fine with all of the above. Particularly because, as mentioned before, the Red Sox know far better what’s good for the kid than yours truly. If they think he needs better fastball command, then he probably needs better fastball command.

But I’m worried. Not because of his performance: most young pitchers go through this, as discussed above. But because there’s nothing in his minor league history to indicate a problem with command, fastball or otherwise.

In 301.2 minor league innings, Buchholz has walked 87 guys – roughly 2.6 per 9. That’s a good number. More impressive, he’s struck out 370 guys in those 300+ innings – 11.06 per 9. That’s a really good number. Freakishly good, in fact.

Certainly it’s possible – even likely – that Buchholz didn’t need his fastball as much in the minors given the quality of his offspeed stuff. It’s just as likely that he will, in fact, need it in the majors. What worked for his no hitter was never a guarantee to work indefinitely. Still, there’s nothing to indicate numbers-wise (I don’t have PitchF/X data for him), that command was the issue.

The additional minor league seasoning I can live with, here’s my real concern: the Red Sox are reportedly tinkering with his delivery. According to Ken Rosenthal, the Sox “want Buchholz to move his arm slot away from his head, an adjustment they believe will increase the movement on his fastball.”

Again, I’m fully aware of both my lack of credentials and the Sox’ track record when it comes to managing the development of their young pitchers. Number of pitchers successfully developed by me? Zero. Number of pitchers successfully developed by the Sox? Papelbon, Lester, Masterson and if we’re being charitable, Hansen and MDC.

But still: altering his delivery? The kid has a career 11.06 K/9 and 2.60 BB/9 in 300+ minor league innings. And the Driveline Mechanics guys, in particular, love his delivery (though they do admit to preferring a high 3/4 slot). Whatever happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Isn’t this the kid what tossed a no-hitter?

Frankly, however, these concerns may be academic. Whatever changes they’ve made, they appear to be working: Buchholz has given up a total of 2 runs in his last four starts. His last outing? 5 IP, 1 H, 6 Ks.

So while I’ll trust that the Sox know best (pipe down back there, Meredith), I hope they don’t screw with this kid too much. Whatever he’s been doing to date has worked well; well enough that the numbers say he can star in the majors, delivery changes or no.

Predicting Pedro: The Bad News, The Good News, and The No News

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pedroia, originally uploaded by eürodäna.

It’s the request hour here at wicked clevah, so by all means, let’s chat about Dustin Pedroia.

He’s slumping, but you all knew that. Players get rested for lots of reasons, but in his case the explanation wasn’t all that complicated: he can’t buy a hit (or worse, a walk) at the moment.

For not the first time, of course. Last season famously saw Pedroia stumble out of the gate to a .182/.308/.236 line in April. By his own admission, something had to change. And fortunately for everyone, the little guy included, it did. His lowest OBP by month after April was September, at .330. His lowest average a .299 showing in July.

In spite of the highly forgettable April, his first half showing was .318/.400/.450, slightly better than his second half of .317/.362/.435.

That was then, this (.260/.311/.365) is now.

After a very Pedroia-like April of .306/.352/.423, he slumped though May (.260/.295/.374). And June? Well, words don’t really convey the depth of the problem so I’ll just leave you with his performance thus far: .097/.256/.129. That’s right: if he doesn’t turn things around shortly, June will be a worse month – a significantly worse month – than April of ’07.

Which we can all undoubtedly do without.

Supporters are likely to then jump to his defense by touting his, well, defense. Which makes sense, because I, like presumably most of you, am under the impression that he’s a top notch defender at second. Which he may well be. But not according to any of the rudimentary defensive metrics I have available to me. His best showing is in Zone Rating, where he places fourth amongst AL second basemen behind Ellis, Cano and Grudzielanek – all of whom enjoy reasonable reputations for their defense. In Range Factor, however, he’s 7th, along with 8th in Fielding Percentage. Just amongst the AL candidates, mind.

All of which ultimately proves nothing, but has to be considered, particularly in light of his reduced offensive value.

Zach Hayes over at Fire Brand posed the question a week ago: will Dustin Pedroia have a second-year downfall? He argues that so far the answer is yes, and I can’t really argue the point.

But that question is of far less importance, I think, then this one: what can we expect from Pedroia going forward in ’08? Is Pedroia destined to be the next Hinske, a one-time ROY exposed over time as a marginal major leaguer?

Obviously, I don’t have the foggiest: predictions are not my gig. I’m concerned, of course. Not because not because of the slump, precisely, but rather the lack of an adequate – or any, really – explanation for the slump. Yes, he’s been victimzed by the men in blue, who among other offenses robbed him of a home run (replay can’t get here fast enough). And a couple of stellar defensive efforts – Upton’s catch, in particular – haven’t helped. But neither of those conditions, nor the fact that he was the only regular not to get any time off until June, can be held responsible for his post-April line.

It is indeed possible that we’re seeing the beginning of a permanent decline in his performance, as one of the MVN commenters argued.

But I personally don’t buy that, for three reasons.

First: history’s on his side. His college and minor league track records predicted the success he had last season, just as they predicted to the front office the transition to the majors would be challenging. That history didn’t predict the current trend, that I’m aware of, but neither do they preclude it: we are talking, after all, about a relatively small sample size.

Second: I’ve heard nothing to suggest that pitchers have discovered and are actively exploiting a fatal flaw. No one would make the claim that his swing is optimal, particularly for a player of his size, but from the games I’ve seen he’s getting himself out as much as the pitchers are. Were he consistently going down to a particular pitch, pitch sequence, or pitch location, I’d be more pessismistic, but the data doesn’t demonstrate that. As nearly as I can determine, he’s getting himself out on pitches all over the strike zone. Which makes the problem harder to fix, but less likely to be an intrinsic limitation.

Third: None of the numbers guys saw this coming, and I mean none of them. The lowest OBP any of Bill James, CHONE, Marcel, MINER, PECOTA, or ZiPS predicted for ’08 was Miner at .355. Three of the five had him at .369 or better. The lowest average? ZiPS at .292. Three of the five were .299 or above. In its diagnostics, in fact, BP’s PECOTA assigned the following probabilities to potential outcomes:

  • Breakout Rate: 21%
  • Improve Rate: 58%
  • Collapse Rate: 11%
  • Attrition Rate: 7%

Obviously, predictions are as much art as science, but I don’t like the odds that all of the math geeks are wrong. A few of them, sure, but not all.

Last: There’s lady luck. You’ll recall that I more or less dimissed its importance when discussing, as an example, some of the defensive plays made against Pedroia above. I stand by that, because they’re not a sufficient explanation for his performance to date. But it is true that he’s been unlucky with his batting average on balls put in play thus far at .278 (.290 is average). Last season he clearly overachieved in that regard at .334, but .278 is definitely unlucky. Meaning that it should correct itself over the course of the year, manifesting itself as a small but potentially useful bump in his overall offensive output.

The Net:
If you came here looking for proof that we’re not in the midst of a season long sophomore slump, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But neither am I willing to write him off as a one year wonder; it’s not just what he did last year, it’s what his entire history says he should do. What the numbers confirm he should do.

We just have to hope that he starts doing that sooner rather than later.