Friday, July 31, 2009

Doses of Reality: A Very Big IF

Teams win baseball games at the intersection of run generation and run prevention. Management decided that run generation offered a more "buyable" commodity than run prevention.

The Sox obtained Victor Martinez at a lower base price (Justin Masterson and Nick Hagadone) than obtaining Roy Halladay for Buchholz, Bard, and more. Red Sox Nation always embraces now over the future, and Theo Epstein balanced the opportunity with his calculus of future value.

Meanwhile, on the field, John Smoltz continues to struggle. Do we have an aging veteran, recovering from surgery who can turn it around or have his skills abated beyond the point of no return?

The concept of "never enough pitching" again comes true with Beckett, Lester and pray for bad weather, with injuries to Wakefield and Matsuzaka, coin-flip Penny, the enigma Buchholz, and Cy Old.

Adam, we barely knew ye. Goodby Adam, hello Casey Kotchman. Maybe Kotchman's return to the AL will help. He's a prototypical Red Sox on base percentage guy.

Victor Martinez has got to play. Who loses in the rotation? Martinez can show up as catcher, first baseman, or DH. If he DH's against most southpaws, then does he eat up starts at first (Youkilis to third), and catch (Jason Varitek didn't look ecstatic to hear of the trade). Can he catch the knuckleball. What of George Kottaras? Curious, George?

Presumably, the Sox bring up somebody, and right now Michael Bowden seems to be the guy, while Junichi Tazawa continues to assimilate. Tazawa allowed one earned run in his first PawSox start, walking none.

The best news coming out of the deadline was the Sox didn't give up their top talent, and set themselves up to compete, if the starting pitching can regain some semblance of consistency. A very big if.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hard Choices

As currently constituted, do the Red Sox have the horses to get to the World Series? Of course, an equally legitimate question remains, can the Sox hold off the Rays and get to the playoffs? Seriously.

Anyone watching the team recently understands the questions. In the outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury had a good series against lowly Baltimore after going one for the road trip. Jason Bay and J.D. Drew have struggled mightily; that's baseball.

In the infield, the hitting remains suspect, as while the Rangers may have swine flu, the Sox have the pine flew. Again, it can turn around...perhaps people have too many eyes over their shoulders with the trade deadline approaching, rather than on the ball.

Some (like Peter Gammons), say the clubs overvalue their prospects. Perhaps, but one can't easily dismiss the lure of low-salaried talent to most of the MLB 'have-nots'.

The Sox bullpen remains its biggest constant, the biggest change being the emergence of Daniel Bard as the Creature from the Bullpen Lagoon. His 100 mph heat and complementary breaking stuff have produced some "silly swings" in Eck parlance.

Meanwhile, we all know that John Smoltz is a first ballot HOF candidate with his resume of wins, saves, and guts. Unfortunately, we see John SmOLDtz getting lit up like a Christmas tree. Passion for success and flashes of the "young" Smoltz may not allow Theo Epstein the luxury of considering Smoltz a rotation fixture. Currently, it's Beckett and Lester at the top, Penny in the middle, Wakefield on the shelf, and Buchholz and Smoltz competing for the bottom of the rotation. In fact, recent outings make Justin Masterson look a lot better.

The playoffs are not a lock.

Friday, July 24, 2009

That's Baseball

Statistics don't lie. Or do they? The Sox haven't looked like the same team since the All-Star break, going on offensive holiday.

Even for the best baseball teams, losing comes as no stranger. A sixty percent winning percentage translates to 97 wins in the baseball marathon, and currently only the Dodgers and the Yankees have eclipsed that .600 mark.

If we (incorrectly) assumed that each game had the same (forty percent) chance of a loss for the best teams, then a five game losing streak would occur (.4 x .4 x .4 x .4 x .4) or 1% of the time over any five game period. And when you consider the number of teams playing and the length of the season, it's easy to see why losing streaks occur so often.

Nobody thinks that the Red Sox forgot how to hit, but conversely well, your lying eyes didn't deceive you either. Both the "big guns" and the rest of the lineup wasn't operating at a high efficiency level. We don't have invoke Newtonian physics to understand how the team has struggled. The Sox have hit .221 in July with an OPS of .699, and only Dustin Pedroia has hit over .300 (.368) among the regulars. Varitek, Ellsbury, Bay, Green, Lowrie, and Drew have all hit .200 or less in July. Remarkably, the Sox have still outscored opponents 73-71 during that time frame.

Will the Sox make a big trade? I generally favor the "Winner's Curse" theory, that when multiple bidders compete for a limited commodity, they end up overpaying. Young players with low salaries and limited service time have excess value, much like stock options because of the so-called "time value". Also, the money saved by not spending big dollars remains available to either sign your own chips to longer contracts or to compete for free agents.

If your offense can't produce at a higher level, then a surfeit of pitching may not necessarily put the Sox over the top.

Friday, July 10, 2009

All-Stars Inside the Numbers

Nobody said that statistics constitute the sole criteria for determining either value or selection to the All-Star team. Consider the following table:

WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) reflects the pitcher's ability to prevent baserunners from reaching. K/BB (strikeout to walk ratio) tends to predict future ERA even better than current ERA. More dominant pitchers tend to have low WHIP ratios and higher K/BB ratios.

Two of the above pitchers achieved All-Star selections on the 2009 American League squad. Which two? Pitcher A ties for the most innings, has the best K/BB ratio and an ERA sub 4. He doesn't make the team. Pitcher D with a K/BB ratio well under 2 and an ERA almost half a run higher does.

Pitcher A, Jon Lester.
Pitcher B, Josh Beckett.
Pitcher C, Brad Penny.
Pitcher D, Tim Wakefield.

There are three kinds of lies - lies, damned lies, and statistics. - Mark Twain.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

All-Star Sox

Major League Baseball announced the All-Star selections today, an amalgam of selections among fans, players, and managers.

Dustin Pedroia and Jason Bay got voted onto the team. Pedroia, the reigning MVP, checks in statistically behind Ian Kinsler and Aaron Hill, but the feisty second baseman got the love. Bay, newly minted as a US citizen, gets the nod in left.

Player voting brought Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon to the AL pitching staff, and manager selection added Kevin Youkilis and Tim Wakefield.

Wakefield's selection is his first, during a remarkable career.
  • Wakefield finished third in Cy Young voting in 1995
  • He is the Red Sox career start leader.
  • Won ten games or more ten times.
  • MLB career 140th in wins
  • MLB active 7th in wins
  • 71st all-time in strikeouts
  • 35th active in adjusted ERA+
  • 7th all-time in most hit batsmen
  • Has led the AL in both losses (15) and home runs allowed (35) in a season
  • On two World Series winners
  • Surrendered the walkoff homer in the ALCS championship game in 2003
Congratulations to the locals selected.

Friday, July 03, 2009

All-Star Break Ahead

Baseball has the best of the All-Star games, although for me the game changed after interleague play. I'm not too concerned about how many Sox players get selected or not, although I'm sure that contractually some probably have All-Star bonus clauses. If you make ten million dollars a year, should you be rewarded additionally if you perform TO expectations? Hey, that's what contract negotiations represent.

All that acknowledged, the Sox should focus on playing good baseball into the break. A strong homestand would help keep Tampa and Toronto in the rearview mirror. The Yankees are always the Jason Voorhees of the AL; you can never eliminate them.

From an overall performance status, the 'best' players on the Sox have been Youkilis, Bay, Papelbon, and Beckett. A lot of players have exceeded expectations including Varitek, Green, and much of the bullpen. To an extent Jacoby Ellsbury has also improved, as he's no longer easily 'defeated' by the hard stuff inside.

What Sean Casey emphasized tonight reinforced the organizational goals - consistency, professionalism, and effort. Mark Kotsay's at bat in the bottom of the eighth illustrated the 'tough at bat', as he worked the count long enough so that he could get a hittable pitch.

Red Sox Nation has changed since 2004 and especially since 2007. The fans expect success and 'the breaks', as opposed to waiting for the "piano from the sky" to fall and land on them. Surely, it doesn't always work out; baseball's vicissitudes ensure surprises. But no longer a priori do we anticipate the worst outcome.

As I've said many times, every game brings you something unexpected, the leads lost or deficits overcome, heroics or errors, baseball genius and faux pas. Half the players running off the field with only two outs? Happened this week. A nine run lead squandered and a four run ninth inning deficit erased back-to-back? This week.

Have a pair of World Series victories lifted the sense of urgency for fans? While some might argue that interest remains maxed out, I believe that the 'performance anxiety' overhang really has changed. Some things don't change, the rivalries, the 'our boys' mentality, and the intensity within the ballpark. But to paraphrase the Southwest Airlines ad, "the angst? It's off."