Saturday, July 31, 2010

Five Swings: Trade Deadline

Lots of factors go into business decisions, ranging from performance to potential to dollars.

1. Kalish and Hermida. Jeremy Hermida gets DFA'd, hardly surprising when the former first round draft choice did nothing to dispel the "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" rap. After a torrid start, Hermida didn't hit and looked worse than that afield. Kalish can run and play defense, and it wouldn't take a lot of production to surpass the former Marlin. Kalish had two hits, a run scored and an RBI in his debut...pretty good story to tell his grandchildren someday.

2. How do you spell relief? The Sox will try to cobble together middle relief with Scott Atchison and some combination of Michael Bowden and Felix Doubront down the stretch. The low budget but low sacrifice approach as they don't mortgage the farm with prospects for suspects.

3. Catch as catch can. Jarrod Saltamacchia developed Steve Blass Disease (a.k.a. the yips) and has been working through it. The Sox certainly didn't overpay, and this gives them options going forward, with a likely backup at worst. If Beltre goes and V-Mart stays, the Sox can try to shuffle Youkilis to third, Martinez to first, and potentially have a Salty dog at catcher while they develop the legions of catching prospects they have.

4. Nomarramon. In 2004 it was Garciaparra going and now it's not Nomar, but Ramon Ramirez. As uncomfortable as it was to watch Ramirez, it must have been as uncomfortable for him. Go West young man, to the Giants. Was Jacoby Ellsbury really on the block?

5. What do you do? David Ortiz's comeback story continues, as he leads the Sox in homers and RBIs and argues for a spot on the 2011 version. Today's walkoff hit for Ortiz was his eighteenth but the Sox remain about 10 lengths behind coming into the back stretch.

It's still not football season.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally

No, I'm not talking about Jim Bouton's sequel to the irreverent Ball Four. And I'm not disparaging the job Terry Francona has done with an injured lineup, a starting rotation only now coming together, and a bullpen solid at the back end and largely sordid at the front end.

The Boston Red Sox 2010, intriguing, playing hard, but crippled by injuries and an untimely West Coast trip that made fans (the ones not on vacation) tune in to bedtime not baseball.

This might be the best starting rotation the Sox have had in my lifetime, with a potential someday Hall of Famer in progress (Jon Lester), two very high end starters (Beckett and Lackey), a guy with absolutely filthy stuff (Buchholz), and the enigmatic but talented foreign important, Matsuzaka.

The excitement on the bases has been a no-show from injury and half the 'soul' of the team (Dustin Pedroia) kills himself to get back on the field, but can't hurry the process. It's a season where the fans have drunk the "devil's Kool-Aid" and wonder whether it's worth coming back for seconds.

Yes, the road trip had its moments, from a three game sweep of the Halos, to a potential 5-4 forceout turned into a 5-4-3 fielder's choice without an out, to a pair of Big Papi homers in a game to an erstwhile perfect game by Jon Lester torpedoed by AAA defense.

The Sox aren't totally boring...the pitching is decent, ninth in ERA, and the defense seventh in fielding percentage. The offense excitement, even without a catcher who could hit for what seemed like forever, and with assorted other absentees, still generates the second most runs in the AL and the highest OPS.

Let's face facts...Sox fans are used to stars, and four-letter words like Cash, Hall, and Nava aren't...although Bill Hall has filled in admirably all over the field. Too bad he couldn't play catcher. Darnell McDonald and Eric Patterson are fine as fill ins, but don't satisfy adrenaline junkies in Baseball's Athens.

Neither the joy of baseball, nor specifically "The Nation" has vanished; it's more like the excitement has behaved like dry ice, with excitement cooling via sublimation. Perhaps only the truest baseball aficionado can enjoy the 'sublime' play of overachieving reserves. If that's the case, then I'm simply not that enamored with a child's game played by too many men who don't seem to care enough and too often hide in the shadows when terms like performance enhancement come up. You'd think that the guys who don't cheat would be begging to be proven clean and bring the playing field level. I guess mostly, we'd think wrong.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Never Let the Facts Cloud Your Beliefs

The unofficial arm of the Boston Red Sox, a.k.a. The American College of Radiology has scientific guidelines on the use of imaging in the diagnosis of rib fractures. Really.

CT scans are remarkably effective in detecting chest trauma. (Click the scan to enlarge and see the rib fractures)
But imaging studies won't necessarily tell us when a 'worker' can return to his 'usual duties'. A construction worker, laborer (doing heavy lifting), or professional athlete subjected to repeated trauma isn't going to respond the same way as a journalist or a doctor.

So what we don't know are 1) the facts (how completely Jacoby Ellsbury has recovered) or 2) the context, as in are there other factors souring the relationship between Ellsbury and management. Throw Scott Boras into the mix, and we get more heat and no light.

So we lack the facts and have too many 'beliefs' based on just about nothing.  So what else is new?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Jon Lester: The Big Picture

The Red Sox brass had to celebrate what they'd built, resigning Josh Beckett, acquiring John Lackey, and developing Clay Buchholz, with four out pitches (95 mph heat, 12-6 curve, devastating change, and recently branded cutter).

But the gem of the staff is the 26 year-old lefter from Tacoma. Battling professional hitters must seem easy after enduring cancer chemotherapy. This season Lester leads Sox hurlers with eleven wins, and leads the AL in starts, wins above replacement, and hits allowed per nine innings.

Over the past two and a half seasons, he is 42-17, with 501 strikeouts in 513.2 innings. And he's getting better before our eyes, controlling both sides of the plate, using the cutter against right-handers, and developing another out pitch with his change-up. His adjusted ERA+ (adjusted for ballpark) has been in the top five in the AL for each of the past three seasons. He keeps the ball in the park, fourth in the league in fewest homers allowed.

He has the stuff of a strikeout pitcher and the confidence to pitch to contact. He can keep the running game in check. He has conquered the early career struggles emanating from erratic command. He has won the clinching game of the World Series, thrown a no-hitter, and might start the All-Star game on Tuesday.

He is one of the elite pitchers in baseball and we've had the privilege of watching that evolution.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land


Plenty surrounding baseball makes no sense.

  • When hitters batter a pitcher, it is 'expected' that the pitcher can 'retaliate' by brushing them back. At times, the "purpose pitch" causes life-threatening injury, as in Jack Hamilton's beaning of Tony Conigliaro. Batters don't charge the mound when the pitcher dominates...
  • Baseball managers wear uniforms. We don't see Doc Rivers, Bill Belichick, or gawd fawbid Bill Parcells suiting up in their team unis.
  • Pitchers aren't supposed to show up hitters with the fist pump, but the 'home run trot' has become a home run walk for some.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury gets a petulant 'walk off' in Arizona because of injury.
If Ellsbury can't play, the fans understand. You can't swing the lumber with high torque, or dive after flyballs, crash into walls, or break up the double play when you're INJURED. Nobody disputes that Ellsbury has injuries, well documented rib fractures. I remember that we literally had to order an athlete not to play (under penalty of violation of the Uniformed Code of Military Injury)  because of injury. But Kevin Youkilis' questioning of Ellsbury's absence becomes the equivalent of Colonel Nathan Jessep ordering a 'code red' in A Few Good Men.

The Sox have plenty of gamers, Youkilis out there day after day, Dustin Pedroia playing with a sore knee, and Mike Cameron playing with an abdominal hernia. All Youkilis did was state the obvious, that Ellsbury's absence has a strange and foul odor to it. Is it therapy or petulance?

We all want Ellsbury to return as soon as possible, and we look forward to a healthy and productive outfielder. But it's not too much to ask him to remain part of the team during his recovery.  The team fields a strange lineup day after day, and Ellsbury has become a stranger in the strange land.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Thoughts on the All-Star Game and More

Baseball has the only All-Star game that really matters. Why? The Pro Bowl is anticlimactic, the NBA All-Star game is played sans defense, and hockey...well...

So if the All-Star game counts, then why aren't all the best players going? Kevin Youkilis is one of the top five offensive players in the AL, and he has to bite his nails wondering whether the fan-geeks will vote him on (yeah, I did my part over twenty times).

A-Rod gets named as an extra. Does he get a bonus to go? He should be an All-Star every year at his contract rate. If he didn't get named, would he care (if there's no money involved).

Clay Buchholz had a WAG (wives and girlfriends) top twenty nomination, so maybe he doesn't care if he can't play...

What's your favorite All-Star memory? I've got a bunch, Yaz making a miraculous catch to rob a homer, Bo Jackson homering and stealing a base, and the worst was Johnny Callison taking the Monster deep in 1964, which I think was a 'walkoff' homer before such terminology existed.

As for the state of the Sox, how much complaining can we do when they have the 'win today' mantra and a lot of fungible parts playing their roles well for the most part. Eric Patterson hits two homers in a meaningful game? He probably doesn't even dream about that. The Baird-Epstein targeted platoon (Patterson versus selected RHP, McDonald versus right, Nava versus other righthanders) has worked out. The catching solutions haven't been so great but it is what it is.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Deal or No Deal?

Several years ago the Red Sox leapt into the Johan Santana sweepstakes, with Santana ultimately ending up on the New York Mets. If Santana had wound up on the Sox, the Twins would have received Jon Lester and others. What's been the track record in the interim?

First, I wrote that among the great pitchers in contemporary baseball history, few have averaged more than 16 wins during the six year career span contemplated...and second, Santana wound up making a king's ransom, which also decreases your ability to pay other players.

Of course, Lester also pitches in the pitcher-unfriendly AL and the especially unfriendly AL East.

During the past three years, the cancer survivor Lester has earned about 5.17 million dollars, and the Mets ace Santana has earned over ten times as much, nearly 56 million.

Sometimes the deals you don't make turn out the best. And the pitcher most similar (similarity scores) to Johan Santana through age 25? Jon Lester.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Glove Story

The band of misfits currently wearing Red Sox uniforms continue to play good baseball, particularly with the assistance of some not-so-inspired play from the Orioles. 

Still, within the game in a game, I have a few observations. In the first inning, Daniel Nava almost created an Oriole rally with a poor jump on a single, forcing Jon Lester to induce a DP grounder (not a thing of beauty with Kevin Youkilis doing a manatee imitation to make the play on his end). 

In the bottom of the first, Eric Patterson beat out a DP grounder to key the rally. Ortiz (added to three hits) had a walk, and then Youkilis, Drew, and Nava all proceeded to generate doubles, and four runs. In other words, Patterson's speed and hustle kept the inning alive, and ultimately sank Jeremy Guthrie. 

Lester continued his roll, picking up a win to move into double figures, and his K/BB ratio and WHIP ratio establish him as the Sox ace and most-deserving All-Star pitcher. At this point, Lester has achieved status (in my mind anyway) as the best Sox southpaw (eclipsing Bruce Hurst and Bill Lee) in two generations. 

J.D. Drew has gotten onto a streak of his own, and he has the ability to carry a team for a month. 

And as for the title, on David Ortiz's eighth inning double, Julio Lugo shared a laugh with Big Papi behind a glove covering Lugo's face...probably something about blazing speed. I can't speak for most fans, but I enjoy seeing grown men playing a kid's game actually have fun. 

Friday, July 02, 2010

Five Swings: Living on a Prayer

Like Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer", the Red Sox approach the halfway point, battered and the wild card position bolstered by overachievers and a plethora of unheralded reserves. In some ways, this club deserves both more admiration and respect than some others with more talent.

1. The Manager. Terry Francona has prospered without one of his top pitchers (Josh Beckett), without a semblance of a regular outfield, and despite a deplorable start. Francona's ability to keep turmoil 'in house' gets him high marks and the respect of a veteran ballclub.

2. Catcher in the Wry. Who would have thought the Red Sox to have an incredibly productive catching duo with  Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek combining for 16 homers and 54 RBI? Of course, having both on the DL simultaneously is a more surprising development. Strength up the middle rules in all major sports, chess, and checkers. Will the combination of Molina and Cash do the job?

3. Fracture. In the movie 'Fracture', Anthony Hopkins proves a formidable challenge in a murder investigation. In the 2010 baseball season, fractures prove a formidable challenge among the leftfielding duo of Ellsbury and Hermida, the catching pair above, and Dustin Pedroia. Accelerating healing sounds easy enough, but in practice, not so much. None of the Sox' injured have 'pathologic fractures' as far as we know, and presumably none have osteoporosis. The Sox aren't hurt, they're injured and none can particularly play through the pain.

4. Bullpen succession plan. Jonathan Papelbon evolved from a three pitch starter to a one pitch reliever last season, and unfortunately, that wasn't the Rivera cutter or the Sparky Lyle slider. Papelbon remains one of the best closers in the AL, but his struggles raise the question of when Daniel Bard challenges him for the alpha male of the bullpen. Bard has both a better fastball and a better breaking ball than the incumbent, and works on an off-speed pitch to complete his repertoire. Everyone knows that the job of closer is as much 'the head game' as a physical challenge. When Papelbon's demands his expected production, then the ascendancy begins.

5. Ring that Beltre. David Ortiz and the 'Rent-a-Glove' Adrian Beltre have provided far more than expected as the Sox offense leads the majors in runs scored and OPS. Beltre has resuscitated his career playing with high effort day after day, and coupled with Kevin Youkilis gives the Sox a pair of legitimate all-star roster players. When (the last time I checked) we consider that Jason Bay had four homers, thirty-one RBI, and a .787 OPS, for 15 extra large per season, both Ortiz and Beltre seem like bargains. The Sox strength in the minors has been pitching, so acquiring and retaining bats remains a priority.