Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Last Dragon and Travis Shaw

Shaw Nuff. Travis Shaw delivered a three-run homer tonight in Atlanta (not included in statistics below).

Shaw isn't making any reservations for Cooperstown, but he's been solid in the early going (small sample size). Back in the day, I used a simple formula for production (R + RBI - HR)/Games. Coming into tonight Shaw was 15/19 and as of now its 18/20. Anything approaching unity (1) is spectacular.

For illustration, in 1967 Carl Yastrzemski had 112 runs, 44 homers, and 121 RBI in 161 games (189/161). Jim Rice's rookie year, he had 92 runs, 22 homers, 102 RBI in 144 games (172/144). Rico Petrocelli's best year (1969) he had 92 runs, 40 homers, and 97 RBI in 154 games (149/154).

Last season Shaw had 31 runs, 13 homers, and 36 RBI in 65 games (54/65). By comparison, Pablo Sandoval scored 43 runs, 10 homers, and 47 RBI in 126 games (80/126).

Add in that Shaw has been in the upper quintile of third basemen defensively and Shaw has made a compelling argument for himself, regardless of Sandoval's health. Shaw 'nuff...

A Tale of Two Catchers

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…" - Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities."

It was a 20 million dollar mistake multiplied by four. The Red Sox acquired Rick Porcello and paid through the nose for him. 

The right-hander who seemed automatic to win double digits had a disastrous season for the Red Sox including fifteen losses, a negative ERA+, and a nickname not to be repeated from sports radio. 

His 2016 debut was unspectacular but still got him a win. 

But he began to turn it around on the Ides of April, which coincided with the return of Christian Vazquez. Since that time, he's gone 3-0 with three quality starts, and an ERA of 2.75 with 23 strikeouts and 4 walks.

The Red Sox are only 4-3 in Vazquez's starts but the staff is starting to look more in command. If only David Price can start pitching, then maybe the Sox can change hope into progress. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What Exactly is Clay Buchholz?

Forget about the money. If we have 'fielding independent pitching', then maybe we need money independent pitching. Control what you can control (evaluation) as the contract is already in place. There's no judgment applied to chicken and beer or anything else. 

First, there are the raw numbers, tenth year in the majors, sub 4 ERA and good winning percentage (poor way to judge pitching). 2010 was Buchholz's best year with a spike in 2013 curtailed by injury...which is always his story. His adjusted ERA+ is just over 100, meaning he's been just slightly above average for his career. Discounting this season, Buchholz had 44 wins in the past five seasons...just under NINE per year (yeah, I just said don't judge wins). Including this season, however embryonic, Wade Miley has 45 wins and pitched at least 190 innings four times (straw man argument!). Steven Wright has a better chance to be an innings eater than Clay, who has never thrown 190 innings (second straw man). 

As far as the more advanced statistics, Buchholz (in the past five full seasons) has a WAR (wins above replacement) of 8.2 or 1.6 per year. 

The "eyeball test" says that Clay Buchholz has better than average stuff...a solid major league fastball, and better than average changeup and curveball. Sometimes, he seems reluctant to work the inside of the plate to right-handers, but I digress. But the numbers speak volumes. Whatever the cause, health (esophagitis issues ostensibly from medication), injury, lack of toughness, or unfavorable astrology, he's an average, non-durable pitcher who has had a couple of terrific seasons. Expecting much more from him, especially slotted as your number two, is unrealistic. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Tenth Player

"You are what your record says you are." - Bill Parcells

The Red Sox have completed a tenth of the season and voila' it's the Fortune 500 once again. They're making a fortune and playing .500. Why? 

The rubber-meets-the-road offensive statistic is runs scored. 

Adjusted for games played, the Sox lead the league in runs. The replacements at the corners, Hanley Ramirez and Travis Shaw haven't been an issue. 

Defensively, they had a failed eyeball test in Blake Swihart, but had enough insight to realign their catching priorities. They swapped out Swihart for Christian Vazquez, which helped but couldn't resolve the mole hill. 

Ace or no ace, the early returns have failed. 

K/BB ratios tend to be more predictive of future ERA than ERA itself, so maybe there's hope. But the roster of Price, Buchholz, Porcello, Wright, and TBA hasn't delivered. 

The starters' failure surprisingly lies first at the feet of David Price and the overall lack of innings (just over 5.25 per start) delivered. This isn't unique as as only one team (Chicago) is averaging at least six innings per start. 

Particularly vexing is Red Sox pitching from the 7th inning on. With the 'new look' Sox designed to have a power bullpen, we see anything but. The K/BB ratio is barely above 2, and the Sox lead the league in bases on balls in this category. The absence of Carson Smith, the relative ineffectiveness of Koji Uehara, and the general mediocrity of the pen have contributed. 

The starters' collective WHIP has been an unimpressive 1.43 (twelfth) but the bullpen WHIP has been comparatively disappointing. 
The pen's WHIP is high and its K/BB ratio is poor relative to the league's elite pens. 

It's unknown whether Vazquez has solved Rick Porcello's issues (note the WHIP) and time will tell whether the Gopher Ball will be his undoing. Craig Kimbrel is hard to hit but has been the victim of walks and a key homer (Chris Davis). The tail of the bullpen (Ramirez, Barnes, and Cuevas) aren't on a roll. 

As much as I am not a John Farrell fan (player use, treatment of young players), I think he's not on the gangplank currently. 

Leadership always needs to ask, "what does my team need now?" The simple answer is they need better performance from the pitching staff. Part of that may come from health (Eduardo Rodriquez, Carson Smith) and part may be time (David Price). My concerns about Koji Uehara's disappearing fastball (see FanGraphs.com) remain unaddressed. I'll never get on the 2013 series hero, but he may need role reassignment. 

I picked the Sox to win 84 games and I don't see any reason to reassess. 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Predictions: More Rubber or More Road?

In his landmark book Up the Organization, Robert Townsend discusses three important principles. 1) Be honest, 2) Presume the competition is listening, and 3) Don't forecast. 

The honesty principle jives with Jim Collins' "Brutal Reality", where one must examine a business as objectively as possible. First, we must make certain assumptions, ignoring factors like injury and extreme deviations from 'average'. Both assumptions suffer inaccuracy woefully. 

We can examine run generation, run prevention, and the combination. The upside bats (where the runs will come from) should include Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and David Ortiz. The 'steady' expectations can include Dustin Pedroia (at lower production), Blake Swihart, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. The GOK (God only knows) production belongs to third base, left field, and Hanley Ramirez. 

Last season the Red Sox scored 748 runs, fourth in the AL, but 143 runs less than the Blue Jays. The problem for the Red Sox was that they allowed 753 runs, second worst in the league, and entirely supportive of mediocrity. 

Part of that mediocrity related to ineffective pitching and part to the twelve slot in errors. Pablo Sandoval at third and Hanley Ramirez in left both served as embarrassments. The excellent to spectacular defense in the outfield and middle infield can be undone by first and third and uncertainty behind the plate. Swihart is not an accomplished receiver or thrower and the love of his potential offense may be fool's gold relative to better backstopping of Christian Vasquez when he becomes available. 

Having excellent outfield defense doesn't impact pitchers who cannot keep the ball in the ballpark (e.g. Rick Porcello). Clay Buchholz has averaged just over NINE wins per year for the past five seasons and time will reveal whether his health or pain tolerance improves in a contract year. Expecting much more than .500 baseball from some combination of Joe Kelly, Steven Wright, and Eduoardo Rodriguez lies somewhere between the height of vanity and ambitious. 

The 'hope trade' is extrapolating from the Royals and the Yankees to the already depleted combination of Junichi Tazawa, the injured Carson Smith, Koji Uehara, and Craig Kimbrel. Uehara's age and declining velocity are worrisome. The expectation is that 3-2 or 4-3 leads or even tie games in the sixth are 'more sure' things. I'm from Missouri. Show me. 

The Wild Card is the return of John Farrell. I wish Farrell abundant success. "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride." Whether Farrell can lead young players and not crush them with soulless loyalty to veterans is highly speculative. The rise to prominence of Bogaerts, Betts, Bradley, and Swihart all correlated with Farrell's departure. 

Add in these trends, uncertainties, aging veterans, and the potential toxicity of Sandoval and Ramirez and the Red Sox will need great, not good, fortune to develop a winning chemistry. Even without Dick Williams, I think the Red Sox will win more than they lose. But unlike the 1967 Sox, the 2016 version will win 84 games. 

Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Batman

When the Red Sox welcomed Pablo Sandoval to The Hub, they expected The Batman.

Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. 

The Batman's utility belt didn't fit anymore. 

Sox fans never demanded a Ferrari.

Many of us would have been entirely content with the 1966 Batmobile in running order.

We expected a capable sidekick. 
But, alas, we got Robbin', who hoodwinked us for $19,750,000 and had minus 1.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). 

We wanted "kapow".

All we got was "kerplunk". 

We need The Batman. 

We need a hero not a WAR below zero.