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April 21, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Down But Hardly Out

by Jay Jaffe

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On Monday, while the rest of the country was somewhere between finishing its coffee and making plans for lunch, John Lackey and the Red Sox were pasted 8-2 by the Rays in a game that started just after 11 a.m. The victory completed the Rays' four-game sweep of the Sox at Fenway Park, the first time the upstarts from Tampa Bay had ever swept more than a two-game series there. The loss, Boston's fifth straight, plunged its record to 4-9. Down 6-2 to the Rangers going to the bottom of the fifth on Tuesday night, they appeared headed for their sixth straight defeat before a late rally served to remind that no lead in Fenway is ever safe; they won 7-6 on a walk-off hit by a guy added to the roster earlier in the day. Still, suffice it to say that New England hasn't seen this kind of panic since the Blizzard of 1978.

Minus the two feet of snow, the Red Sox have been hit by a perfect storm of sorts, as the rotation, bullpen, defense and offense are all performing below the standards of a team projected to finish with the majors' best record.

"We've played bad baseball," says general manager Theo Epstein.

The rotation is second-to-last in the league in SNLVAR (-0.3), with an abysmal 6.35 Fair Run Average, while the bullpen is just 10th in WXRL. The defense, remade over the winter after finishing second to last in Defensive Efficiency, is ninth in the AL. That they've made 10 errors while allowing opponents to steal 31 bases in 32 attempts is being taken as evidence by the mainstream media that Epstein's off-season blueprint focusing on run prevention was, like, wicked retahded.

It doesn't help Epstein's cause that the offense is scoring just 4.1 runs per game on .256/.323/.438 hitting. Their .261 True Average ranks just 13th in the majors. Of course, it doesn't help Epstein's cause that the teams he's built have won only two World Series in the past six seasons, and none in the past two. With a track record that abysmal, you can understand why the Boston media has so little faith in his vision. The sky is falling, according to seemingly every mainstream writer within a fungo of Fenway Park.

Fourteen games is a ridiculously small sample over which to polish the pitchforks, of course. Last year's Sox survived a 5-9 stretch to make the playoffs. The Yankees, who went on to win the World Series, went through two separate 5-9 stretches. The 2008 world champion Phillies overcame a 3-11 skid. Bad slumps happen even to good teams, they just don't get noticed to the same extent when they start with the 65th game of the season instead of the first.

A closer look suggests that not every under-performing area of the Red Sox roster shows is cause for equal concern. Take the rotation, which has given the Sox just five quality starts out of 14. Between the numbers, there's simply not that much genuine cause for alarm. Jon Lester, who over the past two years has done little but overcome non-Hodgkins lymphoma and emerge as one of the game's top southpaws, is carrying an 8.44 ERA founded on a .365 BABIP and an inflated walk rate (5.1 per nine). Not pretty, but with at least one mainstream writer floating the idea of a trip to the minors, it's worth noting that Lester carried a 5.65 ERA through the end of May last year before pulling himself together. Lackey, the team's marquee free agent, has an 8/7 K/BB ratio in 16 innings along with a 5.63 ERA, though that's mainly the result of Monday's ugly line (3.1 9 8 8 1 3), which quadrupled his season-to-date ERA. This is actually the first April for which he's answered the bell since 2007 due to minor early-season arm woes, and there's nothing to date to suggest he's anything less than healthy. Clay Buchholz has lasted just five innings in each of his first two starts, piling five unearned runs atop his two earned ones. Last year at this time, he was in Pawtucket, trying to remember where the promise he'd shown in 2007 and early 2008 had gone. As for Josh Beckett, he's causing all kinds of distraction by agreeing to a four-year extension without holding his breath until he turned blue. The nerve!

The bullpen generates more concern only if you buy into the idea that small sample sizes can tell you anything (you shouldn't). Jonathan Papelbon is carrying a 3/6 K/BB ratio in 6 1/3 innings, and he also named his newborn son Gunner, which counts against his line more definitively. Heir apparent Daniel Bard has two blown saves, Ramon Ramirez has been shaky, and neither Hideki Okajima nor Manny Delcarmen had registered a strikeout prior to last night (Delcarmen got one). It's perhaps telling that the reliever with the most innings pitched for the Sox—albeit with the kind of leverage score that comes with a bucket of soapy water—was Scott Atchison, a 34-year-old nomad who spent the past two seasons in Japan.

It's the lineup where the real concern rests. David Ortiz (.162 TAv) and J.D. Drew (.160) are both off to poor starts, Dustin Pedroia (.343) and Kevin Youkilis (.295) are the only regulars above .290, and an injury stack in the outfield is testing their depth. Jacoby Ellsbury (.290) bruised his ribs in a collision with Adrian Beltre on April 11 and didn't play a game before finally going on the disabled list on Tuesday, while Mike Cameron (.261) was felled by a double whammy of misery starring a kidney stone and a sports hernia which may require surgery that could cost him four-to-six weeks. Cameron did play on Saturday and Sunday, but the outfield for the other three games in Boston's losing streak featured Jeremy Hermida in left and Bill Hall in center, a configuration which didn't help the pitching staff any.

To fill the spots vacated by Ellsbury and Cameron, the team recalled Josh Reddick and Darnell McDonald from Triple-A on Tuesday, and both figured prominently in last night's win. The former, a toolsy four-star prospect who hadn't had any notable success in the 54 games he'd played above Double-A prior to recall, will see time there in Cameron's absence; he mashed a two-run double in the sixth inning, which started last night's comeback. The latter, a 31-year-old journeyman with just 156 major-league plate appearances in his career, had the night of his life, launching a game-tying, two-run pinch-homer in the eighth and the game-winning single an inning later. He may only get a week in the majors, but he'll be dining out on that work for as long as he's in Boston.

Most of the hand wringing regarding the Sox' slow start boils down to concern about Ortiz, who's in the final year of a four-year, $52-million deal. It took just two games and seven futile at-bats before the calls for his benching began, and at this writing he's now 6-for-41 with 17 strikeouts and zero homers; last night he was pulled in favor of Mike Lowell to face lefty Darren Oliver with two on and two out in the seventh inning, the Sox down by two. That the 34-year-old slugger is in decline isn't exactly up for debate:

Year AVG OBP SLG TAv WARP
2007 .332 .445 .621 .341 7.2
2008 .264 .369 .507 .292 2.5
2009 .238 .332 .462 .266 0.5

As bad as that progression looks, the last line conceals the drastic split between the first couple months of his season (.185/.284/.287 with a lone homer in 208 plate appearances through May 31), and the rest (.264/.356/.548 with 27 homers in 419 PA). This isn't to say that it's only a matter of time before Ortiz's 2007 form comes around again; two years of wrist woes as well as the general aging process applied to a bulky sloth with a history of knee problems should see to that. PECOTA isn't entirely down on Ortiz, forecasting a .274/.368/.514 weighted mean projection, but even so, those aren't the numbers of a lineup centerpiece anymore.

Still, some of this has a whiff of confirmation bias. Ortiz is a notoriously slow starter who owns a .257./345/.502 line in 1,030 March and April plate appearances for his career, and a .286/.382/.551 line in the other 5,067 PA—86 points of OPS higher. He has had some good Aprils, but not since 2007; his last two came in at a combined .205/.292/.342, compared to .261/.362/.516 otherwise over a span where AL designated hitters combined to bat .255/.338/.439. His overall mark in that span (.250/.348/.482) is still better than the league-average DH, even after adjusting for park.

The real issue isn't his slow starts so much as it's his performance against lefties:

  vs. RHP vs. LHP
Year PA AVG OBP SLG PA AVG OBP SLG
'03-'04 836 .320 .408 .663 342 .237 .295 .449
'05-'07 1386 .311 .439 .663 680 .296 .375 .539
'08-'10 841 .259 .361 .498 319 .212 .299 .414

When Ortiz first joined the Red Sox, he murderized right-handed pitching to such an extent that it not only concealed his woes against lefties, but it helped turn him into a folk hero as the Sox broke their 86-year championship drought. From 2005-07, he wailed the tar out of southpaws as well. Since then, his performance against righties bears more resemblance to those halcyon days against lefties, and his current performance against lefties resembles that of a player who should be grabbing some bench.

Fortunately for Terry Francona, he's got a serviceable complement on hand. Lowell is a righty with a career .288/.355/.493 line against lefties and an even stronger one (.314/.381/.500) over the last three full seasons. It just so happens he needs at-bats to stay fresh now that he's stuck inside of Beantown with the Beltre blues. It's not rocket science to write Lowell's name into the lineup instead of Ortiz's, but until he made the move to pinch hit for Big Papi, Francona had acted as though he'd rather visit the dentist, sitting Ortiz just once in three starts against southpaws. Lacking the backbone to make that move—and this is all about backbone, standing up to the sensitive task of managing the folk hero based upon his 2010 abilities and not his past heroics—the least he could do would be to drop Ortiz down from the fifth spot in the lineup.

Come to think of it, if he's willing to sit Ortiz against lefties, Francona could address a couple other problems while Ellsbury and Cameron are sidelined. He could use the opportunity to get Jason Varitek's bat into the lineup; he hit .259/.368/.453 against lefties from 2007-09, compared to an anemic .218/.319/.368 against righties. That would free up Victor Martinez to play first base (or to DH while Lowell plays first), and Francona could then deploy Kevin Youkilis in left—something he did only twice last year—in place of Hermida, who needs to be shielded against southpaws (.241/.319/.397 from 2007-2009) anyway.

Alas, that series of moves doesn't entirely address the liability behind the plate, an area where Epstein's critics have a point. Including last night, when the Rangers stole nine bases on his watch while Tim Wakefield was pitching—the most by a team in 10 years—Martinez has thrown out just 10 of 89 runners attempting to steal since the beginning of last year (11.2 percent) while allowing 0.8 steals per game. That's hardly better than Varitek, who has caught just 16 of 132, allowing a hair over one successful steal per game. If Francona chooses not to go that route, since Youkilis is an above-average first baseman and presumably a below-average left fielder, he could at least platoon Hermida and Hall (.269/.324/.451 against lefties from 2007-09) until Ellsbury returns.

With the Yankees and Rays both looking formidable at the moment and the Sox trailing them by 5.5 and five games, respectively, the reality is that particularly if Cameron is out for a longer period of time, the injuries may force the Sox to make a move if things don't turn around. With Daisuke Matsuzaka working his way back from shoulder woes and Michael Bowden waiting in the wings, the team could consider trading Buchholz, though they'd have to sweeten the pot considerably in order to pry the long-coveted Adrian Gonzalez loose from the Padres. They could seek a catch-and-throw backstop and dangle Martinez, a dependable hitter but a sub-par receiver, one who's making a reasonable $7.7 million in the final year of his deal. Lowell, whom they spent all winter trying to unload, is expendable as well, though they’ll have to eat most of his $12-million salary. Furthermore, their farm system is bursting with talent, ranked fifth in our organizational rankings, though with Reddick pressed into major-league service and Ryan Westmoreland having just undergone brain surgery, the team may be loathe to pare away further.

But as last night's comeback proved, reports of the death of Boston's post-season hopes have been greatly exaggerated. Age and the current injury stack may have exposed some holes in their roster, but this is a smart organization with tremendous resources at its disposal. So as long as they've got outs to play with, particularly in Fenway Park, they're a threat to turn any game around. Don't get out the shovels just yet.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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