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June 17, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • Game Report: Monday was the sort of evening that Jerry Reinsdorf must have dreamed about when New Comiskey was built 12 years ago. A breezy, summer evening; a healthy crowd with nearly 10,000 in walk-up sales--many of them Red Sox fans; a premier opponent; and, most importantly, a victory for the Good Sox.

    The Red Sox staked out a one-run lead in the first inning on a Manny Ramirez sacrifice fly. Johnny Damon, who had reached base on a mildly hit grounder that D'Angelo Jimenez botched, is a fleet, instinctive baserunner, but was nearly pegged down at home by a sharp Magglio Ordonez throw. But Josh Paul, defensive specialist that isn't, couldn't get the tag down in time, and Damon scored the unearned run.

    For a while, it looked like one of those nights when one run might be enough. Pedro Martinez was on the mound, and fully in command. Working quickly and easily, Martinez seemed to determined to get the most out of his limited pitch count. Throwing mostly fastballs, Pedro was working in the 92-96 MPH range on the fast gun on the U.S. Cellular scoreboard. He was hitting his spots, and his ball had plenty of movement. The White Sox obliged him by taking first strikes. Through the first four innings, Pedro's first pitches broke down thusly:

    Strike (called) - 8
    Strike (foul) - 1
    Ball - 4
    In Play - 1

    Eight of the first fourteen hitters took called strikes. Certainly, plate discipline is A Good Thing, and perhaps especially so when you've got the best pitcher in the world out there on a pitch count. But on this night, the White Sox only seemed to be making Pedro's job easier. Just two of the eight hitters who took first strikes went on to reach base, and those hits were on an innocuous Jimenez blooper and a Willie Harris bunt single respectively. After four innings, Pedro's pitch count stood at 42.

    But in the fifth inning, the White Sox' patience began to pay dividends. With one out, and his team's deficit having increased to two runs, following a Ramirez rocket shot in the third off of Mark Buehrle, Paul Konerko stood in and worked Pedro for a walk on seven pitches, fouling off two balls in the process. Pedro had thrown more than four pitches to only one hitter all night--Konerko, in the second inning--and the outcome seemed to rattle him. Joe Crede, who had looked clueless in his first at bat, reached on a first-pitch single a hair too deep for Bill Mueller to make a play on. Paul followed with a solidly-hit single to center, scoring a huffing-and-puffing Konerko. Pedro fell behind to Willie Harris, who also singled, loading the bases.

    After Jimenez popped out meekly to left, Frank Thomas stepped to the plate, setting up what might have been the best at-bat of the season to date. After a first-pitch ball, Thomas fouled off four consecutive pitches, showing a glimpse of the tremendous hand-eye coordination that had once made him the best hitter in the league. Pedro followed with a brushback pitch that, while in no real danger of hitting Thomas, drew plenty of oohs and ahhs from the captivated crowd. Thomas proceeded to foul off three more pitches, including a missile down the left field line that taunted the crowd like an Anna Kournikova strip tease. On the tenth pitch, Pedro got him with a big, inside curveball. Big Frank complained, but the pitch was a strike. Great stuff.

    But the climax, though delayed, soon came for the White Sox. The patience of Konerko and Thomas had chased Martinez from the game after 71 pitches. Ryan Rupe, who had thrown 105 pitches in a start just three days earlier, took the mound to start the sixth. Rupe was not sharp. Though he looks like a power pitcher, Rupe doesn't throw particularly hard, and when his command and his movement aren't there, he gets hit. After Rupe retired the first two hitters in spite of falling behind in the count, that's exactly what happened, as Joe Crede smacked a three-run homer to left, setting off fireworks over the Dan Ryan Expressway.

    Buerhle, meanwhile, had settled into a groove, looking as sharp as he has since April, working like he had a plane to catch, and throwing strikes. Tom Gordon came on in the ninth - Jerry Manuel apparently wants no part of Billy Koch now that his job's on the line - and looked like his vintage self, throwing everywhere from 65 to 97 on the radar gun to retire the side. Sox Win. And Lose.

    The issues, of course, are i) whether Pedro should have been on as short a leash as he was, and ii) whether Rupe should have been the man to replace him. This space is too short to permit an analysis of the first question - for what it's worth, Pedro's struggles in the fifth appeared to be more mental than physical, Angry, Hyper Pedro replacing Calm, Confident Pedro.

    But there's no reason that Rupe should have been out there. Say what you will about how pitchers ought to be accustomed to being used more flexibly than they normally are: the fact is, they aren't, and entering the night, Rupe had made only two relief appearances in his big league career. Neither of those, certainly, came after throwing more than 100 pitches just a couple of days before. The Sox' bullpen had been depleted following an extra-inning win against Houston but, well, the Sox' have plenty of arms at Pawtucket, and Southwest has some great last-minute fares from Providence to Chicago Midway. Knowing in advance that Pedro's outing would be short, but failing to prepare a well-rested pitcher to replace him, speaks to a bit of hubris on the part of management.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Good Performer: As has been repeatedly noted, the Reds' starting pitching has been disastrous all season long. However since a pair of wretched starts in early May, Paul Wilson has been a solid presence in the rotation. Over his past six starts he has put up quality starts in four of them. One of the other two was a blown quality start (i.e. he gave up enough runs in the 7th inning to go over the three runs allowed line). In his last start he fell a third of an inning short of a QS. While it's hardly the All-Star caliber performance that has been predicted for him in the past, Wilson has at least been above replacement level, which is more than can be said for the rest of the rotation.

  • Draft: The Reds have done some odd things with their top draft picks over the years, including drafting a player they knew was bound for college and who they had no intentions of signing. This year they at least drafted a signable player in Ryan Wagner--in fact they've already signed him. That said, Wagner is still a somewhat dubious pick. In some ways, he looks like the sort of player we at BP would love. He's a pitcher coming out of a big-time college program (in this case University of Houston) with phenomenal ratios of 16.8 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. Problem is, Wagner was a closer in college--he's been drafted and is being groomed as a closer.

    There is not much history of college closers being drafted and going on to become successful major league closers. Some discussion among the BP staff generated names such as Gregg Olson, Matt Anderson, Wayne Gomes, and Paul Shuey, none of whom should inspire large amounts of confidence in that approach. Boyd Nation suggested last week that some relievers were being drafted with the intent of converting them to starters, figuring that by pitching in relief they might have avoided heavy workloads.

    The Reds are instead going to the opposite extreme. This year at Houston, Wagner pitched 79 innings in 38 games, often pitching multiple innings in one outing. So if he were to remain a reliever, Wagner could conceivably fill the Scott Williamson/Octavio Dotel role. However the Reds have already stated that Wagner will be used only an inning at a time, with at least two days off between appearances. That would seem to indicate that they're focusing too much on future save situations and not enough on how to effectively use their relievers.

  • Upcoming Schedule: Despite a truly frightening number of runs allowed, the Reds stand just four games out of the NL Central lead after Monday night's loss to the Cubs. The four-week stretch between now and the All-Star Game will be crucial for the Reds' quixotic playoff hopes. Of the eight series they play, three of them are against teams with truly wretched records (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee), two more are against sub-.500 teams with serious injury concerns (Arizona, and New York), and the remaining three are against the other teams clustered near the top of the division. Now's the time for the Reds to make a run, while also figuring out if they will be buyers or sellers when the trading period rolls around next month.

San Diego Padres

  • In the Rotation: the second week in June was a good one for the San Diego Padres. By calling Oliver Perez up from Portland and activating Kevin Jarvis from the DL, the Padres are now pitching the five guys they want in the rotation--something they haven't been able to do for a long time.

    On June 13, Jarvis got his first major-league action since July 2 of last year with the start against the White Sox. He went 5 innings, allowing three runs in a losing effort. Perez celebrated his return to the majors by shutting out the Sox for 6.2 innings on June 15, getting the decision in a 1-0 win that might get whoever the hitting coach for the Sox is these days fired.

    Beyond the fact that the organization wants both of them in the starting five, you'd be hard-pressed to find two more different pitchers than Jarvis and Perez. Jarvis is the grizzled journeyman right-handed innings eater playing out his first (and probably last) big contract, while Perez is a young power lefty with funky arm slots and a knack for striking out batters.

    Jarvis is coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery, and his rehab starts with Lake Elsinore showed no signs of any health problems. Given the likelihood that Jarvis will not be a contributor to the next good Padres team, a hot month will have him heading to a contender if Kevin Towers and company can swing the deal. The Padres would be happy to trade him for squid scraps, as he's chewing up more payroll than the rest of the rotation combined.

    Perez is healthy as a horse, but he fell victim to an ugly spat of youthful wildness to start 2003. Still only 21 years old, this wasn't entirely unexpected, and the organization did the right thing by sending him back to Portland to get his game together out of the major league spotlight.

    He's had an interesting season so far in 2003:

    
                  G    IP   H   R  HR  SO  BB   ERA
    MLB, Apr      6  27.1  37  25   8  25  24  8.23
    AAA, May-Jun  8  47.2  44  20   6  48  12  3.02
    MLB, Jun      1   6.2   5   0   0   6   2  0.00
    

    Perez showed he could pitch effectively against major-leaguers in 2002. He's positioned to be one of the cornerstones of the rotation for the next half-decade, April problems aside.

  • Lineup Changes: the good news doesn't stop there. With big offseason acquisition Jay Witasick coming off the DL on June 9, the Padres may have the makings of an above-average bullpen. In the late innings of a close game, the team can now bring Scott Linebrink, Matt Herges, and Witasick in to protect the lead before slamming the door with Rod Beck.

  • The Draft: as expected, the Padres nabbed University of Richmond right-hander Tim Stauffer with the fourth pick in the draft. An unexpected pre-draft-day bonus for the team was Clemson first baseman Michael Johnson, a 2002 second-round pick, agreeing to a deal with the Padres hours before they would have lost their rights to him. Johnson's a polished hitter with power and patience, and as a departure from most of the other sluggers in their system, his defense at first base has drawn accolades.

    The Padres also managed to avoid a sentimental overdraft of Anthony Gwynn, with an assist by the cooperative Milwaukee Brewers.

  • Upcoming Schedule: after the win Monday against Colorado, the Padres are 6-8 in June. With popular HACKING MASS pitcher Denny Neagle scheduled to start for the Rockies on Tuesday, the team's got a great chance to close on .500 for the month. That may be as close as they get as they play home-and-away with the Rockies and the scalding Seattle Mariners to round out the month.

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