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April 19, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Tampa Bay Devil Rays @ Boston Red Sox, 4/17/05

by Jonah Keri

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One of my vows when I first downed 14 shots of guava schnapps and pitched Joe Sheehan on the idea of Prospectus Game of the Week was that every team would get covered at least once during the season. With the Tampa Bay Devil Rays already flirting with the worst record in the league less than two weeks into the season, it wouldn't be long before talking heads would start charting a potential Greg Vaughn comeback attempt as the biggest story line for this perennially awful franchise. So with hope not yet snuffed out and an interesting crop of newbies in the lineup, an early-season tilt seemed the right place to check in on the Rays.

And what better opponent to follow than the Boston Red Sox. I don't know if you know this, but the Sox won the World Series last year. It's true, you can look it up!

More than that, though, you have to love the pitching matchup: Geriatric knuckleballer Tim Wakefield against barely legal fireballer Scott Kazmir. Not since Pepsi battled Bud Light in a blind taste test have we seen such an odd yet strangely compelling contrast in styles.

We're joined by Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy, NESN's play-by-play combo. In his playing days, Remy was a light-hitting second baseman who gave Duane Kuiper a run for his money; now he's the author of a great New England accent and what's often some above-average analysis. As noted earlier this year with Jon Miller, you don't need to be a stathead, or to recite stats at all, to be a sharp observer of the game as an announcer. Though Tim McCarver has his share of faults as a color man, he'll sometimes spot a trend taking shape before it becomes obvious to the viewer. Remy's strengths are similar, in that he can be a keen observer of the game's ebb and flow, keeping viewers attuned to the game's important trends. Orsillo looks like a promising successor to Sean McDonough as a smooth-voiced play-by-play guy coming out of Boston who describes the action in an unobtrusive way. There's a lot to be said for staying out of the way.

What should we expect from Kazmir's intro? When I told Angele I was covering Wakefield vs. Kazmir this week, she immediately began humming "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin. They wouldn't, would they? Yup, montage of Kazmir dominating the Sox last year, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and company in the background. Great tune, of course, but you just hope Kazmir will build enough of a career to become known for more than a name with a vague resemblance to an eight-minute classic rock staple. Of course he could've also been named Scott Whoopthereitis, so count your blessings, I guess.

The Sox have a Sunday lineup going. Last week on The Die Hards show with Ryen Russillo, Anthony Pepe and Jon Anik on 1510 The Zone in Boston (hit WWZN this afternoon to hear Will Carroll) the guys asked if Doug Mirabelli is the best backup catcher in baseball. Probably not: You can usually point to a starter-in-waiting as the best backup in the game at any given time, Jorge Posada behind Joe Girardi back in the day, maybe someone like Dave Ross in Pittsburgh now. Mirabelli has to rank near the top among career backups though: lifetime line of 242/.331/.426, including a huge .281/.368/.525 last year, handles all of Wakefield's knucklers, cheap, durable as backups go.

Between Mirabelli and Jay Payton--in for Trot Nixon with the lefty Kazmir on the mound--this is not any old crummy Sunday lineup, but rather one with ability. One of the topics discussed at length in Baseball Prospectus' upcoming book on the 2004 Red Sox is the job Theo Epstein and company did in assembling a deep team that could get by without its stars for periods of time. The Sox wouldn't have won last year without Ortiz and Ramirez and Schilling and Foulke, but the Mirabellis of the team did their share too. With Payton, Ramon Vazquez and Matt Mantei among the new Sox role players, the team could very well be even deeper than they were last year.

The lineups:

Devil Rays
LF Crawford .238
SS Lugo .268
CF Sanchez!!!! .333 (3-for-9)
RF Huff .293
DH Phelps .300
1B Lee .265
2B Cantu .333
C Johnson 2-for-4
3B Gonzalez .379
This lineup is made funnier by a kid named Max Lewis inserting "Mister" before every name. "Batting third, Mister Alex Sanchez" made me choke on my spinach salad. How Lou Piniella can look at the baseball world and with a straight face tell us that Alex Sanchez is his #3 hitter is unfathomable. Of course this isn't markedly worse than the Pirates batting the similarly punchless Tike Redman third in their anemic lineup. The chatter around both decisions has focused on each player being fast, with an ability to put the ball in play ("putting the ball in play" being a euphemism for "don't strike out and make the manager look stupid"). At least the Bucs wised up, ejecting Redman not only from the third slot but apparently from the lineup entirely; they now have one of the best outfields in baseball in Lawton-Bay-Wilson. Hopefully the Rays will similarly bury Sanchez as soon as Rocco Baldelli returns from his knee injury. Even Joey Gathright would be a more useful choice, let alone Jonny Gomes, who's a real-life Devil Ray power prospect. On this tools-and-speed-obsessed franchise, though, fans have learned to expect the worst.

Seriously, what does Chuck LaMar need to do to get fired? While batting Sanchez third is on the manager, not the GM, make no mistake: this is LaMar's mess. For instance, here's how I'd order this lineup:

Crawford
Huff
Phelps
Cantu
Lugo

And...get four new guys
This team lacks talent, a desire to change its poor player evaluation methods, and anything resembling a desire to spend money on the product. The Rays will remain a sad story until these things change.

(Not that I'm complaining about Sanchez by the way. In sticking with Sanchez through his release from the Tigers, his being the first major leaguer busted for steroids this year, playing him over several viable prospects and Baldelli's return still unknown, the Rays have done my HACKING MASS team a huge favor. Too bad the Pirates benched Redman, my centerfield anchor.)

Wakefield comes into the game with a 1.32 ERA in two starts, second in the league behind Rich Harden's 0.68 ERA. Harden got a lot of love from the BP crew in this year's pre-season predictions, with consensus pegging him third in AL Cy Young voting, behind Johan Santana and Randy Johnson.

True story: Wakefield has received similar love from Baseball Prospectus over the years, as an above-average durable, versatile performer signed for relatively little who's remained underrated despite knuckleballers being so rare in today's game. In fact, before the BP annual book went to the stats-on-baseball design, we considered two pitchers to be the first-ever arms to grace our cover: Mark Prior--one can only wonder how much flak we'd have gotten for cursing the guy if we put him on and he suffered all those injuries--and...Tim Wakefield. He's not young, no question. But Wakefield is a great example of a team putting its trust in an undervalued commodity and getting a great return on their investment. We'd like to see teams try to develop more knuckleballers, even try to convert failed prospects into knuckleballers under the right circumstances. It's a tough task, though: You have to make clear to the pitcher that this is the only way he'll be able to make and stick in the Show, and it takes a lot of ego-suppression to accept that last-resort status, especially in a profession where ego and confidence are essential to success.

Wakefield toes the Fenway rubber for the 201st time (second most in franchise history) and delivers to Carl Crawford...who promptly jackknifes himself into the turf swinging wildly at a 68-mph butterfly. Crawford makes a nice adjustment though, waiting on a 2-2 pitch and slamming it against the left-field wall. Though Wakefield throws more alternate pitches than many other knucklers (on this day he'd throw only about 70% knuckleballs), it's worth wondering how and why hitters seem incapable of waiting on the pitch. They know it's coming, and they know it'll clock in between 65 and 69 mph. It's one thing if they swing and miss because the location changed dramatically as the ball fluttered to a different part of the strike zone, but why would a player be way out in front if there's no mystery to it? A patient team should, in theory, have a big edge against a pitcher like Wakefield. Of course these are the Devil Rays--we'll see if the rest of the team can show the same patience and smarts that Crawford did.

Julio Lugo bunts a ball at his eyes toward first base, past Wakefield...and he's safe! Interesting move, and Lugo immediately swipes second to put two in scoring position with none out. We're not big advocates of the stolen base given you need to be successful a good three-quarters of the time to help your team significantly, but it's hard to see any reason not to run on Wakefield, repeatedly. Sanchez swings and misses at a knuckler at his eyes for the first out. Albert Pujols and Alex Sanchez both bat in the same spot in their teams' batting order--let that sink in for a second.

Wakefield gets Aubrey Huff to line out hard to first, two outs, same two men on. He then goes to 0-2 against former BP cover boy Josh Phelps. Gotta figure Mirabelli's on high alert for a wild pitch here. Instead Wakefield throws a knuckler down and away with slider action on it. Strike three, nasty. On a calm, beautiful day in the 70s, Wakefield may be able to throw his knuckler wherever he wants, without worrying about the elements. This could be a long day for the Rays.

More Max Lewis on the mike:

Red Sox
CF Damon .273
SS Renteria .275
LF Ramirez .211
DH Ortiz .297
1B Millar .219
RF Payton .357
C Mirabelli 2-for-8
3B Mueller .212
2B Bellhorn .273
Why can't they introduce Renteria with "Santeria" by Sublime if they're going to play the "Kashmir"/Kazmir card? Oh well.

Two starts this year for Kazmir: four strikeouts, five walks. Walks remain his bugaboo, and maybe the only thing preventing him from stardom right now. In two starts last year against the Sox he went 9 1/3 innings, yielded three hits, four walks, no runs and struck out 15. Only his wildness--which resulted in two hit batsmen and an ejection from one of those starts--kept him from potentially more obscene numbers. Remy says the deal that sent Kazmir to the Rays for Victor Zambrano "looked like the Steal of the Century at the time." Funny, still looks like that now.

Kazmir still has to tame that wildness, though--his leadoff walk to Damon could have been worse, but Ramirez bails him out by striking out on a slider out of the zone. It's not over, though--slider gets away against Ortiz for another walk, then Millar walks on yet another slider. Remy: "When you don't have good control and you're facing the Red Sox, they don't help you out. They've got a lot of guys that go deep in counts, don't swing at a lot of bad pitches. They'll give you a chance to get wild." Good stuff.

Even early on you can see that Kazmir's fastball is his best pitch; it's not the 97-mph beast that scouts pined for when Kazmir put up Nintendo numbers as a senior in high school in '02, but it's still 92 with great movement, and Kazmir seems better able to locate it than his other pitches. The light suddenly flicks on and Kazmir throws six straight fastballs, finishing off Payton on a wicked heater on the outside corner. Just before inning's end, Remy rubs it in for Mets fans, remarking how one game Victor Zambrano pitched against the Sox last year was the worst he'd ever seen. Zambrano so far this year for the Mets: eight walks in 11 innings, and two baserunners allowed per inning. It's not going to happen Mets fans, Rick Peterson or not.

Travis Lee leads off the second with a double--he's now up to .323 for season. With his batting eye and defense, .290 with some doubles would give him some decent Doug Mientkiewicz money and reasonable job security; he's as good as anyone with the glove, too. Jorge Cantu, who I was eager to see play for the first time, steps up. He's hit safely in all 11 games he's played this year (thanks, Robbie Alomar!). Cantu crushes the ball, but it dies in deep center, Damon barely making the catch before it hit the ground after losing it in the sun. A two-out single by Crawford--he's timing Wakefield well now--makes it 1-0 Rays.

Typical Kazmir: blows 92-mph fastball by Mirabelli to get to 0-2, then stumbles all the way to an eight-pitch walk, his fourth of the game. Kazmir quickly gets help from Lee, who makes a great play ranging halfway to second on a swinging bunt and throwing a shovel pass to Lugo for the force. Kazmir vs. Bellhorn: Falls behind 3-1, then takes just enough off a fastball at 89 to throw Bellhorn off for strike two. He then comes back with a 92-mph heater on the inside corner for the strikeout. We learn that pitching coach Chuck Hernandez is "trying to teach him how to be a pitcher." Hernandez is either the game's best teacher, or Kazmir's already a damn good pitcher, second-youngest player in the majors or not. Damon goes to 3-2, then Kazmir gets him as well, this time on a change-up. He's going to need to come out after four the way his pitch counts are going, but this is great theater.

Happenings:

  • Wakefield fans Huff to move into third all-time on the Red Sox's career strikeouts list with 1,342. He now trails only Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez and just passed...Cy Young.

  • The strikeout comes on a 77-mph fastball on the inside corner. Amazing the power the knuckleball wields. If Wakefield can keep the occasional fastball and curve in the zone when he throws them, he's going to catch a lot more hitters, bat on shoulder. That 77-mph pitch must look like the Ryan Express by comparison.

  • Kazmir goes to 1-2 on Renteria. Charles Johnson sets the target inside--and the pitch gets chucked right down the heart of the plate, where it's crushed for a monster homer to straightaway center. Greatness is there to be had, but it's going to take time. Meanwhile out in the center-field bleachers: "I don't practice santeria, I ain't got no crystal ball..."

Kazmir follows the homer with a 60-mph looper to Ramirez to get him off swinging at the next pitch--he later retires him on a flyout to right. Then it starts getting ugly. Ortiz singles to right. Millar hits a grounder deep into the hole at short, Lugo tries to throw Ortiz out at second, instead throws it into right field. It's now second and third, one out and Kazmir's already up to 66 pitches in 2 1/3 innings. If the Sox break through here, the way Wakefield is going, you get the sense this may be it. Kazmir tries to spot an inside fastball on 1-2 to Payton, again leaves it out over the plate, and again pays the price as Payton slaps a two-run single down the right-field line. A great play by Cantu prevents further damage, but at 3-1 through three the Rays will need to scramble.

It's not going to happen, though, not today. Wakefield walks Cantu with one out in the fourth, then induces the type of weakly-hit double play grounder that reminds you how DIPS theory doesn't work for knuckleballers (no obvious segue here, so just read Clay Davenport's essay on minor leaguers and DIPS, one of the best articles I've read so far this year). Wakefield throws more nasty stuff, including a 58-mph blooper curve to Lugo in the fifth that lands right in the middle of the plate and is somehow called a ball, probably because home-plate umpire Paul Nauert was completely befuddled. Wakefield throws another curve (59 mph) for strike two, then a 77-mph fastball outside corner at the knees for strike three. Yowza.

Kazmir went on to a line of 5 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 3 K. Wakefield's line: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 5 K (100 pitches, 64 strikes). The Jason Schmidt types are great and all, but try and watch these guys pitch if you missed them this time. Great entertainment.

The Sox win the game 3-1, sweeping the three-game set. Four games apart through Monday night's contests, that may be as close together as you'll see these two teams all year. Between Kazmir, Crawford, Cantu and even a few players who don't feature Krusty's Comedy K sounds, the Rays should still be an interesting view long after they've dropped out of the race. And the Sox? They're a good bet to win another World Series. Maybe this time they'll actually get a little publicity over it.

--

Set Your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will be Pirates at Cubs, Sunday April 24, 2 p.m. ET (Channel 739 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Small-sample-size-riffic pseudo-ace Josh Fogg will battle Mark Prior. Will Prior's injury and rust come back to bite him against a Pirates team with the second-worst record and worst offense in baseball? Yarrr, mateys, adventure awaits.

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

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