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August 21, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Sweep

by Joe Sheehan

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No one saw that coming.

The Yankees' brutal, and at times ugly, dispatch of the Red Sox over 75 or so hours was perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2006 baseball season. As disparate as the two teams' fortunes had been since the All-Star break, their recent history of playing each other to essentially a draw seemed to mandate a split, a 3-2 series that would leave the AL East race largely unchanged heading into the season's final six weeks.

What we got instead was a clinic at the plate, a display of what a patient, disciplined team can do to pitchers who are unable to attack the strike zone with regularity. The Yankees worked deep counts, got into good situations and took advantage, eventually exploiting the Sox' injury-thinned staff to take five games that were all in doubt in the middle innings.

If you opened this page looking for a unique explanation of what you saw over the weekend, forget it. The Yankees are just better than the Red Sox, and in ways that manifest themselves most clearly in head-to-head play. They work counts and find their way to the back end of a pitching staff, and when they get there, they take advantage. The Red Sox, missing 40% of their Opening Day rotation, ended up using back-end pitchers, unready youth and waiver bait in far too many game-critical situations. From Jason Johnson and Kyle Snyder on Friday to Javier Lopez and Craig Hansen on Sunday, the Red Sox just didn't have enough championship-caliber pitching to stave off the Yankee lineup.

The Red Sox used seven pitchers over the weekend who they'd planned to have reasonably significant roles for the 2006 team: Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, David Wells, Jonathan Papelbon, Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez. Those pitchers threw 28 2/3 innings, allowed 20 runs, all earned (6.28 ERA), struck out 23 men, walked 16 and allowed just two home runs. It's not a good series by any means, but when you consider how much of that is Beckett's man-with-blindfold act Saturday (nine walks in 5 2/3 innings), it's passable.

The Red Sox also used seven other pitchers, including both starters last Friday. Those pitchers threw 17 1/3 innings, allowed 29 runs, 28 earned (14.54 ERA), walked 15, struck out 17 and allowed five homers.

Let me boil that down for you: The Red Sox are the 2005 Yankees, but without Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small. At the time they were acquired, there was basically no difference between Chacon and Jason Johnson, between Small and Kyle Snyder. The Yankees hit the lottery last year, and the Sox didn't this year. Where the Yankees got 160 or so innings of above-average pitching from two guys who were useless before that and useless after, the Red Sox got…well, you can read the numbers.

Right now, Theo Epstein is being blistered for the state of the Red Sox pitching staff. While you can criticize him for the specific failing of not having any left-handed relievers on the roster for most of a five-game series against the heavily-lefty Yankee lineup, blaming him for the entirety of the staff's collapse is an overreaction. Epstein has made it clear that he's not going to overpay for two months of work; his plan is to build a team capable of winning for a decade or more. Not trading the young pitching prospects in the system is consistent with that approach. The caliber of pitchers available a month ago were not worth six years of a Jon Lester or Manny Delcarmen. Even the Yankees' acquisition of Cory Lidle was a rider to the Bobby Abreu deal, and on July 28, the Sox weren't in the market for a corner outfielder nor were they willing to make that kind of financial commitment.

The loss of Tim Wakefield went largely unremarked upon, but it's clear now that the Red Sox, who hadn't been without their knuckleballer since signing him back in 1995, desperately miss him. It's not just his league-average or better pitching, but the innings he eats up in the process. That's an incredibly difficult combination to replace on the fly. Sox fans didn't lament the loss of Matt Clement to the DL, but even Clement, at his 2006 worst, was outperforming the work the Sox have been getting from the back of their rotation of late.

The Sox lost two mid-rotation starters and weren't able to replace them. That's the biggest reason why they're now 6˝ games out of first place in the AL East and the third team in what's rapidly becoming a two-team wild-card race. Even with all that, the Red Sox are in line to win about 90 games. It just happens that this year, 90 wins won't be enough to reach the postseason in the AL. If Epstein's crime is that in a down year, his Red Sox compete, win 90 games and miss the postseason-while retaining the talent that will make the team better in future seasons-he can run my team anytime.

This is the downside of the peaking popularity of the Red Sox: the heightened, even unrealistic expectations of perpetual deep October runs and frequent championships. It's also reflective of what I call the "NFLization" of baseball, where regular-season success, really everything about the regular season, is completely devalued as compared to the postseason. MLB has set it up that way-expanding the playoffs, gimmicking up the regular season, throwing out a century of tradition-and it's led to this place, where contending every year, winning division titles, isn't nearly enough. It's why history will regard recent Indians and Braves and A's teams as disappointments, rather than dynasties or mini-dynasties.

Flags fly forever, it's true. However, long-term success is the goal, and missing the postseason in one year, an injury-plagued year, a transitional year, is neither a tragedy nor a failure, and it's no call for changing a well-crafted plan or throwing its architect under the bus. The Red Sox will be fine, even if the 2006 season ends early.

The pitching staff has the most visible bad weekend, but the Boston Massacre II was a total team effort. Of particular note is the work of Terry Francona, who made just enough questionable decisions to make the players' job that much harder.

Friday afternoon, after the Sox had cut the Yankees' lead to 4-3 entering the seventh, Francona stuck with Kyle Snyder through the middle of the Yankees' lineup with one out and a runner on rather than go to one of his high-leverage relievers. Three batters later, the Sox were down three and counting. Snyder had held the Yankees close and allowed the Sox to climb back in, but having done that, he should have been pulled. It was time for the Sox to use a reliever with an ERA below 6.00.

That night, Francona again allowed a situation to get out of hand without using his top hurlers. With a 10-7 lead in the seventh, he tabbed Craig Hansen, rather than Mike Timlin, to start the inning. Timlin is far and away the Sox' second-best reliever, and the team's best bet to bridge the gap to Papelbon. Francona did eventually call on Timlin, with the bases loaded and one out. The righty did not pitch well, allowing four hits and helping the Yankees blow the game open. The outcome, however, doesn't change the fact that he should have started the inning.

Saturday, while admittedly trying to hold together a patchwork, fatigued staff, Francona waited too long to take out Josh Beckett. The right-hander walked nine, including three of the last four batters he faced in the fateful sixth innings. He arguably shouldn't have even started the sixth, coming into it having allowed five runs on six hits and six walks. By the time he was removed, the Yankees had the lead; Delcarmen's "relief" was the nail in the coffin.

Sunday night, Francona mismanaged the bullpen and the offense. Given the importance of the game, Jon Papelbon should have started the eighth inning and been asked to go two, protecting a 5-3 lead. As it turns out, Francona was clearly willing to allow the latter, as he brought Papelbon in with the bases loaded and no one out after Timlin and Javier Lopez pitched to three batters. (To his credit, Papelbon pitched very well; the "blown save" he gets credited for doesn't reflect his performance at all. The two hits he allowed in the ninth might have both been outs with different outfielders; at the least, Melky Cabrera's double could have been a single, changing the inning.)

The bigger mistakes Francona made in this game were in managing the offense. In the seventh inning, ahead 5-3 and with the bases loaded and one out, Francona let Wily Mo Pena bat against Scott Proctor (Proctor spent nearly as much time on ESPN this weekend as the score ticker) rather than use Eric Hinske. Predictably, Pena struck out and Doug Mirabelli flied out to end the threat. Francona then replaced Pena in right field with Gabe Kapler.

This was a horrible sequence. Proctor is a fastball/slider righty, tough on his own kind by repertoire (albeit not statistically). Pena spent most of the weekend swinging and missing at sliders off the plate, and for his career he's been much less effective against right-handers. Eric Hinske, on the other hand, would have been a much more difficult out for Proctor, a patient left-handed hitter. If Kapler was going to be playing right field in the top of the eighth anyway, why not maximize the chance of scoring right there, given the problems the bullpen had been having? You need runs, as many as you can get, and Hinske was the better option for scoring them.

Francona then threw away a gift in the ninth inning. After Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams combined to turn a leadoff groundout by David Ortiz into a runner on second with nobody out, Joe Torre issued an intentional walk to Manny Ramirez, one of 38 walks Ramirez drew during the series. (Thought experiment: would the Sox have been better off with Ortiz staying on first base? It's normally a no-brainer to say "no," but Ramirez is so good, and the subsequent situations were problematic for the Sox.)

Francona then had Kevin Youkilis lay down a sacrifice bunt. Joe Morgan's commentary aside, Youkilis laid down a decent bunt, a bit too much toward the mound but no line drive or anything. Mariano Rivera made a sweet play to get the force at third on Ortiz.

Note the last word. If you're going to lay down the sacrifice in that situation with a player who's not wired for that tactic, you're committing to end the game there. With that in mind, how do you not pinch-run for Ortiz? If Alex Gonzalez was unavailable-and my understanding is that his back problems mean he can't swing a bat, rather than keep him from running-then use Beckett or Jon Lester. You have to get the runner to third base, and Ortiz's kamikaze sprint to second aside, he's a slow man. Virtually any of the other options would have either beaten the throw or, better still, prevented Rivera from trying to get the out. Francona blew this play.

A passed ball with Mike Lowell at the plate rendered that play moot, but Francona found another way to lessen the Sox' chances of winning. After Lowell was walked to load the bases, the manager sent up Hinske for Kapler, this time against perhaps the toughest right-hander in baseball history on left-handed hitters.

Francona chose poorly twice. When Hinske would have optimized the chance of scoring, he used Pena. When Kapler was the better choice-especially in a situation when you just want to get the ball in play-he used Hinske. The Sox left the bases loaded again, and lost the game in the tenth.

It's important to mention that Francona isn't playing with all of his regulars. This team desperately misses Trot Nixon and, a bit less desperately, Jason Varitek There was definitely a sense all weekend that if you could just get past Ramirez, the Sox would get themselves out of the inning. Their overall offensive numbers are good, but the team that took the field against the Yankees is considerably less than that: two of the best hitters in baseball, two guys carrying their weight in Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta, and five spots that don't seem to be threatening anyone.

You don't lose five straight games without getting contributions from just about everyone. The Sox didn't pitch well, didn't field well-Pena really needs to become a DH-didn't hit all that well, didn't make good decisions and didn't put their best team on the field. Their roster was ill-constructed to face the Yankees, and it showed. No one person should take the blame for this, and no one should lose their job over it.

I will make one prediction: neither of these teams will do better than 2-4 through Sunday. The five-game series, which included a 14-hour day at the park Friday and a 5 1/4-hour night (with rain delay) Sunday night, followed by a day game Monday, was as arduous a schedule as two teams will see all year. Now, with both teams flying to California with depleted bullpens and exhausted players, a letdown is likely.

Enough Yankees and Red Sox for a while. We'll spend the rest of the week checking in on the other 28 teams.

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

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