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August 10, 2009

Prospectus Today

Rumble in the Bronx

by Joe Sheehan

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Over their last three games, Red Sox starters threw 20 innings, allowed three runs, and posted a 17/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When you're looking for a reason why they lost all three, we can comfortably excuse the rotation. Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester did their jobs well, giving the team three quality starts and putting them in position to win all three ballgames.

Last night's implosion by Daniel Bard notwithstanding, the bullpen wasn't bad either. It provided 7 2/3 shutout innings Friday before Alex Rodriguez homered off of Junichi Tazawa in Tazawa's major league debut. Sox relievers allowed two runs Saturday after Ramon Ramirez was ejected (to my eyes wrongly) after hitting Rodriguez. Finally, Bard allowed four runs last night, including game-tying and game-winning homers, in a situation where he probably should have been toweling off and receiving congratulations. The bullpen wasn't as good as the rotation, but it did a fair job.

No, the Sox got swept because their offense didn't show up. Their only runs in the final three games came on Victor Martinez's homer in the eighth inning last night, a shot that ended a 31-inning scoreless skein. Shut out for 15 innings Friday and nine more on Saturday, the two runs they scored Sunday weren't enough, as it turns out. Even Thursday's six runs were a failure when you look at how many they could have had:

  • First and second, one out, first inning; no runs
  • First and second, no out, second inning; no runs
  • After a solo homer, first and second, no out, third inning; no additional runs
  • First and second, no out, and then, after scoring a run, bases loaded and one out, fifth inning; no additional runs
  • First and second, no out, sixth inning; no runs

That's just awful, and while John Smoltz's poor pitching didn't help matters, the Sox very well could have overcome even his poor start had they capitalized on even a couple of the situations enumerated above. They ended up scoring six runs in the 13-6 loss, and they left at least six more on the table. As much as the focus was on Smoltz's decline at the end of his career, it should have been on David Ortiz's decline at the end of his. Ortiz was directly involved in four of the above innings, making outs all four times, including a crippling double-play ball in the third. Maybe this is just a bad season, but we're dealing with a bad-bodied 34-year-old who has been going backwards for two years and who had old players' skills when he was 29. How good he was in 2007 and how clutch his performances were in 2004 mean nothing if he's DH with a .730 OPS in 2009. He is, at best, someone who can play twice a week when both Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell need time off, and for when you want to shuffle bodies around. For the most part, though, he looks done, unable to hit great fastballs, and having to cheat to hit good ones, making him vulnerable to off-speed stuff. He brings negative baserunning value as well.

Smoltz was so bad after this game that the Sox designated him for assignment. This is a little embarrassing for me, as I've advocated for Smoltz since last winter, and not an hour before the game I was on the radio in Boston talking him up. Since I wrote a defense of Smoltz two weeks ago, he made two starts, facing 47 batters. Smoltz struck out just five of them, walked four, allowed 21 fly balls and six line drives, including seven extra-base hits. Against the Yankees on Thursday night he got just two swinging strikes on 92 pitches. Maybe he has something left, maybe he doesn't, but it's clear that a pennant race in the AL East isn't the place to find out.

Still, the Red Sox have plenty of starting-pitching options, especially with Tim Wakefield set to return from the DL. Their rotation, featuring one of the best one-two punches in the game, plus a ridiculously talented Buchholz and the veteran Wakefield, will be fine down the stretch and into the postseason.

To right the ship they'll have to score more runs. The Sox have averaged 4.3 runs per game since the All-Star break, largely because they're carrying Ortiz at DH, Jason Varitek's collapse behind the plate, and the worst regular on a contender in Nick Green at shortstop. Those three leave them with a six-man lineup, which is how you get shut out for 31 straight innings in the biggest series of the season. Upgrading from Green to Cristian Guzman, as is rumored, would be worth close to a win in the season's last seven weeks, a not-insignificant gain, and treating Martinez as the clear number-one catcher and Varitek as the backup might be worth about that much as well. Jacoby Ellsbury remains a mystery, a talented basestealer who hits the ball hard enough to bat .300, but who seems unable to change his approach at the plate. Ellsbury has just 27 unintentional walks in 466 plate appearances, and while his .348 OBP isn't bad, it's lower than you'd like from a leadoff man. The Sox need him on in front of their best hitters more often.

There is a lot of panic in Boston this week-heck, there was a lot of panic last week after the trip to St. Petersburg-so perhaps it's worth it to look at the bigger picture. Even after a six-game losing streak, the Sox are tied for the lead in the wild-card race and have a game-and-a-half edge on the Rays in that race. They have the fourth-best run differential in baseball, and are in a virtual tie for the fifth-best third-order record. Despite the various lineup holes, they have enough talent to fill eight lineup spots well, if they so choose, and are in talks to perhaps patch the shortstop problem. They have an embarrassment of pitching riches, going six starters deep even after a trade and the ending of the Smoltz experiment. And they have a deep and imposing bullpen. This is still one of the best teams in baseball and the favorite to win the AL Wild Card. It's just going to be a little more dramatic than they would have liked.

Notes from the game last night:

  • A number of people have told me they thought New Yankee Stadium's acoustics made the place less loud and less imposing than the previous iteration. My counterargument was that we hadn't heard a crowd let loose in the new place yet. When Mark Teixeira looped his game-winning homer last night, we heard it. That was as loud as the new ballpark has been, and I'd put that sound up against any made in the old yard across the street. Whether the Sunday night start-allowing the crowd to lubricate throughout the day-or the chance to sweep the Red Sox or the ESPN cameras, this was a great baseball crowd, certainly the most intense I've seen at the new park this year.

  • Neither manager covered himself in glory last night. Joe Girardi committed himself to Phil Coke in the eighth inning despite having six right-handed relievers on his roster, meaning Coke would have to face four straight right-handed batters after Jacoby Ellsbury. With Philip Hughes apparently unavailable after pitching Friday and Saturday-but for just one out each day-Girardi reacted by making none of his other righties available. It mattered less in the important matchup-letting Coke face Victor Martinez, batting right-handed, would have been the play in any case-but had Coke retired Martinez, he would have been asked to get Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay with the tying run on base, and that would have been a huge risk. It was yet another odd decision by a man for whom running a bullpen is a daily challenge.

    Terry Francona had it worse. He opened the bottom of the eighth with Daniel Bard, and with Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon throwing behind the rookie. When Bard got the first two Yankees, though, Francona allowed him to face Johnny Damon. This made little sense tactically-why allow Damon to face a hard-throwing righty in a season when he's made a habit of hitting stick-out-the-bat homers?-and less when you consider that Okajima was up. If Okajima wasn't throwing with an eye towards Damon and then turning Mark Teixeira around, then why was he warming up? The game was far too important not to maximize the chance of getting each hitter out, and allowing Bard to reach Damon was an unncessary risk when a reliever of Okajima's caliber was available, with Papelbon behind him. Francona didn't give his team the best chance to win last night, and that would have been true even if Bard had gotten Damon to roll over to second base.

  • Team speed is one of those things that is overrated by a factor of 30 in the mainstream press, but now that we can quantify it, we know that baserunning is worth runs on the margins to teams. So pointing out the Red Sox are a very slow team isn't so much damning their chances for not being the 2002 Angels, but noting a weakness that may haunt them. Only Ellsbury runs well, and there are four starters-Martinez, Ortiz, Varitek, and Lowell-who are among the slowest players in the game. The Sox can't go first-to-third or second-to-home, and they have a group of players in the middle of the lineup who can't run at all. That costs runs over a season.

  • One oddity is that I have yet to see a home team lose a game this year, and many of those have involved late-inning heroics by the good guys. It makes for some fun nights at the park.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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