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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. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Sunday Night Baseball

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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mbolotin

"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."

The Red Sox are at -1.6 EQBRR this year, Yanks are -8.2.

Aug 10, 2009 11:30 AM
rating: 4
 
jlefty

can you take ellsbury out of the equation and find the team's eqbrr? because joe did give him credit, and I imagine his prowess inflates that number a ton.

Aug 11, 2009 04:57 AM
rating: 1
 
mbolotin

Fair enough, Ellsbury is at +4 so the rest of the Sox are at -5.5. Also, in Joe's defense, only includes a week or two of V-Mart's "contributions," which have been worth almost -1. Surprisingly though, Varitek is pretty much even this year, though he looks SLOW.

Aug 11, 2009 11:55 AM
rating: 0
 
thenamestsam

While I agreed that Bard wasn't the ideal pitcher to pitch to Damon, neither is Okajima, who is tougher on righties than lefties(though his splits have reversed this season, I don't watch enough sox to say if he's changed his approach or if it's just a sample size thing). The problem may be the Red Sox lack of a lefty specialist for that situation. As Joe mentions, I thought more damning was not turning around Tex after Damon's HR and letting the inning get worse when Bard looked a bit rattled.

Aug 10, 2009 11:34 AM
rating: 2
 
Matt Kory

I agree. I think it's defensible to leave Bard in for Damon, but turning Tex around at that point was probably a good idea.

Aug 10, 2009 11:49 AM
rating: 0
 
jseely

Bard has given up 11 runs in 33 innings this year. Four of them were in the past week versus Tampa Bay and New York, after a scoreless July during which he struck out 20 in 12 innings, and looked like the team's second-best reliever.

Sometimes, you need to find out what you have in a player. And sometimes when you do that, what you find out isn't necessarily to your liking.

Aug 10, 2009 17:50 PM
rating: 3
 
Matt Kory

I was amazed at a few of the ridiculous homers by both teams over the weekend. Teixeira's last night went almost vertical after it came off his bat. I have no idea how that went out, and from the look on Bard's face he didn't either. Pedroia's in the first game came off a pitch about a foot outside and he had lean way out to get it. I thought at most it was a single off the bat. No way either of those are out at Fenway or any other semi-reasonable park.

Aug 10, 2009 11:40 AM
rating: -2
 
jlefty

so, both the sox and yankees benefited from the cozy dimensions of the field? explain what's so unreasonable about that?

Aug 11, 2009 05:00 AM
rating: 2
 
Dailey247

Do you think Nick Green is worse than Edgar Renteria, or do you not think the Giants are contenders?

Aug 10, 2009 11:50 AM
rating: 2
 
jman2050

Well I can't fault Joe for sticking to his guns even if it partially relies on hoping Buchholz suddenly becomes an above average pitcher despite all evidence to the contrary this season.

Aug 10, 2009 12:25 PM
rating: 0
 
Flynnbot

Joe,

You should probably point out that of the three and four better teams in the run differential and third order winning percentages, two are in their own division. I wouldn't say that's encouraging; the Rays have been underperforming for a bit and are due, wouldn't you say?

Also, how can you not address that Theo put this team in this position by paying their best SS to start for another division leader, and not really successfully addressing short stop for five years?

Regardless of your opinion (noticeably not backed by any substantive analysis of the rest of the starters' performance) that they have six good options to start, they have real problems in the back end of the rotation. Bucholz is still learning the ropes, Penny has nosedived, and Wakefield is uncertain to perform any better than average. How is that a point of strength beyond the Lester-Beckett combo, which is going to have to win around 90% of its starts to make up for the rest of the rotation.

Finally, the Boston defense is not mentioned here, and it's hard to argue it is anywhere near compensating for the decidedly average hitting (at best) at nearly every position except for wherever Youkilis is playing or the rare days they put Martinez at catcher.

How, I ask, is this the best franchise in the game, as you've kept saying for months? How are the above issues not something worthy of concern?

Aug 10, 2009 12:25 PM
rating: 2
 
thenamestsam

Regarding the starters, Joe doesn't actually say that they're good, just that they have "lots of options" and that the rotation will be "fine". I think the problem is that they may need something a bit above fine to hold off the Rays and Rangers, because no other area of the team is excelling, and in this case a plethora of options does not signify a ton of quality.

Aug 10, 2009 12:42 PM
rating: 1
 
Flynnbot

agreed, that is more what I meant, anyway---I don't think it changes the point (nor do you, it seems).

Aug 10, 2009 12:47 PM
rating: 0
 
acmcdowell

Flynnbot,
I think you are overstating the woes of the Red Sox defense. The left side of the field is an absolute mess. Lowell, Green, and Bay in LF are all well below average defenders. Youkilis/Kotchman at 1B(Youk UZR/150 +12 at 1B, though terrible at 3B- SSS warnings apply), Pedroia at 2B (UZR/150 +9.7), Drew (UZR/150 +13.8) in RF are all plus defenders. Ellsbury in center, even with his speed, is probably an average defender given his bad reads and weak arm.
Short stop is a mess because both Lowrie and Lugo were hurt and ineffective. When your "best" shortstop is Julio Lugo, that's not saying much.

Aug 10, 2009 12:46 PM
rating: 0
 
jman2050

I don't think it's being overstated at all, given that (last I checked) the Red Sox hold the worst defensive efficiency in the league. Various other defensive metrics seem to bear this out as well.

Aug 10, 2009 12:49 PM
rating: 1
 
Flynnbot

Red Sox, as a team, are 23rd in FRAA at -18 I think. It's one thing to do that if you've got an absolute powerhouse offense. It's another if your offense is another problem.

UZR has the Red Sox as similarly one of the worst defensive teams in baseball at -4 as a team: http://www.fangraphs.com/teams.aspx?pos=all&stats=fld&lg=all&type=0&season=2009&month=0.

The Red Sox are PAYING for Lugo to play elsewhere, and got virtually nothing of value for him in return. He is vastly superior to Green and I'd argue is a pretty good upgrade over a healthy Lowrie at short; it seems a valid criticism of Theo that Lugo is in St. Louis on Boston's dime and the Red Sox's hopes are somewhat pinned on acquiring Christian Guzman. Even if you argue that Lowrie should have come back a bit stronger given expectations, Lugo's still a better use of the roster spot than Nick Green.

Aug 10, 2009 12:54 PM
rating: 3
 
mglick0718

You write of Ortiz "he looks done, unable to hit great fastballs, and having to cheat to hit good ones..." Interesting choice of verbs, and I can only assume you mean "guess".

Aug 10, 2009 12:49 PM
rating: -3
 
Joe D.

When one desperately wants to read alternate meanings into something, they will always find what they seek.

Aug 10, 2009 13:32 PM
rating: 1
 
LouisArighi

I have seen "cheating" used many times in baseball writing to refer to guessing the pitch. I think your implication that it has anything to do with the Ortiz scandal is pretty spurious.

Aug 10, 2009 13:40 PM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

Lighten up people.

Aug 10, 2009 17:19 PM
rating: 6
 
thenamestsam

Agreed, I chuckled.

Aug 11, 2009 07:27 AM
rating: 2
 
J Scott

Not entirely sure what Girardi's attractive option was last night. Hughes had appeared in 4 of the previous 5 games and, by dint of organizational decision, was not available last night. Period. End of story. Aceves, following his 3 inning stint Friday night, was nursing a stiff back. Unavailable. His closer is, oh, 65-70 years-old. He pitched Friday and warmed-up fully (though not making it into the game) on Saturday. Watching his prep in the 8th inning it was clear the decision had been made before the game that he only was going to be used for onew inning. I wasn't happy about Coke being given the whole inning, but seeing Gaudin warming-up behind him...sometimes there just aren't any good alternatives.

Aug 10, 2009 12:52 PM
rating: 0
 
thenamestsam

My problem was that Hughes wasn't available last night because he was wasted to some extent previously. It's true that he had pitched in 4 of 5 games, but the previous 2 were for 1/3 of an inning each time. Girardi, knowing he only has a limited number of appearances, innings and pitches from Hughes should try to actually use him for more than a few pitches when he gets him up and into games, so Girardi may not have had a great choice last night, but that was noones fault but his own.

Aug 10, 2009 13:04 PM
rating: 0
 
shamah

Agreed on the comments above regarding the Red Sox. That Youk and Pedroia have vindicated stat-heads pumping them for years should not shield the rest of the roster-making decisions from criticism. Just to add one more--not dealing Buchholz for Roy Halladay is seriously going to hurt the Sox this year and next. Buchholz is not young; he's 25, and outside of his no-hitter, has not really shown much at the major league level in a season's worth of starts (111 k's vs. 67 walks and an ERA+ of 85 in 124 major league innings --not good). I agree that pundits were right to counsel patience with Hughes, who only just turned 23 and Joba, who's not yet 24. But a 25-year old pitcher, with no track record of success in the majors; this is the deal-breaker for Roy Halladay?

Aug 10, 2009 14:23 PM
rating: 1
 
judyblum

Where did you get the idea that it was the Red Sox decision not to include Buchholz in their offer for Halladay? Everything I've read said that Buchholz most certainly was included in their offer.

Aug 10, 2009 14:49 PM
rating: 1
 
Darsox64

The sox have at least three other players with average-plus speed: Pedroia, and Bay and Drew when the latter two are healthy. Any of them normally score from second on a typical single.

Aug 10, 2009 15:18 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I'd rather have the Red Sox offense than the Cubs offense (and defense).

Yuck!

Aug 11, 2009 09:24 AM
rating: 0
 
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