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April 17, 2012

Prospectus Game of the Week

Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox, April 14

by Adam Sobsey

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The night before Saturday’s game, the Red Sox scored eight runs against the Rays to turn a relatively normal game into a 12-2 laugher. Actually, there was something abnormal about it, even before the offensive explosion: Rays starter David Price lasted only three innings. He gave up three runs on four hits and three walks while running up an 83-pitch tab. Josh Beckett, meanwhile, suffocated Tampa Bay for eight innings, allowing just one run on five hits.

Although it’s early in the season, that big BoSox win on Friday had a little ring of importance to it. Boston had been 1-5 coming in, close to repeating last year’s miserable 0-6 record out of the gate—and any Boston fan could be forgiven for getting apoplectic, given what eventually became of the 2011 Red Sox.

So now Boston was 2-5 and coming off a big scoring outburst. The Rays, at the other extreme, had begun the year an impressive 4-1 but then lost to Detroit before Friday’s loss at Boston. So their attractive beginning was already beginning to deteriorate, and another loss on Saturday would send them back to .500.

***

A minor-league beat writer like me has a wormhole view of the majors. Back in June 2009, I saw Clay Buchholz pitch for Pawtucket when the PawSox came to Durham. He wasn’t good that day, walking five batters in 3 2/3 innings and taking the loss against the Bulls’ Scott Kazmir, then on a rehab assignment. That night, the Press Box at Durham Bulls Athletic Park was about as full as it ever gets.

When you see a guy just once or a few times in Triple-A before he’s gone, whatever small impression he made on you tends to endure, regardless of what actually happens later. Buchholz was called up to Boston about three weeks after he pitched in Durham, and he performed pretty well for the second half of the 2009 season, making 16 starts and producing a 4.21 ERA in helping the Red Sox and their wobbling starting rotation to the postseason. I was still picturing him as a probable bust, despite his having thrown a no-hitter in his second major-league start, with a mushy changeup. And he stole 29 laptops in high school. True.

Well, shut my mouth and hide my computer. Buchholz was even better in 2010, dialing up a league-leading 187 ERA+, making the All-Star team, and winning 17 games, even though he missed a few weeks with a hamstring strain. But then he lost most of 2011 to a stress fracture in his back. That was the latest, and most serious, of numerous injuries he had sustained, and Buchholz was starting to look like one of those pitchers with great stuff—“ace potential,” BP 2011 warned—who can’t stay healthy enough to max out his great potential. (See Saberhagen, Bret.)

In Saturday’s game, Buchholz initially confirmed my 2009 assessment. He walked Desmond Jennings to lead off the game. Carlos Pena than narrowly missed a home run on the very next pitch, hitting the top of the short right-field wall on the fly for a double. Jennings scored.

After Buchholz retired Evan Longoria (groundout) and Matt Joyce (strikeout), he walked Ben Zobrist on four pitches. Up stepped Luke Scott, who is probably the wildest of the wild cards the Rays have gambled with over the last few seasons. Scott could very well hit 30 homers and be one of the team’s best hitters—or, on the other hand, way at the end of an outstretched arm, he could spend virtually the entire season out with a major injury. The possible swing is about as wide as it gets.

Scott looks a little like a cross between Charlie Sheen and, oddly, Johnny Damon, the player he essentially replaced in Tampa Bay. The resemblance to Damon has increased, thanks not only to wearing the same Rays uniform, but also to an apparently virulent case of muttonchops that seem to have spread all over Scott’s face. (The possibility should not be discounted that Scott is in fact fabricating a negative-space goatee, probably inspired by the controversial sculptress Rachel Whiteread.) So Scott now vaguely recalls Caveman-era Damon. He made himself even uglier, to Red Sox fans, by calling Fenway Park “a dump” in comments to the media a few days ago.

And it was this-caveman-thinks-it’s-a-dump treatment that Scott gave to Buchholz’s full-count pitch, which I can only describe as a hanging fastball. Scott belted it deep down the right-field line, where it sneered at Pesky Pole as it soared past and landed in the seats for a three-run homer, making the score 4-0, Rays.

That would be enough for reigning Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, right? The kid had come within one out of a complete-game shutout of the Yankees in his first start of the season. Sure, he’d been nailed in the noggin by a batting-practice longball in Detroit a few days earlier, but he’d passed MLB’s concussion tests and said he was fine.

He was not fine, and four runs were not enough. His fastball was all over the zone. I decided to spend some at-bats doing what Doug Thorburn reported having done in order to strengthen his understanding of pitch command: I focused only on catcher Jose Molina’s mitt in order to see how often Hellickson hit it. Not often enough, and frequently he missed by a wide margin. This problem seemed to get worse as his five-inning outing went on.

(An auxiliary thought about this: pitchers want their pitches to move. Otherwise, they get pounded. Is part of the key to success getting them to move just enough, but not too much? Is that a part—an integral part—of “command,” the bone I was worrying last week?)

Hellickson needed 18 pitches for a scoreless first inning. He allowed an leadoff infield single to Mike Aviles, batting first in the order in place of Jacoby Ellsbury, who went on the DL with a separated shoulder sustained in a slide-collision at second base on Friday (Reid Brignac landed on Ellsbury’s shoulder). Carlos Pena made a diving stop of Aviles’ grounder in the hole, but Aviles beat Hellickson to first base. As if in retribution, Hellickson picked Aviles off when Aviles dove back to first and slipped so awkwardly that he never even touched the bag, comically sprawled out a couple feet short and trying to grope for the base. It was as if Aviles had absorbed the baserunning lesson taught by Kelly Shoppach the day before: Shoppach, attempting a slide into second base (he found himself trying to steal it), slid feet-first, way too soon, then continued ass-over-elbows into second, head-first. He was somehow safe.

Hellickson walked Adrian Gonzalez, and what may have been a telltale sign of things to come occurred in the at-bat. With the count 3-1, Hellickson threw a fastball more or less right down the middle, and Gonzalez swung through it. It wasn’t a very good pitch, especially on that count, and although Gonzalez didn’t make Hellickson pay for it, it’s only so long before major-league hitters catch up to pitchers who can’t keep the ball out of the middle of the plate in a hitter’s count. In this case, after the walk, Hellickson escaped without a run scoring.

The top of the second was notable for a bizarre balk. Buchholz appeared to be faking a throw to first base, but the ball popped out of his hand and bounced a few feet away from him. Automatic balk. What was ultimately odd about this was that later, in the bottom of the fifth, Hellickson dropped the ball while toeing the rubber. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine (a weird sight so far in that uniform) came charging out of the dugout to argue for a balk call on Hellickson—it should have been called—but the umpire must not have seen it. Request denied.

Buchholz fanned two Rays in the second inning: Joyce (whom he struck out in that PawSox-Bulls game way back in 2009, too) on a changeup, Molina on a curve. In the bottom of the frame, Hellickson got the first two outs painlessly—David Ortiz on an 0-2 groundout, Cody Ross on a flyout to left field—but then walked Ryan Sweeney.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia came to the plate. Hellickson went to 3-0, dropped in an automatic strike, then tried a changeup. It wasn’t really a terrible pitch, down and fading away a little, but it wasn’t down and fading far enough away, and Saltalamacchia went down and drilled it onto the black batter’s eye beyond the center-field wall for a two-run homer.

I was watching this game at my local with my pal Sam. The place has a flotilla of televisions, and one of the others was showing the Orioles-Blue Jays game. I happened to glance over at it just in time to watch Brett Lawrie attempt to steal home. Jason Hammel’s throw was high, but Matt Wieters got the tag down on a very close play at the plate. Lawrie was out, although I really admired his guts. (But maybe not his brain: the bases were loaded, there were two outs, and, ah, Jose Bautista was at the plate.)

As it happens, the last time I saw someone attempt to steal home in real time, it was none other than the immortal Elliot Johnson, who as a Durham Bull in 2010 gave it a go against Norfolk Tides lefty Zach Britton. He, like, Lawrie, was thrown out by a whisker. Johnson would later play in Saturday’s game. And while we’re connecting stealing-home dots, Hellickson himself was victimized by Boomer Whiting stealing home in 2010; and the aforementioned Jacoby Ellsbury did it to Andy Pettitte in 2009. (Weirdly, Pettitte, he of the great pickoff move, has given up two steals of home in his big-league career. Sixteen other pitchers have allowed two steals of home in their careers since 1950. No pitcher has allowed more than that.)

Luke Scott got one of the runs back in the third by whacking an RBI double to left-center field off the Green Monster. That made it 5-2, Rays, and it would be the last run of the day for Tampa Bay—indeed, one of the team’s last baserunners. Buchholz cleaned himself up after that, retiring 13 of the final 15 batters he faced, including 10 outs by grounder or strikeout. He threw 64 pitches in the first three innings, but only 40 in his last four. That changeup I found mushy in 2009? Excellent yesterday, and probably Buchholz’s best pitch generally speaking, to judge from reports. But really, his fastball was the key: 91-92 mph, good life, and usually down.

Hellickson, meanwhile, got messier and messier. He allowed his second homer of the game in the bottom of the third, a long drive over the seats above the Green Monster by Dustin Pedroia—off a 1-1 fastball more or less over the heart of the plate—and then had to pitch out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth. His pitch count was skyrocketing. In the fifth, he was bitten by the two-out bug again. After a strikeout and a pop-out (the latter by A-Gon, into a shift—see Max Marchi’s recent piece for more on Rays-shifting, which is a little like phase-shifting), Hellickson gave up a single to Kevin Youkilis. He then ran the count full on Ortiz, just missing strike three on the 2-2 pitch; and on his 97th pitch—a cutter that didn’t quite cut, according to Jason Collette—Ortiz jacked a homer into the Red Sox bullpen.

Tie game. 4-0 first-inning lead, gone. One out later, on his 100th pitch, Hellickson was done after five innings. The Red Sox entered the game with two home runs in seven games this season. They hit three off of Hellickson in five innings.

***

Is Hellickson in danger of turning into what Steven Goldman likes to call a “Scary Fly Ball Guy”? He lived in the air a little last season and seems to be doing it again this year: his major-league ground-ball percentage is down in the mid-30s. His strikeouts, too, are way down from the minors. A decline is to be expected, of course, but I watched Hellickson pitch plenty of games in Durham, and he got copious strikeouts (about one every inning) and, as I recall, a fair number of ground balls, too. It seems to me that some percentage of those skills ought to have translated to the majors.

Perhaps, again, this is another example in the lesson about the difference between the minors and the majors. Yes, Triple-A is the level right below the bigs, but the last rung on the ladder is long and steep. There are plenty of Double-A caliber players on Triple-A teams who manage to blend in without getting culled out—indeed, some even succeed there for a while—but there are precious few Triple-A talents who hang on in the bigs for very long, and they don’t generally get to play much while they’re up there.

One who is accustomed to Triple-A and inured to its deficiencies admires the huge jump in talent, in discernment, and in sheer speed up in the majors. You can get away with mistakes in Triple-A, lots of them. Maybe you sneak a 3-1 fastball down the middle past Adrian Gonzalez, but if you keep on missing your spots, you’ll pay. Contrariwise, the better pitchers’ fastballs are faster, and their breaking balls break harder. You get fewer good pitches to hit. At the same time, pitchers deal with far more selective hitters. The level of quality in the pitcher-catcher faceoff, then, is so much higher than it is in the sloppy, erratic minors.

It’s doubly important to hit your spots if you’re a pitcher, because in the big leagues hitters will hit good pitches, too, or in any case not-bad ones. There was not only Saltalamacchia’s homer off of Hellickson but also Ryan Sweeney’s double, both on pitches that were by no means awful. Conversely, some pitchers will get you out with precisely the pitch you’re looking for, simply because the velocity and/or movement is just that good. In the minors, the guy with big-league talent will almost always prevail if he executes on any given pitch or play; in the majors, of course, everyone has big-league talent. You can make your best pitch, swing your best swing, and still find yourself overmatched.

I’m reminded of my senior year in high school, when I was interested in applying to some competitive colleges. I went to a small, oddball school where I was editor of the yearbook and had other little feathers in my teenaged cap. My guidance counselor gently warned me about the perils of trying to get into elite schools. Everyone applying was editor of the yearbook, or captain of the debate team, or a star athlete, or a cello prodigy, she told me. The field is level, and it is elevated.

***

So, 5-5 after Ortiz’ homer, top of the sixth inning, and Buchholz did what in retrospect seemed like the most important thing in the game: having been let off the loser’s hook, he mowed down the Rays in order in the sixth on nine pitches and three weak groundouts. In the next inning, the seventh, he was even more economical, taking care of Jennings, Pena, and Longoria with just seven pitches.

The game was, to my mind, over after the Red Sox tied it—the BoSox seemed sure to win—and the Rays’ bullpen agreed with me. Burke Badenhop was the first. He came out in the bottom of the sixth inning, sporting quite the band-aid on his neck, as though undergoing some routine treatment following a Frankenstein operation. He got through a 1-2-3 sixth, although it included a long flyout to center field by Saltalamacchia, but Aviles bounced a home run off the top of the Green Monster to open the bottom of the seventh. Now the score was 6-5, Boston.

One out later, J. P. Howell replaced Badenhop and concurred with the general assessment. Double, walk, single, double, and in nine Howell pitches, Boston racked up four baserunners and two runs, increasing the lead to 8-5. (Around now, either on the NESN broadcast or Jays-O’s, a graphic appears with a list of the active career stolen base leaders, and I am stunned to discover that Bobby Abreu is No. 6.)

The Rays went down 1-2-3, again, in the top of the eighth. In fact, the last 17 Rays to bat would be retired in order, with Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves picking up where Buchholz left off.

***

I was actually going to leave after the top of the eighth, confident in a Boston victory—and then, you know, scab the rest of the game from the play-by-play and hope my BP editors wouldn’t notice—but the new pitcher for Tampa Bay was Dane De La Rosa. De La Rosa had just been called up from Durham the day before (swapped in for Josh Lueke, who had been hammered in his previous appearance). I’ve seen De La Rosa pitch countless times in Triple-A and have more than a passing interest in his career. He is a former Indy-ball grinder who has played everywhere from Yuma to Canada to Southern Maryland. He nearly quit baseball altogether a few times but, after simplifying his mechanics and shortening his stride, earned another chance, this one from the Rays.

De La Rosa took advantage of it, working his way up to Triple-A with a mid-90s fastball delivered from a 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame. His breaking ball has been a long-term work-in-progress—he discarded his slider for a slower curve ball last year, only to start throwing something slurvy afterwards—but he’s a good guy with a root-for-him story. He had a seven-game cup of coffee last year with the Rays, and with Brandon Gomes still regaining full health following back surgery, De La Rosa was the next in line to get the call to the majors out of the Durham bullpen.

In De La Rosa’s first couple of appearances of 2012 in Durham, his fastball wasn’t at its normal velocity. He was usually at 91 mph, touching 92-93 seldom, and never anything above. He had struggled to open the season in Durham, pitching to a 9.00 ERA with three hits and five walks in just four innings, plus two wild pitches.

An ominous beginning, and it got worse for De La Rosa at Fenway. He issued a leadoff walk to Darnell McDonald. Then Mighty Mike Aviles doubled, putting runners on second and third. The Rays brought the infield in, and Dustin Pedroia obliged with a grounder to second baseman Jeff Keppinger. But Carlos Pena had lunged toward the hole, thinking he might have a play on the ball, and De La Rosa neglected to cover first base. Pedroia was safe and the bases were loaded with no outs.

De La Rosa almost got out of the inning by coaxing a textbook 4-2-3 double play out of Gonzalez. But then he walked Youkilis to complete a nine-pitch at-bat—Youkilis fouled off three 3-2 pitches; De La Rosa couldn’t put him away—the last of these pitches a 94-mph fastball that missed badly. Bases loaded again. You could see that De La Rosa was reaching for extra mustard, but at that velocity he had no control. What’s worrisome is that 94 was standard speed for De La Rosa in 2011.

He tried another 94-mph heater to Ortiz, also a ball, and on 2-2 Ortiz took De La Rosa the opposite way, down the left-field line. Elliot Johnson, who had pinch-hit for Matt Joyce in the previous inning—and who is a shortstop by trade—was out there and made a valiant dive, but he couldn’t catch the sinking fly. For a moment it seemed like he might have had injury added to insult. He rolled over his glove-side wrist on the dive, flung the glove off in obvious pain, and retrieved the ball and threw it into the infield. Then he bent over, clutching the wrist, as three runs scored.

Johnson stayed in the game and appeared to be okay. Dane De La Rosa was not okay, however, following up the Ortiz double by giving up a flaming-hot homer to Cody Ross to make the score 13-5, which wound up the final count. In a pair of eighth innings on Friday and Saturday, Boston scored 13 runs; over two games, 25 runs.

***

Rays note: they’re supposed to be all about the pitching this year, but so far the pitching has been pretty close to miserable, especially against Boston (although as I write this, James Shields is shutting out the Red Sox through six innings). Joe Maddon would later say that the Red Sox just seemed to be “on every pitch,” but plenty of those pitches they were on were bad ones. On Sunday, Matt Moore followed Hellickson’s three-homer, five-run five-inning performance with a two-homer, six-run, 6 1/3-inning start of his own.

Optimism with regard to the starters is appropriate. They are a talented bunch who can be expected to rebound from early wobbles. But the bullpen is a source of worry, especially with Kyle Farnsworth shelved with an elbow strain. There are reasons to think that good things will come from Fernando Rodney, and perhaps Joel Peralta, too; but almost everyone else is at least a little suspect. The Rays have assembled some good relief staffs on the cheap over the last few years, but not since the Joaquin Benoit-Rafael Soriano duo of 2010 have the Rays had a genuinely fearsome late-inning tandem. And this year’s middle-relief options—Badenhop, Howell, McGee—all come with consumer advisories. Perhaps Wade Davis, transferred to the bullpen from the rotation, will emerge as a legitimate stopper, but there’s no telling how he’ll respond to the change of roles.

Red Sox note: it took less than two weeks for the always-simmering Boston clubhouse to reach its first boil of the year. After Sunday’s game, Bobby Valentine said that Youkilis didn’t seem “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason'' and benched him in favor of Nick Punto on Monday. Youkilis was aggrieved, meeting with both Valentine (who apologized) and Boston GM Ben Cherington (who cowered in fear). Dustin Pedroia said, “I really don’t know what Bobby is trying to do.” If it was supposed to be motivation for Youkilis, as a reporter suggested to Pedroia, the heart and soul of the Red Sox wasn’t buying it. “Maybe that works in Japan,” he retorted, which is more or less the same as slapping the suggestion across the face with the back of a long glove.

The choice to hire Valentine made some sense for the Boston. Terry Francona’s tenure ended ignominiously when the Red Sox choked on their in-game fried chicken and beer and collapsed at the end of 2011, stumbling on an easy path to the playoffs. Francona was a “player’s manager,” which to me has always been a way of saying that the manager’s personality takes a back seat to that of his roster. With flamboyant and/or demonstrative and/or sensitive types like Ortiz, Youkilis, Manny Ramirez and John Lackey in the clubhouse, it’s easy to see how Francona’s natural reserve might have been supported and tacitly encouraged by the strong counterexample of his players.

Valentine is a much bigger and showier presence, and he exercises more control (or apparent control) over his teams than Francona did. His hiring represents a predictable swing away from the Francona style. But will it work, or will Valentine’s longtime habit of stirring pots make the bean crock on Yawkey Way boil over too often? There are some interesting storylines in Boston this year—I’m curious to see how Daniel Bard does in his move to the starting rotation—and plenty of reasons to envision this team making the playoffs (although the team needs, despite Aviles’ early success leading off, Ellsbury to return from his injury and be effective, and Aceves or someone will of course have to hold down the closer role). But to me, whether the Red Sox embrace their Valentine promises the most drama.


​Thanks to Bradley Ankrom for research assistance.

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

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