On Friday night I attended the International League game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Syracuse Skychiefs, with the intention of watching Kason Gabbard live, as well as to see Jacoby Ellsbury and Brandon Moss play. Josh Banks was the opposing starter, but more on him in a bit.
I’m of the opinion that Gabbard can be a useful major league pitcher; maybe not as a starter, but he could fill the role of swingman and middle reliever effectively, given his ability to strike batters out and induce groundballs. He’s also left-handed, which automatically gives him chance after chance to succeed until he proves he cannot. Coming into the start, Gabbard seemed to have figured out his control problems from the year before, posting a 2.9 K/BB ratio, 8.1 K/9 and a .262 BABIP. His batted-ball data from the season is encouraging as well, as he continues to get hitters to hit grounders at or around 60% of the time. At three levels in 2006 (Portland, Pawtucket and Boston) Gabbard’s groundball rates were 61.1%, 62.8%, and 57.7%, respectively. His home runs have also risen at each level, but he has managed to stop allowing as many baserunners in 2007, which negates some of that.
In his start Friday, Gabbard gave up more balls in the air than he did grounders, which resulted in two homers. Most of the liners were soft ones, and the only dangerous looking flyballs both ended up over the fence. He had a few batters popup weakly as well, and would have had an easier go of it had his defense not made two errors on sharp grounders.
Gabbard went back and forth between getting ahead early in counts to get the strikeout and working around the zone, forcing the batter to hit a bad pitch for no gain. Part of the reason he wasn’t inducing as many grounders was because his offspeed and breaking pitches seemed to be the focus of his gameplan, but both of them were on. He froze Howie Clark in the first on a neat breaking ball, and caught another batter looking in the second on an offspeed pitch. One thing I’ve noticed about Gabbard is that he goes through stretches where no one can touch him, but will occasionally slip; those are usually the innings where he’ll give up a walk and a homer, and it’s probably what keeps him from securing a job in the majors just yet. Then there’s the other side of that, like the fourth inning against the Skychiefs. The inning couldn’t have lasted more than two minutes, and Gabbard probably threw 1, maybe 2 balls the whole inning. Overall, he pitched a solid game, another dose of encouragement after his spot-start in Boston last week.
The same cannot be said of Josh Banks’ start. Banks, as his Baseball Prospectus 2007 comment suggests, relies on exploiting minor league hitter’s weaknesses rather than stuff in order to post his numbers. He wasn’t fooling any of the Paw Sox Friday, giving up 11 hits, two of them homers, in just one inning of work. He worked in the zone too much for his own good, and the Paw Sox batted around in the first, then continued to pour it on Banks in the second. He allowed five grounders, most hard hit shots through holes in the defense, while Jeff Bailey and Brandon Moss hit back-to-back homers that left the bats and the park very quickly. Jordan De Jong came in relief of Banks, and although he held the Paw Sox offense at bay for the next few innings, he managed to give up his share of deep and hard hit flyballs; the difference being that his batted-balls were caught by the defense, while Banks’ all seemed to end up where the defense wasn’t stationed.
Mike Timlin came in for an inning on his rehab assignment–he had been put on the disabled list due to tendonitis–and although he had a scoreless inning, he looked awful doing it. By my count–just as a defense, I may have missed ticking off a pitch or two in my little black book–Timlin threw 9 balls and 7 strikes, topped out at 92 mph, but sat around 88-89 for the inning. I will say that his sinking pitches were working fine, inducing the grounders that got him out of a jam. His breaking ball was around 75-76, but the break wasn’t all that sharp, and his fastball wasn’t inspiring. He’s probably shaking out the rust, but Timlin has been a worrisome reliever much of the past few seasons. That said, you have to love the crowd energy at a minor league game when a major leaguer steps in to play.
On the offensive side of things, I was encouraged by Ellsbury’s plate appearances. He worked the counts, slapped some balls and hit some solidly, and managed to go 2/5 with a single and a double. If I was forced to say one thing about him though, it would be, “Man, he is fast.” I’ve heard a lot about his defense and speed, and you can see why watching him play center, although he didn’t have to make all that many plays out there. He knows where the ball is going when it comes off the bat, and he’s seemingly fast enough to get anywhere out there.
Brandon Moss was also impressive at the plate, despite striking out twice. His homer was a bullet, and his .304/.397/.560 line at Triple-A is encouraging to those who worried that his star was dimming after a few average seasons at Portland. The same cannot be said of George Kottaras, who the Sox acquired for David Wells late last season. He looked as lost at the plate as his .200/.304/.300 line suggests he is, which isn’t a good sign for a Boston team currently relying on the aged tandem of Jason Varitek and Doug Mirabelli behind the plate.
As a Sox fan, I’m not used to seeing very good players at the high levels of the minors, or at Lowell for that matter, which is five minutes away from my house. Wilton Veras used to be the highlight of a trip to a minor league game for me, so being able to go and see all of these players at once has been a lot of fun, especially as a member of the press for various outlets these past few years.