One week into the season, the media in Boston, and most of the rest of the world, was ready to declare the Bill James-influenced closer-by-committee an abject failure. A series of high-profile meltdowns contributed to small-sample astronomical ERAs. But little has been said about the turnaround since then. Looking at games from March 31st to April 10th and April 11th to April 21st:
APR10 APP G IP H BB SO HR RA AVG OBP SLG ------ --- --- ----- --- --- --- --- ------ ------ ------ ------ BEFORE 26 10 35.7 48 19 24 6 7.07 .310 .385 .497 AFTER 21 9 28.3 27 5 24 3 3.49 .243 .288 .378
APR10 APP G IP H BB SO HR RA AVG OBP SLG ------ --- --- ----- --- --- --- --- ------ ------ ------ ------ BEFORE 10 10 58.3 52 26 51 6 4.94 .231 .319 .373 AFTER 9 9 52.7 56 22 35 3 5.47 .272 .356 .379
The two pitchers who have been uniformly terrible are Ramiro Mendoza and the just-demoted Bobby Howry. Whether Mendoza has just hit a rough patch or is hiding an injury remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Bosox have called up two relievers, Jason Shiell and Kevin Tolar, who have yet to allow a run.
Shea Hillenbrand still leads the league in RBI as of this writing, but he’s not been the most effective Bosox hitter with runners on base. Trot Nixon (.429/.538/.667) and Kevin Millar (.414/.514/.655) have each been outhitting Hillenbrand (a very respectable .351/.395/.541) when the bases aren’t empty. The biggest difference? Hillenbrand, with 40 plate appearances, has had 54% more opportunities than Nixon (26 PA) and 21% more than Millar (34 PA).
The recently completed seven-game winning streak is the second-longest the Red Sox have managed since April 1998, topped only by a nine-game winning streak from April 30th to May 9th of last year.
Middle infielder Freddy Sanchez is off to a hot start with Pawtucket, hitting and drawing walks by the boatload. He’s hitting .391, but even more impressive is his .500 on-base percentage. On-base machine Kevin Youkilis is doing even better, with a .511 OBP.
Ryan Rupe isn’t exactly a prospect, but he may be ready to help the bullpen should Mendoza continue to falter. He has an 11:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Triple-A, and hasn’t allowed an earned run yet in 10 innings.
Having faced exclusively AL East opponents (though not the Yankees) all season, the Red Sox will head out West for a six-game road trip, and spend the next month facing just four opponents: the Rangers, Angels, Royals, and Twins. Facing the defending World Champions, the reigning AL Central champs, and 2003’s biggest surprise team for a couple of series apiece makes for a tough stretch ahead. It must be odd when playing Alex Rodriguez counts as a break in the schedule.
The two high-profile injuries that have struck the Reds nicely illustrate the difference between a bad idea and a good idea gone wrong. In fact it illustrates the difference in multiple ways. Despite the repeated comments to the contrary in the media over the past year, the trade for Ken Griffey, Jr. was a good idea at the time. The fact that Mike Cameron has produced more for his team than Griffey has since the trade is a reflection of the injuries that have derailed Griffey’s career, injuries which could not have been foreseen at the time. In contrast, re-signing Barry Larkin to a three-year extension at age 36 was an obvious mistake from the beginning.
By this past off-season it was clear that neither player could be counted upon to stay healthy. The Reds’ response last winter was once again a mixture of the good and the bad. The trade which netted them Felipe Lopez was an excellent move, giving up a replaceable starter in exchange for a top-notch shortstop prospect. Lopez’s struggles so far both in the field and at the plate may indicate that it is a move that won’t work in the long run, but it’s still far too early to draw any definitive conclusions. And even if it doesn’t work out, the move was one worth trying. In contrast, the Reds find themselves woefully unprepared in center. The exact nature of Griffey’s injury this year may have been surprising, but the odds were extremely high that something was going to happen. The Reds’ backup outfield parade of Reggie Taylor, Ruben Mateo, Wily Mo Pena, and Jose Guillen has been as punchless as expected, and the dearth of better options represents a lack of foresight on the part of the team.
While it is still early enough in the season that things could change, the Reds have to be slightly worried by early attendance figures for games at the Great American Ballpark. At the last two new stadia to open, Miller Park in Milwaukee and PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the home team managed to produce somewhat higher attendance numbers than the Reds have in the early going. In particular their weekend games in the first month the stadium was open often drew above 30,000 fans, a figure the Reds have yet to exceed in either of their weekend series so far.
Attendance figures are higher than they were for the comparable time frame last year at Cinergy Field, but the experience of the Brewers and Pirates shows that this bump can be short-lived, and once the novelty wears off things will go back to the way they were before. The early numbers indicate this may happen even faster in Cincinnati. With the Reds’ terrible start and the loss of two name players from the starting lineup, don’t be surprised if the Reds’ attendance projections are quietly inched downwards. This in turn could lead to salary dumping come the trading deadline–a sure PR disaster after the claims that the new park would allow them to raise payroll and be more competitive. It’s shaping up to be a very long year along the Ohio River.
Hang this tag on the bullpen. Last season started off badly for the Padres when fireman Trevor Hoffman‘s bum shoulder required surgery in March. Since then, solid relievers Jay Witasick and Kevin Walker, both candidates for the vacant closer job, have pitched 0.0 innings while cooling their heels next to Hoffman on the DL.
The bullpen attrition made Brandon Villafuerte the keystone reliever to start the season. So far, the results have been middling–after a solid start, he’s been touched up for two losses and a blown save in his last four outings–and there’s not much relief on the horizon for this squad. Walker is out for the foreseeable future after re-injuring his surgically repaired elbow. Hoffman is making brave noises about being back by the All-Star break, but he’s not a spring chicken and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him miss all of 2003. Until Villafuerte gets his mediocre fastball under control or Witasick returns, you can make the argument that newcomer Matt Herges is the rock of the bullpen.
If there’s a silver lining to be had, we’re learning something about skipper Bruce Bochy’s bullpen management sans Trevor (Bochy is entering his ninth season as manager of the team, and he’s had Hoffman as his closer all nine seasons). Hoffman has been used in a strict closer role in San Diego, with only 16 appearances of longer than an inning over the last two seasons; in 2003, Villafuerte already has three. If Herges, Witasick, and Villafuerte can bring a bullpen ranked 28th in the majors by RRE under control, and if Bochy shows a continued willingness to stretch his best pitchers out Cincinnati-style, the Padres will be in good shape to decline Hoffman’s expensive 2004 option.
Give the gold star to ace Brian Lawrence, who has started the season in fine form with four straight quality starts. (If there’s a caveat, his ERA is actually higher than it was last season after four starts.) Lawrence was good last year, and at 26 he’s got plenty of time to mature into one of the elite pitchers in the National League.
Since he arrived in San Diego, Ryan Klesko has been a frustrating player to watch defensively. He’s faster, quicker, and more athletic than the average first baseman, and he doesn’t have problems with the diving stop or ranging back on a pop-up to make a play. Klesko has never had the defensive drawbacks Frank Thomas has to deal with.
But for such an agile player, Klesko’s positioning and ability to dig out the bad throw have been decidedly below average. It’s a vicious cycle; his poor positioning puts him at a disadvantage when he has to scoop a hurried throw, and that blows plays. His infielders see that, and they appear to try and compensate by muscling up, which frequently makes things worse.
The Padres have been first or second in the NL in Defensive Efficiency most of the season–they’re currently sixth–and Klesko’s improved play around first base looks like a large part of that. He’s playing defense with more discipline than in previous years, and he’s made several noteworthy plays on bad throws so far.