Monday, May 13, 2013

Rot at the Top

Before this weekend, the Red Sox were 4-2 against Toronto this season; a team that Sox hitters happily used to pump up their stats.  Napoli had already hit 4 homers off Toronto pitching this season; Middlebrooks had 3 homers in one game against Toronto during the first week of the season.

As for Toronto's pitching coming into Fenway over the weekend, they weren't bringing their A game -- in fact, they brought their AAA and AA game.  Ramon Ortiz, the starter who lost to Lester on Friday, is a 39 year old whose last full MLB season was in 2007 and he's been a mainstay in the International League since then.  Chad Jenkins, who pitched Sunday, is a 25 year old prospect, first round pick, and we'll probably hear his name more over the next few years.  But he has under 40 innings pitched at MLB level, and he was recalled from Toronto's AA team to make his first major league start at Fenway.  And centered between these two question marks was Mark Buehrle, who came into Fenway sporting a robust 7.02 ERA.

Last week, I noted that the Red Sox hitters do well against bad pitching (and especially against Toronto), but have trouble against starters with an ERA below 4.00.  So this series should have been a cakewalk, right?


Let's start with the good news.  Shane Victorino had quite a series, and should continue to play well if he doesn't go on the DL.  He hit .400 and got on base half the time, with an OBP of .500.  Victorino did his job of getting on base supremely well, so it's not his fault that he only scored one run.

Pedroia had a great series, too: .500 AVG / .538 OBP, couple of runs scored, 1 RBI, and a stolen base.

For a lineup whose 2 and 3 hitters are getting on base over 50% of the time, you would expect more than just 3 runs from the pair, right?  Of course!  Except Big Papi had 1 hit in 7 at-bats, and Mike Napoli had exactly zero hits in the first two games of the series.  Napoli finally busted out in the third game with 3 hits and a home run -- against a pitcher making his first career start.  At least Napoli did well in one game, but he still has yet to step up against good pitchers.

And then there's Ellsbury.  It would help the lineup if the leadoff hitter wasn't practically an automatic out, but Ellsbury went 3 for 15 in the series -- a .200 batting average -- with no walks.  And, notably, no stolen bases.  Ellsbury's only shining moment was an RBI triple that he nailed off of 42 year old Darren Oliver, and nobody is sure why Oliver is still in the big leagues.

What's worse is how Ellsbury has played in the 9th inning.  During the last Twins game before the Toronto series, Ellsbury drew a walk to start the 9th inning.  He didn't make one attempt to steal a base before the next three hitters were retired in order.  It's Ellsbury's job to either steal that base, or get in the pitcher's head and make the pitcher more apt to throw either more fastballs to batters, or make a mistake on a pitch that the batter can crush.  Ellsbury is supposed to make the hitters behind him better by being a threat to steal bases -- that's his job -- and he's not doing it.  Ellsbury also came to the plate in the 9th during the final two games of the Toronto series.  On Saturday, with Middlebrooks on second base, Ellsbury swings at the first pitch and grounds out, ending the game.  On Sunday, with Drew on first base, he strikes out looking.

Baseball has a long season, and players get into slumps.  Terry Francona would manage these slumps by strategically not managing, simply keeping players in their usual batting order spots and usual roles and riding things out.  So, should Ellsbury be dropped from the leadoff spot?  No, not yet.  Besides, he's certainly not the only hitter in this lineup who is struggling.

I won't get into the 6-9 hitters because most of the runs are supposed to be generated from the 1-5 spots.  Looking at the performances of Victorino and Pedroia, things aren't as bad as they might seem (provided that Victorino doesn't go on the DL...), but the fact the lineup as a whole didn't turn their collective slump around against what was, ostensibly, some questionable pitching coming into Fenway this weekend shows us just how deep this slump is.  The Red Sox aren't just failing against good pitchers, but most pitching in general now.

With the Yankees taking first place, despite their assortment of replacement players filling in before stars like Jeter get back, this might be one of the worst times for a mostly healthy Red Sox team to slump.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Catching options: Lavarnway, Vazquez, Ross, and fuck Salty

With the Red Sox mired in a slump right now, one has to wonder if they are fielding the best team possible with the players they currently have in the organization.  And, since Jarrod Saltalamacchia is still on the 25 man roster, the answer is no.

It's tough to contextualize how bad Salty has been this season without wanting to add a number of adjectives and profanities before words like "bad", "abhorrent", "horrible", "atrocious", etc.; since that would make the writer sound ridiculous, and possibly biased.  But Salty deserves it.  Just look at his defensive numbers:

SB: 13 CS: 1 
Percent of runners caught stealing: 7%
Passed Balls: 3
Errors: 3

I'm actually surprised that he hasn't had more passed balls.  Two of his errors -- that errant throw to Napoli the other night, and a throw into right field earlier this month -- led to three runs crossing the plate.  One of those passed balls got a baserunner to third as well, and they later scored.  So Salty's defense has already cost the Red Sox at least 4 runs -- and that's before taking his atrocious inability to keep baserunners from stealing!  Salty has caught just 7% of baserunners this season.  Are you fucking kidding me?  That's horrible.  So it's reasonable, without bias or embellishment, to say that Salty's defense is atrociously, ridiculously, astronomically fucking terrible.

Salty's 4 HR and 9 RBI simply doesn't make up for his defense, either -- and don't get me into his fucking strikeouts.  He's averaging one K every 2.48 plate appearances.  Salty is just an all-around fucking bad player; and the longer he's on the 25 man roster, the more he's hurting the Red Sox chances of winning.  He's not even a suitable option to be a backup catcher anymore.

Who else can the Red Sox throw behind the plate?  Right now, David Ross needs to be made the primary catcher, but Ross has been a backup his whole career and he's an older player -- he can probably only be reasonably expected to play 60% of the time.  He's going to need an understudy, and the answer to who that player is should probably be Ryan Lavarnway; but let's consider another catcher in the system first.

Remember one of the Sox non-top prospect catchers who dazzled everyone with his defense in spring training games?  To jog your memory, the player is Christian Vazquez and he's catching for AA Portland right now.  His spectacular defense has continued to shine through in Portland, too:

SB: 17 CS: 15
Percent of runners caught stealing: 47%
Passed balls: 3
Errors: 2

With a tandem of Ross and Vazquez behind the plate, opposing teams would think twice about having baserunners challenge their arms.  With Salty, the only surprising thing is that only 14 baserunners have attempted steals with him behind the plate -- but as teams update their scouting reports and see Salty's deficiencies, expect the number of baserunners attempting steals to skyrocket.  Yes, as bad as Salty is, the situation can become much worse.

Unfortunately, Vazquez's hitting stats aren't upto snuff: .258 AVG / .405 OBP, 2 HR, 11 RBI in 85 PA at AA.  Vazquez gets on base a ton, and his batting average against LHP is a shade over .300 so maybe he could be used solely against southpaws, but it doesn't look like he's ready to hit at the MLB level yet.  Which is a shame, because his defense is probably MLB ready, and I wonder if there would be some benefits of having him receive tutelage from Ross instead of playing everyday in Portland...  But Vazquez is 22, had a great season at Salem in 2011 (18 HR, 84 RBI), so not rushing him to the majors is probably the safest bet.

That leaves us with the enigmatic Ryan Lavarnway.  In 2011, Lavarnway looked like he was ready to clobber the fuck out of the ball at the MLB level.  In 2012, he came to Boston and hit under .200.  So, which Lavarnway came to play in 2013?  Here are his numbers at Pawtucket:

.311 AVG / .413 OBP, 2 HR, 15 RBI, K per 7.66 PA

You know, I think Lavarnway might finally be ready.  But what about his defense?

SB: 8 CS: 6
Percent of runners caught stealing: 43%
Passed balls: 8
Errors: 0

Lavarnway and Salty have each had 14 baserunners attempt steals off them, and the percent of runners Lavarnway has caught, when compared to Salty's measly 7%, just speaks for itself.  As for his 8 passed balls, that seems alarming until you remember that Pawtucket has knuckleballer Steven Wright in their starting rotation -- most of those past balls are probably knuckleballs that Lavarnway wouldn't have thrown to him unless Wright is optioned upto Boston.  Even then, his passed ball numbers when accounting for a knuckleball pitcher seem decent.

Bottom line here is, while Lavarnway's defense isn't as good as Vazquez's, there's no doubt that he would be a vast improvement over what Salty offers us.  And Lavarnway will probably be just as good of a hitter as Salty -- probably a better hitter, if comparing Lavarnway's K:PA ratio to Salty's horrible propensity to whiff means anything.

The time has come for the Red Sox to part ways with Jarrod Saltalamacchia - a failed prospect.  Offer him an assignment in Pawtucket if you want to keep him around for "depth", but Lavarnway is ready to play and Salty, well, just can't bring it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Hitting Funk

Since going to Arlington to play against the Rangers, the Red Sox have faced some very good pitching.  The only starter with an ERA over 4.00 that they faced was Vance Worley, who had a 7+ ERA before facing the Sox (he lowered it to 6.95).  Sox hitters only managed to get 3 ER off Worley in 5 IP.

But the other starters the Sox have faced have been more daunting: Darvish (2.56), Holland (2.74), Ogando (3.08).  Even Scott Diamond, the common card we saw pitch last night, came into yesterday's start with a somewhat high 3.97 ERA but got that down to 3.03.

And what exactly have Sox hitters looked like after they arrived in Arlington?  Let's take a look at the stats:

Ellsbury: .304 OBP, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 R
Victorino: .294 OBP, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 R

I'll go with average for the rest of the hitters, but the primary job of the 1-2 hitters it getting on base -- which they haven't been doing.  That partially explains why Ells hasn't scored a run, and Victorino's run scored was off his home run.  For the few times they have gotten on base, though, the meat of the order hasn't been able to drive them home:

Pedroia: .210 AVG, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R
Ortiz: .263 AVG, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 R
Napoli: .111 AVG, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 1 R

I'm not sure how much longer the Pedroia hitting third experiment can last for if he's not going to provide enough power at such an important position in the order -- but I'm not sure where else Pedroia could be placed in the batting order, either.  Ortiz would be the obvious choice to hit third.  And then there's Napoli... That batting average really just says it all right there. Pitchers hit better than that.

Looking at the rest of the main players, the only bright spot is Drew -- the only position player over the past 5 games who's managed to have a big day.

Middlebrooks: .142 AVG, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 R
Nava: .181 AVG, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 1 R
Salty: .285 AVG, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R
Drew: .400 AVG, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 R

Salty is hitting more than usual, too.  But the only run he's responsible for, last night's home run, is negated by an errant throw to Napoli at first that, after hitting the dirt and nearly going into the outfield before Pedroia blocked it, allowed a runner on third to score.  Salty, showing immaturity, then almost got himself ejected when he bitched to the umpire about the baserunner going to first -- sorry buddy, the baserunner didn't fucking throw the ball into the dirt.  You did.

I've detailed Napoli's problems hitting against good pitching (indeed, his issues are way more pronounced), but the rest of the offense is struggling, too.  Drew's spectacular night at the plate came during the game that Worley and his 7+ ERA pitching, so over the past few games there's hardly an example of a Sox hitter stepping up against a good pitcher.  Closest example I can think of is Ortiz homering off Darvish, but Darvish made him (and all other Sox hitters) look silly for the rest of the game.

Great teams hit don't let playoff-caliber pitching keep them down.  If the 2013 Red Sox want to think about making the playoffs, they need to start winning against good pitchers -- at the very least, start trying to work the count against these pitchers.  No more 3 pitch at-bats.  The Sox can't have a series against Toronto every week to pad the winning percentage -- the schedule is just going to get tougher from here on out.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Meet the Napolis

The Red Sox have enjoyed the services of Mike Napoli for about five weeks now, so what have we seen so far? Looking beyond the fact that Napoli can crush Toronto's horrible pitching -- 4 of his 6 homers have come against the Blue Jays -- let's split Napoli's stats by games against above and under .500 teams:

Against above .500 teams: .264 BA / .324 OBP, 2 HR, 16 RBI, 9 R, 22K (18 games)
Against below .500 teams: .272 BA / .298 OBP, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 8 R, 24 K (13 games)

The stat lines look pretty similar.  So we're looking at a player who performs equally well against all types of competition, and we don't have to worry about him getting beat by good pitching, right? 

Not really.  I'm going to take away 2 games from Napoli's above .500 teams stats -- one was against Cleveland, the other against Oakland.  The Oakland game was against A.J. Griffin, who had a bad start.  The Cleveland game was against Ubaldo Jimenez, who is just plain bad.  Have a look at Napoli's stats against .500 teams, minus bad pitching:

.237 BA / .307 OBP, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 6 R, 18 K (16 games)

Some might say that I'm being unfair by selectively removing a couple games against bad pitchers/pitching, but before Napoli came here he was known for having huge games against bad pitching that inflated his stats.  I want to see how Napoli performs against real competition and, looking at those stats, I'm not impressed.  The Napoli that hits 4 homers against Toronto doesn't look like the same Napoli that only got 1 hit in three games against Texas this weekend -- and that hit didn't produce a run.  The Sox don't play against Toronto, or pitchers like Jimenez, every other week; so Napoli needs to find a way to start producing against real competition. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Middlebrooks that we've seen before

Last season, ill-fated manager and Major League Asshole Bobby Valentine was visibly upset that he had to play Kevin Youkilis at third base -- Will Middlebrooks was the future, and Valentine wanted WMB at third base full time.  And after Youk got injured and WMB had his chance to start, it looked like Valentine had evaluated his level of talent well.  In May, 2012, WMB had 6 homers and 21 RBI with a .343 OBP.  Great!  Problem solved, right?  Ship Youkilis straight out of town, the future is motherfucking here!

Since then, nobody has regarded Middlebrooks as a "prospect" anymore.  Unfortunately for him, and for fans, this assessment is incorrect -- Middlebrooks is very much still a young, developing player.  A player who we've seen struggle at the MLB level in 2012, at a time when it would have been quite helpful to have kept Youkilis on the roster so Middlebrooks could be optioned back to Pawtucket to work on his approach at the plate before getting the full time job at third base in 2013.  So, thanks a fucking lot Bobby Valentine, you stupid piece of shit.

Even in 2013, we're still dealing with how horribly Valentine managed this team...  Sorry for the digression, but I still want to kick that motherfucker square in his pea-sized balls.

Anyway, back to Middlebrooks, let me drudge up his August, 2012 numbers so we can look at them side-by-side with his 2013 numbers

August, 2012: .194 AVG / .286 OBP, 2 HR, 7 RBI
Present, 2013: .195 AVG / .233 OBP, 6 HR, 12 RBI

Both stat lines look eerily similar, don't they?  Keep in mind that Middlebrooks had 3 homers and 4 RBI in one game against Toronto in the first week of April -- take that game away, and these stat lines are almost identical save for his on-base percentage, which is remarkably worse.

Why is WMB's OBP worse?  Well, let's look at a picture of a strike 3 that WMB swung at last night in the 9th inning.

Pardon the unprofessional appearance here; this is a screencap from my iPhone.  Someday, maybe I'll learn how to make fancy moving GIFs...  Anyway, we see two things happening here: 
  1. Rangers' Joe Nathan missed his spot with a fastball, throwing it high and away.  The pitch was so bad that it could have easily been a passed ball. 
  2. And Will Middlebrooks fucking swung at it anyway.
Here's a still Middlebrooks making contact earlier in the game, flying out to shallow right field with a runner on second:

Rangers' starter Ogondo threw a breaking ball low and away.  Middlebrooks started swinging at this slop last season and it would always lead to weak outs, and this behavior at the plate has continued.  

Like any hitter worth his salt, Will Middlebrooks can send fastballs flying out of the park.  Unfortunately, right now he can't hit anything else with authority.  Unless WMB stops swinging at the horrible pitches we saw in the first picture, or learning how to foul off outside breaking balls in the second picture, then he won't be able to work pitchers into a count where they need to throw him a fastball that he can destroy. 

As the stats from last August and this season show, the Middlebrooks we see playing now is someone we've seen before.  This is a young prospect who still needs to progress before he can achieve at the MLB level.  I'm not sure if the Red Sox intended to address this by placing the option/threat of sending him back to Pawtucket on the table, but it's an option that I wouldn't rule out if he continues to struggle with his approach at the plate at the MLB level.  Pitchers in the American League have adjusted to Middlebrooks, and he must learn how to readjust and get himself into hitter's counts. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Good Problems

I want to highlight problems that I see with this Red Sox team, but before discussing those problems let's place this conversation on a higher level: the problems I'm about to discuss are problems that other teams wish that they had.  For example, the Rays came into this season expecting their pitching to carry the team's weak offense.  They had 2012 Cy Young award winner David Price heading their rotation with loads of young talent behind him.  Well, Price's ERA after April is over 5; and Jeremy Hellickson isn't faring any better.  They traded ace start James Shields for "top prospect" Wil Myers, but Myers's numbers at AAA Durham show that he's not MLB ready yet.  Ironically, the Kansas City Royals have emerged as an early surprise as playoff contenders behind James Shields's strong arm.

The Red Sox have emerged as surprise playoff contenders this early in the season, too.  It's been a while since we've seen a Red Sox team at full strength, with minimal injuries.  Victorino and Andrew Bailey have been on the shelf this past week, but other than that this team has been at full strength -- which is a beautiful thing.

One also must wonder how long this lack of injuries will last for.

Injuries happen.  After the 2010 and 2012 seasons Red Sox fans are quite familiar with the ole injury bug happening to their team.  I'm sure this team doesn't sense this -- everyone thinks that they'll live forever.  But, one the best attributes I've seen from this Red Sox squad is their ability to stay in games and win.  They soaked up wins in April, which is not only a great display of positive attitude and teamwork, but those April wins might be crucial in a baseball world with the second wild card placing most teams in playoff contention for a longer period throughout the season.

To place some perspective on this: The Yankees have played well, too, and they have a ton of injuries.  If Jeter and A-Rod make it back to the roster, but then lose out to a playoff berth because the Red Sox soaked up April wins when they were at full strength, then we see the power of this Red Sox team playing all out throughout the season.

Who doesn't -- nay, can't -- like the winning spirit displayed by the Red Sox so far?  I love this team. Win or lose, I can only thing of a couple games that they haven't been in this season.  When this team loses, they're always threatening to win the game. They're the kind of time that you want to watch, because you never know what will happen.

So, with all of that said, I'll reserve a couple posts this or next week (no timetable, I'm lazy) to discuss problems I see with this current Red Sox team.  Every team has problems that should be discussed, but problems are smaller than those of other teams.