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.

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