Monday, June 29, 2009

The Ancient One

Mike Lowell is 35. He has a surgically repaired hip and is in Boston right now because he's been hobbling around on the field. He just had 15 CCs of fluid drained from his surgically repaired hip, causing his manager to quip, "that's going to really help." Or maybe he wasn't quipping. Maybe that was complete deadpan, because his starting third baseman has leg connectors like an old man and he's in his mid-thirties and would presumably have another forty years before having to worry about such things.

There are times I'm glad I'm not a professional athlete. Reading about Mike Lowell's hip is one of those times.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Smoltz First Start with Sox in DC, Then Home to Atlanta

Future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz was home in Atlanta on Friday after a mediocre first big league start for a loss against the Nationals.

But let's be honest, his first start has to be considered a throw away.

Why? There are a whole host of reasons, but the major one to me is that its the first time facing major league hitting after not pitching for a long time and coming off major shoulder surgery for a guy who is 42.

Yes, the Nationals are the worst team in baseball, but that has more to do with a weak pitching starting rotation and pretty awful bullpen. Oh, and by the way, Jordan Zimmerman of the Nationals can deal. He has really good stuff.

Smoltz got knocked around in the first inning after hit a lefty batter on the shin after a wicked bending slider--a pitch to me that looked like it got a whole lot better the more he threw it, and one that will help him keep future batters off because they will never know when he will throw it. Overall, Smoltz improved as he went along by getting more in strike zone focused.

He ended up with 5 Ks in 5 innings with 5 earned runs. He lost, but he settled in and got his slider in more control--and got his fastball hitting the corners.

But most at play here was that thing you read about and hear sports broadcasters talk about so much: Adrenaline.

For the amount that term is used, you think it was a something you wear under your uniform or around your neck. Adrenaline is the biophysical, scientific way of saying an athlete is nervous, trying to be too perfect and is the complete opposite of relaxed.

Adrenaline build up is what you get when you are afraid of failing. Smoltz said as much after the game: "What I feared most was wanting to do so well," he [Smoltz] said later. "It felt different because so many people were rooting for me."

It's not the first time Smoltz has had to deal with nerves as a starter. Remember, this is the guy who went back and forth between a starter's role and closer and dominated in both. The man is a competitor in the best of ways, and something the Red Sox could very well need in a playoff situation.

On calming his nerves before his start, has this:

On Wednesday, he had spoken about a similar situation that made his nerves
flare. On April 4, 2005, Smoltz made his first start in four years after serving
as the Braves closer. He faced 13 batters. Seven of them scored. Smoltz allowed
six earned runs on six hits and two walks 1 2/3 innings.

Smoltz said he would draw on the experience to help calm his nerves for last
night. In the afternoon, he played cards with Manny Delcarmen and wore a smile
walking through the clubhouse, but jitters seemed to affect him in the first. He
hit the second batter he faced, Nick Johnson, in the shin.

With Matsuzaka on the DL, and looking pretty lost on the hill, having Smoltz able to eat up innings and keep the Red Sox in the game is going to be a great thing to watch going forward.

Is he going to give up runs? Absolutely. But I imagine he is going to keep them at bay better than many pitchers in the league.

Just look at his 21-year career numbers for evidence:

210 Wins, 3.27 ERA, 3016 Ks, 1.17 WHIP, 8 SO/9 innings, .235 BAA

He's going to be good.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Later He Cries Bitter Tears

Remember Julio Lugo? I know, I know: it's been a while (eight games, to be precise), and it's hard to remember he's standing on the sidelines when his replacement is a ninja who clearly spent that missing year of his career in training with Ra's al Ghul. But with Green's star well stuck in the firmament and Lowrie's return immanent, Lugo sees his future all too clearly and he's not shy about making his disappointment known. Sugar coating his feelings is just the way of disguising the knife, of course:
"I'm happy for [Green]," Lugo said. "I'm very happy he's playing well, but that doesn't take away from who I am. I haven't been a shortstop in the big leagues for 10 years because one day I woke up and got two hits. I've been here because I have a history of playing and playing well. That's why I've got 10 years in the big leagues. But I'm very happy for him."
Oh yeah, he's thrilled about riding the pine while someone else starts. Can't you tell?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nick Green, Glove Machine

At first I was going to say that part of the reason why Green's play looks so incredible is that the first part of it was so awkward, making the recovery that much more amazing. But then I watched it a few more times and I have come to disagree with my initial analysis: that whole move was flat out ninja, from the leap to avoid the sliding runner to the roll and spin to make the strong throw to first. Nick Green is having a career year and I'm very, very glad he's having it with the Red Sox.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Surprise, Surprise: Dice-K on the DL

A bit of gloating today, because a.) I'm pleased I called Dice-K's return trip to the DL and b.) that return trip makes this guy look like an even bigger idiot for demanding his burying in an unmarked grave somewhere in the bullpen. Two things of interest from the article announcing the confirmation of Matsuzaka's injury:
  1. The MRI results, which revealed that Matsuzaka's shoulder looks just as bad now as it did in April. That one surprises me, to be honest: I'm guessing that a lot of the decision making around whether or not to put a guy back on the roster revolves around he's reporting he feels, but I would still think that the team's medical staff would be giving out MRIs like candy if they thought it would tell them anything useful. From the article (which is admittedly short on detail), it sounds instead like Dice-K hasn't had an MRI since he first went on the DL and - concequently - the team could have avoided problems with a little more testing. Either way, if things haven't changed much since, I bet we don't see Matsuzaka again until late August.

  2. Francona going on the record blaming the World Baseball Classic for the loss of his pitcher. If he's saying it publically, the management and the ownership are saying it privately...and that might mean the end of Bud Selig's promotional party, or at least thelevel of pro participation the first two iterations of the Classic enjoyed. Personally, while I enjoy the concept that the WBC represents, having seen its negative effect on two different Red Sox teams, I'd be happy for a change in the way participation works.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Speculating on the Brad Penny Possibilities

For a baseball fan, there are few things finer than speculating on possibilities. The game's heavy focus on strategy makes it a natural generator of debate, particularly when possibilities are in play: when a team has options for different configurations that might help or hurt the team's fortunes, even the most casual fan has an option they favor. Thus with the Red Sox, who have a wealth of starting pitchers that would make Croesus's baseball equivalent jealous, and for once find themselves in position of strength in the mid-season trading market. The possibilities are two-fold:
  1. Brad Penny has proven himself to be a wildly successful gamble whose value increases with every start. Do the Sox trade him - and if so, to whom, and for what - or do they choose to ride his success to the post-season and possibly beyond?
  2. John Smoltz, Clay Buchholz, and Dice-K Matsuzaka are competing for a rotation spot. For now, the Sox are opting for a six man unit, but for the sake of their pitchers' rhythms, they'll have to make a decision one way or another before too much times goes by. Who should get the job?
What makes Boston's position even more enviable is that the Sox don't have to make a decision quite yet: they have the time to see Smoltz become a known quantity and if he doesn't work out, keep Penny for the rest of the season or trade him and fall back on Buchholz. If Smoltz proves himself up to his usual standards, they can trade Penny and pitch Buchholz, or keep Buchholz in the wings and hold on to Penny.

My thoughts: wait and see on Smoltz and trade Penny no matter what - but only after Smoltz has had time to establish himself. Unless Penny somehow goes off the deep end between now and the trading deadline, his value will remain high among contending teams desperate for good pitching and the Sox might be able to get a solid catching prospect in return. In addition, a trade will give Boston some value on an expiring contract for a pitcher who will command a lot more money on the market this winter. Waiting until Smoltz proves himself just increases the options in case of a worst case scenario. Either way, they should still DL Dice-K until he's really healthy before putting him back in the mix.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Oh, How They Come Crawling Back

The David Ortiz home run total is now up to five. Plus, he beat the shift in a big way, so either the Marlins are completely incompetent or Big Papi's got his timing back and every pitcher facing the Red Sox is for loads of trouble. Either way, the papers are now surprised he doesn't want to talk to them:
“That’s where I normally go when I’m swinging the bat good,’’ he said after the Red Sox’ 8-2 win over the Marlins last night.

Then, hurriedly, he left.

Ortiz now swings a big bat and scurries silently.
Is his reticence to talk to the media about what's changed that surprising? Facing daily columns saying his career was over; hearing a barrage of voices demanding his demotion in the lineup, his benching, his release; seeing buckets of ink spilled linking his name with use of steroids; why would he want to talk to reporters when vindication finally arrived? We've all had our faith in the game shaken time after time in the past five years, so the overreaction to any slump of unusual length can be explained - if not justified - by tying it to our fears, but if you kick a guy when he's down, he's not going to want to talk to you when he gets back up.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Matsuzaka to the Bullpen? No Way, Dice-K

Both the Providence Journal and the Boston Herald have opinion pieces today calling for the Sox to demote Dice-K to the bullpen to make way in the rotation for John Smoltz. The Herald is a little heavier on the rhetoric - perhaps someone can explain to me how, in an environment where newspapers are failing left and right and the markets are flooded with available journalists, a guy who compares the results of Terry Francona's rotation decisions with what's going on in Iran still has a job - but the sentiment is the same: Matsuzaka is having, to put it kindly, an off year, and because he can't go to the minors or on the trading block, he should go into the bullpen and become the baseball equivalent of the guy who cleans up after strip club patrons. Both writers concede that Dice-K is an unknown quantity as a reliever, but sporting the symptoms of a severe case of the "what have you done for me lately" fever that Sox writers and fans are all too apt to experience, feel the club is better served by having Matsuzaka exiled.

While I agree that Dice-K is having a craptastic first half and shouldn't be taking the ball every fifth day, I think moving him to the bullpen to serve as an example for any pitcher who even thinks of screwing up shows an astonishing lack of forethought. Anyone who's a fan of this move does realize that we're stuck with Matsuzaka for another three years, right? If we throw him into the 'pen and he never gets a chance to recover the magic touch that made him a strong addition to the rotation in the last two years, those three years are a complete waste.

So, rather than bullpenning him, how about putting him on the DL? Pitchers - even pitchers with as many innings on their arms as Dice-K has - don't completely fall apart at age 28 unless they're hurt...and conveniently enough, Matsuzaka has already been on the DL this year. If he never fully recovered, it might very well be at the root of his pitching problems.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Fun: Graph of David Ortiz's 2009 Home Runs

With home run number four of the season coming last night, David Ortiz has now hit three home runs in the past five days and - even better - has been hitting them at an accelerated rate. With that kind of production, it can't be too long (literally, I think he'd have to do it tomorrow to keep on pace) before he's hitting multiple dingers a night. Graphed out over time, those home runs look like this:

David Ortiz 2009 Home Runs

That's right: Big Papi is rocking a geometric progression.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Beckett Is Back

The emotional thrill ride of David Ortiz, the inherent drama and hype of the Sox vs. That Team from the Bronx (and their newly bolstered bad-guy rotation) could not have been captured better, Mr. Hanson.

While the Yankees have yet to beat Fenway's Finest in 2009, the thing I loved about last night's 7-0 shutout--as much as seeing Big Papi destroy an A.J. Burnett pitch to deep, straight-away center--was that Josh Beckett freaking dominated a very hot lineup by pitching to contact for outs and going for the throat when he needed it.

Beckett's line for last night:

  • 6 Innings
  • 93 Pitches
  • 59 Strikes
  • 8 Ks
  • 21 Batter's faced
  • 2 BBs
  • 1 Hit
  • 6 Groundouts, 4 Flyouts

The first few innings saw a good amount of pitching to contact for grounders and pop-outs, but as the game progressed and runs were scored by the Sox, Beckett became more dominant, more overpowering with corner-painting fastball and 12-6 curveball. His curve was hitting both the high, low and outside parts of the plate--and he was mixing it well enough with the fastball in any count that there was little the Yankees could do, but retreat to the dugout.

There's an excellent post from Mazz on what Lester and Beckett have been doing lately with their pitching--along with some keen history. Here's a snippet about just how good Beckett was last night:

Last night, as was the case last week in Detroit, Beckett had no-hit stuff. The
only hit he allowed was an infield single to Robinson Cano in the fourth inning.
Three nights after Lester struck out 10 of the first 18 batters he faced in six
perfect innings, Beckett walked off the Fenway Park mound at the end of the
sixth inning last night having whiffed eight of the final 16 batters he faced
while allowing just three balls out of the infield.

He's now 7-2, with a 3.77 ERA and ranked 6th in the AL in strikeouts with 76.

That was an excellent one hitter against a very tough lineup, Mr. Beckett. Keep it up.

Triumph of the Yankee Killer

They had their 2003 World Series-winning veteran pitcher. We had our 2003 World Series-winning veteran pitcher. They had their monster line up, their Alex Rodriguez with his .505 slugging percentage that's not only bolstered their line up, but given the previously lacklustre Mark Teixeira the shot in the arm needed for the Yankees to claw their way into first. We had Jason Bay, whose .524/.655/1.143 line in 21 at-bats when facing pinstriped pitching has made him the Yankee Killer the Sox need to lead the charge. The stage seemed set for a showdown of epic proportions.

Oh, and we also had Big Papi.

Because while their Marlins veteran looked like he needed a GPS to find the strike zone and our Marlins veteran was taking a one hitter through six before handing things off to the Red Scare, the Yankees announcing crew was talking about the fall of David Ortiz. 'Was his batspeed down,' they wondered? 'Terry Francona said he didn't think so,' they announced, but they thought anything could be possible. There were some valid questions about when he was swinging, but the conclusion seemed to be that David Ortiz would no longer be the threat to the Yankees he had been in the past and - let's be completely honest here - he should probably consider throwing in the towel.

And that's when Burnett, who had been trying to establish Ortiz on the upper portions of the outside of the plate, came back into the heart of the zone with a 2-2 fastball. Round came the classic swing and only the previous two months' frustration put any question on what was a no-doubt home run to deepest center. Out it sailed into the night, silencing the critics (and Yankee victory hopes) for one more night even as the fans begged for a curtain call from their hero. Let me tell you: the rest of the game might have been a bit dull, but that one piece of schadenfreude was absolutely delicious.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

And Now He Has Two

I could watch this video a 1,000 times and still enjoy it. Congratulations to David Ortiz on going 2 for 3 and notching home run number two of 2009. Here's to many more of both.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Keeping the Faith

What a night: Lowell gets his 1,500 hit and gets tossed a few innings later for making a legimate complaint about the shape and angle of the strike zone.  Youkilis gets run over at first stretching out to make a tough play, crawls across the field towards home, and slams his glove down in frustration (right before Pedroia runs over looking like he's about to prevent a homicide) while hearts of Red Sox fans everywhere stop for a moment as the spectre of a DL trip raises his head - and it turns out he's ok.  Beckett gets through six and two-thirds without a hit and ends the night splitting five runs with the usually deadly Daniel Bard.  And Papi...

Here's the thing: I've developed a measure of fatalism about Papi that has led me to watch every one of Ortiz's at-bats as if it were his last.  Doing so last night, I'm not sure which made me happier: seeing him hit that double off of the weak-as-water Nate Robertson as part of the six-run eighth inning, or smash the 420-foot out earlier in the game.  The double looks better in the box score of course, but the long out had all of the elements of a classic Ortiz long bomb that just happened to fall in the wrong part of a very big ball park.  In other words: I'm still nowhere closer to giving up on Ortiz in 2009.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Jacoby Ellsbury Cares Not For Walks - And That's Bad

I'm glad Jacoby Ellsbury is hitting on a regular basis - I really am - but I get a little nervous when he lets loose with quotes like this one:
If you’re fast they’re not throwing you many balls. They don’t want you on the basepaths. As a fast player, as a leadoff guy, they’re not going to pitch around me. It makes it tough to walk. If you go up trying to walk you get down in the count. If the pitch is there you have to be swinging at it. You can’t be taking (good) pitches just to walk.
On the surface he's right, of course: if Mark Bellhorn is complimenting you on your ability to take pitches, you're going to be looking a strike three an awful lot, and that means you won't be on base to grab steals and score runs.  But Ellsbury is taking things too far: by taking the mindset that he can't wait for pitchers to miss, he's running against the philosophy that's made this team's offense so effective: the Sox take pitches.  They run deep counts and wear out pitchers.  They care so much about OBP that their broadcast network includes it in the onscreen stat line.  Having a lead off hitter who uses both his words and his actions - he's got 12 walks in 50 games - to speak to his ignorance of this philosophy is a problem.  Here's hoping he realizes how much of a problem soon.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Remy Speaks

Jerry Remy hopes to be back in the NESN booth soon. But don't take it from us. No sah. Listen to him fah yahself:
Get better, Remdawg. We miss your cackle and your ribbing of Don and his gorgeous suits.
[Image from The Remy Report]

Bill Simmons on Big Papi

I don't want it to be an epitaph (Really.  No bad baseball news from the past five years would upset me as much as seeing David Ortiz hang up his Red Sox uniform, especially going out like he has thus far), but if it is an epitaph, it's a damn good one, for both Oritz and for us, the fans.  My favorite two paragraphs:
Really, that's a tribute to what he means to his fans and how delightful it was to watch him play. His career might be over (notice I left the door open; I'm such a sap), but Ortiz has reached the highest level an athlete can reach: unequivocal devotion. Sox fans love him the same way you love an ailing family member. In the end, at his bleakest point, he's brought out the best of an entire fan base. He has inspired dignity and emotion and loyalty. The fans could have sped his demise (and saved a few games) by booing until Francona benched him. They didn't. How often does that happen?

We live in a world in which all entertainment is chewed up and spat out. We milk public figures like cows, and when they're out of milk, we tip them over and move on. Quickly. It's not just that we need to see everything "jump the shark" that bothers me. It's also that so many of us are gleeful about pointing out that something or someone we once loved has outlived his usefulness. The demise of Big Papi played out in an old-school way: real devotion, and in the end, people refusing to let go.
If we can keep the faith in one player and avoid even thinking "what have you done for me, lately?" maybe there's hope for us after all.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Sox, Two Months In

Tony Massarotti and his super-branded page of wonders (seriously: what's with that massive leaderboard?  Is Massarotti really that much of a sports journalism celebrity?  And do you think Shaughnessy and Ryan sit around and bitch about all of the special attention Massarotti gets?) have a round up of the Sox thus far in 2009.  Most of it isn't too surprising: the offensive has holes, the defense has holes, the starting pitching hasn't been the knockout we'd expect, etc.

However, I was pretty surprised to see how poorly the Sox are doing when it comes to throwing out base runners: almost as many runners caught by pick off as by throw to second?  59 stolen bases allowed in two months?  I know there were a couple of bad days, like when Carl Crawford did his best roadrunner impression over and over and over again, but who knew those bad days turned into giving up over a steal a game for 51 games?  I'd be curious to know if that statistic is making something out of nothing: how many of those steals turned into runs?  Would the Sox be in first now with a good-sized lead if they were more effective at holding runners?  Somehow I doubt it.

Speaking of first, we probably wouldn't be  anywhere near sniffing distance of first place if it weren't for the second (and far more pleasant) surprise factor: our bullpen rocks.  And not just in the warm and fuzzy feelings that I get whenever Okajima or MDC or Ramirez or (usually) Papelbon comes to the mound, but in numbers that would make the original Red Scare jealous: the Sox are first in the American League in bullpen ERA, a full run ahead of their closest competitor, the other Sox.  Bullpen may not be everything, but if we come into October and the bullpen is still pitching at this level, I will be a very happy man.

So: some good things, some bad things, and a cautiously optimistic start to the season.  Next up: the Sox not falling prey to the June Swoon.  My money is still loyally down on a Papi-led breakout.

Lester Locks In on Strike Zone

Jon Lester has a new career milestone: Twelve strikeouts in a game.

After two games of losses in Toronto with little offensive production, the Red Sox beat up on the Blue Jay's pitching in the rubber match on Sunday for a strong 8-2 win--keeping the Sox half a game out of first with a Yankees loss in Cleveland-- a loss by the way that should have been an official win for Carl Pavano (who is easily the comeback player of the year and another source of fun Yankee-ribbing here in NY).

Francona juggled the lineup so that the offense was stacked with righties: Pedroia hit lead-off, the 3-4-5 spots were set by Youk-Bay-Lowell, and Navajo-Jewish-Lawyer Ellsbury and his lefty bat dropped down to the eigth spot-- a strange place to seem him bat fo sho.

In the 4th inning, Pedroia slapped a 3 run homer on a line drive that barely cleared the left-field fence at the Rogers Centre. Additionally, the Sox had nice batting contributions from Lowell, Bay, and even a double by the still struggling David Ortiz.

But the dominant story for this game was Jon Lester and his pounding of the strike zone. After a tough loss last week in Minnesota where Lester pitched well , but gave up a 3 run blast to Justin Morneau--the difference on Sunday was that he was practically unhittable. Lester used the entire zone, going high with his 94 mph heater, cutting his pitches in to righties, throwing his curve up and down and on the corners, and, apparently, used a change up to help keep batters off.

From a article on Lester and his pitches:
Jason Varitek said the pitcher threw about 20 change ups in the game,
perhaps 10 times as many as he called in Lester's last start against the Jays,
saying, "That's a totally different guy than you've seen before. He just
showed that he had a good one today, had good depth and good arm speed with
Lester gave up only 3 hits, threw 72 strikes in 115 pitches, and gave up one run in the first inning on a sac fly to Vernon Wells. The only real issue here was that Lester didn't get beyond 6 innings, something you'd expect to find in a game with 12 Ks. But when you start adding up the foul balls and deep counts that the Blue Jays can take a pitcher, it's not surprising to see that line on the box score.

The key was that his fastball was zippy and hard to catch up for hitters and he painted his curve ball on the corners, especially to right-handed hitters. When you mix in the use of the change up, what you get is a very good outing. Lester lowered his ERA under 6.00 to 5.65, another very good sign that the young lefty is starting to hit his stride.

Given the lack of consistent offensive production from the Sox on the road, getting and keeping Lester going will be another key element to keeping pace in the AL East. As Joy of Sox points out: "Boston has scored only 4.2 runs per road game, more than two runs fewer than their 6.3 average at home."

Let's hope that improves.

This week: 3 games in Detroit starting Tuesday night, then back to Fenway for a 3 game series against the AL West-leading Texas Rangers (followed by next week's visit by that team from the Bronx to Beantown).