Sunday, August 23, 2009

Does a Tougher Schedule Mean No October Baseball?

Regardless of how this game turns out, it's seems fairly safe to say that as sure as at least one person behind home plate will be waving like an idiot at the camera while talking on their cell phone, the Yankees will end up winning the AL East. I've come to terms with this idea, while blessing the idea of the Wild Card and its power to salvage the season. We still have a shot at the final glory, you see, so it's easier to wave goodbye, however wistfully, to one of the prizes to be obtained along the way.

While contemplating this state of affairs, I wondered if anyone had ever done a statistical study about the effect of the difficulty of the schedule on the likelihood of making the post-season. For example, if the Red Sox have a schedule where tough items like a road trip against New York followed by a swing out West are the norm, are they less likely to win the AL East crown or the Wild Card? Or, because each team plays every other team in their league a certain number of times, are the tough moments games by the easier ones?

Were I to do such a study, I'd probably use each team's Pythagorean for the year: after all, the idea is to determine how "tough" each team is to face, and a measurement of their predicted winning percentage as determined by runs allowed and scored seems like a good measurement. After that, I'd take all of the available data and start looking for patterns to see whether or not I could determine what the minimum winning percentage would be to define a "tough" team. From there, I could make some judgments about the layout of a tougher schedule and see where each team finished.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ode to the Worst Week in Red Sox Baseball in a Long Time

So many Red Sox thoughts right now, I'm overwhelmed with strange feelings.

It started with Lester's 8 innings in Tampa last week when it looked like it was a lock for a win. And then the pen collapsed. I knew then that there was something strange and eerie going on--like it was 2008 all over again and the Rays have magical powers at the Trop.

Some thoughts go to the past... Was Manny a Zenmaster in disguise, relaxing the middle of the lineup with his que-sera-sera, stoner outlook?

I despise Manny now for what he did to get traded, but I understand his value in the middle of that lineup. For all his bad traits, the guy rarely pressed. He was the equivalent of having, gulp, Mark Teixiera (say what you want about him being on the Yankees--the guy is a freaking stud).

Manny relaxed Ortiz. This is not news, it's just a fact. As Eric said to me today, "Manny is a lingering presence. Like overripe fish."

Is the silver lining that our starting pitching is very good? Is Tito for real doing these Bigelow Green Tea ads online?

Whatever the case, I haven't seen the Red Sox offense press so much in a very long time.

Youkilis who had been hitting really well on the road, suddenly lost it again over the weekend. The Jason Bay hamstring pull couldn't have come at a worse time. I love getting V-Mart, but getting him in a slump of sorts is unfortunate.

Lester and Beckett are studs. Buchholz has some things to work out, namely, throwing that fastball for strikes (and maybe going back to the mysteriously missing curveball).

First place is pretty much a goner at this point in the season, unless the Yankees pull an about face or there is some major injury to Burnett or Carston Charles. The wild card is the spot to get, and with having to go on the road in Texas and Toronto, the Sox have a lot more work to do.

The point is that it's time to relax a little, and get back to basics. Shrug off the week, and get back to taking bad pitches, hitting strikes and being patient.

ps. The Red Sox schedule is so whacked this week.. Why the hell do they go home for 4 games, then are back on the road for 6 to Texas (again) and Toronto? And looking ahead, from August 18 to 30 the Red Sox do not have one day off.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

What Happened to Buchholz's Curve Ball?

Where the hell is that nasty 12 to 6 curve ball Clay Buchholz threw in 2007?

It was a knee-buckling, deer in the headlights pitch that seems to have disappeared from his repetoire.

I don't get it at all.

I've watched him try to throw it only two times in this game to the Yankees. Once, he came extremely close to hitting A-Rod in the back of the shoulder. The second time, it was very high and out of the zone.

Is he being told to throw a slider--a form of a breaking pitch with a tighter rotation--by Red Sox pitching coaches? Are they concerned about his elbow and shoulder for the long haul of his career?

There is no doubt that his change up is a great out pitch, and he can throw it on demand in any count. He is showing that as much in this game against Carston Charles in the Bronx (C.C. has a one hitter through 6 innings right now).

I seem to recall Buchholz's no hitter back in 2007 had the curve ball prominently featured (and in other games since then), but not in 2009. I also seem to recall a fastball that was closer to 97. I guess a lot can happen in two seasons.

I know he has good stuff, and he needs more major league experience, but it seems to me that some his confidence in the curve ball (and many pitches) is lost--and confidence is something this pitching staff needs desperately.

With that said, Buchholz has been able to use the changeup and the splitter well today against the Yankees. Having only given up 1 run over 5 innings, Buchholz has mixed up his pitches smartly.

I guess I am saying that when you see something like a 12-6 curveball that can jar hitters with such force, you have to keep it and throw it.

Luckily, Buch will be staying with the major league club for the remainder of the season and his experience will grow and benefit from being around the always-confident Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon.

Speaking of Beckett, what a great outing he had in Friday night's 15-inning, 2-0 loss to the Yankees. I want to see this guy in another playoff game as soon as possible, but given how lifeless the Sox bats are right now (and the injuries to Bay, Dice-K, Wakefield and Lowrie, again), it's difficult to know right now if this team has what it takes to get there.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Boston Red Sox Day Off

In honor of the late, great John Hughes: "Billy Traber, you're my hero." As much as yesterday was bad piled on terrible piled on really effing craptastic, at least we don't have to go into tonight with a devastated bullpen.

Of course, that may not matter so much, because winning the game of baseball requires scoring runs, and right now, that does not seem to be Boston's specialty. They can get men on base - Chamberlain gave up seven walks, for crying out loud, and didn't have a 1-2-3 inning all night - but scoring them seems to be another matter. To put it another way, the telling numbers for the Boston offense last night were not the eight hits, twelve walks (twelve!), or six runs, but the fifteen men left on base and the .143 (3 for 21) batting average with runners in scoring position. In the end, I had to turn the game off before it was over, because as it turns out, the only thing more frustrating than watching your team get shut down by superior pitching is to watch them squander scoring opportunities like a compulsive gambler burning through his kid's college fund.

As for Smoltz, I'm sympathetic to the pleas for his removal from the rotation, but who, exactly, is going to pitch in his place? The only non-used starter on the 40 man roster who seems remotely qualified is Michael Bowden, who's pitching well in Pawtucket, but isn't exactly tearing things up in a way that suggests he'd be an instant hit in the majors. Paul Byrd seems a more likely successor, but 38-year-old pitchers who haven't thrown all year can't just dive right into professional competition. By trading away Masterson and relying on Smoltz to pull through, the Sox have made their bed - let's just hope that if that bed is as full of broken glass as it seems, it doesn't cut us too much.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Pitching: It's a Problem, But it Could be Worse

Crap in a hat. A few years ago, I have run screaming for the hills - or the ridge in Prospect Park; I'm in Brooklyn, after all - at the idea of facing the Yankees in the Bronx down a key member of the line up. Now I'm just slightly nervous. Shocking the Yanks at home seems like a possibility - particularly after the embarrassments the Bombers have suffered at the hands of the Sox this year - and I'm sticking to my optimism unless something bad happens this evening. In the meantime, let's talk pitching.

There's a sense of panic in the press about the state of the back 3/5ths rotation, with quotes like "a 2-5 record and 7.74 ERA in its past three trips through the rotation" being bandied about like they're signs of the Apocalypse. If there's another Boston Massacre this weekend those fears could - could - be justified, but right now they're just short sighted, for a few reasons:
  1. The problem isn't Penny (or even Buchholz, who's had one terrible start, one shortened start, and two quality starts) so much as it is Smoltz. Penny's started 21 games this season; he's given up five runs or more four times, and he's had two starts where he's pitched less than five innings. Remembering that he's both an experiment on the cheap and a fourth or fifth starter, I can't see any reason to complain about what he's brought to the table this year. Last night was just a poorly-timed deviation from the pattern. Smoltz, on the other hand, has only given up less than five runs on two out of his seven starts, and those were against the AAAA teams in KC and Baltimore. Unlike Penny, he's also had almost no run support, so his bad days look that much worse.

  2. Experiments or no, imagine how bad things would be if the Sox hadn't signed Penny and Smoltz now that injuries have put us in our time of need: we'd been looking at 2006 all over again, with the corresponding overexposure of young talent unprepared for the big stage. I'd much rather have veterans like Penny and Smoltz out on the mound than watch the Sox bring up Bowden a year or two too early or try to convert Bard into a starter mid-year. These guys were hired to be insurance and they're providing it, much like Paul Byrd will be if his climb up from the minors proves successful.

  3. Wakefield and Matsuzaka might not be on the world's fastest healing schedules, but it's likely they'll be back before the season is over. It sucks that they're both out at such a critical time in the season, but I think - and yes, I'm about to concede the title to the East - that the Sox have the ability to hang on long enough to take the Wild Card. Time to step things up, boys. Let's start with taking down Cletus the Hutt tonight.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

No, The Players Union Can't Just Release The List

It's a bad thing - for my confidence in the team, not my standing as a fan - when I walk away from a tied game going into extra innings because I know they're going to lose, right? Maybe that "2 and 12 at the Trop over the past two seasons" thing that was lurking in the back on mind. In any case, I'm glad I didn't lose any sleep to see the result. Besides, something else has been on my mind recently:

A few days ago, Bob Ryan wrote a column demanding that the Players Association end the Steroid Era by releasing The List in its entirety. His motives - and the point of this post is not to question Ryan's motives, so I'll accept them at face value - were pure: that disembodied concept known as The Game will never recover from the scandal of PEDs if the names of those unfortunate enough to test positive keep leaking out in a slow drip for years to come, much as they've done since The List's compilation in 2003. To wit:

The union should be taking the lead, the idea being that the cleaner the public believes the game to be, the better life will be in every way for its members. The Players Association should be lending its support to any effort that would catch the cheaters. It is completely in its best interests.

All parties involved should be united in the desire to protect a precious asset - the game of baseball. Baseball has survived assorted crises in more than a century and a half and should be able to survive this one, too. But like many other good things in our society, its day-to-day greatness is sometimes overwhelmed by an aberrant negative occurrence.

Yesterday, Hank Aaron echoed Ryan's call for a release of names and his sentiments about the release being necessary in an interview with the AP and I started to wonder if anyone voicing these sentiments had really contemplated the logistics of such an action. After all, there are some pretty thorny issues at stake.

First, there's the comparatively minor legal problem. The List is, after all, under a court seal (however ineffective it may be) to stop the government from using it in its investigation. The Players Union could request the removal of the seal, but even the slightest hint of such a request would be the death knell for any union executive's career and quite possibly for the union itself, as angry players question whether the group that's supposed to represent them is acting in their best interest. Just as importantly, imagine the precedent that such a decision would set: not only would the union lose any ability to make requests of its constituents, but by releasing the names to the public, it would be destroying the players' expectation of privacy. Cleaning up the game is important - although Jonah Goldwater gives an excellent demonstration of how our feelings about steroids has its roots in a poorly-defined unease - but preserving the sanctity of The Game isn't such a noble concept when you talk about violating the right to privacy. List or no List, we'll can never know the full impact of PEDs on our beloved game. With any luck, the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the Players Union, and we can finally - finally - end this fruitless quest for knowledge we don't really need and move on.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Closer Look at Kotchman, LaRoche and V-Mart

On the surface, the Kotchman for LaRoche deal is pretty puzzling.
But upon a little investigation, it appears that there are a few key factors at play.

One appears to be that defense is a larger piece of the puzzle. The second reason is that LaRoche and Chris Duncan (who the Sox got in the Lugo deal from St. Louis) in my estimation--were down-the-stretch, left-handed offensive insurance in case the Red Sox did not land Adrian Gonzalez or V-Mart. The third reason is contract related.

The defensive numbers are explained really well in the Around the Majors blog:

According to Total Fielding Runs, LaRoche cost his teams 2.6 runs more than an average fielder per 1,250 innings over his career. Kotchman saved his team 6 runs per 1,250 innings.

According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Kotchman has been 5.8 runs better than an average first baseman in 2009 (best in baseball). LaRoche is 3.4 runs worse than the average first baseman.

Ok, cool. For the rest of 2009, he's a bench player. He can pinch hit against righties, becomes a defensive replacement when Youk is at third and Lowell is removed or sits and on days when V-Mart catches. Sox have a ton of corner flexibility and, in my estimation, are better set up for next year without Mike Lowell.

We all know Youk is going to be the third baseman of the future, and with Lowell's hip problems, having an additional first-baseman and another lefty bat can't hurt the Red Sox. Victor Martinez did have some injuries in 2008, notably the arthroscopic surgery on his elbow, so you never know when one loose Joba fastball could send him back to the DL.

Kothcman, Duncan and down-the-road, Lars Anderson, can back up for any of these scenarios.

LaRoche is about to be a free agent at the end of this season, while Kotchman is arbitration-eligible through 2011. The nice part of that is that it gives the Red Sox brass more contract flexibility for a guy who is most likely a bench player for the remainder of this year.

He's not a free agent until 2012, so I would expect that Kotchman gives the Red Sox more trade package options in the off season with Lowell likely to be moved. Being able to throw in a 26 year old with some major league experience in a trade package is a nice to thing to have in your back pocket.

Until then, it's nice to have the defense in your pocket if something were to happen to Youk or Martinez.

More on Victor Martinez
Did I mention that this was the deal I wanted?

If his first-half offensive numbers are any indication, Martinez is a great get, especially when you factor in his ability to relieve Varitek behind the plate, and hit in the middle of the lineup from both sides of the plate.

He's an RBI guy--something the team needs right now with Bay struggling-- and the psychological distractions Big Papi now faces with the recently revealed roid debacle.

Contract-wise, the Red Sox can pick up V-Mart's option for 2010 for $7.5 million. Given his offensive history, that is relative bargain for a middle of the lineup hitter who can also catch. You have to imagine that Tek is not going to be able to catch as many games the remainder of the season, or next year, given his age, and the wear and tear.

While Adrian Gonzalez is younger with a great opposite field lefty bat, I am very content with Victor Martinez who has a strong history in the AL and has seen a whole lot more AL pitching and AL East teams than Gonzo (though don't count out the Sox going for Gonzo in the off season as the Padres are in major rebuilding mode after letting Peavy go).

And ultimately, the Red Sox have shown that they can make the deals they want to make without giving up too much. While Masterson was a good long reliver and showed signs of being a solid starter, the three B's (Bard, Bowden and Bucholz) are well-protected future stars of the game.