Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taking on water

I posted some time back that the model for the Red Sox in recent years was the old Earl Weaver philosophy of pitching, defense and 3 run homers. The Red Sox are falling fast because they can't manage to excel at any of those three elements with regularity.

The starting pitching has gone from the team's biggest strength to a cause for serious concern. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are legitimate studs, but that's all we've got. John Smoltz was a bust, Daisuke Matsuzaka has been off the radar all year, Tim Wakefield is still hurt, Clay Buchholz remains a work in progress, and Brad Penny is problematic.

The bullpen has sprouted leaks as well. For all his promise and eye-popping talent, Daniel Bard is in approximately the same position as Clay Buchholz. He needs seasoning, and he's not yet the stud he'll develop into. Manny Delcarmen is either lights out or batting practice, and Takashi Saito is more often batting practice than much else. If you can't hit a hard fastball Ramon Ramirez is your man, but everything comes out of his hand at the same speed, and once hitters have locked in on him, he doesn't fool anyone with actual stuff. Then there's Jonathan Papelbon. I know that he's a mythical figure in Red Sox Nation, but looking at him realistically this year, he is not Mister Automatic. He tries to get too cute with sliders and even his devastating fastball. Making the perfect pitch takes precedence over just pitching. Every outing involves about 10-15 more pitches than it should.

The biggest nightmare with this staff is pitching coach John Farrell's fault. For reasons passing understanding, no Red Sox pitcher either understands how or is interested in paying attention to base runners. Brad Penny is the worst of the bunch but Papelbon isn't far behind. Buchholz has the maddening tendency to throw over to first when the runner is standing ON THE BASE. Why would you do this? This isn't a Jason Varitek problem. He has no shot at throwing anyone out when the pitchers allow enormous leads and barely bat an eye when the runner takes off. If it were just one pitcher, I'd say it's an individual issue, but when the Red Sox as a team are among the league's worst at holding base runners, it's endemic, and it leads to big innings and lost games.

The rest of the team defense has declined. There's the black hole at shortstop (I'm looking right at you, Nick Green), Mike Lowell's slowed reflexes at third and some awful play of late in right field. While Kevn Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are gold-glove caliber, the Red Sox sit in the middle of the pack in team defense in the American League: the textbook definition of mediocrity.

Three run homers have happened on occasion, but all too often the team has been completely shut down. This is a bad year for David Ortiz, and it's impossible to know whether it's really the beginning of the end or not, but when your DH is hitting .219, and that's considered pretty good for him, there's a problem. Big Papi has only 64 RBI and a lower slugging percentage than Varitek and Rocco Baldelli. Something is seriously wrong. Jason Bay has been hot and cold, JD Drew has been mostly cold, Captain Tek's strong start has deteriorated again, there's that black hole at shortstop I mentioned earlier.

This team doesn't have what it takes. They're taking on water all over the place. The rotation, the bullpen, the offense and the defense are all, at best, just a bit better than average. After Beckett and Lester, nothing scares you about the 2009 Red Sox, other than their maddening propensity to find ways to lose ballgames they should win. A great win this weekend in Texas was followed by a demoralizing loss. The worst loss of the year took place on Jim Rice Night. The debacle in the Bronx last week probably killed any hope of winning the division. The wildcard is a tossup, but even if they pull it out I wouldn't be too optimistic that come playoff time they're able to do anything to get out of the first round.

They're just not that good.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pittsburgh, PNC, and Pujols

There isn't much to be said for a Red Sox team that's alternating between shaky and complete free fall. This week, my dad and I celebrated my birthday a little early (it's supposed to be at the end of September) by taking a trip to Pittsburgh. Yes, I said Pittsburgh. I told dad I wanted to see a game with him in a park I hadn't visited yet. High on the list of MLB venues I've wanted to see was PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the gorgeous home of the woeful Bucs.

Before you make fun of Pittsburgh, I have to ask: have you been there in the past 10 years? It's a remarkably beautiful and fun city. The architecture is more varied and interesting than most eastern cities. With the steel industry long gone, the air is clean and downtown is vibrant and very walkable. We stayed at the Omni William Penn, which is the city's best, most opulent grande dame hotel. I visited Pittsburgh a couple years back for work, and not only did I enjoy my time at Carnegie Mellon (one of the best schools you'll find anywhere), but I was blown away by the city, and vowed to return. There are vistas from iconic spots like the Mt. Washington neighborhood, where you get a commanding view that can't be described.

We visited the Carnegie Museum of Art, across the street from the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.

Friday night, we walked across the Roberto Clemente Bridge to PNC. Many ballparks now have statues of the local patron saint out front somewhere. Fenway has Ted Williams, PacBell/AT&T has Willie Mays, Detroit has Ty Cobb, and Turner Field has Hammerin' Hank and Phil Neikro. Well, in Pittsburgh, it's the great Roberto Clemente.

PNC is a sort of knockoff of Camden Yards in Baltimore in some ways. You enter through the centerfield gate, a la Eutaw Street. The first view of the field is flat out beautiful.

Unlike Baltimore, where you're in the shadow of a big brick warehouse, at PNC you're walking down a concourse that parallels the Allegheny River. Given the atmospherics of the ballpark, though, it feels a little like McCovey Cove in San Francisco. Camden Yards has Boog's BBQ, and PNC has a BBQ grill named after their old catcher Manny Sanguillen. Dad described the park itself as being "the anti-Fenway". He's not wrong. In Fenway, everything is hunched forward, crowded toward the field. At PNC, it feels open and expansive, looking outward, as if you're encouraged to recline.

It's a good thing the ballpark is so beautiful, since the team is pitiful. They were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards boast one of the better starters in the league in Chris Carpenter, who started Friday night. They also have the best all around player in the game in Albert Pujols. Sir Albert is being protected in the lineup by Matt Holliday, who's the hottest hitter on the planet right now. Just to make the Pirates feel good, Carpenter spotted them a 4-2 lead before St. Louis eased past and won 6-4. The game was never in doubt. There was even a highlight for Red Sox fans. The great Julio Lugo led off the game with a clean single for St. Louis, then fell asleep at first base and was picked off.

Dad and I had seats just 10 rows from the right field line. Those tickets cost (Red Sox fans please stop reading here) $26 apiece. The memorable moment of the game happened about 30-40 feet away from us in the bottom of the 7th inning. A fan in the first row down the right field line reached over the railing to snag a foul ball hit near him, and flipped over onto his neck/head. The first person to reach him was Albert Pujols. What ensued was a 15-20 minute delay to tend to the fan who, people were afraid, may have just been very seriously and perhaps even catastrophically injured. Trainers from both teams, doctors, security personnel and, I read later, even Pirates front office staff, appeared at the man's side to assist. Through that entire time, Pujols never left the man's side. He held the man's hand, spoke to him, soothed him, and when the fan/patient had his head and neck braced and was loaded onto the stretcher, Pujols was still right there. He took the time to comfort the man's son, who was riding on the cart to the ambulance that would take the man to the hospital. Remember, we were in Pittsburgh, not St. Louis. In spite of that, Pujols was right there the whole time while all other players kept their distance, as they normally would.

During the game, Albert had a very quiet 3-5 with a run scored. He's a legitimate triple crown threat again and is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer whenever he decides he's had enough of tormenting National League pitching. This past Friday night I saw what Allbert Pujols is really made of. For that reason alone I'm glad we made the trip to Pittsburgh.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hope and frustration in Boston

I was at Fenway earlier this week for Jim Rice Day. His #14 was retired up on the right field facade. Lots of goose-flesh moments, including the A's Nomar Garciaparra running over to give Rice a big hug (Jim Rice was Nomar's first hitting coach in Boston, and had a lot to do with both of Nomar's batting titles). On hand were Johnny Pesky, Fred Lynn, Pudge Fisk, Bob Stanley and Dwight Evans. The ceremony was lots of fun.

Then, the game started. Buchholz pitched well enough to win, but Nick Green, Jonathan Papelbon, Terry Francona and Manny Delcarmen combined to kick it all away. It was the most frustrating, infuriating game I've seen at Fenway in a very, very long time. The team has talent to spare, including some superb pitching and fearsome hitting, but no killer instinct, and not a lot of *life*.

Maybe some of that will change with the acquisition today of C/1B/DH Victor Martinez from Cleveland and Casey Kotchman from Atlanta. It will cost them Nick Hagadone, Bryan Price and Justin Masterson, as well as moving Adam Laroche elsewhere. Bummer, Cleveland fans, that you're about to celebrate Victor Martinez Bobblehead Day, and he's outta there!

In terms of a talent pickup, this is good, and potentially smart. What we don't know is if this will light the fire under the team as the Cabrera, Dave Roberts and Doug Mientkiewicz pickups did in 2004. They need a heart transplant as much as a talent infusion. This Red Sox team has to start showing a refusal to lose, and develop a sense of This Is Our Pennant, Dammit.

I hope we start to see it soon, because right now, although they're an undeniably talented team, as currently constituted they're also unacceptably soft.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Serious about pitching

Last night at Fenway, Kenshin Kawakami of the Braves pitched exactly the way Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be pitching, and Dice-K pitched like John Wasdin always did. The solution for Matsuzaka should be simple, but it isn't. He NEEDS to be taken out of the rotation and sent down to Pawtucket to work out whatever's wrong with his head, his shoulder, his arm, his guts, or whatever his problem is. The catch is, he'd have to give his permission to be sent down, since his contract stipulates that he can't be demoted to the minors without his explicit say so. The other alternative is to put him on the disabled list with whatever excuse the Red Sox care to concoct. "Tired arm" always works. That way he can save face and rehab as long as necessary without having been technically shipped to the International League. Trading him not only isn't an option (I don't even think the Yankees would take on a contract that big), but it's not smart. He will return to form, but he should do it away from the pressure cooker of the American League East.

I'm excited for John Smoltz's Red Sox debut in Washington against the laughable Nationals (First in war, first in peace, and now last in the National League!), but I also hope we're about to wave goodbye to Brad Penny, in exchange for someone who will be useful down the road. Penny's pitched exactly well enough to be traded, and he should have a great second half in someplace innocuous, like San Diego or Houston. Besides, dealing Penny would open the rotation for Clay Buchholtz, who's done everything asked of him but sell hot dogs and popcorn in Pawtucket. The kid's been the International League pitcher of the week twice this season, he's 5-0 with an ERA of 1.90, he's got 65 strikeouts and 17 walks in 71 innings, and he'd have already made five or six starts on every major league staff except Boston by now. It's not the kid's fault he's stalled in the most pitching rich organization in the game, but to have Daisuke Matsuzaka be as worthless as he's been while Buchholtz is utterly dominant is a situation that can't continue. It's about winning ballgames, and the Red Sox can't afford to keep Buchholtz down much longer when there's a need and a chance to rectify the situation. The deeper the rotation is, the better the Red Sox will be. Fun's fun, but it's time to put the hammer down and strengthen the team for the second half. We're too close not to do this, and thereby shut the door on the Rays and Yankees.

Friday, June 12, 2009

2009's Tom Seaver

Well that was interesting, wasn't it? We're still having trouble with Tampa Bay, but 8 games into the season series, Boston appears to own New York, and the Red Sox have rented and furnished a room inside the Yankees' heads. Having David Ortiz back in the realm of hitters you don't watch with your fingers latticed over your eyes changes the complexion of the lineup. Jason Bay remains the happiest offensive surprise for 2009. The team is clicking well, and we all know they still have a long way to go.

One of the biggest thrills I've ever had in my baseball watching life took place on an otherwise innocuous, pleasant Tuesday in July of 1986. The Red Sox were in first place by 8 games, and riding a 5 game winning streak, they debuted their newest starter. 41-year old future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver had just been traded by the White Sox to Boston in exchange for Steve (Psycho) Lyons. Seaver made his first appearance in a Red Sox uniform that night, and beat the Blue Jays and Doyle Alexander 9-7. Seaver wasn't terrific in his first Red Sox start. He gave up four runs on nine hits over seven innings, striking out two and walking two. However, Seaver joined a rotation that already included a couple promising young studs: Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst, along with Oil Can Boyd and Al Nipper. For me, seeing the big red #41 in a Red Sox home uniform was a huge thrill. I had always admired him, and now he was ours. Although he finished with a 5-7 record and promptly retired after the World Series to start the clock for Cooperstown, Seaver's presence made a giant difference that year.

This year's Tom Seaver is named John Smoltz. Like Seaver, Smoltz is a slam dunk first ballot Hall of Famer. Also like Seaver, Smoltz may or may not have a lot left in the tank, but he'll act as a stabilizing influence on a rotation that only needs one more quality guy to take the AL East by the throat. I'm even more excited because Smoltzie wears my number: number 29. Along with Rod Carew, I'd say Smoltz is the best major leaguer in history to wear the number. And starting next week against the Marlins, he's ours. We're going to have a rotation of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester (both of whom have shown no-hit stuff already this season), John Smoltz and Tim Wakefield. Something still needs to be done in terms of what to do with Daisuke's predictable unpredictability. Brad Penny's going to be the odd man out, perhaps traded for a shortstop or another solid bat.

No matter how you slice it, that's a helluva rotation. No other team in baseball will get to augment their staff with someone of Smoltz's character, talent and will to win. He's our Seaver, and that really may be good enough, adding to a team that's already applied a chokehold on the Yankees and has demonstrated to the rest of the league that this year, the American League Championship march will have to go through Boston.

Friday, May 29, 2009

At the 1/3 pole

A third of the way through the season, we know the following:

  • Everyone in the AL East is deeply flawed, and nobody as currently constituted can run away with the division.
  • Jason Bay may or may not be a candidate for AL MVP, but he’s far and away the odds on favorite for 2009 Red Sox MVP.
  • Bringing back Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek worked out ok, don’t ya think?
  • When he’s healthy, JD Drew is almost worth his ludicrous contract.
  • Jacoby Ellsbury is beginning to resemble a Grady Sizemore clone, and will soon surpass him and become the best leadoff man in the business.
  • What David Ortiz is going through can’t be termed a slump anymore. Until something else happens, it’s his reality, and therefore the team’s reality. Something has to give.
  • The strength of the 2009 Red Sox was supposed to be its rotation, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Everyone in the rotation has been badly shelled at least a couple times (tonight it was Wakefield), and as a result, there is no true ace this year. We thought we had three. In truth, we have none.
  • Fortunately, the Red Sox have what nobody else in the majors possesses: serious reserve depth in the wings in the form of no-hit kid Clay Buchholz, who’s dominating the International League, and future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who may or may not make his Red Sox debut around the time that his old friends from Atlanta show up for interleague competition.
  • Don't forget flamethrower Daniel Bard and Mr. Poise, Michael Bowden. Those two have already proven to be every bit as good as advertised
  • Thank God for Justin Masterson, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen and the rest of the bullpen.

Since the division (and the league) remains up for grabs, the Red Sox have plenty of time and resources available to plug the open holes in the roster.

  • Shortstop: Maybe Jed Lowrie will come back and set the world on fire. I hope so, since the platoon of Julio Lugo and Nick Green is serviceable, but barely more. The offense isn’t much and the defense is abysmal. Jack Wilson’s available in Pittsburgh. GRAB him.
  • DH: Nobody loves Big Papi more than I do, but c’mon. He’s behind on fastballs and completely fooled by offspeed stuff. Nobody’s being careful with him. They don’t need to be. Pitchers go right after Ortiz, and he’s not able to make anyone pay. Below the Mendoza Line with 1 measly home run won’t cut it, no matter what happened from 2004 through 2007. He left 12 men on base IN ONE GAME. That’s usually a stat representing a team’s futility for a game, not one man. Luke Scott in Baltimore, Jack Cust in Oakland, Mike Jacobs in Kansas City and Hank Blalock in Texas may be available real soon now, and worth pursuing.

Not signing Mark Teixiera means the Red Sox have money in the bank. They still have one of the deeper farm systems in the game, and have talent to burn if there’s a long-term advantage to be had. What happens at the trading deadline will determine who wins the American League East, and perhaps who holds the advantage for the AL pennant. With the right moves, it could be Boston.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Nobody is above the game

Manny’s suspension is proof to me that there is a God. Manny Ramirez is a man who, while possessed of perhaps the greatest batting eye and hitting smarts of his generation, still managed to take advantage of every opportunity he’s had to disrespect his team and the game of baseball. In his time with Boston, Ramirez betrayed his teammates by not bothering to hustle if he didn’t feel like it, feigned injuries and sat out pivotal games in his own little mini-revolt against some perceived injustice, played such laughable defense that at times that it was sometimes difficult to discern if he even knew a regular season game was in progress, then ultimately bailed on his own team, refusing to play and forcing them to unload him on the Dodgers. Once he got his wish, he turned the effort spigot back on, and led Los Angeles to the 2008 playoffs with Ruthian performances that showed the rest of Major League Baseball once and for all that he had intentionally tanked on his team in Boston.

Finally, this year he’s tested positive for a banned substance, and gave a pathetic excuse that is only a half step more plausible than “my dog ate my homework”. He’s only gone for 50 games, but the damage will be permanent, just as it will be for Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and Roger Clemens. They all disrespected their teammates and the game of baseball. Bonds and Clemens managed to add contempt for the laws of the United States of America, too, so their penalties are going to be a bit more severe.

I’m a great believer in karma, and I am sure that what happened to Manny was just the baseball gods extracting their retribution for all his sins. This summer, Jim Rice will be inducted in Cooperstown at long last. Though I’m on record as saying Rice’s stats make him only a borderline Hall of Famer, his character and respect for the game were second to none. In that respect, he should stand proudly alongside Tony Gwynn, Carlton Fisk, Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr, and everyone else who played the game the right way throughout their great careers. Rice worked his butt off, played clean, and did it right. Even when he wasn’t taking banned substances, Ramirez didn’t care about “the good of the game”, if he even understood the concept. No matter what happens when he returns in July, we’ll always know who Manny really is. Manny being Manny is nothing to be proud of.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Lessons from the first Boston-New York series of the 2009 season

There are going to be five more series between the Red Sox and Yankees this year. That’s 15 more games to dissect, analyze and pontificate on. Meanwhile, they’ll spend their other days and nights playing everyone else, but this matchup is still called the most emotional in sports. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clearly not the same as TorontoTexas or San DiegoMilwaukee. Even with a small sample size in mid April, the three games gave us plenty to chew on, and at this nascent stage of the season, some clear lessons:

1) The Red Sox are getting younger, while the Yankees are getting much older.

  • Sunday night’s stars for the Red Sox were Justin Masterson (24 years old), Jacoby Ellsbury (25) and Michael Bowden (22). The Yankees were hanging their hopes of avoiding a humiliating sweep on the 37 year old frame of Andy Pettitte. The equation won’t always work out so marvelously for Boston, but the difference was dramatically illustrated when the kid Ellsbury stunned the old men Posada and Pettitte by brashly stealing home on national television. Sure, it was just one run, but the Yankees never got that run back, and the symbolism was impossible to deny or escape.
  • There’s a bit of talent in the Yankee farm system, but not much. If there had been, they wouldn’t have had to throw the hundreds of millions of dollars they did at AJ Burnett after promising CC Sabathia the GDP of a medium-sized foreign country. In any case, right now there is no heir apparent for Mariano Rivera. He's going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but his impressive career is much closer to the end than anyone in New York wants to admit.
  • Injuries happen. Losing ARod isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, but for Joe Girardi it’s created a black hole, both defensively and offensively. When Julio Lugo and then Jed Lowrie went down, Boston had options. Former Yankee Nick Green has worked out great, and Lugo’s been reactivated for the Cleveland series as the backup shortstop. With Chien Ming Wang out, the Yankees are badly weakened. When Daisuke Matsuzaka went down after being overworked in the World Baseball Classic, the Red Sox simply moved Justin Masterson into the rotation. No muss, no fuss. Life goes on. This brings us to:

2) The Red Sox have deep pitching. The Yankees have an unsteady rotation and no bullpen.

  • As of Monday morning, the Red Sox bullpen has the best ERA in the majors. They’ve performed exactly as designed, adjusting to the assigned tasks and creating effective bridges to Jonathan Papelbon and Takashi Saito. Ramon Ramirez, who was picked up from Kansas City in exchange for Coco Crisp, hasn’t allowed an earned run yet. Neither has local boy Manny Delcarmen. Pap is perfect in save opportunities. Even when Josh Beckett and Brad Penny don’t have it, they get picked up, and give the offense a chance to right the ship. Example 1: April 17, Penny gave the O’s a 7-0 lead. Red Sox win 10-8. Example 2: April 26, Beckett gave the Yankees a 6-0 lead. Red Sox win a 16-11 shootout.
  • The same can’t be said for Mariano Rivera and the collection of spare parts that Joe Girardi has to dread calling for when his starter tires or can’t get out of the first or second inning. Piling up 10 or more runs on the Yankees isn’t news anymore, it’s de rigeur. A week ago, everyone was stunned to hear that the Indians had opened up a can of whupass on the Yankees at the Stadium, and the common perception was that the new Boogie Down was a launching pad. Turns out there’s a simpler explanation: Yankee pitching sucks. As of right now, the only difference between them and the Baltimore Orioles’ staff is that nobody is paying more than $2,600 a night to watch the O’s stink. Then again, judging by the camera shots from the opening days of the House That Jonathan Albaladejo Built, maybe even that difference can be thrown away. New York has the worst bullpen in baseball, period. They’re starting to resemble the old Tampa Bay Devil Rays: get into their bullpen and you win the game.

3) Ninety percent of baseball is mental. The other half is physical.

  • Though it may be considered dirty pool to use a classic Yankee’s quote against the Bombers, here are the major events of the weekend:
    • Friday: your Hall of Fame closer blows a save, then the bullpen blows the game.
    • Saturday: your #2 ace can’t hold a 6 run lead, and once again the bullpen is helpless, getting blown out in a slugfest.
    • Sunday: you’re shown up on national television: a steal of home with the bases loaded.

Given those three examples, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to suggest this isn’t entirely a physical thing. Baseball is about mental toughness as much as physical gifts (which has a lot to do with Dustin Pedroia’s and Jon Lester’s successes). In showdowns with the Red Sox, the Yankees haven’t had the upper hand since Dave Roberts swiped second base and subsequently scored in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. Since then, Boston has taken up permanent residence inside the Yankees’ collective heads. Nobody outside of local talk radio blowhards could seriously argue the Red Sox have more talent than the Yankees. When he’s healthy (as he is now), AJ Burnett has perhaps the best pure stuff of anyone in the game today, but as Red Sox radio announcer Dave O’Brien said, Burnett loses focus all too often, and even seems to grow bored at times. That may well be what happened, I don’t know. What I do know is you shouldn’t blow a 6 run lead in the major leagues in scarcely two innings. I know it’s only April. I know the Yankees have stunk in April before, only to roar back and contend in September. That could still happen this year, but for it to take place the team would need to grow a pair and find some leadership and a center of gravity.

If they don’t, the Red Sox and Rays will own the division, and the $200 million payroll and $2,600 VIP seats will be generating more anger in New York than Wall Street CEO salaries.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A wild and woolly ballgame

I was at Fenway for Friday night's game against the Orioles. They were coming home after a brutal west coast road trip, but they should have left Brad Penny in the Pacific time zone. He wasn't just bad, he was awful. I'm talking Way Back Wasdin awful. In the second inning, he loaded the bases, walked in a couple runs, then allowed a grand slam home run to Nick Markakis. Since the Red Sox bullpen needed some protection from their Angels-A's debacles, Terry Francona was hesitant to force another 7 inning bullpen game at the outset of a 4 game weekend series. He stuck with Penny's high wire act for a couple more innings, and managed to live through it.

Thank God the Red Sox were playing the Orioles who, frankly, suck. They're the new Rangers: a potent offense, backed by mediocre pitching and a complete indifference to fundamental baseball. What was always known as The Oriole Way has been dead since Cal Ripken, Jr rode off into the sunset. Friday night, Baltimore starter Jeremy Guthrie couldn't handle the riches of a 7 run lead, and he was saddled with an atrocious defense behind him. Within a few innings, the lead was gone, and the Red Sox went on to a 10-8 win.

Some observations:
  • When JD Drew is healthy, which admittedly isn't enough, he can be a bona fide all star. Against Baltimore on Friday night, Drew homered, tripled, walked three times and scored three of Boston's 10 runs.
  • Same for Jason Bay, though he's not nearly as injury prone as Drew. Friday night, Bay also homered and knocked in three.
  • The MVP of the game was neither of the above. It was Manny Delcarmen, who came in after Penny's hideous start and slammed the door on the Orioles, giving the Red Sox the breathing room they needed to get back in the game. The local kid threw shutout ball for 2 2/3 innings (the longest outing of his career), striking out two. Francona NEEDED someone to be a bridge to the later innings. If Delcarmen had allowed more runs, the hole would have been too big to dig out of, even against a deplorable O's bullpen.
  • I'm very worried about David Ortiz. He was 0 for 4, struck out three times and left 5 men on base (including striking out with the bases loaded in a critical situation). It isn't just that Ortiz isn't hitting his weight, and it isn't just that he's striking out. It's that he looks old and creaky. His bad speed is embarrassingly slow, and his mechanics are a mess. Has Big Papi not recovered from his injury prone 2008? Has he, as many have wondered, hit the wall at the age of 33? Of course it's only April, and of course there's a long season ahead, but Ortiz can't be a black hole in this lineup. The Boston offensive attack is predicated on unremitting pressure from Pedroia through Lowell, and if Ortiz won't lay off high inside pitches as he used to, and can't catch up to fastballs in his wheelhouse, opposing pitchers will be able to start pitching far more selectively, rallies will die faster than they should, and horrendous appearances by old fat stiffs like Brad Penny will come with penalties when we're not facing creampuff staffs like Baltimore.
  • Early on, the bullpen looks tremendous, and saved Penny's bacon. Ramon Ramirez has been superb. I already mentioned Delcarmen above, but Takashi Saito gives Francona a setup horse who can also double as insurance for when Jonathan Papelbon needs a day off, as he did this afternoon in Boston's third straigh win against the Birds, this time on the strength of a great John Lester start.
  • Nick Green could be this year's pleasant low cost, high impact surprise. He's got a cannon for an arm (did you know that? I sure didn't), and rocketed a clutch RBI double to the base of the centerfield wall on Friday night as part of the 10 run onslaught. Jed Lowrie might be out for the year, and we already know how little faith I have in Julio Lugo. If Green can be the everyday shortstop and a reliable guy at the bottom of the order, that would help a lot.
During the week that marked the passing of both Harry Kalas and Merle Harmon, I was reminded of the late, great Ned Martin in trying to summarize Friday's game. He deserves the last word. Martin would have called Friday's improbable comeback "a wild and woolly ballgame and a 10-8 win by the Red Sox. "

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Red Sox are the Orioles

Boston sportswriters are fond of saying that Theo Epstein and Terry Francona have adopted the new stats-loving Moneyball approach, a la Michael Lewis' book, and that this is the new wave of baseball philosophy. To that I say "Bullshit". You know what philosophy the Red Sox wisely copied to elevate them to their current spot of baseball royalty? It's not new. The Baltimore Orioles used the exact same strategy between 1966 and 1983 and they did it so well it brought them ten American League Championships and three World Series titles. Earl Weaver summaried it in five words: "Pitching, defense, three run homers". The overarching theory is called "The Oriole Way", but essentially it says that baseball is about fundamentals. Perfect them and repeat them, and you win. Pitching and defense don't go into prolonged slumps. Don't give up outs on either offense or defense. Get people on base (we now call this on base percentage) and have a big bopper who can knock them all in.

This is EXACTLY what the Red Sox have been preaching since 2003. The only difference is that today there are numbers to back up what Earl Weaver could have told you back when Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were in office.

PITCHING: The O's had those terrifying pitching staffs. The aces just kept coming. Depending on the year, they could throw Palmer, Martinez, Boddicker, Flanagan or Mike Mussina at you. (one of my favorite trivia questions is "Who was the last team to have 4 20-game winners on their staff?". Answer at the end of this post) In 2004, Boston's Big Three was Pedro, Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe. This year, it's Beckett, Lester and Matsuzaka. Now, in the advent of the bullpen led by closer, Boston stretches the wealth into Okajima, Delcarmen and Saito, leading to Papelbon. The closer as we know it didn't exist in the Oriole Years, but they did have Eddie Watt, Grant Jackson and Tippy Martinez, who were all pretty good.

DEFENSE: In the 70's, the O's infield defense was hands down the best in all of baseball. Names like Grich, Belanger, Brooks Robinson meant no errors, ever. This year, Boston's infield has gold glovers at first (Youkilis), second (Pedroia) and third (Lowell) with a very good young talent in Jed Lowrie at short. Oh, and our catcher's pretty good defensively, too. Baltimore's outfield was as good as their infield: Blair, Bumbry, Robinson, Singleton. In 2008, it's Bay, Ellsbury and Drew, which will be as good as any defensive outfield in the league. Defense saves runs and pitchers, shortens innings, and wins games. Earl Weaver knew it, and so does Terry Francona.

THREE RUN HOMERS: The vintage O's could pound you into submission. Frank Robinson begat Boog Powell, who begat Lee May, who begat some dude named Ripken. He was okay, I guess. The anchor of the 2003-2008 Red Sox lineup was Ortiz and Ramirez, which may go down as the most fearsome 1-2 combination of all time.

Going into Opening Day, the only common complaint with this year's Red Sox is that they may be short of power. Youkilis, Pedroia and Bay have pop, but the pivot point is David Ortiz, and everyone believes that without a fearsome bat like Manny behind him, the Red Sox are beatable. That was the whole idea behind signing Mark Teixiera. I'm not so worried, because since the Sox didn't sign Teixiera, and have continued to stockpile talent in the minors, we're going to be in a commanding position to pick up the monster bat we need at the trading deadline. That bat might be named Ordonez or Cabrera or Holliday, but he's going to be there, and we're going to be a position to grab him if we need. That could make the difference.

What I believe sets Boston apart this year is one element. We have what nobody else in baseball has but everyone needs: outstanding pitching depth. We've got 7 legitimate starting pitchers, and we've stockpiled them like cans of soup at your local Stop & Shop. We only really need two months of decent appearances out of Brad Penny, who don't forget, is 38-22 since 2006, was a dominant All Star game starter, and if he's healthy, could be one hell of a horse for a #5 starter. In June, we can trot out guaranteed first ballot hall of famer John Smoltz. And waiting in the wings are Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, with fireballing Daniel Bard itching to come up as well. This is damn good insurance in case Beckett has a blister, Wakefield becomes ineffective or Dice K's arm falls off after a 450 pitch start against the Yankees.

Boston has all the tools this year. What we don't and can't know is how healthy everyone will be. JD Drew is superb when healthy, but he's only superb when healthy, so there's that. We all assume 2008 was only an aberration for Big Papi, but we just don't know. Mike Lowell remains a post-surgical question mark, and as painful as it is, we still might have to resign ourselves to Jason Varitek continuing to be an offensive black hole in the lineup. Then again, Mark Belanger had a lifetime batting average of .228. That was ok because he was the greatest defensive shortstop of his day. The O's did well enough with Belanger hitting ninth in the lineup, and I think we'll be fine with Captain Tek hitting ninth, too.

If you ask Earl Weaver, I'd bet he'd agree.

[Trivia Answer: The 1971 Baltimore Orioles: Dave McNally (21-5), Mike Cuellar (20-9), Jim Palmer (20-9), Pat Dobson (20-8)]

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Conundrum of the WBC

The WBC is no good. The competition is terrific. The energy is playoffesque. The level of play is phenomenal, given that a lot of guys are still effectively only halfway through spring training. The problem I have with the World Baseball Classic is that it makes my brain hurt.

First off, I didn't want Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia to play too much or too hard, because I was afraid they'd get hurt. Well, I guess that ship has sailed. Secondly, I found myself badly conflicted during the opening round when the Netherlands beat the powerhouse Dominican Republic team not once but twice. On one hand, the story of the Dutch beating a team full of legitimate all-stars with a couple potential Hall of Fame inductees sprinkled in is the thing of Damon Runyon fantasies. A scriptwriter would be laughed out of the room for suggesting in a manuscript what actually took place. On the other hand, I loved the assemblage of talent on the Dominican team, and especially wanted to see Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz shine. So that felt weird.

But it's nothing compared to watching Team USA. I HAVE to root for the Stars and Stripes, but Jake Peavy flat out sucked, and I thought some of the behavior of the players bordered on boorish and bush league. And then there's Derek Jeter. I found myself rooting for Derek Jeter. This isn't right. But wait, it gets worse. Tonight, Team USA is playing Team Japan (also called The Samurai). Of course I should root for the Americans, right? Well yes, except that Daisuke Matsuzaka is starting for Japan. I cannot and will not root against Dice K. I also love how the Japanese play the game. Their fundamentals are unrivaled as the best in the tournament. They do all the little things right, and watching them is observing a clinic. Besides, how do you root against Ichiro and Fukudome? And with Pedroia and Youk off the team due to injuries (that thank God aren't serious), the rooting interest in Team USA is lessened a teensy weensy bit.

So until Daisuke's appearance ends, I'm just watching this game and hoping both teams play great, and Daisuke has another superb appearance like he did against Cuba, where he was lights out for 5 innings. Then again, Roy Oswalt is getting lit up in the 4th inning, so this might be academic real soon now. (6-2 Samurai right now, and Oswalt's night is done)

I know there are risks of injuries, and I know the timing disrupts the delicate flow of MLB's spring training....yes, that's heavy sarcasm you detect there. I am not the least bit ashamed to admit I love the WBC. It's great for the game, and the more you watch, the more you admire it. It's baseball's Olympics, now that baseball is no longer an Olympic sport in the Summer Games.

That said, I'll be even happier in a couple weeks when Opening Day rolls around, and life starts anew.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Jim Rice makes it to Cooperstown

I said last year that I'd be happy to see Jim Rice make it in, but I thought he was one of those "just shy guys", and that both Dwight Evans and Andre Dawson were more deserving. I stand by what I said, but I also remain very happy for Rice that he finally made it, on his last year of eligibility.

Rickey Henderson, of course, was a no-brainer, as much as Tom Seaver, Cal Ripken, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Bob Gibson. Henderson was not only the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, he redefined the position. Sure, he could be an annoying showboat, but as the saying goes, "it ain't bragging if you can back it up", and Henderson always did. He got in on the first ballot, as he should have.

Here's what I don't understand and never did:
Why did Rice have to wait 15 years? If he was deserving this year, he was deserving last year, too, and in fact he was deserving on his first year of eligibility. Rice didn't get any more hits, RBI or homers between his last game on August 3, 1989 and today. His statistics were the same that day, just as they were when he was eligible in 1994 (and didn't come close to induction) as they are now. Either the guy's a Hall of Famer or he's not. Exactly how could a voter look at the same guy, with the same stats, the same history and the same strengths and weaknesses, and say "he's not a hall of famer, sorry", do that again year after year after year, and then suddenly decide at the proverbial last minute "Ok, NOW he deserves to be inducted".

I have a little trouble with voters who don't have the courage of their convictions.

Then there are the guys with BETTER numbers, who don't get voted in until later (or possibly never). Candidate #1 is Mr. Andre Dawson. Again, I don't begrudge Rice his plaque, I'm just saying I can't understand why Rice is going to be in Cooperstown while Dawson still isn't. Candidate #2 is, of course, Dwight Evans, who won't ever get in, unless the veterans committee does the right thing some years from now.

In any case, congratulations to Jim Rice. After he's inducted, the next thing that should happen is his #14 should be retired on Fenway's right field facade, alongside Bobby Doerr, Joe Cronin, Johnny Pesky, Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, Carlton Fisk and Jackie Robinson. That'll be a great ceremony, even better than the one in Cooperstown next summer.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Give me your tired, your poor...

2008 statistics

Pitcher 1      45 appearances, 47 innings, 4 wins, 4 losses, 18 saves 2.49 ERA, on the Disabled List for 2 months with a partially torn elbow tendon.

Pitcher 2      6 appearances, 28 innings, 3 wins, 2 losses, 2.57 ERA, on the Disabled List after June 2, due to shoulder surgery

Pitcher 3      19 appearances, 94 2/3 innings, 6 wins, 9 losses, 6.27 ERA, on the Disabled List for two months with shoulder tendonitis and bursitis

Player 4      28 games, 80 at bats, 4 HR, 14 RBI, .263 BA, .344 OBP, on the disabled list from the beginning of the season to the beginning of August with a mitochondrial disorder

Player 5      57 games, 178 at bats, 1 HR, 16 RBI, .202 BA, .279 OBP, on the disabled list 3 times for a total of 3 months with sprained left ankle and right triceps

Those are the players signed by the Red Sox since they lost out on Mark Teixiera at Christmas. None of them were worth a damn at any point last year, and all of them were signed for peanuts, in the desperate hope that Boston will have signed five nominees for comeback player of the year. Can you guess who’s who?

Pitcher 1 is former Dodgers’ closer Takashi Saito, who will be a setup guy, along with Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima. Saito saved 39 games in 2007, but the Dodgers cut him loose this winter after his elbow literally fell apart last year. We now have three Japanese pitchers. Don’t tell ME that Boston is a prejudiced, xenophobic town!

Pitcher 2 is future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who’s been signed as the 6th (or 7th ) starter. He turns 42 on May 15. He’s faced over 14,000 hitters in his career (400 more than Dennis Eckersley), has started 466 games (30 more than Curt Schilling) and has 13 more career saves than Mike Timlin. He’s my favorite pitcher ever to wear #29, though he’ll have to buy it from hitting coach Dave Magadan if he’s going to have that uniform number with the Red Sox. They don’t even expect Smoltzie to appear until at least the end of May, possibly later. That’s ok, though. They don’t need him right away, because they also signed…..

Pitcher 3: Brad Penny. He started the 2007 All Star game for the Dodgers, and went on to win the National League Cy Young Award with a 16-4 record. Last year his shoulder gave out, and it remains 6-5 and pick ‘em whether or not Penny actually has anything left in the tank or if 2008 was the beginning of the end.

Meanwhile, Player 4 is prodigal son Rocco Baldelli. Three or four years ago, Baldelli was the next Carl Yastrzemski, Torii Hunter or Mickey Mantle, only in an ugly Rays uniform. He could do it all: hit triples, homers, move runners over, knock them in, and run down everything hit to any field. Then he got hurt and stayed hurt. A hamstring injury became chronic fatigue, which then became a mitochondrial disorder, and now, according to Mass General Hospital, something called “channelopathy”, which I suppose means either his CBS, his A&E or his HBO are sick. We have good service from both Verizon and Comcast here in Boston, so Baldelli should be all better now. And he’s from Woonsocket, which gives us our token Local Boy. This means we finally have a replacement for Brian Daubach and Lou Merloni.

Player 5 is Josh Bard, the pivotal 9th string catcher. It’s important to have that key guy on your roster who can hit .202 and let by dozens of passed balls.

We still don’t have a first string catcher or a proven, dependable shortstop. However, we now have five guys who spent a combined 15 months on the disabled list last year. Remember, this is adding to a roster that ALREADY includes JD Drew, Julio Lugo, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. Those four guys combined for close to nine months on the DL during the 2008 season. Damn, I’m excited about 2009, aren’t you?