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)]