Monday, April 27, 2015

Sox Struggle, Yanks Surprise



Going into the 2015 season, the way it looked for Boston and New York was this:

  1. Boston's above-average hitting would balance out their average pitching and keep them as a favorite for winning the AL East.
  2. New York had too many question marks in their rotation and too many years on their players to compete.
I think that is a pretty fair two sentence summary. So where do they actually stand?

The Sox are a game out of first at 10-9. They got their asses handed to them Sunday night in an 18-7 shellacking by the Orioles.

And their starting pitching, in a word, sucks.

Some want to immediately start throwing blame on Rick Porcello. At 1-2, and after signing that big pre-season deal, he is an easy target.

But the truth is that he hasn't been horrible. Outside of that bad April 19 start (5 innings, 12 hits, 8 earned runs) he hasn't pitched badly. Except in one area; home runs.

Porcello has surrendered six home runs so far, most for a pitcher in the AL. He averages between 16-18 a year, so he is far ahead of his usual pace. So this could be an anomaly. Or it could be adapting to a new catcher and a new park. But more than anything else, this is why Porcello has a 6.48 ERA.

The rest of the rotation has been mediocre at best. Wade Miley is a mess. More walks than strikeouts and only 15.2 innings pitched over four starts. That is how you get a 8.62 ERA. Masterson leads starters with two wins but his 5.16 ERA speaks of trouble. Buchholz, for all the crap he gets, has not been horrible. His first and fourth starts were actually quite good. But he was bad in the other two. Consistency continues to be a problem for Buchholz and at the age of 30 you have to wonder if he will ever find it. Joe Kelly has been decent enough as a fifth starter. But when your fifth starter has the lowest ERA of your rotation...not good.

The bullpen has also been a mess. Outside of Tazawa (who has looked great), every pitcher has blown an appearance or two. Which puts more pressure on the starters. And when they can't go six innings, that pressure goes back on the bullpen. It's a reinforcing cycle and when neither group is doing well, it makes things worse.

As for hitting, the supposed strength of the Sox...one-third of the starting lineup has a batting average under .200 and an on-base percentage of .302 or less. Mookie Betts' bat, much like Jackie Bradley's last year, has cooled off considerably. David Ortiz has a .705 OPS. Only Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia are really giving us the kind of performance we expect. Bogaerts and Sandoval are doing okay. Other than that the lineup is under-performing.

Meanwhile, in New York...look, Aviv usually writes these parts. I hate the Yankees with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. So it is really hard for me to write that the Yankees are in first and defying expectations. And the reason is a simple one...

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Rule 9.02(a) Comment: Players leaving their position in the field or on base, or managers or coaches leaving the bench or coaches box, to argue on BALLS AND STRIKES will not be permitted. They should be warned if they start for the plate to protest the call. If they continue, they will be ejected from the game.

David Ortiz is one of the most beloved players in Red Sox history. I would guess he is the favorite player of most Boston fans under the age of 13. He was a key reason the Sox won the 2004 World Series. He is, by all accounts, generous and kind with the fans. His numbers, when he retires, will be on-the-cusp or slightly above Hall of Fame levels*. David Ortiz is one of the all-time Boston greats.

He also has a problem keeping his mouth shut.

The rule comment highlighted at the start of this is key. Because everyone in baseball, and most fans, know that arguing balls and strikes will get you ejected. You simply cannot do it. You can ask a question about balls and strikes ("Is that where you are calling it today?"). Players do that all the time.

But you cannot drop your bat and start yelling at an umpire. You will get ejected every single time. Just like Ortiz did in Sunday's game. It was stupid to do, but it happens.

And then Jim Palmer chimes in and this whole thing goes way further than it had to.

Let's be fair about something off the top; Palmer knows baseball. Three-time Cy Young winner and Hall of Famer. From 1975-77 he had one of the most dominant three-year periods in pitching of any starter. And he is right that arguing balls and strikes in a close game isn't smart to do.

But for Palmer to get on his high-horse about arguing balls and strikes is ridiculous considering his manager was Earl Weaver. Weaver turned arguing with umpires about balls and strikes or anything else into an art form. And I don't remember Palmer ever running down Weaver for doing so. For him to now turn around and act offended that Ortiz is doing so...spare me, brother.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Lack of Consistency

We are now three series through the 2015 season. The Red Sox sit atop the AL East at 6-3. They have taken two wins in each series, including 2-of-3 from the Yankees in the Bronx. They have scored 56 runs, tied for the most in baseball with the Oakland Athletics.

And that's all good. Especially the runs; Boston was a black hole of run production in 2014 and their decision to invest in hitting seems to be paying off so far in that area.

The pitching, however, doesn't seem to be all there. Now, it is still a little early to start making grand proclamations about Boston's starting pitching in 2015 before the entire rotation has even made two starts. Being like Dan Shaughnessy and calling Clay Buchholz "borderline disgraceful" is a little premature.*

The truth is that every starter but one over the first nine games had one decent/good start and one poor/bad start. The only exception is Joe Kelly, and we'll see if he can break that trend tomorrow night. The one consistent thing about Boston's rotation thus far has been the inconsistency in their performance.**

That's a frustrating thing to have to accept as a fan. Farrell saying he had five "number ones" in Spring Training was laughable on it's face when he said it. It looks even sillier now, if not slightly delusional.

What he, and the Sox, have are five talented starting pitchers who have never been able to put together two dominating seasons. Not one of the five have won 15+ games in two consecutive seasons. Only Buchholz and Porcello have one season with 15+ wins, and Clay's was back in 2010.

Boston's rotation is thick with potential. But, as we all know, potential doesn't mean a thing if it isn't realized.

Monday, April 13, 2015

So Where Does Boston Stand After a Week?

Baseball, to borrow an old saying, is a journey, not a sprint. Its 162-game season is, by far, the longest of any major professional sport. We are not even five percent of the way through the 2015 season.

This is a somewhat roundabout way of saying everyone needs to chill out about Buchholz's horrible performance last night in New York. It was ugly and brutal, and without any redeeming qualities.

It was also only his second start of the year. It's hard to predict where a pitcher will be at year's end from their first two starts. It's kind of crazy to try.

That said, it was a brutal performance. And because of what has happened in the past, people are going to immediately question Buchholz. But Sox fans really need to wait for a couple of more starts before they start bringing the pitchforks to Fenway.

Of course, the idea of patience cuts both ways. So it is also too early to celebrate how solid Robbie Ross has been in relief. Or how solid both Masterson and Joe Kelly were in their season debuts. But every Boston fan hopes those trends continue.

With hitting it feels like it is easier to draw conclusions six games into the season because your average batter gets 3-5 appearances per game. But if you figure maybe 550 AB / 610 PA as a seasonal average, the player with the most at-bats for Boston (Pablo Sandoval) has been in one-half of one percent of his likely plate appearances / at-bats for 2015.

It's early. That said, it's hard not to be excited for Xander Bogaerts and his .985 OPS, or for Hanley Ramirez closing in on 10 RBI. Ryan Hanigan can't hit the ball to save his life, but he is a walk machine and his .364 OBP is second-best for any regular starter on the team.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Takeaways From Opening Day for Boston and New York

So Opening Day is in the books, with Boston getting a win in Philly while the Yanks fell to the Blue Jays. So did we learn anything at all from the games?

1. Dustin Pedroia is healthy.
Pedroia is always solid in the field, to the point that his defensive excellence can mitigate poor performance at the plate. But over the past couple of years his thumb has given him no small amount of grief when it comes to hitting. Going into this year he said he was 100% and after going 3-5 with two home runs, I am inclined to believe him.

Pedroia was turning on the ball and generating power in a way he simply wasn't able to in the past two years. If he can keep this up, Boston's lineup is even more dangerous when firing on all cylinders.

2. Masahiro Tanaka needs Tommy John surgery.
If you spend $20M for the right to sign a pitcher and give him $155M over seven years, shouldn't you do everything possible to protect that investment?

Apparently, not if you are the New York Yankees. They let Tanaka basically talk them into letting him finish 2014 and go the off-season without getting TJ surgery for his elbow. The wisdom of that move was on display Monday, when Tanaka had no fastball to speak of and could only go four innings.

Tanaka is not a finesse pitcher. But with a fastball that is barely touching 90 because of his elbow, that is who Tanaka is trying to be right now. And it isn't going to work. Sooner or later, the Yankees will have to acknowledge this and shut Tanaka down. Either way, the Yankee rotation is even more uncertain today than it was before Monday.

3. About that Boston lineup...
With the power display on Monday, it was easy to ignore/miss the fact that Ortiz and Sandoval went a combined 0-9 with six strikeouts. Or that Boston generated all their runs with home runs as opposed to hits.

I know it's one game and this smacks of the kind of despair and foolishness that sports radio is famous for throwing out over the airwaves. But Boston had massive problems with run production in 2014. No team can count on home runs to create all their scoring game after game. And Boston cannot afford to have both Ortiz and Sandoval go into massive slumps to start the year.

Rather than call this a problem, let's just say it's something to keep an eye on and we can revisit it a week or two down the road.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Unzipping 2015: Comparing Boston and New York - Designated Hitter

If there is one thing Boston and New York have in common, it's that the DH position is the most "controversial" position for both teams. Both David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez have been controversial in their interactions with the media on a variety of topics, Ortiz most recently with his ill-considered article at Derek Jeter's new website.

But this is (mostly) about what these two can do at the plate, so let's look at the projections.

Boston: David Ortiz

2015: 126 G | 129 H |88 RBI | .277 BA | .363 OBP | .526 SLG | .889 OPS | 2.9 WAR | Cost per WAR: $5,517,241 | Age: 39

New York: Alex Rodriguez

2015: 99 G | 82 H | 57 RBI | .229 BA | .312 OBP | .399 SLG | .711 OPS | 1.3 WAR | Cost per WAR: $16,153,846 | Age: 39

Now, while I do believe that Ortiz is going to be more productive that A-Rod, and for better value, I do believe this is an instance where ZiPS may stumble in projecting a player's production. And that is due to the unique circumstances surrounding A-Rod's lack of a 2014 season.

If you remember, ZiPS essentially uses weighted averages of four years of data, or three years if a player is very old or very young. So A-Rod lost all of 2014 due to suspension, not injury. And he did lose most of 2011 and 2013 to injury. So that creates a very negative picture of what A-Rod could accomplish in 2015. One that is likely too negative.

I mean, does anyone believe that A-Rod is really going to hit .229 with a .312 OBP? Those are numbers he has never sunk to since his first full season in 1996. And even though he is approaching 40 and Yankee management wants nothing to do with him, I have to believe that A-Rod will give the Yankees more that what is shown above.

But Ortiz will give more. His production has been remarkably steady and, with the exception of 2012, he has been pretty healthy. With an improved lineup around him, Ortiz should be able to continue giving the Sox good production at DH depsite being 39.

There is also the spectre of the Hall of Fame driving Ortiz. This is not to get into the debate about testing that has swirled around Ortiz as of late, but just looking at the numbers. He could reach 500 home runs this year. In two years he could reach 2500 hits and 600 doubles. He has already passed 1500 RBI. Were he to reach those numbers, he would feel that he should be in the Hall of Fame. Based on those numbers alone, he'd be right. So that is going to drive Ortiz this year.

But if there is one thing that both teams will share this year, it is that their respective designated hitters will be getting a lot of press in 2015.