Champions on Display MLB

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Slowly Gaining Ground

If you are a fan of the Red Sox, the 2014 season thus far has been a work in progress. One that demands almost a zen-like patience as Boston finds their footing and tries to move up the AL East standings.

But they are slowly getting there. After their series with Toronto Boston is now in fourth, 3.5 games back of the Yankees. Coming off of the series with Baltimore last week, this was how they ranked in major team hitting categories:
OPS: 21st
Runs: 20th
Extra-base hits: 23rd
And here is where they stand going into tonight's game against the Rays:
OPS: 16th
Runs: 17th
Extra-base hits: 10th
More importantly, over the past week they have been in the top 10 in all of these categories. And that can get lost in the overall picture. It may be hard to see the improvement, but it is there.

That patience is also necessary when looking at the pitching for Boston. There was a semi-major freakout in the wake of Jon Lester losing 7-1 at Toronto and going to 2-4 on the season. At this point talk-radio became a swamp of people talking about Jon Lester not even deserving a contract extension at all, let alone a big one.

Regarding this guy: Everyone chill the Hell out

But look at this:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Putting the Pine in Pineda

What we should really be talking about this morning is the awesome pitching performance of John Lackey. Last night against the Yankees he went eight innings and gave up just one run on seven hits. He struck out eleven batters and walked none. Of his 111 pitches, he threw over 75% of them for strikes. A dominant outing for Lackey, and one that propelled the Sox to a 5-1 victory.

We should be talking about the rock-star season Mike Napoli has delivered so far. The only hitter to be consistently good for Boston in 2014, he went 3-4 with an RBI last night. He has a .947 OPS and leads Boston in pretty much every meaningful batting statistic except for OBP, where he's second.

Instead, we're all talking about Michael Pineda and his terminal stupidity.

In case you forgot or missed it, there was a pine-tar issue the last time Pineda faced the Sox. Remy and Orsillo treated an image of something on Pineda's hand like the baseball version of the Zapruder film. And it allowed Boston fans to ignore the fact that Boston lost that game not because of Pineda's hand, but because Boston's hitting was pathetic in general at that point.

This time was different, in so many ways. Pineda came out clean to start the game. But after getting tagged for two runs in the first, he came out in the second looking like he smeared motor oil across his neck.

Seriously? You could at least try to hide it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Standing Still

Not much changed for Boston after their four games at Fenway with the Orioles. They started out two games back from first and ended it 2.5 games back. They are in last but at this stage that (dis)honor means little. It's all about the GB right now and the only two teams in the AL that look like they could start playing golf in June are the Mariners and Astros.

That said, it is frustrating because the Sox could be at 10-10 right now if not for one bad inning from Clay Buchholz. The Sox played an all-around better game on Patriots Day but when your starting pitcher gives up six runs in one are making your team climb a tall hill from that point on. The fact that Boston almost won yesterday's game says something about how, finally, their hitting seems to be coming around a little bit.

The Sox outhit Baltimore in two of the four games, something they have had trouble doing this year. They hit .243 with runners in scoring position over the four games, much better than the .185 they averaged against Chicago. They left 30 men on base over the series, an average of 7.5 a game, compared with 9.3 a game with Chicago. They have gone from 24th in team OPS to 21st, 20th in runs (from 22nd) and 23rd in extra-base hits (from 26th). That still isn't great. Heck, it isn't even good. But it is an improvement and that is what has to happen for Boston to start moving up the standings. Every journey starts with a single step, right?

And let's hear it for Brock Holt, who actually stabilized third base and brought a functioning bat into the lineup. His OPS right now is 1.009. Yes, that is only over four games. But when you consider Ryan Roberts had just a .333 OPS over eight games (and .200 after four), I say we give a round of applause to Brock and encourage him to keep his bat moving.

Hallelujah, someone who can play third and hit

So for all that, it was a letdown to then see the pitching slip. We had Buchholz implode the other day. Someone on said that Buchholz isn't an ace, but a wild card. And I think that is the perfect description for him. You never quite know what Clay is going to give you when he takes the mound. He has all the talent in the world. But some days you get a crap-bomb like yesterday and others you get a work of art like that game in April 2013 against the Rays when Clay went eight innings and struck out 11. The inconsistency is maddening.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sox Steal Two of Three in Chicago

Boston took two games in three from the White Sox this week. And I am not exactly sure how they did it.

Across all three games, the Sox totaled just 14 hits. That includes a 14-inning marathon Wednesday night. They left 28 men on base over all three games and went 5-27 with runners in scoring position for a whopping .185 average.

And yet somehow, they won two of three games.

Truth is, they probably should have won all three games despite their continuing hitting problems. But Game One got away from them on a bad throw from Xander Bogaerts. That is his second error of the year. He's still a rookie so it is not all that surprising to see a bad throw here and there. It was just really bad timing. And it wasted a solid outing from Jake Peavy, who went six innings and only gave up one run on three hits. He has a 1.93 ERA so far in 2014 and is looking pretty solid.

Then Wednesday night we had the 14-inning spectacular that saw Boston score only three runs over the first nine innings despite nine walks, four hits, a hit batter and a wild pitch. Both teams then added a run in the 11th before Jackie Bradley uncorked a two-run double in the 14th inning to get Boston ahead for good. That was Boston's sixth hit of the entire night.

Last night was Boston's best game of the series. Despite being outhit again (Chicago had more hits in all three games) they won 2-1 on the back of a lights-out performance from Jon Lester. Eight innings of one-run ball. Seven hits, nine strikeouts and no walks. He threw 67% of his pitches for strikes and threw a first-pitch strike to 70% of the batters he faced.

Even awesome pitchers need run support

But you can't allow yourself to look at these two wins and pretend that the Red Sox have gotten things straightened out. As I said before, their pitching is the only thing keeping them going right now.

For example, look at Chris Capuano. Here's a guy I was very skeptical about joining the team. All he's done so far is throw nine innings of relief, strikeout eight, allow no runs and earn two holds. Capuano has a 0.67 WHIP right now. And his 2.2 innings of scoreless, walk-free relief Wednesday night earned him his first win of the season. I was wrong about him. But Capuano is indicative of the overall quality of the Sox pitching staff. Sure, there have been hiccups here and there. But overall, a very solid start to 2014.

The danger here is that this pitching will mask Boston's atrocious hitting. And it is atrocious.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Boston's Bats Are the Problem

At 5-8, the Red Sox find themselves on the bottom of the AL East. To be fair, that is only two games out of first. Nevertheless, that is not a place we expected to find Boston in the latter-half of April.

When this happens, the impulse is to initially look for excuses. Especially when you drop three of four to the Yankees in the Bronx.

Sometimes, that impulse is just misplaced. As with Pineda and his dirty hand; that wasn't why Boston dropped the first game.

Sometimes, that impulse has a legitimate genesis. The umpires blew two reviews that went against Boston over the weekend. And while the one on Saturday didn't affect the end of that game, the inexplicable reversal on Sunday provided the difference in New York's 3-2 win.

Replay doesn't help if the umpire is still blind

Replay is useless if the umpires can't actually see what is - or isn't - on the screen. Last night, they overturned a 5-4-3 double play when no conclusive angle existed to do so. That gave New York a 3-1 lead. Without that screwup, it's 2-2 going into the ninth and who knows what happens.

But I digress. Because while that call was costly, the real reason for Boston's poor standing right now has to do with their lineup.

Boston is 8th in the AL with an OPS of .695, compared to their AL-leading .795 OPS last year. They are fourth in the AL with 110 strikeouts but ninth in walks. They have grounded into 17 double plays, leading the AL.

It's not their pitching. The staff has a respectable 3.76 ERA. Their nine quality starts is second-best in the AL. They are sixth in strikeouts with 104 and their 27 walks allowed is second-best behind Detroit. While the Boston staff has allowed the third-most hits in the AL (126), that hasn't translated into a lot of runs (seventh in the AL in earned runs allowed and overall runs allowed). As a whole, the Boston rotation and bullpen haven't been spectacular, but they have been solid.

It's the bats that are letting Boston down.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pineda, Pine Tar And Why The Red Sox Lost

Let's get something out of the way right now. The Sox lost to the Yankees 4-1 because Michael Pineda pitched a very solid game. They lost because they went 0-5 with runners in scoring position.

They most certainly did not lose because Pineda had something on his hand.

Last night's broadcast on NESN turned into a late-night Alex Jones radio show, with Remy and Orsillo ruminating about a brown substance on Pineda's pitching hand. Was it pine tar? Was it dirt? It really doesn't matter, because unless Pineda has been pitching every game in every series in 2014 then Boston's problems go beyond last night's loss.

The hand that somehow makes Daniel Nava keep striking out.

They went 0-5 with runners in scoring position. On the season they are .202 with runners in scoring position. Boston has scored 36 runs so far, 12th out of 15 teams in the AL. Their 82 strikeouts are fourth highest in the AL. The Sox have grounded into 17 double plays so far, the worst in the AL.

Add to the above the fact that their fielding has been below league average so far in 2014. The AL team average is a .984 fielding percentage with five errors. Boston has a .979 FP with eight errors.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Disappointing Home Series for Boston

I am thankful I was so busy this weekend that I didn't have time to type about Boston's series with the Brewers until today. Because had I done it in the moment it likely would have been a ton of cursing briefly interrupted with sobs.

Dropping the home opener was something I actually expected. Coming off the emotion of the ring ceremony and raising the title banner, you can see that being a possibility. What I didn't expect was it to happen via the bullpen imploding in the ninth inning.

Edward Mujica simply didn't have the stuff he needed to get three outs. Only one batter went to four pitches, when Carlos Gomez hit a 2-1 pitch to drive in Overbay and increase Milwaukee's lead to 5-2. By the time the Sox brought Andrew Miller in, it was 6-2 and the game was effectively over.

It also didn't help that the Sox lineup only scratched four hits and two runs off of Estrada despite getting him to throw 102 pitches in 5.2 innings. It was a waste of a solid performance from Jake Peavy, who went six innings and gave up two runs on six hits. But the Sox went 0-6 with runners in scoring position.

They may as well have held their bats like this the entire series. Jared Wickerham | Getty Images

Game Two was a runfest that Boston had no business winning. Buchholz was bad, going 4.1 innings and gave up six runs on 13 hits. The Brewers' Wily Peralta was little better, with Boston scoring five runs in five innings.

But that parity disguised how much better Milwaukee was hitting. Boston had seven hits all game while the Brewers had 19. The Sox went 2-6 with runners in scoring position while Milwaukee was 6-23. If the Brewers had been a little more efficient this game would have been a wipeout.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Red Sox Trending Positive To Start 2014

The Baltimore Orioles were the only AL East team to have a winning record against Boston last year. The Sox were 8-11 against the Orioles with a .421 winning percentage. That was their third lowest win percentage against any team last year.*

One series, especially the first of the year, cannot be a barometer for the season as a whole. Just as one game doesn't define a series or a trend. But with Boston's 4-3 win last night, they start the season 2-1 against a team that gave them fits in 2013. And across those three games, you could see some commonalities.

Let's look at last night's starter first. Felix Doubront picked up the win with a performance that, although it wasn't a quality start, nevertheless got Felix his first win of 2014. He went 5.2 innings, giving up three runs on six hits. He struck out four and walked one.

And now here's a look at our first commonality with Boston's starters:
Starting Pitcher | Pitches Thrown | Strikes | % of Pitches Thrown for Strikes

Doubront | 76 | 51 | 67%

Lackey | 90 | 68 | 75.5%

Lester | 104 | 73 | 70.1%

All three starters were pounding the strike zone in this series, Lackey in particular. That is how you help your team wins games as a pitcher.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Red Sox Drop Their Opener

Going into yesterday's game against the Orioles, I said the Red Sox had to do two things: limit Baltimore's power and not waste their scoring opportunities. A brief lapse in the former and doing the opposite of the latter is why the Sox lost 2-1 yesterday afternoon to the Orioles.

Let's talk about the good first, because that is always more enjoyable. Even with the surrendered home run to Nelson Cruz in the seventh and getting the loss, Jon Lester pitched a solid game. It was a quality start, going seven innings and giving up just two runs on six hits. He struck out eight and walked just one. It was the kind of performance that will almost always get you a win. Except when you have no run support. The relief pitching was solid as well. Junichi Tazawa threw a solid inning with no hits and one strikeout. Overall Boston had a pretty good day on the mound.

Lester was solid on the mound - (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The fielding was solid as well. No errors and two turned double plays. And Grady Sizemore continued the feel-good story of the season by going 2-4 with a home run.

Now to the not-so great stuff.

Boston's batters did one thing well; they worked Chris Tillman and knocked him out of the game early. Tillman threw 104 pitches in just five innings, giving up seven hits and one run. Considering all the trouble he gave Boston last year, getting Tillman off the mound was the perfect set-up for a Boston win.

The reason they lost can be summed up in three words: zero for ten. The Red Sox went 0-10 with runners in scoring position, which is wasteful on a grand scale. Even converting just two of those runners would have given Boston the win. It was a waste of runs and of a solid pitching performance from Lester. A.J. Pierzynski was the worst in this area, stranding three runners in scoring position.