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Monday, May 28, 2012

Can Beckett put an end to his "Saberhagen Syndrome" with Red Sox?

Josh Beckett certainly pitched well enough to win last Saturday, but a no-decision against the Rays kept his record at a ho-hum 4-4. Even after three straight strong starts, his ERA is still a less-than-impressive 4.15 and the question remains: 


Beckett's inconsistency can be maddening.

Is Beckett suffering from Saberhagen Syndrome?


Many baseball fans are familiar with Steve Blass Disease, named after the Pirates right-hander who was a World Series hero and 19-game winner in the early 1970s, and then suddenly found himself unable to get the ball over the plate. Blass lost his effectiveness all at once, never to get it back, but Beckett's troubles more closely mirror another former pitcher who suited up for the Royals, Mets, Red Sox, and Rockies from 1984-2001.


Bret Saberhagen was a two-time Cy Young Award winner before he turned 26, and earned the MVP award in the 1985 World Series for two complete-game victories over the Cardinals. There was something about his career, however, that confounded his managers and kept him from reaching the Hall of Fame heights once predicted for him.


I call it Saberhagen Syndrome. For nearly a decade, each time the slim righty had a winning season, he followed it up with a losing one. Starting with his rookie year, the stretch went like this:


1984: 10-11
1985: 20-6 Cy Young Award) 
1986: 7-12
1987: 18-10
1988: 14-16
1989:  23-6 (Cy Young Award)
1990:  5-9
1991:  13-8 
1992:  3-5
Record in even years: 39-53 (.423 winning percentage) 
Record in odd years: 74-30 (.711)


Saberhagen's ups and downs left everyone perplexed.


Saberhagen had several injuries during the stretch, and in some years his ERA was better than his record showed, but in terms of wins and losses there is no denying a pattern. He would pitch more consistently with Boston in the late '90s, but by then a bad shoulder had rendered him far less durable -- and his career was effectively over at age 35.


Beckett's case is a bit more complicated. He too has a propensity for pitching far better in odd years than even ones, when his earned-run average really shoots up. Starting with his first year in Boston, during which he somehow went 16-11, his stats look like this:


2006: 16-11, 5.01 ERA
2007: 20-7, 3.27
2008: 12-10, 4.03
2009: 17-6, 3.86
2010: 6-6. 5.78
2011: 13-7, 2.89
2012: 4-4, 4.15
Record and ERA in even years: 38-31, 4.79
Record and ERA in odd years: 50-20, 3.35


It's still unclear at this point if the trend is going to continue all the way through 2012; Beckett's ERA is actually far lower than his even-year average, and he's given up three runs or less in seven of nine starts. Like Saberhagen, Beckett has shown an ability to be among the best pitchers in baseball, and he too has shined in the postseason -- with two World Series rings to show for it.


But at age 32 -- the same age Steve Blass lost it all -- Beckett is still seeking the consistency that is a trademark of great stars. Will he be able to find it this year, or will be continue to be an every-other-year ace?


Which Beckett are we going to get this year?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Could fight with Rays ignite the Red Sox?


Their team was down 7-4, but Red Sox fans who stuck around for the end of Friday's game against the Rays at Fenway Park had to be intrigued by what they saw in the top of the ninth inning.

Carlos Pena (left) and Bob McClure have a chat.

The fight that ignited after Boston pitcher Franklin Morales drilled Tampa Bay's Luke Scott in the leg with a fastball had a lot more energy than your typical baseball fracas. The pushing, shoving, and yelling lasted far longer than normal, and managers and coaches played a prominent role in the scrap.

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was in the thick of the action, having to be restrained by several of his players. Usually mild-mannered Boston coaches Tim Bogar and Bob McClure were also among those doing a lot of the screaming, most of it directed at their Tampa Bay counterparts.

The home crowd got to see a strong peace-making presence by David Ortiz, who came under scrutiny for his "I get no respect" comments earlier in the week and looked like a leader during the melee. In a season that has lacked the sense of urgency and commitment fans were hoping to see after last September's Red Sox collapse, this may be just the spark the team needs.

So might Valentine's comments after the game about Scott, who earlier this year was quoted as calling Fenway fans "vulgar" and the 100-year-old ballpark "a dump." 

Luke Scott brings out the best in Red Sox fans.

"Boys will be boys," Valentine said. "It seemed like both teams were on the field. With the guy getting hit? Maybe it was the Ghost of Fenway Past remembering he bad-mouthed all our fans and our stadium, directing the ball at his leg."

t's way too early to know if a fight with one of their AL East rivals will have a positive impact on the underachieving, injury-riddled Red Sox, who fell to 22-23 with the loss and once again failed to get over .500 for the first time this season. But there is an example from the not-so-distant past that suggests it could.


Tek gives A-Rod a mouthful of mitt.

In 2004, the Red Sox were 52-44 (.542) and trailing in the Wild Card race when Boston catcher Jason Varitek and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez came to blows at Fenway after A-Rod was hit by a pitch. The Sox went 46-20 (.697) the rest of the season, beat New York in the ALCS, and won their first World Series title in 86 years.

There was no "glove in the face" moment in this fight, but Scott, like A-Rod, is a guy Fenway fans (and likely more than a few Boston players) love to hate. Can the Red Sox channel that hatred into a streak similar to 2004?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fan seeks to get Dewey his due

The way right field has become somewhat of a revolving door for the Red Sox in recent years, it should be remembered that for nearly two decades and many heartbreaks, one man ruled the position with grace and class. 
Dewey takes a curtain call.

When the Sox announced that Dwight "Dewey" Evans would be one of two team representatives at Boston's table responsible for calling in the team's picks at next month's amateur draft, the memories came flooding back for those of us old enough to distinguish Bob Montgomery from Bob Bailey.


Each year from 1973-89, Evans reached double figures in home runs while guarding what most considered the toughest patch of right-field real estate in the American League at Fenway Park. (His last year in Boston, 1990, he was strictly a DH.)


And while even casual Boston fans know that Manny Ramirez wore number 24 while with the Red Sox from 2001-2008, one fan is focused on getting another #24 -- Evans -- the recognition he deserves.

Dewey was a much more low-key but far better all-around ballplayer than Ramirez. He didn’t quite have Manny’s power, but Evans was an outstanding defensive player who developed into an excellent hitter – so good, in fact, that fan-turned-lobbyist Patrick Languzzi believes he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
By 1982 Evans was a complete ballplayer.

Languzzi has amassed plenty of stats to back up his Cooperstown claim. During the 1980s, for instance, Evans led the majors in extra-base hits and collected more home runs (256) than any other American Leaguer. 

Evans was also the premier right fielder in baseball for most of two decades, and is the only player in history to accomplish both the aforementioned slugging feats and also win eight Gold Gloves.

When it comes to combining offensive and defensive prowess in the Gold Glove era (post-1955), Languzzi attests, nobody is close to Evans. Henry Aaron is the only other player to both lead the ML in extra-base hits over the course of a decade (the ‘60s) and win multiple Gold Gloves in his career, and he “only” won three of them.

Take Evans’ spectacular defense out of the equation, and he’s still a viable Cooperstown candidate with higher lifetime numbers than the average Hall of Famer in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, walks, slugging, and OPS. He was good in the clutch too; playing in two of the all-time classic World Series (1975 and ’86), Evans hit .300 with 3 homers and 14 RBI in 14 games. 

During the 11th inning of the infamous  Game Six of '75 Fall Classic vs the Reds, he nearly made my 8-year-old eyes pop out by making one of the greatest catches in postseason history just a few feet in front of me. 

His half-leap, half-lunge against the short right-field fence robbed Joe Morgan of a home run, but knowing it was only the second out of the inning, Evans had the presence of mind to whip the ball in to first base to complete the double play. (See the play and Dewey's recollection of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DYR0sN0CnQ)
Dewey robs Morgan.

It’s all right there on Languzzi’s website (www.call2thehall), which the rookie webmaster has created to honor Evans and garner support for his Cooperstown candidacy. Dewey faces an uphill battle for sure, since he never collected more than 10.4 percent of the votes when initially appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot from 1997-1999. 

A player needs votes from 75 percent of the electorate (primarily sportswriters) to make it via this route; if he can’t crack that mark after 15 years, he is removed from the ballot and can only make it if nominated and then selected by the Veteran’s Committee.

More than mere idol worship compelled a self-proclaimed “average Joe” to create the website and an online petition (at http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/call-to-the-hall-support-dwight-evans-for-mlb-s-hall-o.html) that is quickly picking up steam. 

Growing up just outside Boston in Waltham, Mass, Languzzi was a huge Red Sox fan who like myself “came of age” with the 1975 pennant-winners and loved watching the quiet, classy, and clutch way Evans played the game. Jim Rice was another of his favorite players, and he felt that both belonged in the Hall of Fame – Rice for his prodigious power hitting, Evans for his all-around play.

After Rice was elected to Cooperstown in 2009, Languzzi told his wife Ezzy that he felt Evans deserved the same honor. “She put her finger on my chest, and said, ‘If you feel that way, then do the research and prove it.” Languzzi recalls with a laugh. “I’m always up for a good challenge, so I started researching. And the more I uncovered, the more convinced I became that Evans belonged in the Hall of Fame.”
This "Super Outfield" hit 885 homers for Boston.

Figuring that the Veteran’s Committee (made up of senior media members, baseball executives, and Hall of Fame players) would agree if given the facts, Languzzi contacted Red Sox Vice President and Team Historian Dick Bresciani and shared his findings. Since it was “Bresch” who had compiled the rich statistical analysis that helped make the case for Rice’s election, his getting behind the project would be a huge endorsement.

Bresciani was so impressed that he put Languzzi in touch with Tom Catlin, who had been creating a documentary about Evans for the New England Sports Network (NESN), and Languzzi’s stats were worked into the program. Viewers saw just how valid an argument could be made for Dewey, especially when his numbers were put beside those of his longtime teammate Rice.

Although Rice had more “big” years, their core lifetime stats are very similar:  382 home runs, 1451 RBI, and a .854 OPS for Jim Ed; and 385 homers, 1384 RBI, and an .840 OPS for Evans. Rice had 2,452 hits; Evans 2,446. 

Yes, Rice had the higher lifetime batting and slugging averages, but Evans walked more and hit into far fewer double plays. And while Rice was a better defensive left fielder than he usually got credit for, Evans was among the best right fielders to ever play the position.

No less an authority than sabermetrics pioneer Bill James, a longtime senior advisor for the Red Sox, is also in agreement with Languzzi. According to James, the biggest problem voters have with Evans and his offense is that they recall his first several seasons as a good 20-homer, 70-RBI ballplayer, and not the second half of his career when he was a great 30-homer, 100-RBI one. Nobody denies his defense is of Cooperstown caliber.
Looking determined on his '75 Topps card

“Dwight Evans is the very unusual baseball player who had all of his best years in his thirties,” James wrote in an essay entitled “An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame About Dwight Evans.” “Less than 5 percent [of players] have all of their best [offensive] years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case.”

It was another challenge from his wife – “Why don’t you come up with a website?” – that prompted Languzzi to gather together all his statistical analysis and stories in cyberspace. Although he had never designed a website before, he came up with a very attractive, readable and easy-to-navigate portal into all things Dewey.

Through the process of his appeals for hardball justice, Languzzi has gotten friendly with Evans. He’s found his boyhood hero to be a quiet, classy guy, and learning that the three-time All-Star accomplished all he did on the field while caring for two seriously ill young sons has only further hardened Languzzi’s resolve.

“Not many knew about his sons being so sick when he played,” says Languzzi. “One of the things that drives me is that he’s so humble. You want to see somebody like that get into the Hall of Fame.”
From left: Tiant, Evans, Rice, and Yaz take a stroll at Fenway's 100th birthday.


Each three years, the Veteran’s Committee of the Hall of Fame meets to consider the credentials of players from the Expansion Era (1973 to present). To be elected, a candidate must receive votes from at least 75 percent or 12 of 16 votes cast. Evans was not on the ballot during the last such vote in 2010, because a player must be retired at least 21 years to be eligible. He last played in 1991 (with Baltimore), so Dewey will be up for discussion in fall 2013.

That gives Languzzi more than a year to keep building his case. Like a long Evans-to-Fisk peg trying to nab a runner at the plate, don’t bet against him.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Red Sox doubling their pleasure at a record pace


Another double for Gonzo?

Ever since Fenway Park was constructed with its quirky configurations, a big part of the Red Sox offense has consisted of two-base hits that slam off the 37-foot Green Monster in left field or bounce around in the assorted nooks and crannies of the center-field triangle and right- and left-field corners.

From Earl Webb's mind-boggling 67 doubles in 1931 -- still a MLB record -- to the AL-best 54 turned in by MVP Dustin Pedroia in 2008, Sox hitters have often led all American League batters in the category. They routinely place among the best; last year Jacoby Ellsbury (46) and Adrian Gonzalez (45) were right behind top man Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers.

This season, however, is unlike anything even the Red Sox have done before.

Through the first 42 games of the season, the Sox have hit 116 doubles -- an average of nearly three per game. The next-closest team in the American League, the Royals, has 90, and the AL leader-board looks like a Boston lineup card once you get past the leadoff man:


Cano, New York, 16; 
Gonzalez, Boston, 15;
Ortiz, Boston, 15;
Pedroia, Boston, 14; 
Sweeney, Boston, 14;
Aviles, Boston, 13;

 ...and, just a little further down the charts...


Saltalamacchia, Boston, 10;
Ross, Boston, 9

Pedroia follows through on a two-base hit.

To put this into historic perspective, the most doubles the Red Sox have ever hit as a team in one year was a MLB-record-tying 373, accomplished in both the magical 2004 season and the largely-forgettable 1997 campaign. The 2003 near-miss club had 371, the only other Boston team to top 360. (The 1930 St. Louis Cardinals are the other club to hit 373.)

Do some quick math, and you see just how amazing a two-bag pace the current Sox are on. They've played roughly a quarter of the season; were they to keep hitting doubles at their current rate, they would finish with well over 450 and shatter the old team and MLB record.

This blistering early clip has helped the Red Sox recover from a terrible start to reach .500 at 21-21. Imagine where they would be without all the doubles?

Boston has hit 54 home runs and four triples as a team, numbers that put the Sox well behind the American League team leaders in each category. Clearly, the double has been the club's more important offensive weapon. Even with vastly improved starting pitching the past few weeks, the Red Sox team ERA is still a woeful 4.63. 28th out of 30 teams. Boston often needs all the runs it can get. 

Could Earl Webb's record ever be eclipsed?

Will six Red Sox batters wind up with 50+ doubles, as the current leaderboard suggests? It's doubtful, but it will certainly be fun to see if Boston keeps doubling its pleasure as the temperatures heat up and big boppers Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis return to the lineup. 


Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at amazon.com and his Red Sox reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com/. You can reach him at saulwizz@gmail.com or @saulwizz.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thank you, Wake ... were you watching, Josh?

Here's to you, Tim

I hope that starting pitcher Josh Beckett and everybody else on the Red Sox roster was watching closely during the "Thank you, Wake" ceremonies before today's ballgame against the Mariners at Fenway Park. In addition to being a classy sendoff for the knuckleballer, the event showed just where Tim Wakefield's priorities were during his 17-year career with Boston.

Rather than showing a bunch of highlights of Wakefield's 200 career victories, the Jumbotron featured photos of him posing with kids from Dana-Farber's Jimmy Fund Clinic and Franciscan Hospital for Children. Rather than trot out a bunch of celebrities to sing his praises, the Red Sox had representatives from the different charities Wakefield has supported during the years join him on the field.

And in a moment that moved the man of honor to tears, dozens of former "Wakefield Warriors" emerged from the same center field door that past Red Sox players had used to make their entrance during Fenway's 100th anniversary celebration last month. The Wakefield Warriors are patients from the Jimmy Fund and Franciscan Hospital who Tim invited to be his guests before each Tuesday game at Fenway, and it was clear from the look on his face as he shook their hands just what their presence at the ceremony meant to him.
Wakefield never lost sight of the big picture. 

The only person to speak besides emcee Don Orsillo and Wakefield himself was longtime teammate David Ortiz. Like Wake, Ortiz is a former winner of the Roberto Clemente Award given annually to the MLB player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual's contribution to his team", as voted on by baseball fans and members of the media. "I know how much Boston means to you, and I know how much you mean to Boston," Ortiz said, and the fans roared in agreement.

One of the few baseball moments that was referred to during the half-hour ceremony was Wakefield's selfless gesture to give up his Game 4 start in the 2004 ALCS and pitch in long relief during a 19-8 loss to the Yankees at Fenway in Game 3. This move, perhaps more than any other, showed Wake's character and devotion to his teammates. (It was followed up, of course, by three great relief innings and a win by Wakefield in Game 5, helping Boston on the way to its improbable pennant and World Series triumph.)

In the wake of last September's collapse, the chicken and beer scandal, and the bad karma that has (fairly or unfairly) carried over into this Red Sox season, the ceremony was a reminder of the type of difference ballplayers can make in the lives of others -- and their teammates -- by carrying themselves with class and dignity.

Tim Wakefield won more games at Fenway Park than any other pitcher, but he also won the hearts of fans for what he did when he wasn't on the mound. That's the sign of a true hero.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What a day for Middlebrooks siblings in Boston and 'Bama

Big brother Will gets some love from Big Papi.

When rookie Will Middlebrooks hit a grand slam for the Red Sox yesterday in just his third major league game, he helped complete a rather unique family feat. 

Playing college softball for Tulsa, his little sister, Lacey, also homered Sunday in a contest against the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Lacey is a junior pitcher for the Golden Hurricane, for whom she helped clinch the Conference USA title yesterday with her three-run blast at the plate and a one-hit shutout on the mound. Lacey has a 19-5 record with a 1.90 ERA through yesterday, and is one of Tulsa's leading hitters with a .326 average and five homers.

Little sister Lacey lets one fly.

Her highly-touted brother, who hit 23 homers in the minors last year, had nine at AAA Pawtucket this season in just 27 games before being called up to Boston to replace the injured Kevin Youkilis at third base. In his first game for the Red Sox on May 2, Will Middlebrooks had a double, single, walk, and a stolen base. Through Sunday, he is hitting .313 (5-for-16) to start his MLB career.

He also has his grand slam ball, which was recovered by a security guard after it cleared the Green Monster in left field. "It was probably the biggest rush of my life," Middlebrooks told reporters after the game.

His sister, for one, probably knew exactly what he was talking about.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Could Will Middlebrooks Pull a Wade Boggs?

The rookie takes it all in.

As Kevin Youkilis heads to the disabled list and Will Middlebrooks comes up to take his place at third base, I can't help recalling a similar incident that happened almost exactly 30 years ago involving a future Hall of Famer.

In April 1982, third baseman Wade Boggs made the Red Sox after six years in the minors. He only got into 10 games through May, because Boston had a defending AL batting champion on third in Carney Lansford. Then, in late June, Lansford suffered a broken ankle and Boggs was given a chance to take his place.

The rookie took advantage of the situation, to put it mildly. Boggs went 10-for-20 in his first five games as a starter, hit .364 in June, .387 in July and .386 in August -- stroking the ball with a regularity that fans would get used to over the next decade. When Lansford came back in late July, manager Ralph Houk kept Boggs in the lineup by moving him to first base.
Boggs launches another one toward the Monster.

Even though his September average fell off to "only" .314, Boggs finished the year with a .349 overall mark in 338 at-bats. Lansford rebounded well from his injury to bat .301, but that December was traded to the A's in a deal that netted the Red Sox future home run champ Tony Armas. And while nagging injuries in Oakland kept Lansford from the Hall of Fame career once expected of him, Boggs would go on to win five batting titles in the next six years at Boston and make it to Cooperstown with a .328 lifetime average and 3010 hits.

Could Middlebrooks pull a Wade Boggs and take Youk's job for good? Will he excel enough to prompt the Red Sox to trade their popular but slumping (and oft-injured) third baseman for some pitching help?

Time will tell, but it will be fun to see how the rookie takes advantage of his opportunity. He hasn't hit for as high an average overall as Boggs did in the minors, but he was batting .333 with nine homers in just 27 games at Pawtucket when called up yesterday. Then, in his first ML game, he went 2-for-3 with a double and a stolen base.
Middlebrooks was a bright spot on a dismal night.

Red Sox Nation is watching. The rain is falling in Boston, but Will Middlebrooks is looking to shine.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What Does a Hot April Mean for David Ortiz?

During a very up-and-down April for the Red Sox -- or, more accurately, a very down-and-up April -- one of the club's most consistent performers was one of the most surprising, given the calendar: David Ortiz.

A lifetime .266 hitter in the season's first month, Ortiz scalded the ball this April at a .405 clip, with 6 home runs and 20 RBI. He finished the month, fittingly, with a pair of homers  in an 11-6 victory over the Athletics at Fenway Park last night, giving him a ridiculous .543 average (19-for-35) in the team's first 10 home games. Those are numbers usually associated with Carl Yastrzemski and September of 1967, and most certainly not David Ortiz in any April.

To put things in perspective, Big Papi hit .267 last April with 2 homers and 11 RBI. This was actually a big improvement from 2010, when he batted a woeful .143 (8-for-56) with 1 homer and 4 RBI during the first month. Going back to 2009 (.230) and '08 (.184), it was more of the same.
Making this unprecedented binge so exciting is how Ortiz did it, hitting the ball to all fields and with equal might against right- and left-handed pitching. Lefties gave Big Papi fits for most of his career, to the point where in 2010 the disparity reached Mendoza Line-esque territory. While Ortiz hit .297 with 30 homers in 333 at-bats against right-handers that year, he dropped off to .222 with just 2 longballs vs. southpaws.

In the past couple years, however, the lefty slugger has inexplicably eliminated this gaping hole in his game. In 2011 he actually hit for a better average against left-handed pitchers (.329 to .298), although most of his power (21 of 29 homers) still came against righties. This year all pitchers are getting crushed to the tune of a near-.400 average, with the edge in power still coming from Big Papi's right-side.

What does all this mean?

Well, if we look back on recent history, we could be in for a vintage 2004-07 Ortiz season. In each of the past two years, Papi followed up his slow starts with fantastic Mays -- 10 homers and a .363 average in 2010, and 10 homers and a .342 clip in 2011. If he does that again this year, he'll be more than halfway to a 30-homer season by June.

Certainly age may make a 40-homer, 120-RBI year a challenge, but it's pretty clear to see that condition-wise, Ortiz looks the best he has in years. Even casual fans notice that it's a much svelter Papi stepping into the batter's box these days, and less weight usually means more speed in your swing and less nagging injuries.

Ortiz went into the 2012 within striking range of some significant career milestones -- 22 homers shy of 400 for his career and 44 doubles away from 500. He's got 9 doubles already this year, so there is a good chance both marks will fall by season's end.

Throw in his leadership role on two World Series champions, his legendary postseason performances, and his lifetime Top 50 slugging and OPS marks (.546 and .925 entering May) and you might start hearing the Ortiz for Hall of Fame discussion start in earnest by the time the leaves turn brown.