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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Numbers that define the resurging Red Sox

Another home-plate celebration.

Boston sports fans coming off their Stanley Cup hangovers are beginning to notice the Red Sox again, and what they are seeing is a team defying all expectations. In fact, the Sox are on pace for one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in franchise history.

With exactly half the season (81 games) gone, the Red Sox entered last night game against the Blue Jays with a record of 48-33. They then won again, and assuming they keep the same pace through the second half, they would wind up with a mark of 96-66 -- a 27-game improvement over the dreadful 69-93 slate turned in by the last-place Boys of Bobby Valentine in 2012.

A shift of that many wins over two full seasons has never occurred in Boston since the MLB schedule expanded to 162 games in 1961. The closest were the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox, who went from a 70-92, ninth-place finish in '66 to a 92-70 mark and the seventh game of the World Series a year later. 

As with all things baseball, numbers tell a big part of the story. Here are some that help define the Red Sox resurgence (all stats through Friday):

Boston's record in games started by Clay Buchholz (9-0) and Jon Lester (8-4).

Buchholz has licked the competition when healthy.

Although Lester has struggled during much of the last month, and Buchholz has missed several starts while on the disabled list, Boston's two top starters have rebounded nicely from 2012, when the team was a combined 28-34 when they took the hill. 

Buchholz has been particularly intriguing, pitching before his neck injury better than any Red Sox ace since Pedro Martinez -- including a league-best 1.71 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 84 innings. How quick and how well he comes back will be a huge factor in Boston's ability to stay atop the AL East.

John Lackey's ERA over 13 starts
John Lackey -- finally back on track?

No misprint here. Lackey, who missed all of last season after Tommy John surgery, was the poster boy for bad performances in 2011 with a 6.41 ERA and 1.62 WHIP that had stat geeks scouring their record books to see how he ranked among the worst starting pitchers of all time. 

Here's the funny thing; Lackey actually went 12-12 that year, and is currently just 5-5 after his best outing of this year --  a 7-inning, 12-strikeout, 0-walk gem against Colorado. He's throwing faster and smoother than he has since his glory days with the Angels, and if he keeps it up he won't stay at .500 for long.

2.33 over 92 2/3
Combined ERA and innings for Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, and Koji Uehara
Uehara shuts the door.

Relief pitching was expected to be a strength for Boston, and for the most part it has been -- with Tazawa, Breslow, and Uehara providing an excellent bridge from starter to closer. Unfortunately the end of the bridge -- aka the closer -- has been very treacherous. 

Several  pitchers have failed in the role, most recently Andrew Bailey. Uehara was given the job this week, and is a perfect 3 for 3 in save situations thus far. That plus his 48 strikeouts in 33 innings and WHIP of 0.79 suggest Boston may have finally found the successor to Jonathan Papelbon.

63 and 424
Boston's stolen base and runs scored totals
Daniel Nava -- a surprising star scores again.

When introduced as the new Red Sox manager before this season, John Farrell promised that he would have a hustling ball club. That has surely been the case, as Boston leads the American League in steals -- paced by Jacoby Ellsbury's MLB-best 32 -- and tops the majors in runs scored (by a huge gap over second-place Baltimore). 

The Sox also pace the AL in  RBI (414), OBP (.350, tied with Detroit), and OPS (.796). Throw in their league-leading 179 doubles and 23 triples, and their 309 walks (second to only Oakland), and it's pretty clear these guys know how to get on first and move their way around from there.

.318, .610, 1.017
Average, slugging, and OPS figures for David Ortiz
It's been rip city for Ortiz since coming back.

Nobody knew quite what to expect from Ortiz in 2013. Big Papi missed all but one of the last 72 games last season with a right Achilles injury, and was out for all of spring training and the first 15 contest this year as well. The whispers were that age and his big physique were taking their toll.

What Ortiz has done to answer the critics is hit nearly as well as in his peak seasons of 2004-06. Visibly slimmer than he's been in ears, he has 16 homers and 57 RBI in just 63 games -- despite being intentionally walked 20 times already this year. His next double will be his 500th, and the way he is hitting now, 500 homers may not be out of the question (he has 417).

81 of 82
Number of games Dustin Pedroia has played
Another web gem for Petey.

Pedroia has always played hard, but his aggressive style has sent him to the disabled list on several occasions. This year the scrappy second baseman has been healthy all season, and is at the top of his game -- playing better than ever defensively and performing like a true No. 3 hitter with a .323 average and a 40-double, 90-RBI pace. 

Pedroia was the American League MVP in 2008, but so far is having an even better year in 2013. Fans never know what great web gem or clutch hit they are going to get from The Laser Show, but the chances are they'll get one every game.

.419 (52 for 124)
Jose Igelsias' batting average and hits/at-bat totals
Yup, he's still officially a rookie.

These might be the most shocking numbers of all to emerge from the Red Sox boxscores. Iglesias was a slick-fielding shortstop but a .266 hitter (with no power) in the minors last year, and was just above the Mendoza Line at .202 when recalled from AAA Pawtucket a month ago to fill in for an injured Stephen Drew. 

Management hoped Iglesias could improve on his 8-for-68 stint in the majors last year, and accepted that his glove would make up for an average in the sub-.250 range. Instead, he has been spectacular at the plate, amassing an 18-game hitting streak and reaching base in 29 of 33 games. He's even added a bit of power.

Will Middlebrooks has slumped badly at third, so when Drew returned a few weeks back Farrell decided to let Iglesias stay in the regular lineup by switching him over to the hot corner and sending Middlebrooks back to the minors. Jose has adjusted immediately to the new position.

Can he stay above .400 for a full season? It's very doubtful, but if he can accumulate enough at-bats in the second half, he may make it a very interesting September in the AL batting race.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

New Andrew Bailey role is boon for Red Sox batters

Another run for the Sox -- thanks in part to Bailey.

The Red Sox broke out for 11 runs on a season-high 20 hits last night, including many balls slammed to the furthest regions of Fenway Park. None of it was much of a surprise to fans who arrived early for the ballgame.

Those who were in their seats for batting practice were treated to an awesome display of power as Sox batters slammed shot after shot off and over the Green Monster. Even Jacoby Ellsbury, who has hit less home runs (five) in the past two seasons combined than he did in September of 2011, was making like Mark McGwire in the '99 Home Run Derby.

The pre-game crowd likely paid little attention to the mustached and bespectacled pitcher who was serving up the B.P. meatballs to Jacoby and Co. One perceptive media member, however, recognized the hurler's delivery and realized the Tom Selleck wannabee was actually Andrew Bailey in disguise. 
Like Bobby V., Bailey couldn't stay hidden long.

Bailey has temporarily lost his role of Red Sox closer, but team management has apparently found a new job for the former All-Star that they believe could most help the team: batting practice pitcher.

The right-hander disappeared before he could be questioned, but when Boston manager John Farrell was asked about the incident after the game, he admitted that the mystery guy on the mound was indeed the same guy who had a 15.75 ERA in his last five appearances -- with just two saves in five chances and a pair of ninth-inning homers.

"Andrew has been getting the ball over plate too often, and we just can't afford to have that happening in the ninth inning of close ballgames,"explained Farrell. "Before the game gets started, well, that's another story. If he can get them over the plate with consistency during batting practice, it gives us a chance to get some real good swings in."

No more Bailey blown saves for a while.

Farrell said Bailey might still be called upon to pitch in games, but with Koji Uehara currently in the closer's role and the rest of the relief corps fairly stabilized, Bailey's best chance at regular action might be well before the National Anthem.

According to team historian Dick Bresciani, this is not the first time the Red Sox have transitioned an active pitcher into the BP role. Calvin "Deer in the Headlights" Schiraldi spent a summer grooving balls for Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs in 1987, and John "Way Back" Wasdin lived up to his nickname on a daily basis in 2000. Carl Everett credited Wasdin for the best first half of his career that summer, but he slumped after Wasdin's late July trade to Colorado.

This one is going WAYYYYYY back.

Although Farrell says it's unclear how long Bailey will remain a pre-game regular, guys like Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Daniel Nava, and Jose Iglesias (three hits apiece tonight) hope it will be a while.

Fenway Fiction

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why Buchholz may be the new Pedro -- which isn't always a good thing

Not what Red Sox fans like to see.

There is a certain buzz around Fenway Park these days when Clay Buchholz takes the mound, the kind of excitement that comes with a 9-0 start and a 1.65 ERA -- the lowest by a Red Sox pitcher through 12 starts since uber-ace Pedro Martinez had a 1.44 ERA after a dozen appearances in 2001.

He is not in Pedro's class yet, and may never be, but Buchholz has erased any doubt he is the No. 1 man in the rotation as Jon Lester has slipped in recent weeks. Buchholz's perfect mark and MLB-best ERA, however, are not the only things that may remind fans of when Martinez toed the rubber for Boston.

The other? Uncertainty over when he'll next do so.

Pedro was the Ming vase of the American League from 1998-2004, brilliant yet delicate and prone to cracking. After a brilliant three months in '01, he suffered a rotator cuff injury in his 14th start on June 26 that put him on the disabled list for all but 13 innings over the rest of the season.

Brilliant but delicate -- Pedro cranks it up.

Martinez was still overpowering in the years to come, but pitched 200 innings just twice in his final eight seasons (and never more than 217) while dealing with assorted minor injuries. Managers with the Red Sox and later the Mets were extremely cautious, knowing that 25 to 30 starts with Pedro were better than 33 to 37 with anybody else.

Nearly a decade after the future Hall of Famer's Boston swan song with the '04 World Series champs, Martinez remains the standard by which all Red Sox pitchers are judged. Buchholz appears to be the real deal, but he's also dealing with a trapezius (upper back/neck) injury that has forced him to miss his last two starts. 

It's unclear when he'll pitch again, since the bullpen session he was scheduled to throw Saturday was canceled due to lingering pain -- causing manager John Farrell to scratch him from his next start Tuesday against the Rays.
Finishing touch: Buchholz closing out his no-hitter.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. After throwing a no-hitter in just his second major-league appearance in 2007, Buchholz struggled for two years before breaking out with a 17-7 record and 2.33 ERA in 2010. 

Experts penciled the slim right-hander in for 18-20 wins in '11, but a stress fracture in his lumbar spine ended his season in June. Last year, even though he was injury-free, he pitched just 189 innings and had a 4.56 ERA while struggling to regain his form.

Now he's pitching better than ever, having allowed just two home runs and 29 walks in 84.1 innings while striking out 81. Those numbers, along with his ERA and won-loss record, are certainly Pedro-esque, but will Buchholz be able to get past the injuries that have kept him from achieving the dependability required of a true ace?
Can Buchholz lick his latest injury?

Right now, the jury is still out. If the Red Sox want to be playing deep into October, they need Buchholz not just to pitch well, but to pitch often.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dewey to Youk: Best later-round Red Sox draft picks

Much was made of the fact that the Red Sox had a Top 10 draft pick for the first time in 20 years this week -- finishing last will do that for you -- but it's not always the top selections that pan out. For every home run pick like Jim Rice, Nomar Garciaparra, and Dustin Pedroia in the first round, the Sox have also struck out with the likes of Jason Place (2006) and Steve Ellsworth (1981).

Even more intriguing, however, are those later-rounders who almost slip through the cracks and wind up playing far above expectations. As Red Sox fans speculate the future of this year's top pick, lefty pitcher Trey Ball, take a look at some Boston post-fourth rounders who later starred for the team:

DWIGHT EVANS - 5th Round, 1969
The 17-year-old high schooler from the San Fernando Valley League (fur sure!) was in the majors by September 1972 and wound up notching 379 homers and eight Gold Gloves with the Sox. This was a pretty good draft for Boston, whose first selection Rick Miller was an outfield mate of Evans for several years at Fenway and later won a Gold Glove himself with the Angels.

WADE BOGGS - 7th Round, 1976
It took the Chicken Man six years and an injury to Carney Lansford to get to Fenway, but he was a star from the start with a .349 average as a rookie and five batting titles with Boston. This was a gold mine draft for the Sox, with eight future big leaguers including Bruce Hurst, John Tudor, and Glenn Hoffman.

DENNIS BOYD - 16th Round, 1980
The Red Sox don't make the 1986 World Series without Oil Can, who went 16-10 that summer and was Boston's winningest pitcher in the three-year span from 1984-86. The top Sox pick in '80, pitcher Ray Krawczyk, never won a game in the majors.

SHEA HILLENBRAND - 10th Round, 1996
He may have been a head case and (in the end) an underachiever, but Hillenbrand was an All-Star third baseman for Boston in 2002 -- when he tallied 43 doubles and 83 RBIs. Boston's top pick in '96 was pitcher Andy Yount, who threw 95 MPH-plus in high school but was a minor league washout.

KEVIN YOUKILIS - 8th round, 2001
Drafted out of the University of Cincinnati, the Greek God of Walks was a rookie contributor on the 2004 World Series winners and a Gold Glove third baseman for the '07 champs. A three-time All-Star with the Red Sox, he's far outshone '01 top pick Kelly Shoppach, a .224-hitting catcher with Boston and four other teams.

WILL MIDDLEBROOKS - 5th round, 2007
Boston fans and management are hoping Middlebrooks' fantastic rookie debut in 2012 -- when he hit 15 homers in 75 games before being sidelined by a wrist injury -- is indicative of a great future. When he went on the DL this year he was batting just .201, but he's still only 24.  Boston's top '07 pick, left-handed pitcher Nick Hagadone, currently struggling as a reliever with Cleveland.

Some late-round picks by the Red Sox who made it big with other teams:

Amos Otis - 5th round, 1965
Ben Oglivie - 11th round, 1968
Jack McDowell - 20th round, 1984 (didn't sign)
Brady Anderson - 10th round, 1985
Carl Pavano - 13th round, 1994
David Eckstein - 19th round, 1997
Mark Teixeira - 9th round, 1998 (didn't sign)
Freddy Sanchez - 11th round, 2000