Friday, March 5, 2010

Closing up shop

This blog will go dark for good effective immediately: I have accepted a job covering the Red Sox for the Providence Journal and will start March 15.

Thanks to those of you who ever made a visit or left a comment or voted in a poll. Thanks in particular to those who have been regular readers over the last 18 months or so. It's been a blast -- and I hope you'll keep reading once I get started at the Journal. Everything I've been doing here independently, I'm going to try to carry over in my new job.

I'll have a new email address once I get started. In the meantime, you can always get in touch with me with criticism, praise or just to talk Red Sox at
Thanks. See you soon.

(By request: My new blog will be here.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A big year for Junichi Tazawa

Junichi Tazawa, who pitched a scoreless inning today in his first spring training appearance, almost certainly is destined for Triple-A Pawtucket when the Red Sox head north. Tazawa got his first taste of the major leagues last season, compiling a 7.46 ERA in six appearances and, most memorably, surrendering a walk-off home run to Alex Rodriguez in the 14th inning of an epic game in early August.

Everything that happened last season was about gaining experience -- and every pitch thrown in the major leagues was a bonus.

"I don't know if I would have sat here and said, 'We'll see him pitching in the big leagues,'" Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Helping our ballclub, that was a lot to ask last year."

Here's the only problem: Tazawa isn't 20 years old. He's not 21, either. He turned 23 midway through last season, and that's the age at which many young pitchers start to blossom. There were 25 players who threw at least as many major-league innings as he did at the age of 22 or younger. Eight of those pitchers, including emerging stars Brett Anderson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Holland and Rick Porcello, threw more than 100 major-league innings.

Other names on the list include Neftali Feliz, Brian Matusz, Jon Niese and Chris Tillman, all pitchers expected to make a significant impact on their respective teams this season at the age of 22 or 23. Heck, Tazawa is three months older than Michael Bowden, the longtime prospect on whom it seems many are ready to give up.

Tazawa will turn 24 in mid-June, and that means the clock is starting to tick a little bit. Prospects who haven't made an impact in the major leagues by the time they're 25 tend not to be considered prospects anymore. Josh Beckett was 23 when he struck out 150 hitters for the first time. Jon Lester was 23 when he won a World Series clincher. John Lackey was, too.

Tazawa, of course, doesn't have the same type of ceiling as Beckett, Lackey or Lester. But even if you look at him as a back-of-the-rotation swingman in the mold of Justin Masterson, well, Masterson was pitching key innings in the postseason at 23 and taking the place of Tim Wakefield in the starting rotation at 24.

The righty remains an intriguing possibility for the Red Sox either as a starter or a reliever. He'll open the season at Triple-A Pawtucket and will have a chance to keep piling up innings and to keep working on his pitches. He'll certainly be in the mix should the Red Sox run into any depth issues with their pitching staff -- but it'll take either a significant injury or a significant step forward in his development for him to make a significant impact at the major-league level.

Like Bowden, if he's going to deliver on his big promise, his window isn't going to stay open forever.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Casey Fien will be in the mix

(Or, you know, not: Fien was claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays three days after the Red Sox claimed him.)

When the Red Sox claimed righty Casey Fien off waivers on Monday and added him to their 40-man roster, the first number that seemed to jump out was the 7.94 ERA he compiled in his first stint in the major leagues -- an ERA compiled in just 11 1/3 innings of work.

The rest of his numbers look terrific.

Fien made nine appearances with the Detroit Tigers last season, including three outings in mop-up duty in which he gave up at least two earned runs. He struck out nine and walked six. He didn't pitch much at all in high-leverage situations.

Still, though: He only pitched 11 1/3 innings. There's no way to make any type of decision on a player based on 11 1/3 innings.

(The same goes for Michael Bowden, the former top prospect who seems thrown by the wayside because he had a bad relief appearance in New York and a bad start against Toronto three days later. If he was a prospect before last season, a handful of rough outings in less-than-ideal situations doesn't change anything.)

Check out Fien's minor-league numbers:

Single-A (103 1/3 IP): 2.95 ERA, 1.080 WHIP, 6.33 K/BB ratio
Double-A (45 2/3 IP): 2.96 ERA, 1.095 WHIP, 3.5 K/BB ratio
Triple-A (73 IP): 3.21 ERA, 1.151 WHIP, 4.37 K/BB ratio

Any guesses how many Red Sox relievers had a K/BB ratio of better than 3.5 last season? Good guess: None of them.

For the sake of comparison, in the final full season Daniel Bard pitched in the minor leagues, he compiled a K/BB ratio of 3.57 in almost 80 innings split between Single-A and Double-A. That's well under the 4.40 ratio Fien compiled in almost a full season at Triple-A Toledo last season.

The righty has impressed everywhere he's pitched. He looked particularly good last season against righthanded pitching, naturally, limiting opposing hitters to a .212 batting average and compiling a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.2.

Baseball America did not rank Fien among its top 10 prospects -- not surprising given that middle relievers don't tend to have much upside and thus not much value in the prospect universe. For the Red Sox, though, a middle reliever with command could be a tremendous asset. Fien likely will start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket but will be in the mix for a promotion and a real crack at the major leagues should a job open up in the bullpen at Fenway Park.

Kalish looks more ready than Reddick

Mike Cameron, as a Red Sox fanbase prone to panic already is aware, will sit out the team's doubleheader on Wednesday against Boston College and Northeastern. Cameron tweaked his groin on Sunday and is going to take things easy for a few days.

That's the adventure that comes with counting on a 37-year-old center fielder. Good health isn't exactly a guarantee.

(This is why the Red Sox were reluctant to commit $15 million a year for four or five years to Jason Bay, who will turn 36 years old in his final season with the Mets should his $17 million option vest. That's another discussion for another time.)

This tweak might be minor, but another injury might not be so minor. There just aren't many outfielders at Cameron's age who can play every day. Only five outfielders last season played more than 140 games at the age of 35 or older:
* Cameron, age 36
* Bobby Abreu, age 35
* Johnny Damon, age 35
* Jermaine Dye, age 35
* Ichiro Suzuki, age 35
* Randy Winn, age 35

Dye is still looking for a job. Damon had to wait until after Valentine's Day to land a job of his own. Winn will be a part-time outfielder with the Yankees. Older outfielders, especially in an era without the fountains of youth the previous era enjoyed, aren't particularly reliable.

Should Cameron go down, the Red Sox have a capable backup in Jeremy Hermida, a corner outfielder who would push Jacoby Ellsbury back to center field. But the Red Sox all of a sudden would be very thin in the outfield, and it might become necessary to call upon almost-ready-for-prime-time prospects Ryan Kalish and/or Josh Reddick, who both will start the season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

How might they fare?

There are ways to project their performance. One such measure is called "Major League Equivalents," a device invented by Bill James in the mid-1980s that can approximate, to a certain degree, what a player might do in the major leagues.

Here's that approximation for Kalish and Reddick:

(MLEs calculated by

Ryan Kalish
Single-A (127 plate appearances): .306/.435/.514
Double-A (419 plate appearances): .263/.336/.772
MLE: .216/.270/.337

Josh Reddick
Double-A (274 plate appearances): .273/.349/.522
Triple-A (77 plate appearances): .127/.190/.183
MLE: .111/.165/.167

Keep in mind that the MLEs don't factor in year-to-year improvement. In other words, while Reddick might have been expected to OPS under .400 if he'd played last season in the major leagues, he wouldn't be expected to do so if he plays this season in the major leagues. Consider the final MLE of Dustin Pedroia before he made the leap to the major leagues:

2006 in Triple-A: .294/.385/.454
2006 MLE: .243/.317/.355
2007 in majors: .317/.380/.442

Pedroia came far closer to his actual Triple-A numbers from the previous season than to his major-league equivalent -- in large part because he'd had almost 493 extra plate appearances at Triple-A Pawtucket and almost 100 more in the major leagues to hone his swing.

But the above numbers still do tell you something. What's most interesting is that Kalish -- who hasn't yet played a game at Triple-A -- had better major-league equivalent numbers than Reddick. His advanced plate discipline has quite a bit to do with that. Reddick walked just 35 times in almost 350 plate appearances while Kalish walked 67 times in under 550 plate appearances.

Reddick got a handful of at-bats at Pawtucket last season as well as in the major leagues. He's on the 40-man roster, too. Kalish hasn't yet climbed that rung of the ladder. Should one or both be needed, though, the above MLE numbers indicate that Kalish might be closer to ready than Reddick is.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Waiting for Casey Kelly

Red Sox fans have heard plenty about the talents of Casey Kelly in the last year or so, and this spring has been no different. Stories already abound about the maturity and poise the 20-year-old has shown in his first major-league camp.

Fans almost certainly are wondering when they'll see Kelly make his debut at Fenway Park. With the much-ballyhooed prospect probably destined to start at Double-A Portland this spring, a September call-up this season and a major-league job sometime in 2011 doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. Even the experts at Baseball America and have him ticketed for a mid-2011 arrival in the major leagues.

"A future frontline starter, he's ticketed for Double-A and may not need more than another year in the minors," BA's Jim Callis wrote.

Is that a fair expectation? Just for fun, let's look at the paths traveled by the five best young pitchers in the American League, the type of pitchers the Red Sox would be giddy to compare Kelly one day to:

Zack Greinke (debut at age 20)
Single-A: 16 starts
Double-A: 26 starts
Triple-A: 6 starts
Total: 48 starts, 281 innings

This includes an extra stint in the minor leagues after he'd made more than 50 major-league starts thanks to a social anxiety disorder that cost him most of the 2006 season.

Felix Hernandez (debut at age 19)
Single-A: 24 starts
Double-A: 10 starts
Triple-A: 14 starts
Total: 48 starts, 306 1/3 innings

Jon Lester (debut at age 22)
Single-A: 44 starts
Double-A: 27 starts
Triple-A: 25 starts
Total: 96 starts, 482 innings

This includes, of course, an extra season spent working his way back from cancer treatments, a season that included stops at all three levels.

CC Sabathia (debut at age 20)
Single-A: 26 starts
Double-A: 17 starts
Triple-A: 0 starts
Total: 43 starts, 214 2/3 innings

Justin Verlander (debut at age 22)
Single-A: 13 starts
Double-A: 7 starts
Triple-A: 0 starts
Total: 20 starts, 118 2/3 innings

That does not include the three season Verlander pitched in college, making 46 starts and throwing 335 2/3 innings for Old Dominion. Those three seasons skew his numbers a little bit. Had Kelly gone to Tennessee and pitched there, he'd have come out three years from now in position to move much more quickly through the minor leagues -- but it also would be three years from now.

The other four pitchers all made at least 40 minor-league starts and compiled somewhere between 200 and 400 innings in their initial ascent to the major leagues.

Here's what Kelly has under his belt:

Casey Kelly (just turned 20)
Single-A: 17 starts, 95 innings pitched
Total: 17 starts, 95 innings pitched

That's it.

Because of Kelly's indecision at the onset of his professional career, he's a little bit behind where Greinke and Lester -- both, like Kelly, drafted out of high school -- were at the same age. Greinke made five starts the same year he was drafted and 23 starts the year after that. Lester made one start the same year he was drafted and 21 starts the season after that.

Kelly, of course, played shortstop the same year he was drafted and only spent half of last season pitching rather than playing in the field.

Kelly will start this season at Double-A Portland with an eye on making between 20 and 25 starts and compiling somewhere around 125 innings pitched. He might -- might -- get a call-up in September to expose him to the major leagues, but he also might have hit his innings limit by then and find himself shut down for the season.

(It wouldn't be the first time a top pitching prospect has been shut down to preserve his health.)

He then likely would start the 2011 season at Triple-A Pawtucket and make another 15 or 20 starts, minimum, before the Red Sox started to consider him for a role on the major-league roster. Even then, he'd have to crack a rotation that still will include Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka and maybe even Josh Beckett, depending on how things shake out.

It's going to be tough to be patient with Kelly. Being patient, though, is going to be the best way to get the best out of him.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Victor or Dustin?

Should the Red Sox decide to move Dustin Pedroia out of his customary No. 2 spot to make room for Marco Scutaro, they'll have to make a decision: Either Victor Martinez or Dustin Pedroia will have to hit in the No. 3 spot with the other bumping down to No. 5. Reports out of Fort Myers had Pedroia ready and willing to hit fifth, but that should be far from a foregone conclusion.

A team typically should slot its best hitter in the No. 3 spot in its batting order. Who's the best hitter the Red Sox have?

Well, actually, that's a trick question. Kevin Youkilis is the best hitter in the Red Sox lineup -- and one of the best hitters in the American League. But because Youkilis hits for more power than either Martinez or Pedroia, he's a natural fit in the No. 4 spot in the batting order.

J.D. Drew, too, ought to be a candidate to hit in the No. 3 spot. He was one of just six players in the American League last season -- Youkilis, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Alex Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist were the others -- to compile an on-base percentage of better than .390 and a slugging percentage of better than .500. On a rate basis, he's one of the elite hitters in the American League.

But if the Red Sox didn't hit Drew in the No. 3 spot after David Ortiz was bumped down to the bottom half of the lineup -- that duty fell to Youkilis, with Bay hitting cleanup -- they're probably not going to do so this season.

(Hitting Drew in the No. 3 spot would be the best way for Theo Epstein and Terry Francona to shut up all the "Drew sucks because he hits eighth!" voices, but it's a credit to both that shutting up their detractors is not among their priorities.)

That leaves Martinez and Pedroia -- and that means it's time for a side-by-side comparison:

2009 slash lines
Martinez: .303/.381/.480 (.861 OPS)
Pedroia: .296/.371/.447 (.819 OPS)

Career slash lines
Martinez: .299/.372/.465 (.837 OPS)
Pedroia: .307/.370/.455 (.825 OPS)

Walk rate
Martinez: 11.2 percent
Pedroia: 10.4 percent

Isolated power (ISO)
Martinez: .177
Pedroia: .152

Line-drive rate
Martinez: 21 percent
Pedroia: 18 percent

What does this tell you?

Well, Martinez has better numbers than Pedroia across the board -- not by much of a margin, but, still, better numbers across the board. Martinez probably should hit in the No. 3 hole in the Red Sox lineup -- and this might mean that Pedroia still might be the best fit at No. 2, since dropping him all the way down to No. 5 might be a waste of his on-base skills.

But it's fascinating that this Red Sox team, one whose lineup has caused so much consternation, has options like this.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Red Sox bullpen, best in baseball?

The Red Sox finished last season with a bullpen ERA of 3.80, second-best in the American League behind the Oakland Athletics' 3.54 and well below the American League average of 4.17. The same group returns intact this season and will be expected to put up similar numbers.

It's fair to wonder, though, if it will.

The Red Sox bullpen looked like one of the best in baseball last season mostly because its pitchers stranded 71 percent of inherited runners last season, second-best in the American League. Only the Yankees (73 percent) were better. The American League average was 66 percent.

That number might not be sustainable. While the American League average has held steady around 66 percent over the last few seasons, the Red Sox strand percentage has bounced around quite a bit:

2009: 71 percent
2008: 68 percent
2007: 77 percent
2006: 62 percent
2005: 61 percent
2004: 66 percent

The smart money has the Red Sox bullpen's strand rate regressing to the mean this season.

"When we had guys on base and guys in scoring position, we actually pitched really well last year," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told WEEI this morning. "That’s the type of thing that you can’t really count on year after year."

This is where Epstein's idea of "clutch pitching" comes into play. Stranding inherited runners often can be a byproduct of luck -- or, as Epstein made clear earlier this offseason, lousy defense. One reason Epstein made it a point to upgrade his defense was the fact that he couldn't realistically expect his relivers to pitch as "clutch" as they had last season.

ERA can be a bad way to evaluate relief pitchers because so many outside factors contribute. If a reliever enters a game with a runner on second and promptly gives up an RBI single, that run isn't charged to his record. If a reliever leaves a game with the bases loaded but the next pitcher strikes out the side, no runs are charged to his record.

As elite as the Red Sox bullpen seemed to be last season, its individual pitchers didn't exactly stand out in the statistical categories that have nothing to do with inherited runners:

Strikeout-to-walk ratio (min. 45 IP)
16. Jonathan Papelbon, 3.17
20. Daniel Bard, 2.86
23. Hideki Okajima, 2.52
48. Ramon Ramirez, 1.63
65. Manny Delcarmen, 1.29

(In case you're wondering, there were 67 relievers who qualified.)

Walks and hits per inning pitched
19. Jonathan Papelbon, 1.147
27. Hideki Okajima, 1.262
30. Daniel Bard, 1.277
36. Ramon Ramirez, 1.335
60. Manny Delcarmen, 1.642

Opponents' on-base plus slugging (OPS)
11. Jonathan Papelbon, .600
29. Daniel Bard, .690
34. Hideki Okajima, .704
36. Ramon Ramirez, .711
56. Manny Delcarmen, .796

Other than Papelbon -- and this is the same Papelbon, don't forget, who allowed more baserunners than usual -- the Red Sox bullpen was a middle-of-the-pack team in all three of the above categories. Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez both finished the season in the bottom half of the American League in WHIP and opponents' OPS, and not one Red Sox reliever finished in the top 10 in any of the above categories.

The revamped Red Sox defense, it seems, wasn't just about the starting pitchers. The revamped Red Sox defense might be a big help to the bullpen, too.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lowell leaves Red Sox thin up the middle's Sean McAdam reported this week that Mike Lowell likely will open the season with the Red Sox and likely will not be traded during spring training. It makes sense: With so many free agents signing for bargain-basement prices, there's no need for a team to part with prospects for a question mark like Lowell. If Russell Branyan had to settle for a $2 million deal, why would another team assume anything but a fraction of the money owed Lowell?

Should Lowell stick around, the Red Sox bench would seem to be set in stone before exhibition games even begin. Jason Varitek will be the backup catcher. Lowell will back up the two infield corners. Jeremy Hermida will back up the two outfield corners. Bill Hall will back up everywhere else.

But that leaves the Red Sox awfully thin in the middle infield. Hall was acquired as a jack-of-all-trades utility guy. Here's the problem: He last played shortstop in the major leagues four years ago, and he last saw even semi-regular playing time at second base five years ago. He's spent the last three seasons almost exclusively as a third baseman and as an outfielder.

This leaves Hall as an adequate in-game replacement for Dustin Pedroia or Marco Scutaro in the event of a fluke injury like a foul ball off the shin. At the other end of the spectrum, should either Pedroia or Scutaro suffer any sort of long-term injury, Tug Hulett or Jed Lowrie could be called up from Triple-A Pawtucket and jump into the starting lineup.

It's in the middle that things start to get hazy. What happens if Pedroia sprains an ankle and is sidelined for four games? What happens if Scutaro gets the flu and is laid up for a week?

Should either middle infielder suffer an injury that's not quite severe enough to land him on the 15-day disabled list -- and the Red Sox aren't going to deactivate Pedroia for 15 days if he's expected to be back in 10 -- Hall would have to play second base or shortstop every day for a week. He hasn't done that since 2006.

For a team banking its fortune on being able to catch the ball, being so thin at two key defensive positions seems unnecessarily precarious.