Sunday, October 12, 2008

Small sample sizes gone wild

Which of the following players would you take in your lineup?
Player A: 1-for-17 (.059), 2 BB, 2B, RBI
Player B: 4-for-8 (.500), 2 BB, 2 HR, 2 RBI

Trick question. Both players are Dustin Pedroia. Player A is Pedroia during the American League Division Series; Player B is Pedroia thus far in the American League Championship Series.

But Pedroia had to face plenty of questions last week about his lack of production -- he was 0-for-15 before a Game 4 double -- against the Angels. His struggles even sparked news stories like this one and this one and this one. (Words like "skid" and "slump" and "drought" abound.)

Pedroia then went 1-for-3 with a run scored in Game 1 against Tampa Bay and followed that up with a pair of solo home runs against Scott Kazmir in Game 2. His big night prompted news stories like this one and this one and this one. (Phrases like "back to life" and "busted out" and "gathering momentum" abound.)

Look at the dates on those stories. They're less than a week apart!

All of this is worth keeping in mind as we ponder the immediate future of the Red Sox outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .340 in September and was 3-for-5 with a double in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Angels. Since then, though, he's 3-for-24 (.125) with five RBI -- and three of those RBI came on the flukiest of fluke hits, a bloop to center field that never should have fallen to begin with. He's 0-for-15 in his last three games and has failed to reach base entirely; his only RBI came on a ground ball to second base in Game 4 of the ALDS that Howie Kendrick bobbled.

Predictably, the outcry has begun: Bring on Coco Crisp!

Crisp has several things going for him -- he's Ellsbury's equal (or better) defensively, he's hitting .400 (4-for-10) with two doubles in the postseason thus far, and he hit .324 (11-for-34) with five walks and five runs scored against the Rays this season. Against Game 3 starter Matt Garza, he was 1-for-5 this season, including a two-run double in a game in June. And a switch of center fielders worked out great a year ago -- Ellsbury replaced Crisp in center field starting with Game 6 of last season's ALCS and absolutely torched both the Indians and the Rockies.

But Ellsbury is 6-for-13 against Garza in his career; Crisp, in his career, is 1-for-9 against the Rays' 24-year-old right-hander. On top of that, jerking around Ellsbury and Crisp -- for example, what happens if Crisp then goes 0-for-4 against Garza? -- isn't going to do either player's confidence any good.

Terry Francona had a short answer on Sunday afternoon when a reporter asked what happened to Ellsbury.

"Kazmir," he said with a smile.

That's the right idea. James Shields pitched great in Game 1, and Kazmir had the right approach against Ellsbury in Game 2. But Ellsbury has a good track record against Garza, and that's a good reason to give him another shot in Game 3 at Fenway on Monday.

The other reason is that these last three games, as lousy as they've been, are far too small of a sample size on which to base any big decision. Just ask Dustin Pedroia.

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