Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dustin Pedroia hitting leadoff?

Can you imagine it? Dustin Pedroia hitting leadoff and Jacoby Ellsbury hitting down at the bottom of the Red Sox batting order?

That's a ridiculous idea.

Oh, wait. It's not.

Oki doki

Remember a year ago at this time when Hideki Okajima could absolutely not be trusted with the ball unless the bases were empty? No one seems to be talking about that anymore -- and that's a good thing for the Red Sox.

"Who's comfortable pitching with men on base?" Terry Francona said during the first week of the season. "Who's better off starting a clean inning? We've been through that wit Oki for a couple of years -- what's better? .... That's important, learning guys' strengths and what they want to shy away from and what's in their best interests."

Francona still occasionally points out his preference for giving relievers a clean inning whenever possible rather than letting, say, the starting pitcher stay on the mound until he gets into a jam in the late innings. But now that we're 50 games into the season, it's interesting to see how Okajima and his buddies are performing when they do have to pitch with men on base:

Hideki Okajima
Bases empty (44 at-bats): .163 batting average
Runners on (29 at-bats): .207 batting average
Runners in scoring position (16 at-bats): .250 batting average
Inherited runners scored: 3 of 15

(A year ago at this time, Okajima had allowed 11 of 14 inherited runners to score -- and he was in the middle of a stretch that would see Francona refuse to use him with runners on base for more than a month.)

Manny Delcarmen
Bases empty (41 at-bats): .293
Runners on (42 at-bats): .190
Runners in scoring position (25 at-bats): .120
Inherited runners scored: 2 of 9

(Here's a weird stat: In Delcarmen's first 14 innings pitched this season, he walked eight but gave up no runs. In Delcarmen's last eight innings pitched, he's walked just one but given up three runs.)

Ramon Ramirez
Bases empty (44 at-bats): .136
Runners on (40 at-bats): .200
Runners in scoring position (23 at-bats): .174
Inherited runners scored: 2 of 15

(The lesson here is that pretty much no one has been able to touch Ramirez no matter what the situation.)

Takashi Saito
Bases empty (37 at-bats): .324
Runners on (34 at-bats): .206
Runners in scoring position (20 at-bats): .100
Inherited runners scored: 3 of 3

(With Javier Lopez and Hunter Jones gone, Saito has effectively become the bullpen's mop-up guy. Ten of his last 11 appearances have come when the Red Sox either led or trailed by three runs or more.)

Jonathan Papelbon
Bases empty (38 at-bats): .342
Runners on (46 at-bats): .130
Runners in scoring position (31 at-bats): .097
Inherited runners scored: 0 of 1

(You want to talk about a closer bearing down in big spots? Wow.)

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Red Sox rotation righting itself

Everything is returning to its proper order in the Red Sox rotation.

Tim Wakefield's last four starts:
23 1/3 IP, 19 ER, 13 K, 13 BB, .320 opponents' batting average
(His ERA has jumped from 2.92 to 4.55.)

Josh Beckett's last four starts:
28 IP, 6 ER, 23 K, 11 BB, .182 opponents' batting average
(His ERA has dropped from 6.75 to 4.60.)

If only Jon Lester could get himself on track...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Varitek's home runs and line drives

You have to be wondering if this Jason Varitek power surge -- Varitek hit two more home runs today at Minnesota and now has 10 on the season, three shy of his total from all of last season -- can continue.

A look at the ratios -- yes, we love ratios:

Home Run Ratio
(Percent of plate appearances in which a home run is hit)
2003: 4.8
2004: 3.4
2005: 4.1
2006: 2.9
2007: 3.3
2008: 2.7
2009: 5.4

Varitek, as you can see, is homering well beyond his regular pace.

Line Drive Ratio
(Percent of balls put into play that are line drives)
2003: 15
2004: 20
2005: 17
2006: 17
2007: 18
2008: 15
2009: 11

Varitek, as you can see, is hitting the ball hard below even last year's pace.

Contradiction? You'd think so.

Can it sustain itself?

Let's look elsewhere:

* Kevin Youkilis has seen his home-run rate increase over the last three years (from 2.6 percent to 4.7 percent to 4.9 percent) and his line-drive rate has increased at the same time (from 21 percent to 22 percent to 26 percent). That somehow seems intuitive.

* Jason Bay, on the other hand, has seen his home-run rate increase (from 3.4 percent to 4.6 percent to 6.9 percent) but his line-drive rate decrease (from 18 percent to 17 percent to 11 percent.)

* And Mike Lowell has seen his home-run rate climb (from 3.2 percent to 3.6 percent to 4.3 percent) while his line-drive rate has actually been fairly stagnant if trending downward (from 20 percent to 21 percent to 18 percent).

* J.D. Drew has seen his home-run rate go from 2.0 percent up to 4.2 percent down to 3.6 percent, and his line-drive rate is on the opposite type of arc -- it's gone from 18 percent up to 17 percent down to 26 percent.

It would seem to make sense that as a player hits more line drives -- in other words, hits the ball hard more often -- he'd hit more home runs. It would seem to make sense that Varitek's power surge can't be sustainable because he's hitting fewer line drives than at any time in his entire career.

But home runs aren't line drives. Home runs are fly balls. A slugger can hit home runs without hitting line drives: When Brian McCann hit 23 home runs as a catcher a year ago, his line-drive percentage was just 19 percent -- sixth on his team and slightly below the league average. Heck, Jason Bay has the same line-drive percentage as Varitek this season and is on pace to hit almost 50 home runs.

Varitek's power surge? It's more sustainable than you'd think.

The baseball playoffs and the best pitcher

I was tossing around a theory a couple of weeks ago about the NBA postseason and the baseball postseason, a theory about whether the team with the best player almost always wins a series. In the NBA, that's been said to be the case -- if the supporting casts are at all comparable, the team with the best player usually wins the series.

Basketball is a sport where one player can take over a game and, as long as he's not playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, can lift his team to an NBA title. Tim Duncan has sone it. Dwyane Wade has done it. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal have done it. Michael Jordan did it again and again and again. There has to be some semblance of a supporting cast, as LeBron James is finding out against Orlando -- but if you have the best player in the series, you have a clear leg up on winning the series.

Is that the case in baseball?

In baseball, position players have a tough time dominating a series. They get to the plate maybe five times a game and see the ball hit to them in the field maybe five times a game; there's not much else they can do to impact the game.

Pitchers, though, can absolutely take control of a series. We've seen that time and time again -- Cole Hamels in the World Series a year ago being only the most recent example.

This seems relevant as the Red Sox try to decide what to do about Clay Buchholz, a pitcher they seem to view as a potential future ace. But is it really that simple? Does the team with the best pitcher always win a seven-game playoff series?

Over the last five years, the answer is a resounding yes.

World Series
Best pitcher: Hamels, Philadelphia.
Winner: Philadelphia.
James Shields had the single best pitching performance of the World Series, tossing 5 2/3 shutout innings in Game 2, but Hamels set the tone in Game 1 with seven solid innings and followed that up with six solid innings in Game 5.
Best pitcher: Matt Garza, Tampa Bay.
Winner: Tampa Bay.
Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka had the best regular-season numbers, but Garza outpitched Lester in Game 3 (a 9-1 Tampa Bay win) and again in Game 7 (a 3-1 Tampa Bay win).
Best pitcher: Hamels, Philadelphia.
Winner: Philadelphia.
Hamels struck out 13 hitters in 14 innings and allowed three earned runs.

World Series
Best pitcher: Josh Beckett, Boston.
Winner: Boston.
Beckett only had to pitch once in the series, but he struck out nine in seven innings as the Red Sox routed the Rockies. It would have been fun to see him pitch a decisive Game 5, but Jon Lester never gave him that chance.
Best pitcher: Beckett, Boston.
Winner: Boston.
Having the best pitcher only helps if he pitches like the best pitcher -- and while CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona both had better regular-season numbers, there's no question Beckett was the best pitcher in this series.
Best pitcher: Jeff Francis, Colorado.
Winner: Colorado.
Same goes for Arizona: Brandon Webb would finish second in the Cy Young voting after the season but didn't pitch like it in his only NLCS start.

World Series
Best pitcher: Chris Carpenter, St. Louis.
Winner: St. Louis.
His eight shutout innings in Game 3 turned the tide of the series -- and gave the Cardinals the flexibility to use four relief pitchers in a 5-4 win in Game 4.
Best pitcher: Kenny Rogers, Detroit.
Winner: Detroit.
Going head-to-head with the electric Rich Harden in Game 3, Rogers threw seven two-hit innings. The Tigers swept the series.
Best pitcher: Jeff Suppan, St. Louis.
Winner: St. Louis.
The longer the series, the more important the pitching becomes. Suppan won Game 3 with seven shutout innings and won Game 7 with eight strong innings, outpitching both Oliver Perez and Steve Trachsel in the process.

World Series
Best pitcher: Freddy Garcia, Chicago.
Winner: Chicago.
Houston's Brandon Backe also pitched seven shutout innings in Game 4 but lost by a 1-0 score when Brad Lidge allowed an RBI single in the eighth inning. This one might be a toss-up.
Best pitcher: All of them, Chicago.
Winner: Chicago.
Garcia, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras pitched a combined 44 1/3 ininings and allowed 11 earned runs in the series.
Best pitcher: Roy Oswalt, Houston.
Winner: Houston.
Oswalt (1.29 ERA in 14 IP) outpitched St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter (3.00 ERA in 15 IP), winning Games 2 and 6 almost by himself.

World Series
Best pitcher: Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, Boston.
Winner: Boston.
In Games 2, 3 and 4, the trio allowed 10 hits and no runs in 20 innings.
Best pitcher: Jon Lieber, New York.
Winner: Boston.
Lieber threw seven shutout innings to beat Pedro Martinez in Game 2, and he was awfully impressive in Curt Schilling's Bloody Sock game, too, allowing a four-run outburst in the fourth inning but nothing else. Lowe was the best Red Sox pitcher of the series, throwing 5 1/3 tough innings in a must-win Game 4 and six impressive innings in Game 7.
Best pitcher: Woody Williams, St. Louis.
Winner: St. Louis.
Houston's Brandon Backe didn't have bad numbers, either, but Williams beat him head-to-head in Game 1 and matched him out-for-out in Game 5 before Jason Isringhausen allowed a walk-off home run to Jeff Kent. Another candidate, by the way, is Jeff Suppan, who outpitched Roger Clemens in Game 7. Suppan has a 3.63 ERA in 10 postseason starts and inexplicably has to be considered one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers of his era.

Yes, hitting still has something to do with it. CC Sabathia and Brandon Webb didn't struggle their respective playoff series in 2007 in a vaccuum; they got hit hard by quality lineups.

But other than the ALCS in 2004, the team that's won each seven-game series over the last five years has been the team with the hottest pitcher. The Phillies beat the Rays and Dodgers mostly thanks to Cole Hamels; the Rays beat the Red Sox in large part because no one could touch Matt Garza. And even though Jeff Suppan has never been considered the ace of any staff, he was the reason the Cardinals outlasted the Mets in the 2006 NLCS despite getting next to nothing from ace Chris Carpenter in his two starts.

There's a reason the Red Sox have been so reluctant to trade Clay Buchholz and have been so patient with John Smoltz. If you're a team that expects to be in the postseason, you need all the elite starting pitchers you can get.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Franchise cornerstones

Let's say you're looking for a franchise cornerstone. If we agree that it's tough to build a franchise around a pitcher, no matter how elite -- just ask the Toronto Blue Jays -- we'll look only at position players. Here are the career statistics of two players (entering this season) for your perusal:

Player A: .313 batting, .369 on-base, .459 slugging
Player B: .313 batting, .394 on-base, .459 slugging

Both will turn 26 years old this season.

Both play premium defensive positions.

Player A struck out in 7.2 percent of his at-bats last season. Player B struck out in 7.9 percent of his at-bats last season. (The big-league average last season was 17 percent.)

So far this season, Player A is hitting .341 with a .429 on-base percentage. So far this season, Player B is hitting .429 with a .419 on-base percentage.

Player A has 15 doubles. Player B has 11 home runs.

You're probably already there.

Player B is Joe Mauer. Player A is Dustin Pedroia.

Hanley Ramirez, despite his defensive shortcomings, is a player around whom the Florida Marlines will build for years. David Wright, Brian McCann and Grady Sizemore all are young and talented and perennial All-Stars. Evan Longoria is playing himself into the conversation more and more every day.

But you could make an argument that there aren't two better potential franchise cornerstones in the game today than Mauer and Pedroia.

Both will turn (or have turned) 26 years old this season. Both are exceedingly popular in their respective cities. Both play a premium defensive position -- and both won a Gold Glove a season ago. Both hit for average. Both leave plenty of dents on the outfield walls. Both draw their share of walks. Both can pop their share over the fence, Pedroia's early-season drought notwithstanding. Both strike out, well, hardly at all.

Mauer is 6-foot-5. Pedroia, of course, is probably 5-foot-6.

Mauer has sideburns that drive the ladies wild. Pedroia has, well, good reason to keep his hat on most of the time.

Mauer has issues with his back that lead many to question his future as a catcher down the road. Pedroia had designs on playing 162 games at second base this season before straining his groin on a swing.

But there are more similarities between the two than you'd think -- and both represent the future of their respective franchises.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Target date for Smoltz: June 16

First things first: Here's your tentative John Smoltz schedule:

May 31: Single-A Greenville
June 5: Triple-A Pawtucket
June 11: Triple-A Pawtucket (at Syracuse)

That means, on June 16 -- the day after Brad Penny is eligible to be traded without his consent, by the way -- Smoltz could be making his first start in a Red Sox uniform. It would be a Tuesday night home game against the Florida Marlins.

Fire up the hype machine: Five days later, he could make his second start against the Atlanta Braves.

But while Smoltz knows his tentative schedule backward and forward, he's doing his best not to get ahead of himself. His stuff -- particularly his slider, his trademark out pitch -- isn't yet where he wants it to be. Against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats on Tuesday, in fact, he hung a slider that one hitter stroked to right field for a single and hung another slider that the next hitter blasted to the right-field wall for a triple.

"You come into a game like this, and they’re trying to get hits off you," he said. "It’s always the balance of what do you try to do first. I was really pleased with my split and my changeup. I was a little displeased with my slider. That’s my No. 1 pitch. We’ll work on that this week."

To be fair, too, Smoltz surrendered the triple on the fourth straight slider he'd thrown -- and any Double-A hitter worth his salt is going to be able to hit the fourth straight slider he sees no matter how filthy it is.

The previous hitter, on the other hand, had seen three changeups in a row -- something you'll almost never see in a big-league game.

"Sometimes, you’ve got to do that, just to get the repetition down," Smoltz said. "It can cost you some runners and make you look bad, but in spring training, you don’t care that much about looking bad as much as you do trying these pitches under the gun. I was disappointed with a couple of pitches I threw in that inning, two sliders that hung, and it resulted in a run. But from the intensity standpoint and the ability to get out guys, I’m not really that consumed with it yet."

His fastball, otherwise, generally was sharp. He felt a twinge of panic in the first inning when he saw his first fastball register at 87 miles an hour on the Stadium radar gun -- but he quickly was assured that the gun tends to be three or four miles an hour slow.

With that in mind, Smoltz's fastballs consistently stayed between 88 and 92 miles an hour. He ramped it up to 91 miles an hour on the stadium gun (translating to 94 or 95 miles an hour) on a 1-2 pitch with two outs in the first inning. That pitch missed high and away, but he then struck the hitter out with a slider away.

"I just maintain that when I get to Boston, it’s going to be consistently over 91," he said. "But it’s irrelevant as long as my command stays the way it is. Sure enough, I’m sure there’s going to be some hitters that are going to command a little more attention, and the velocity is going to go up on those guys. But what I’m learning to do is to not necessarily reserve, but keep it down as much as I can here so I don’t get too carried away because I do have three more starts."

All in all, Smoltz threw 60 pitches in 3 1/3 innings of work. (He'd been allotted as many as 65 pitches, but when he got a first-pitch out to lead off the fourth, Portland manager Arnie Beyeler came out to get him.) He allowed three hits, including the run-scoring triple, and struck out two.

"The hardest part of my job is to not think ahead and not think about getting big-league hitters out," he said. "It’d be dangerous to do that right now, thinking about my pitches today. They’re all going to get a little bit sharper, and all the intensity is going to cause it to go up a little bit. ...

"My radar screen has Boston on it. As long as that’s the carrot dancing in front of you, you just keep doing what you’ve got to do."

Smoltz not Wagner's first brush with greatness

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mark Wagner tried to play it cool.

"Any butterflies tonight?" he was asked.

"Why's that?" he deadpanned.

"You know, with the guy you've got throwing to you."


Then he broke into a grin.

"No, I'm kidding," he said.

Wagner, the starting catcher for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, sat down with John Smoltz earlier this afternoon to devise a game plan for the future Hall of Famer's second rehab start. Smoltz threw 29 pitches for Single-A Greenville on Thursday and is expected to throw somewhere around 50 pitches for the Sea Dogs today.

Wagner, considered the top defensive catcher in the Red Sox system, will be in charge of handling Smoltz behind the plate.

"The No. 1 priority is to take care of John -- he's got to get his work in and go up and help the big-league club win," he said. "Hopefully, I can learn a lot about how he wants to pitch. We've already broken down a bit of a game plan, and the blood's definitely flowing. I've got a little bit of a heartbeat."

But Smoltz actually isn't the first Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher the 24-year-old prospect has caught.

Wagner caught Nolan Ryan, he of the 5,714 career strikeouts, at a fundraiser at Cal-Irvine during his freshman year of college. Ryan was well into his mid-50s at the time -- he's 62 now -- but still "could bring it when he wanted to," Wagner said.

"He told me that if anybody put a bat on it, ... he was going to wink and then turn it up a little bit," said Wagner, who's hitting .314 in 70 at-bats with the Sea Dogs this season despite missing two weeks with a hamstring strain. "It was one of the heavier baseballs I ever caught in my life."

One of the dignitaries who was hitting against Ryan actually did foul off a pitch midway through the exhibition. The crowd went wild at the sigh -- and that's when old Nolan Ryan turned into classic Nolan Ryan.

"His competitive side came out," he said. "He gave me a little nod and wink, and he turned it up a little bit."

What happened after that?

"They no longer put wood on it, that's for sure," Wagner said.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jed Lowrie will be back before July

Let's clear up a misconception right now: No matter what Peter Gammons says, Jed Lowrie expects to be playing before the All-Star break. His return, in fact, is probably a month away.

The original time frame, before Lowrie went to visit a wrist specialist in Arizona in mid-April, was for him to return after the All-Star break. Ever since his surgery, though, he and the team have been saying he's expected to start playing again "six to eight weeks" post-surgery -- and that would put his return somewhere around mid-June.

Here are the facts:
1. Lowrie underwent wrist surgery on April 21.
2. Lowrie was told, upon undergoing surgery, he'd be playing again in six to eight weeks. Six weeks puts his return on June 2. Eight weeks puts his return on June 16.
3. Any rehab assignment, barring setbacks, couldn't last longer than a week or 10 days. (This one isn't a fact, per se. But given that Lowrie participated in spring training and started the season, it's incredibly unlikely he'd need more than 30 at-bats against live pitching to be ready to go again.)
4. He's progressing quickly. He was taking ground balls several days ago; he'll start hitting off a tee Monday. (See below.)
5. Everything he and Terry Francona say, in fact, point to Lowrie being ahead of schedule rather than right on time.

Rampant trade speculation has the Red Sox poking around for a shortstop -- but that's all based on the theory that Lowrie is out until the All-Star break. MLB Trade Rumors is stating it as fact: "Jed Lowrie is expected back from wrist surgery after the All Star break." Even Nick Cafardo of the Globe threw it out there as an accepted fact: "He had wrist surgery and is out until after the All-Star break."

That, though, would put his return three months post-surgery. He originally was told he'd be out for eight weeks, tops, and that was before he made such encouraging progress with his strength and flexibility work.


But speculation -- even based on the facts -- still is just speculation. You can't really know anything unless you go straight to the source. Here's what Lowrie had to say today after the homestand-ending win over the Mets:

There are a lot of reports out there saying definitively, "Jed Lowrie is out until the All-Star Break." Is that generally accurate?
"When is the All-Star Break?"

"So two months?"

Does that seem long to you?
"Yeah, that seems long to me. But you've got to remember, too, that I'm going through this, so all I can tell you his how I feel today. Today, I feel good. Today, it felt good. The idea is that tomorrow I'm going to take swings off a tee. Hopefully, it feels good on that. As far as timelines are concerned, that's something the training staff and people who have dealt with this before are probably better to ask because I'm going through this for the first time."

So the way they talk to you is basically, 'Tomorrow, we'll do the tee, and Wednesday, we'll do this,' and they don't look much beyond that?
"Right. I think it's good that way because it makes me focus on what I need to do to get to that point. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to be out there playing, but right now, I just need to strengthen and get the range of motion back."

But that six to eight weeks, what was that a target date for?
"What I understood was that in six to eight weeks, I'd be playing. That's what the doctors tell me. That's the professional opinion of people who have done this before. All I can do is put in the work and put in the rehab to get better. That's the best answer I can give you. I don't have the answers -- I'm just going through it."

Green feels for what Lugo is going through

If Julio Lugo were hitting .350 and making every play in the field, Nick Green would be a once-a-week utility player who would spell Lugo occasionally and spell Mike Lowell occasionally and pinch-run occasionally but otherwise not see much playing time at all.

Because Lugo has been about as frustrating as a shortstop can get -- and don't think his flat-footed throw in Friday's loss to the Mets didn't drive Red Sox management crazy -- Green has started back-to-back games and appears once again to be the team's starting shortstop.

"I don't know how it's going to play," he said. "When I play, I'm not ambushed. They've been great about that. As long as I have a heads-up, I'm happy -- whenever they put me in, I'll play."

He actually thought he might not be able to play on Sunday; he thought he might have broken his finger trying to make a barehanded play on a ground ball in the seventh inning on Saturday. But he had his finger checked out on Sunday morning, he was told he was back in the starting lineup for the second straight day.

He made every play in the field, and his two-run single in the fifth inning plated what turned out to be the game-winning run. (He even alertly got himself into a rundown to make sure George Kottaras could score from second.) He's now hitting .309 and OBP'ing .369; he's actually outproducing Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate in several different measures.

He certainly feels good about the way he's playing. But that doesn't mean he feels good about watching Lugo endure what he's having to endure.

"It's tough," said Green, who played second base alongside Lugo for Tampa Bay in 2005. "I've known him for four years. He's a good guy, and I don't ever want to see anybody be treated poorly. The fans have every right to say what they say, but he's an individual and it's tough for me and tough for the team. We don't really know how he feels about the whole thing, so it's a tough situation. I always want him to do the best he can do, and he's been awesome to me for the four years I've known him. It's kind of tough."

Talking pitching with Daniel Bard

Red Sox rookie reliever Daniel Bard has a 1.80 ERA in five appearances, but he's run into trouble when he's left his 97-mile-an-hour fastball up in the strike zone, getting himself into a handful of jams in the early going.

The Red Sox expect that Bard eventually will dominate the late innings. He just has to figure out how to harness his stuff and turn his velocity into outs.

"When you throw that hard, you can be off just a hair and it looks like you’re really off because you throw so hard," said Hall of Fame reliever Dennis Eckersley, who knows something about dominating the late innings. "It’s not easy to control that kind of gas. ...

"He’s got to get used to the adrenaline, which is something that doesn’t go away. You just get used to it, and it helps you. It makes you throw harder sometimes. But you’re going to have a tendency to get the ball up. He can get away with getting the ball up -- but everybody’s looking gas, right?"

Three lessons Bard has learned about pitching in the big leagues:

1. Big-league hitters know how to attack 99-mile-an-hour fastballs.
"The patience and the approach that they have, it's a big jump from Triple-A -- probably bigger than I expected. I've been fortunate enough to get outs, but I'm getting them in different ways than I'm accustomed to. There's a little more contact. In Triple-A, in the minor leagues, a lot of guys, they see my fastball and try to swing harder at it. That's the worst thing they can do. That works to my advantage in all ways.

"Big-league hitters face a lot of arms like mine almost on a daily basis, so their approach, I've noticed, is to just throw their hands at the ball. They shorten their swing and let the velocity do the work. It's a lot more effective than trying to swing hard. It's a better approach, and it just comes with them seeing more arms like mine. I'll take the outs however I can get them -- pop-up, line drive right at a guy, whatever it is -- but I'll try to make the adjustments as I go."

To wit: ESPN's Buster Olney produced a chart on Sunday of the 14 fastballs on Saturday that were clocked at 97 miles an hour or better. Six of those fastballs missed the strike zone. One was taken for a strike. Three were fouled off. Three were put into play; of those, only one led to an out. Only one 97-mile-an-hour fastball resulted in a swing and a miss.

And while Jonathan Papelbon wasn't on that list, the Fenway scoreboard and NESN radar gun clocked the fastball on which Omir Santos hit his game-winning home run at 97, too. That didn't do Papelbon any good.

2. There's a good way and a bad way to put a little extra on a pitch.
"There are going to be pitches when you need to reach back for a little more on the fastball, maybe try to throw that put-away breaking ball, where you're going to try to put a little more on the pitch. The difference between letting it fly when it ends up way up out of the zone or as a really good pitch is where you try to get that extra two or three miles an hour.

"If you try to get it out front, if you try to get it, as they say, out of the glove, you try to speed it up right out of the glove, and your front side is going to fly open. That's what gets you out of whack. If you can focus on getting it from (the shoulder) to the release point, that's where you get the good extra two or three miles an hour and not the bad one that soars high."

Going back to Saturday: The fastball Papelbon threw to Santos was supposed to be down and away and instead was up and over the middle.

3. It's easier to start off with the ball down in the zone and go up the ladder on certain pitches than the other way around.
"The thing I've been working on for the last week or so, and it starts in the bullpen when I start getting loose, is starting below the knees. It's a lot easier to start there and throw 10 pitches there and then work your way up when you need to rather than throw your first 10 belt-high and work down. That's very tough to do. It's a lot easier to start down and come up. That's what I'm learning."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mets' rally ruins Beckett's best start

Josh Beckett sprinted out to the mound before the top of Saturday's eighth inning, well ahead of anyone else in a white uniform. It was almost as if he wanted to get out to the mound so Terry Francona couldn't decide to take him out of the game.

After he'd struck out Angel Pagan (swinging at a 95-mile-an-hour fastball up in the zone) and Carlos Beltran (swinging at an 89-mile-an-hour changeup down and away) to end the inning, he walked off the mound so slowly he barely looked as though he were moving.

Given the way Beckett pitched on Saturday, though, it makes sense for him to have wanted to stay out there as long as possible.

Beckett allowed five hits and one unearned run in eight of the most impressive innings he's thrown all season. He struck out five and walked just one. The only run he allowed came in the first inning after he'd thrown the ball away on a pickoff play to allow Carlos Beltran to get to second; Gary Sheffield then singled home Beltran.

(Here's a question: Wouldn't it make sense to charge a pitcher with an earned run if it was his error?)

He almost prevented even that run from scoring, but he and Mike Lowell got crossed up a little bit on a pop fly in front of the Mets' dugout. Off the bat, Beckett believed he was the only player with a chance to catch it -- and by the time Lowell called him off, there was no way for him to get out of the way.

"At this point in the season, it's probably better not to have a big collision between me and Mike Lowell," he said.

After that -- and after the line drive David Wright rifled straight at Kevin Youkilis -- Beckett was untouchable. He retired 12 in a row after the Sheffield hit and retired the side in order in the second, third, fourth, sixth and eighth innings.

"I thought he was real good," Francona said. "He was very persistent in executing his pitches. I thought he made a lot of pitches -- especially the breaking ball -- that were, if not on (the plate), just off. He stayed with what he wanted to do. He threw some changeups late. ... He was great."

He looked like he might be done after the seventh inning; he'd thrown 103 pitches at that point and left a fastball over the middle of the plate that Luis Castillo hammered on a low line to center field. When Jacoby Ellsbury hauled it in, Beckett punctuated the out with a dramatic fist pump on his way to the dugout.

"That ball actually came back to the middle," he said. "I'd been pounding him in, all three of his at-bats, and I was fortunate that Jacoby got a good jump on that ball."

But he still had one more inning left in him.

"I thought he was throwing the ball extremely well," Francona said. "If a guy comes off and he's about had it, (he'd come out), but he had some more in him."

Said Beckett, who has failed even to get into the seventh inning five times this season, "I owe the bullpen plenty more innings still."

The first fastball Beckett threw in the eighth inning registered at just 89 miles an hour, but he still managed to break the bat of Daniel Murphy with his next pitch and induce a line drive that Nick Green gloved in short center field.

(Also: Talk about a statement game by Nick Green, eh? What's he doing that far out in left field making that sliding catch in the fifth inning?)

Beckett then struck out Pagan and Beltran to end his night.

"He talks so much -- and we all do -- about shut-down innings," Francona said. "He pitched very well. We never worry about him competing."

If Jonathan Papelbon hadn't left his 13th successive fastball out over the middle of the plate for Omir Santos to pound over the Green Monster, Beckett would have earned his fifth win along with shaving more than three-quarters of a run off his ERA.

"You never know with that wall," he said. "It seems like that wall grows sometimes; sometimes it seems like it shrinks. Unfortunately, tonight, it shrunk a little."

Reading between the lines, Francona not happy with Lugo

Terry Francona made sure to emphasize that he was giving Julio Lugo a day off on Saturday rather than benching him. Lugo, who underwent knee surgery in March, failed to turn a critical double play on Friday against the Mets.

"When we brought Lugie back, we didn't want him to play a ton in a row," Francona said. "We've got a day game tomorrow, so one (of the Green-Lugo duo) was going to play one or the other."

But when a reporter steered the conversation toward that double play Lugo failed to turn, costing the Red Sox two runs in the process, Francona didn't exactly spring to the defense of his embattled shortstop. He didn't criticize Lugo, but he certainly chose his words carefully.

"Evaluating our shortstops in May for public consumption, I don't know that it helps our cause," he said. "We're trying to win games regardless of how bad we play on a certain night or how good we play.

"I watched the game. But, again, it's our responsibility to, if it's not good enough, make it good enough and always get better. I know it's not been perfect."

After a question about the team's turnover at shortstop over the years, another reporter asked specifically about Lugo's failure to turn the double play and if Francona had watched the tape to see what had happened.

"I watched it a lot," he said. "The last thing I want to do is, when I say something, not know what I'm talking about because I really don't. I thought he got flat-footed, and he put himself in a position where he ended up throwing the ball with not a lot on it.

"The hard thing is, Lugie and I go back and forth sometimes -- he wants me to have his back, which I think I'm supposed to and completely understand. But at the same time, if I feel like I have something to say to somebody, I've got to say it. We've gone back and forth. You're always try to help, but you're walking a fine line where you're helping and not hindering. Again, yeah, we all thought we should have had a better shot to turn that."

Read that one between the lines:
"Evaluating our shortstops in May for public consumption, I don't know that it helps our cause."
* Francona has no issue raving about his players when they're doing well. If he's "evaluating" his shortstops "for public consumption," the evaluation is not going to be positive.

"I watched the game."
* Translation: "I'm not disagreeing with the assessments that are out there."

"I know it's not been perfect."
* He doesn't expect his players to be perfect. He expects his players to be good. It hasn't been good.

"I thought he got flat-footed, and he put himself in a position where he ended up throwing the ball with not a lot on it."
* OK, this one stands on its own.

"He wants me to have his back, which I think I'm supposed to and completely understand. But at the same time, if I feel like I have something to say to somebody, I've got to say it."
* Whew. When you start a sentence with, "He wants me to have his back," and then throw a "but" in there, you're starting to reveal something. What you're almost saying, in fact, is, "I don't necessarily have his back." For some managers, this might not be a real big deal. For Francona, whose loyalty to his players is legendary, this is a very big deal.

What about Adrian Beltre?

(Warning: The trade talk ahead is all contingent on the Red Sox deciding David Ortiz isn't going to play a key role in their lineup this season. That's not a step they've so far been willing to take; if Ortiz can't build on his pandemonium-inducing home run on Wednesday, though, they might not have that choice.)

Speculation so far has centered around the Red Sox adding a slugger who can play first base but who primarily would be penciled in as the team's designated hitter. If the Red Sox can get someone like that -- a Victor Martinez, perhaps -- they might be satisfied. But if they can't get someone like that, they might be better served looking at an upgrade on the defensive side.

Here's a theory: If David Ortiz isn't an everyday player, could the Red Sox be a better team with the aging Mike Lowell as its designated hitter and a stronger defensive player at third base?

Lowell has been an above-average defensive player ever since he was traded to the Red Sox. His Fielding Bible plus-minus (for plays made as compared to what an average player at his position would make) was plus-6 in 2006, plus-7 in 2007 and plus-7 in 2008.

So far this season, though, he's at minus-12. His "Ultimate Zone Rating" is at minus-2.0, meaning he's cost the Red Sox two runs. (Washington's Ryan Zimmerman leads all third basemen with a plus-6.7, meaning he's saved the Nationals 6.7 runs.)

Lowell still is a capable hitter post-hip surgery, but he's part of the problem on the left side of the Red Sox infield. Should the Mariners fall out of contention, though, Adrian Beltre might be the type of player who could fit nicely at third base for the Red Sox.

A year ago, Beltre finished the year with a plus-32 in the Fielding Bible ratings. So far this year, he's fourth among big-league third basemen with a 4.1 UZR. He's had some error issues, but his range is statistically better than any third baseman in baseball other than Zimmerman.

Oh, and he can hit a little bit, too. He's hitting just .213 this season and hasn't walked nearly as much as he used to walk, but his BAPIP is low (.248) and he's someone who normally is good for 20 home runs a year with a .450 slugging percentage. (He has two home runs so far this year.)

Beltre's five-year, $64 million deal with the Mariners expires after this season. He's been a fixture in trade rumors for the past year -- he would have been a great fit for the Twins last summer, but nothing ever happened. His name hasn't been tossed around much this year because the Mariners are hanging around in a fairly weak American League West.

But if the Mariners start to slip -- they were five games back entering play today and have allowed more runs than they've scored so far this season -- Beltre might land on the block.

Can you envision a Beltre-Jed Lowrie left side of the infield?

Doesn't that sound appealing?

'They want to get a hit off you really bad'

John Smoltz will make his second rehab start at Stadium in Manchester on Tuesday. He threw 29 pitches in three innings, allowing one hit and striking out two, in his first rehab start on Thursday at Single-A Greenville.

What do you want to get out of that start on Tuesday?
"More pitches. (chuckles) I want to throw more pitches, extend the innings, upgrade a couple of things each time out. It’s like a spring training game – make sure I get all my pitches into the game and execute."

Is it fun to get to pitch in some of those smaller minor-league parks in front of people who don't usually get to see you pitch?
"It is, and it isn’t. It is for that reason, and it isn’t from the results standpoint because you don’t really have a lot to gain. You’ve got to try to make your pitches in a situation where you know nothing about the hitters, and they want to get a hit off you really bad. I enjoy the experience, but at the same time, I’ve got to remind myself that I’m trying to get ready to come up to the big leagues and really face the top of the line."

(Yes, that's it. But this was a totally spontaneous interview conducted in a doorway as Smoltz was on his way out of the Red Sox locker room late Friday night, too late even to make it into Saturday's Union Leader story. It's a OneIf exclusive. What do you want from me?)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Failure to make play again drives up an ERA

As discussed both in this space and in the Union Leader, Red Sox fielders bear some responsibility for the inflated ERA of the team's pitching staff. Errors don't count against a pitcher, after all, but poor range and numerous other non-error examples of bad defense certainly do. According to some statistical measures, the Red Sox have subpar defenders in left field, at third base and at shortstop.

Defensive shortcomings at shortstop -- and this will be of no surprise to fans well-accustomed to booing their shortstop -- doomed the Red Sox on Friday.

Here's the scene: There was one out in the top of the fourth inning, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was starting to labor. He hung a slider that Carlos Beltran whacked into right field for a ground-rule double, and he walked Gary Sheffield on five pitches, the last one being a slider in the dirt. David Wright then jumped on a first-pitch cutter over the middle and singled to center to drive home Beltran and give the Mets a 2-1 lead.

Jeremy Reed was up next. Jeremy Reed is not a speed demon. He seems like he should be, but actually has been caught stealing in his career almost as many times (18) as he's stolen bases successfully (19). In the last three seasons, he's only attempted five steals -- and he's been caught three times. Yes, stolen bases is something of a primitive way to measure speed, but it certainly counts for something.

When he hit a ground ball to second, then, it looked like a prime chance for the Red Sox to turn two and get out of the inning. Dustin Pedroia fielded the ball cleanly and threw it to Julio Lugo -- but Lugo somehow made the throw to first without any of his momentum moving forward. He was standing flat-footed at second base when he made the relay throw.

"I was trying to stay on the bag, you know, get the sure out," he said.

Reed beat it out. The inning continued.

Matsuzaka then allowed back-to-back run-scoring singles to Omir Santos and Ramon Martinez before getting Luis Castillo to ground to second to end the inning. The pitcher certainly bears some responsibility for the hits he allowed. But when he needed a double-play ball, he induced a double-play ball -- and he didn't get the double play.

Matsuzaka finished the night having allowed four runs in five innings pitched; his ERA now stands at 10.32, not far off the 12.79 with which he entered the game. That, on its face, doesn't look like a pitcher who has improved all that much during his month on the disabled list.

But if Lugo turns that double play, the inning ends right there -- and Matsuzaka allowed just two earned runs in five innings. If that happens, he leaves with an 8.91 ERA.

Oh, and the Red Sox maybe leave with a win.

"The moment the ball was hit, I thought it would be a double-play ball," Matsuzaka said through an interpreter. "But the double play didn't work, and that was just the flow of the game for us today. After that point, I couldn't hold the hitters and the runners, and that part is what I'm a little disappointed about."

That's been the flow of the game quite a bit for the Red Sox this year. Errors aren't the only way defenders can kill their pitcher.

Lowrie progressing quickly

Jed Lowrie was back in short right field at Fenway Park early Friday afternoon, playing long-toss and even taking a ground ball or two. In contrast to a Peter Gammons report that had Lowrie sidelined until the All-Star Break at the earliest, Lowrie appears to be ahead of schedule.

Lowrie stayed behind on the last road trip the Red Sox took, meeting with Red Sox trainers at 7:30 a.m. every day to work on the strength and flexibility in his wrist. He began his throwing program using a lefthanded glove on his right hand to minimize impact on his left wrist; he's now using his regular righthanded glove when he plays catch.

Barring any setbacks, he'll accompany the team on its upcoming road trip to Minnesota, Toronto and Detroit -- and he might just be ready for a rehab stint before that road trip ends.

"It was a little lonely here," Lowrie said on Tuesday.

When the 25-year-old Lowrie originally underwent surgery on April 21, he said doctors had told him he'd be back playing between six or eight weeks after the procedure. That would set the range between May 26 -- next Tuesday -- and June 9.

"He's young and a very hard worker, and he's very diligent in what he's doing," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Young kids heal quicker than older guys. That's just the way it is. I wouldn't be surprised if he's right on time or a little early."

Taking ground balls was one big step. Taking batting practice will be another big step. A week ago, he was hitting balls off a tee with one hand and had just started to take dry swings with two hands, just to get the motion back.

Well, that's not true. He started taking dry swings with two hands well before last week -- unofficially, of course.

"When I'm not looking, I'm not sure what he's doing," Francona said. "One day, I went down to go to the bathroom in the fifth inning -- this was back a few weeks -- and he had the bat in his hands. He gave me that look, like, 'I got caught.' But all good players do that."

Kevin Youkilis is a professional hitter

Kevin Youkilis missed 15 days with an oblique injury and played just two games at Pawtucket to get his timing back. He went hitless in seven at-bats.

In his first two games since his return to Boston? He's got four hits and a walk in nine plate appearances. He stroked a run-scoring single on a cut fastball so perfect he couldn't afford to take it but shouldn't have been able to do anything but roll it straight at the second baseman.

"I had a couple of games in Triple-A to try to get my timing going, and I'm just going up there and trying to have good at-bats," he said. "I feel like my timing is coming about."

Youkilis was hitting .393 and OBP'ing .505 when he left a May 4 game with a side injury he'd originally suffered two days later. It was just the second time all season that he'd seen his batting average slip below .400.

Heading into Friday night's game against the Mets, his batting average is back up to .402 and his on-base percentage .508.

But Youkilis isn't just getting cheap hits. He's earning them.

In the third inning against the Jays' Robert Ray on Thursday, he came to the plate with two outs and Dustin Pedroia on second and the Red Sox leading by three runs. He took a called strike to open the at-bat and took three of the next four pitches to work the count full. All but one of the pitches he saw were on the outside corner or off the plate away; the Jays were determined to get him out on that half of the plate.

The sixth pitch Ray threw was a cutter down and away, a cutter he couldn't afford to take with two strikes. He went after it and turned on it and somehow pulled it between shortstop and the second-base bag to score Pedroia from second.

That's the type of swing the Red Sox weren't exactly expecting to get from Youkilis so quickly after his two-week hiatus. But that's just the type of professional hitter the first baseman is.

Even better: He's still not satisfied his timing is back.

"It's a project every at-bat the whole season," he said. "Your timing comes and goes a little bit. It's just part of the way baseball works. You've just got to keep working at it and keep focusing on trying to do whatever you have to do to keep yourself going."

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Karma catches up to Lester in win

Justin Masterson left the clubhouse wearing a bright purple shirt with large white letters reading, "Listen to your soul."

It's a good lesson for a good pitcher with good stuff who's not getting the results he wants. Masterson had to deal with that earlier this week -- of the nine hits he allowed to the Seattle Mariners, four didn't get out of the infield. The hit that knocked him out of the game in the seventh inning was a dribbler on a sinker on the inside corner that didn't even get to the infield dirt.

"You make good pitches, but you look up at the board, and you've given up like 12 hits!" he said. "Half of them haven't even left the infield!"

Jon Lester has had to deal with that all season. He's given up 10 home runs, sure, but Tampa Bay's James Shields has given up eight home runs and still only has a 3.43 ERA. Going into Thursday's start, Lester's ERA was 6.51, and it was starting to get into his head a little bit. He wasn't just frustrated. He was angry.

But he really wasn't pitching that badly.

"He's had some great stuff in most of his outings this year," said Masterson, whose locker is just down the wall from that of Lester. "As has been the case with, I feel like, a lot of starters early on, he hasn't caught any type of break. Yeah, in Seattle, he gave up a couple of home runs to Ichiro, and that's tough because it's such a close game. Aside from that, he's giving up ground balls that are just out of reach of our fielders -- which means he's making decent pitches.

"The struggle this whole time has been to keep a continued mindset of, 'I'm doing the right stuff. I have to just keep out and doing it because it's going to work.'"

That mindset paid off in spades on Thursday as Lester put the finishing touches on Boston's three-game sweep of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. Lester lasted 6 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits and walking two while striking out four, and it wasn't until Ramon Ramirez allowed Aaron Hill to hit his first pitch for an RBI single that Lester was charged with a run.

He wasn't sensational. Given that he'd struck out at least five hitters in every one of his outings so far this season, he wasn't particularly overpowering, either. But he made a handful of big pitches at big times -- and he got the breaks he hadn't been getting through the first six weeks of the season.

"He used both sides of the plate, used his cutter, used his changeup," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He kept trying to execute the game plan. If he made a pitch and it wasn't right or it wasn't effective, he came right back and made a better pitch. He had a couple (that were) borderline and came right back with a better pitch. That was good to see."

No pitch was more important than the fourth-inning fastball he threw in on the hands of outfielder Jose Bautista in the fourth inning. He'd walked Scott Rolen after an eight-pitch at-bat in which Rolen fouled off three straight fastballs before laying off a cutter that just missed the inside corner. Two batters later, he left a two-strike curveball over the plate that Rod Barajas laced into center field for a base hit.

The Red Sox only led by a 3-0 score. If the Blue Jays were going to rally, this was going to be the moment.

Lester caught his first break with his first pitch, a fastball that appeared to miss inside; umpire Marvin Hudson called it a strike. He missed with his second pitch and appeared to catch another break with his third pitch, a cutter up in the zone that Bautista fouled off.

Lester's fourth pitch was a fastball on the inside corner underneath Bautista's hands. Bautista whacked at it and rolled a ground ball toward Dustin Pedroia.

Two weeks ago, Lester induced the same type of ground ball in the same type of jam against Tampa Bay. That ground ball, though, had rolled under the glove of Julio Lugo and into left field to score a run. Two more slow ground balls likewise snuck through the infield to score two more runs and knock the lefty from the game in just the fifth inning.

This ground ball, though -- this ground ball found a glove. Pedroia snatched it off the ground and rifled a throw to Julio Lugo; Kevin Youkilis then scooped Lugo's relay throw out of the dirt. Double play. Inning over.

"It's great -- definitely boosts your confidence," Lester said. "You execute the pitch, you get ahead of a guy, and you get the result you want. It's tough because you're out there analyzing the game, and you want everything to go your way. Sometimes it just doesn't happen, and for that to happen tonight was big."

Said Masterson, "You make a good pitch and a guy hits a ground ball like you want, and the infielders make a beautiful play. It's always a motivating thing to happen. His pitch count was going up -- and it was actually from about then that he locked it up."

Lester needed just eight pitches to retire the side in the fifth inning and nine pitches to retire the side in the sixth. It wasn't until he walked Bautista (on a fastball just off the outside corner) and allowed a line-drive single to Marco Scutaro that Francona came to get him. He'd thrown 109 pitches.

Even better: For just the third time all season, he didn't allow a home run.

The secret?

"Not throw the ball down the middle," he said. "That's been kind of my problem. With the exception of a few, the majority have been fastballs right down the middle. You stay away from the middle of the plate, especially with a lineup like this, and mix up speeds, and we were able to do that. ... You keep them off-balance and not let them keyhole in one area, and you have a shot."

He didn't pitch all that much much better on Thursday than he had in any of his other starts. But he got the results he wanted -- and that might be what gets him going on the type of run he enjoyed when he went 6-0 with a 2.56 ERA in June and July a year ago.

"When it comes down to it, the mental game is so much harder than the physical," Masterson said. "It's like, 'Man, I feel great physically,' and he had to keep telling himself that to translate mentally: 'Man, I still feel great despite all this stuff that has happened.' He has, quote-unquote, had great stuff."

Dustin Pedroia doesn't do UZR

Old-school baseball minds have started, gradually, to embrace the concepts of statistical analysis of offense -- on-base percentage, strikeout percentage, OPS+. They've been a little slower to come around on the idea of statistical analysis of defense.

A cover story in Sports Illustrated this spring brought the idea into the mainstream a little bit, but "UZR" still might as well be the Swedish word for "amusement park" for all the credence old-school baseball minds want to give it. (UZR stands for "ultimate zone rating," a measure of how many runs a player saves on balls hit into his zone of the field.)

And it doesn't get any more old-school than Dustin Pedroia.

How do you feel like you evaluate defense?
"It’s just errors. If you make all the routine plays and don’t give the other team more outs, that’s the biggest thing. If you’re giving major-league-caliber hitters more than 27 outs, you’re not going to win many games doing that. A lot of teams are focused on making all the routine plays and getting themselves back in and hitting. That’s the most important part because it’s tough enough pitching, especially at this level."

Do you incorporate some of the new ideas about defense, the zone ratings, the plus-minus, that sort of thing?
"No. I don’t think anybody really believes in that stuff. I don’t really know how they do that. My biggest focus is, if the ball is hit to me, pick it up and throw it and get an out. You don’t need zone ratings or anything like that to tell who’s a good defensive player and who’s not. You can pretty much look out on the field and tell who can play defense and who can’t."

Do you feel like good defense -- aside from not making errors -- contributes to the success of a pitcher?
"Yeah. You’ve got to position yourself right. If a guy’s dead pull, you shouldn’t play him the other way. You’ll give him more hits. Positioning is huge, playing defense, and if you position yourself the right way, you’re going to make more plays and get more outs, so pitchers’ ERAs are going to go down."

When you look at a game like that game two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, the game where Jon Lester got burned on ground balls that found holes in the infield, does that give you more confidence in some of those pitchers who have high ERAs?

"We always have confidence in our pitchers. Sometimes you run into those days where everything finds a hole. That’s just baseball. Our thing is, we just try to prevent that. We try to prevent those days from happening. Sometimes you look up and a team has 13 or 14 hits, and eight of them are ground balls that find holes. You just try to position yourself the best way you can to get those outs."

Maybe it's not the pitching

Red Sox pitchers, entering play Wednesday, had accumulated an ERA of 4.68. Red Sox starting pitchers, entering play Wednesday, had accumulated an ERA of 5.59.

Starting pitching was supposed to be the strength of this Red Sox team. Now, all of a sudden, we're getting all excited because Josh Beckett and Justin Masterson are turning in back-to-back "hardly dominant" but effective starts. Beckett has an ERA of 5.85. Jon Lester has an ERA of 6.51. Brad Penny, going into his start Wednesday, had an ERA of 6.69.

There's only so much pitchers can do, though. If they strike a guy out, great -- and Red Sox pitchers have 285 strikeouts, second-best in the American League. If they walk a guy, that's not great -- and Red Sox pitchers have 149 walks, fourth-worst in the American League. (Their strikeout-to-walk ratio is 191, just slightly above the league average.)

But if the ball gets put in play, then what happens? Couldn't defense play as much of a role in this as pitching? The Rangers and Mariners have played their way into contention on the strength of great defense. The Red Sox, as it turns out, have shot themselves in the foot with lousy defense at key positions.

Here's one indication: The Red Sox pitching staff has an opponents' BAPIP (batting average on balls put in play) of .311, 11 points higher than the league average. Lester's opponents' BAPIP is .385; Beckett's is .352. Even Justin Masterson's is .350 -- and he's a sinkerball pitcher who should be seeing infielders feast on the ground balls he's inducing.

Here's another: Ultimate zone rating.

Like a few of the stats that are making their way into the public consciousness -- or, say, football's quarterback rating -- it's difficult to define Ultimate Zone Rating. The basic idea is to measure the number of outs a player records (and, thus, the number of runs a player prevents) in his particular area of the field.

Suffice to say, a fielder with an UZR of 4.0 has saved his team approximately four runs; a fielder with an UZR of -4.0 has cost his team approximately four runs.

Let's look at the UZR leaderboard so far this season:

First base
1. Chris Davis, Texas: 3.9
7. Kevin Youkilis: 1.4

Second base
t-1. Ian Kinsler, Texas: 5.4
t-1. Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee: 5.4
10. Dustin Pedroia: 1.4

1. Marco Scutaro, Toronto: 4.9
18. Nick Green: 1.2

Third base
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington: 6.7
18. Mike Lowell: -2.0

Right field
1. Jay Bruce, Cincinnati: 8.0
12. J.D. Drew: -0.3

Center field
1. Mike Cameron, Milwaukee: 7.8
9. Jacoby Ellsbury: 0.8

Left field
1. Nyjer Morgan: 8.3
16. Jason Bay: -9.0
(No big-league left fielder has a worse UZR rating than Bay.)

We could try another rating, too: The Fielding Bible's plus-minus rating. Plus-minus measures a player's ability to get outs against an average defensive player at his position. The higher the plus-minus number, the more outs the player has recorded. So far this season:

First base
t-1. Billy Butler, Kansas City: +5
t-1. Kevin Youkilis: +5

Second base
1. Ian Kinsler, Texas: +10
t-8. Dustin Pedroia: +3

1. Marco Scutaro, Toronto: +12
t-19. Nick Green: 0

Third base
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington: +13
33. Mike Lowell: -9

Right field
1. Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle: +6
t-3. J.D. Drew: +4

Center field
t-1. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles: +7
t-1. Chris Young, Arizona: +7
22. Jacoby Ellsbury: 0

Left field
t-1. Matt Holliday, Oakland: +7
t-1. Nyjer Morgan, Pittsburgh: +7
31. Jason Bay: -2

By both measures, the Red Sox have gotten average defense in center field (Ellsbury's first-inning catch on the warning track on Wednesday notwithstanding), below-average defense at shortstop, and absolutely miserable defense at third base and in left field.

The thing is, though, Bay and Ellsbury have exactly zero errors to their credit this season. According to the statistic that most influences a pitcher's ERA, Bay and Ellsbury are perfect fielders -- but according to In the outfield, if you don't get to a ball, you almost never get charged with an error -- but that means every ball Bay doesn't get to turns into a hit for which his pitcher is charged.

And remember the Saturday afternoon a week and a half ago when Lester induced what seemed like six straight slow ground balls only to see every single one of them roll into left field between Lowell and Julio Lugo? Lester was charged with six earned runs in that inning despite allowing only one hard-hit ball; no errors were charged to anyone. But if one or two of those ground balls had been fielded and Lester had escaped that inning unscathed, his ERA would be 5.36 right now as opposed to 6.51.

That's how much impact defense can have on a pitching staff.

And that might be why Boston pitchers are having so much trouble.

Ellsbury thriving with Lowrie's bats

(This didn't make the Union Leader's site thanks to the David Ortiz hubbub, so it made sense to post it here.)

Jed Lowrie’s bat has been doing plenty of damage in the Red Sox lineup over the past few weeks. Lowrie just hasn’t been the one swinging it.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Lowrie were talking shop in the Red Sox clubhouse the day before Lowrie was set to fly to Arizona to visit the specialist who would recommend and eventually perform surgery on his left wrist.

Ellsbury wasn’t feeling comfortable with his bats. Lowrie handed him one of his. It wasn’t all that different, but it had a little more heft and a little more thickness to the barrel.

“You probably wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference picking it up,” Ellsbury said.

But it was love at first swing.

“Guys do it all the time – they’ll pick it up and it’ll feel better in their hand, and they’ll make a switch,” he said. “It just felt good in my hand, so I decided to test it out.”

More than a month later, Ellsbury is still swinging Lowrie-model lumber. He was hitting .194 with zero extra-base hits when he made the switch; he’s hit .336 with seven doubles, a triple and a home run since. And with a fifth-inning single on Tuesday, Ellsbury extended his hitting streak to 14 games, four shy of his career best.

Despite his rough start, Ellsbury now leads the Red Sox and ranks among the American League leaders in hits (50).

“He’s using more of the entire field,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “He’s pulling the ball with authority. He’s slapping the ball to left field. He’s hitting the ball up the middle. He’s gotten hits everywhere.”

Said left fielder Jason Bay, “Early on, he was hitting a lot of balls in the air, and now it’s more line drives and hard ground balls. It’s easy to say and not easy to do, but for him, it’s pretty important.”

Even better, Ellsbury has cut down on his strikeouts – a key for a guy who’s a threat to beat out just about any ground ball he hits. He struck out five times in his first 39 plate appearances (12.8 percent) but has fanned just 11 times in 134 plate appearances (8.2 percent) since he made the switch. (He struck out in 13.1 percent of his plate appearances a year ago.)

Among Red Sox regulars, only Dustin Pedroia (6.9 percent) is striking out less frequently than Ellsbury (9.3 percent).

The new lumber itself might not make much of a difference – “I don’t think you’re going to see a guy hit a buck-fifty and switch bats and be a .500 hitter,” Bay said – but anything that helps a hitter feel better about himself at the plate helps him be more productive.

There might even be a few hits left in the bats when Lowrie returns from his wrist surgery.

“I told him I’d keep them warm for him,” Ellsbury said.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Big Papi at the bat

Profound apologies to Ernest Thayer.


The outlook wasn’t brilliant for David Ortiz yesterday.
His batting average neared .200 with four months still left to play.
Fastballs flew right past his bat; sliders did the same.
It wasn’t bold to wonder if Big Papi’d lost his game.

The way his numbers straggled left fans in deep despair.
He was still hitting No. 3; how long would he stay there?
In second in the standings was where the Red Sox sat;
The fear was that they’d not score runs with Papi at the bat.

Six weeks without a homer was more than we could take –
Even though we're all aware it’s not a piece of cake.
And even though Ortiz had swung a melancholy bat,
All it takes is one home run, and that, we’d say, was that.

For six strong years he’d hit like he was greatest of them all.
No matter what the pitch, tore the cover off the ball.
Still they number many, those who doubt what has occurred:
The Red Sox with two rings and an ambition for a third.

Every time he came to bat, the thousands there would yell.
He was like a cartoon character, like the Farmer in the Dell.
His home runs soared like mountains into seats where people sat.
It was always something special to see Big Papi swing the bat.

There was ease in how he hit the ball in almost every place.
There was humor in his bearing as he dove into third base.
With every walk-off hit he earned the right to doff his hat;
No stranger to dramatics, that Big Papi at the bat.

But something happened to a swing that nothing had deterred.
His power disappeared so fast it bordered on absurd.
Sometimes some older sluggers, they see their numbers dip.
But Papi couldn’t touch the ball when thrown right at his hip.

His nadir came in Anaheim, the California air.
Twelve men against the Angels, Ortiz had stranded there.
‘Midst evergreens at Safeco Field, Ortiz misfortune dred.
And with a chance to clear his mind, Big Papi stayed in bed.

But back in Boston, all the people gathered, set to roar,
Hoping they would get to see the man they’d seen before.
The first time he strode to the plate, a cheer grew from the stands;
A whistle came from every throat, applause from every hand.

The message there was simple: Through this he’d not fight alone
He had support from all the fans; took pictures with their phones
His hits in batting practice like they had before once flew
But Papi managed just a walk and counted strikeouts two.

Still came the cheering thousands to see their hero flawed
He struck out in the third; a result that's from odd
But in the fifth, it came his turn; he stepped to bat again
And on they cheered, an urging clear to hit it out right then

The fastball came in letter-high, got too much of the plate
Big Papi pounced and let it fly; the roars did not abate.
Back and back, to center field, the baseball it did go
Wells and Snider looking up; Ortiz a-trotting slow.

Oh, Fenway is a favored land; the cheers last through the night.
Though Citgo’s beams are all we see, the sun is shining bright
On Lansdowne Street they’re laughing; on Yawkey Way they shout
There’s naught but joy in Mudville: Big Papi hit one out.

A special moment for Ortiz -- and us

We get cynical sometimes when it comes to baseball. We get cynical and objective and removed and even a little bit bitter when it comes to baseball. We look at the salaries and and the egos and the expectations, and we forget what it is we love about baseball.

We sometimes need a reminder.

On Wednesday night at Fenway Park, David Ortiz provided us with that reminder. David Ortiz provided us with as special a moment as you'll ever see -- and that includes any one of the walk-off hits that have made him a legend in Boston for the rest of his life and beyond.

Ortiz is a home-run hitter. He always has been, and he always will be. He's walked 100 times and doubled 50 times and has legged out a triple every year for the last 10 years. He's driven in 100 runs five times. He's hit .300 three times.

Despite all that, Ortiz is a home-run hitter. And the fact that he'd gone 163 plate appearances without hitting a single baseball over a single fence -- be it at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium or Tropicana Field -- was the most talked-about run of futility this side of Wall Street.

Every time he set foot into the Red Sox locker room, reporters demanded to know what was happening and what he was thinking and when things were going to turn around. Every time anyone else in a white uniform set foot into the Red Sox uniform, reporters demanded to know what was happening and what Ortiz was thinking and when things were going to turn around.

"They're talking about him like he's dead," WalkOffWalk's Kris Liakos whispered after a session in which reporters repeatedly asked Kevin Youkilis about the repeated failures of Ortiz this season.

Ortiz had fanned weakly twice on Tuesday in his first game back at Fenway Park, his first game in front of his home fans since he'd stranded 12 runners against the Angels and then been given an entire weekend in Seattle off to clear his head. The fans cheered enthusiastically when Ortiz came to the plate in the first inning. The fans went crazy, standing and cheering and chanting "Papi! Papi!", when Ortiz came to the plate in the eighth inning.

It was a display of support almost unthinkable in a ballpark that has booed so many other fading stars, almost delighting in the misery of the players they once worshipped. Teddy was booed. Yaz was booed. Mo was booed. Nomar was booed. Manny was booed.

Ortiz, though, is different.

Ortiz is Big Papi. Ortiz is 2004. Ortiz is The Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History.

That's why fans went wild for Ortiz on Tuesday, cheering him louder and louder every time he came to the plate. That's why fans went wild for Ortiz on Wednesday before his first at-bat (a weak groundout) and before his second at-bat (a strikeout on an eminently hittable fastball over the middle of the plate).

And that's why it was so special when Ortiz went deep.

It already was shaping up to be a nice inning. Jason Varitek had homered off Brett Cecil, a top prospect who earlier had almost left the game after bouncing his face off the Fenway Park infield trying to catch a popped-up bunt. Jacoby Ellsbury had walked and then almost scored on a Dustin Pedroia double. Pedroia still was standing on third with two outs -- and he represented a chance for Ortiz to drive in just his fourth run in the month of May.

A home run, honestly, was probably the last thing on the minds of just about everyone in the ballpark. A slap single to left-center field would have done just fine.

But Cecil left a fastball up and out over the plate, and Ortiz clobbered it. All 38,000-plus fans in the building rose and roared at once -- and those roars turned into delirium when the ball settled into the camera well in dead center field, 380 feet from home plate.

Ortiz might have been tempted to act casual when he stepped on home plate, to act as though he'd never heard the multitudes who believed his career was over. But even he couldn't fake that. He pointed to the sky with both index fingers -- something he does after every home run -- and clapped his hands together -- something he never does after any home run. He then allowed Kevin Youkilis to wrap him up in the sort of celebratory hug that's normally reserved for a ninth-inning walk-off and not a relatively routine two-run shot in the fifth inning.

When Ortiz got to the dugout, he found no one there to acknowledge him -- but that's only because the Red Sox were giving him the silent treatment. After a few seconds had passed, every white uniform in the dugout converged on him in a mosh pit -- sense a theme here? -- normally only seen in the aftermath of a home run that ends a game.

All the while, the fans kept roaring -- helped, in part, by Cito Gaston's decision to go visit the mound and have a chat with his young pitcher. Ortiz, after extricating himself from the dogpile in the dugout, took two quick steps up the stairs and jabbed a fist into the air as a celebratory salute. It was a curtain call much deserved by Ortiz; it was a salute much deserved by a fan base that refused to give up on him.

We get cynical sometimes. We get bitter sometimes. We forget sometimes what baseball is supposed to be about.

Moments like David Ortiz's curtain call on Wednesday -- that's what baseball is supposed to be about.

Bay doesn't have sights set on 162

It was the middle of August in 2005, and Jason Bay was hurting.

He'd been hit in the ribs with two pitches in a night game at Shea Stadium in New York, the ninth game of a 12-game road trip, and his Pittsburgh Pirates had to jump a train to get to Philadelphia in time to start a weekend series with the Phillies the next day. He had a huge bruise on the left side of his torso; he wasn't convinced, in fact, that he hadn't broken a rib or two.

"Running, coughing, moving -- my rib cage was killing me," he said.

But, by that point, he'd already played 121 straight games to open the season. It just didn't feel right to take a day off. Pirates management asked him if he wanted a day off, told him it was up to him to decide whether or not he wanted to play. Bay, though, isn't one to beg out of a game -- and having played two-thirds of the season without taking a day off was something in which he was starting to take a little pride.

He kept his mouth shut about his sore ribs -- no reason to give Brett Myers or Billy Wagner a target -- and "put the equivalent of a flak jacket on" and went out there. Only when the pain grew too severe for him midway through the second game of the series did he acknowledge he was feeling any type of discomfort. He left that game in the fourth inning.

"He wanted to continue," Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said at the time. "But we're not going to risk that it could be something serious. I just didn't want to take a chance."

Bay then played all nine innings the next day; he went 4-for-8 with a double and a pair of RBI in the three-game series.

"The problem you run into is that when you start a little streak like that, it's very hard to stop it," he said. "It's very hard to say, 'Hey, I don't want to play today,' or, 'Hey, I want a day off.' ... In hindsight, that was stupid. I should have just taken a day or two. That's something that now I know, having been there."

Bay will apply those lessons at some point this season with the Red Sox. He just hasn't applied them yet.

Bay, in fact, is the only Red Sox player to have appeared in all 39 games this season. He'll get a day off at some point soon, his manager said, but there's been no reason to do so.

Part of the reason he's played so many games is because the Red Sox have needed his bat in the middle of the lineup. David Ortiz has struggled all season, and Kevin Youkilis just spent two weeks on the disabled list with an oblique injury. It just hasn't made sense to take a day off for the sake of taking a day off.

"You look around," he said, "and are like, 'Maybe now is not the ideal time.'"

Bay could at least take a break from playing the field as a designated hitter, but he doesn't particularly want to do that. Francona offered him that chance during Ortiz's weekend vacation in Seattle; he declined.

"I'm mostly a National League guy," he said. "I've never done it" -- he's done it once, actually, in an interleague game in 2007 against, coincidentally, Seattle -- "and I don't really like it. I don't feel like I'm involved in the game very much. It's very hard for me to stay focused in that role. ...

"If need be, sure, I'd do it. But when (Francona) said, 'Do you want to?', I said, 'Not really. If you need me to, I will, but if I'm going to play, I'd rather just play.'"

Said Francona, "We asked him the other day in Seattle if he wanted to DH, and he said, 'No.' ... I asked him, 'Will you tell me if you're beat?' He said, 'No.'"

All joking aside, though, Bay understands the value of taking a day off. Now that he's 30 years old instead of 26, it's even more important.

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia talked boldly this spring about playing 162 games; he's already missed two with a groin pull. Bay still has a shot at playing 162 -- but what's the point?

"You don't get a plaque or something at the end of the year," he said. "Having done it, it's cool to say, but for everything that's relevant to playing -- especially in the playoffs -- it's definitely important to get a day or two."

When might that day come?

"Next spring," Francona said with a smile.

The speed of Mike Lowell and the clutch hitting of Jeff Bailey

First baseman Jeff Bailey came into Tuesday's game hitting .182. Third baseman Mike Lowell came into Tuesday's game with a 40 time that could be measured by sundial. But it was Lowell's decision to try to steal third and Bailey's sharp single to left field that plated the key run in Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Blue Jays.

"Speed never takes a day off," Red Sox manager Terry Francona deadpanned after the game.

It wasn't speed, of course, that gave Lowell the confidence to try to steal third in that big spot in the second inning. Lowell now is 35 years old and coming off hip surgery and runs like he's dragging Santa's sleigh behind him. But when you've been around as many years as Lowell has, you pick up on a few things.

What Lowell picked up on in the second inning was that Brian Tallet (a) wasn't paying any attention to him, and (b) was going to throw a changeup down in the zone with two strikes, the perfect pitch on which to run.

"He's been talking a big game about doing it at some point," left fielder Jason Bay said, "and he finally did it. ... He just says, 'One of these days, someone's going to not be paying attention to me at second base, and I'm going do it. I'm going to take third.'"

Bailey, for his part, was just trying to make contact with two strikes and get a hit to score a run. Last year's International League Most Valuable Player been handed the full-time gig at first base when Kevin Youkilis was placed on the disabled list but hadn't exactly seized his opportunity; entering play Tuesday, he hitting .195 in the two weeks he'd had the job. Other than the solo home run he'd hit on Saturday in Seattle, he'd gone two full weeks without driving in a run.

"You're hitting under .200, and you know it," he said. "You get in your own head sometimes. You've got to fight that and take on the task at hand and go pitch-by-pitch, whatever you can do."

About all he'd done well was hit lefthanded pitching. Going into Tuesday night, he was hitting .400 (5-for-16) against lefties and just .100 (4-for-40) against righties.

That specialty, though, might come in handy if Terry Francona opts to begin platooning David Ortiz in the next few weeks. Bailey could get a spot start at designated hitter if the Red Sox have to face lefties like the Yankees' Andy Pettitte or the Phillies' Cole Hamels; he also might get a pinch-hitting opportunity or two against Mike Gonzalez, the Braves' lefthanded closer.

"The one positive that I'm taking out of all this is that I'm still hitting lefthanders decent," he said. "That's what I'm here to do. Anything extra off righthanders is a bonus. I'm still feeling good against the lefthanders, and they know it, too, so that's one positive for me to go off."

With Youkilis due back from the disabled list on Wednesday, Bailey was far from oblivious to the fact that Tuesday's game would mark the end of his run of 12 straight starts at first base. He's not about to be shipped back to Pawtucket -- not with Mark Kotsay still hitting speed bumps in his road back from offseason surgery.

But unless someone else gets hurt, he's not going to get the chance to play every day the way he has over the past couple of weeks.

"You just keep working, and you do what you can," he said, nodding toward the sign on the whiteboard that read Extra hitting Wednesday: 3:00. "Three o'clock tomorrow, extra hitting, I'll be there for that. I'll take extra swings in the cage. That's all you can do -- try to get better. It's always about trying to get better."

Bailey already wasn't exactly swimming with confidence. It didn't help matters when Tallet's third pitch, a fastball, nipped the outside corner to push the count to 1-2. Entering play Tuesday, Bailey was 1-for-13 when facing a 1-2 count and had struck out nine times.

As Tallet went into his windup, out of the corner of his eye, Bailey suddenly saw Lowell breaking for third in one of the most surprising attempted steals anyone will ever see. Tallet had thrown over to first base during J.D. Drew's at-bat; that, though, seemed more like a formality than anything else.

After Drew walked, Tallet barely glanced at Lowell again.

"I think maybe (Lowell) saw something, like a grip, like he knew he was going to throw a changeup," Bailey said. "(Tallet) had been keeping it down for the most part, and if the ball's in the dirt, he's got it easy. I think that's what he's thinking right there."

Lowell actually has stolen third base five times in his career -- and four of those steals of third have come since he was traded to Red Sox, including two just last year. Both of those steals of third also came when he was on second and another runner was on first -- but both of those also came with righthanded pitchers on the mound and lefties at the plate, increasing the degree of difficulty significantly.

Since then, though, Lowell has undergone hip surgery and has lost quite a bit of whatever speed he had to begin with.

"I know I'm not a burner on the bases," Lowell said. "but you don't have to be fast to be able to see things and maybe try to take advantage of a situation."

It almost backfired on him, though.

"I actually was a little bit scared because I thought Tallet was a little quicker (to the plate) on the ball I decided to go on," he said, "so I was really hoping Jeff would make contact. I'm not sure the likelihood of me being safe was very high."

Bailey made contact. He saw Lowell out of the corner of his eye, but he still jumped on a changeup that in the middle of the strike zone and laced it into shallow left field for a base hit.

"He hung a changeup," he said. "I probably should have hit it harder than I did. But a hit and an RBI is a hit and an RBI."

Lowell scored easily, and Drew cruised into third. If the runners hadn't been off with the pitch, neither would have had a chance to advance more than one base. George Kottaras then followed with a sacrifice fly to score Drew, and Tim Wakefield had the two runs he'd need to win his fifth game of the season.

But this wasn't about Wakefield. This was about Bailey and Lowell.

Bailey got the game-changing hit for which he'd been searching for two weeks.

"Yeah, it's good to -- well, I wouldn't say go out; I don't think I'm out of here yet," he said with a chuckle. "But when you're struggling, you try to just get one hit, and then you get the one hit and you go from there. Unfortunately, that's all I've been able to muster in the past few games, but one hit helps the team, and you do what you can do."

And Lowell got to act like he was capable of stealing third base without actually drawing a throw down to third base.

"I'm just curious, had Bailey not swung at that ball, what we might have seen," Bay said.

Said Lowell, tongue firmly in cheek, "As you can see, Jacoby (Ellsbury) got thrown out at third (in the eighth inning), so only the really elite runners would have been safe."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Youkilis set to rejoin Red Sox on Wednesday

Kevin Youkilis went hitless today, his second straight game without a hit during his rehab stint at Triple-A Pawtucket.

"I asked him if he wanted to go to Double-A," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He said, 'No.'"

Youkilis is expected to be activated on Wednesday, the first day he's eligible to return from the 15-day disabled list. He still leads the major leagues in on-base percentage (.505), slugging percentage (.719) and OPS (1.224).

Mowing down Triple-A hitters

If you've never checked out this blog before, welcome. Try a pastry!

If you're a regular, though, you know how much we believe in the idea of learning from history, of looking at past performance and using it to gauge future performance.

And with that in mind, there was a nagging question left over from Monday night's Clay Buchholz-Michael Bowden discussion: How impressive is this start to the season, really? Isn't it a little misleading since they're, you know, mowing down Triple-A hitters and not big-league hitters? Does that really matter?

(To recap: Buchholz has a 1.03 ERA in 35 innings pitched this season for Pawtucket, and Bowden has a 0.86 ERA in 35 1/3 innings pitched. Buchholz takes the ball again this afternoon against the Buffalo Bisons.)

Neither Buchholz nor Bowden is likely to keep putting up numbers that are that ridiculous. But no one in recent memory (meaning the last five years) has come even close to putting up numbers like that over a full season, which means if both pitchers see their ERAs double over the next few months, they'd still be in elite company.

More importantly, there's evidence that a sensational season at Triple-A as an apex to a record of success in the minor leagues can translate into a productive first season or two in the major leagues.

Here's the list of pitchers who have finished a Triple-A season with a sub-3.00 ERA since 2005:

(If you still don't think it's impressive that Buchholz and Bowden have ERAs around 1.00 seven weeks into the season, it's worth noting that the best Triple-A ERA in 2005 was Scott Baker's 3.01. Not a single pitcher had a sub-3.00 ERA in Triple-A that year.)

Brian Mazone (2.03): Mazone was a 29-year-old who had spent much of his prime pitching in independent ball when he went 13-3 with a 2.03 ERA for Scranton-Wilkes-Barre in the Phillies' orgaization. Given his age, though, Mazone was a non-prospect by then and still has never thrown a major-league pitch.

Jason Hirsh (2.10): Hirsch was 24 years old when he spun a dandy of a season for Round Rock, the Astros' Triple-A affiliate, earning Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year honors. He then was traded to the Rockies as part of the Willy Taveras-Jason Jennings deal. He opened the 2007 season in the Rockies' rotation, throwing 6 2/3 strong innings in his first start and finishing the month of April with a 3.41 ERA before scuffling down the stretch and eventually missing most of the final two months after a line drive broke his right calf bone.

He then missed most of the 2008 season with shoulder inflammation and began this season back in Triple-A to try to get back to where he once was.

Chris Sampson (2.51): Sampson was a 28-year-old converted shortstop, teetering on the edge of non-prospect-dom when his sensational first three months in Triple-A earned him a call-up to the Astros. He made three big-league starts that year and allowed just one earned run in 14 2/3 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .151 batting average. A year later, he opened the season in the Astros' rotation and generally pitched very well though mid-June before running into trouble.

The Astros then turned him into a swingman; he had a 4.22 ERA while making 11 starts and 43 relief appearances in 2008. This season, he's been exclusively a relief pitcher -- and he has a 2.22 ERA in 24 1/3 innings out of the bullpen.

Joe Saunders (2.67): Saunders had a 3.07 ERA in two Single-A stops and a 4.11 ERA in two double-A stops -- including a 3.49 ERA in 18 starts in 2005. He was 25 years old when he won 10 games to go along with his 2.67 ERA for Triple-A Salt Lake City, an effort that earned him his first full-time shot as a big-league starting pitcher in the Angels' rotation in late July. He pitched seven strong innings in each of his first three starts but was hit hard twice in August and twice against in September, and he finished the season with a 4.71 ERA. (It was 4.11 before he allowed five runs in the first inning in his final start of the year.)

A year ago, though, Saunders went 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA in 31 big-league starts and helped pitch the Angels to the best record in the major leagues. So far this season, Saunders is 5-2 with a 3.59 ERA and twice as many strikeouts (26) as walks (13).

Heath Phillips (2.96): Phillips was a 24-year-old in his sixth minor-league season when he broke out in a big way for Triple-A Charlotte in the White Sox's organization, turning in a 2.96 ERA on the strength of a 2.6 K/BB ratio and the remarkable feat of allowing only 12 home runs in 24 starts. A year later, though, his walk rates began to climb and the ball began to fly out of the park a little bit -- and while he earned a cup of coffee with the White Sox (and handled himself well, accumulating a 3.68 ERA), things started to fall apart. He finished the 2007 season with a 4.30 ERA and was not retained as a free agent.

He now has an 8.05 ERA in his first eight starts with Triple-A Omaha in the Royals' organzation.

Chris Michalak (2.99): Michalak was a 35-year-old career minor leaguer who first pitched in Triple-A in 1998, and though his outstanding season at Triple-A Louisville earned him a brief call-up to the Reds, when you're 35 years old, you're no longer a prospect.

Kevin Slowey (1.89): Slowey, a former second-round pick, had a 2.12 ERA in Single-A in 2005 and a 1.88 ERA split between Single-A and Double-A in 2006. After three strong minor-league starts to open the 2008 season, he earned a full-time call-up to the Twins and had a 3.99 ERA in 27 starts, including two complete-game shutouts.

So far this season, he's 5-1 with a 4.50 ERA and an astonishing 35-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

David Purcey (2.69): After back-to-back seasons with a 5.00-plus ERA -- including a 5.37 ERA with Double-A New Hampshire in 2007 -- the 26-year-old Purcey actually got better when the Blue Jays pushed him up the ladder. In 19 starts at Triple-A Syracuse, Purcey had a 2.69 ERA and a 3.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

When he ended up in the big leagues, though, he was hit hard in his first start (eight runs in three innings with four walks and no strikeouts). He spent the rest of the year gradually working his ERA back down to a more manageable number; he even struck out 11 in eight innings in a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in August.

He began the season in Toronto this season but was shipped back to Triple-A after he compiled a 7.01 ERA in his first five starts.

Charlie Zink (2.84): Zink was 28 years old and was on the downward slope of his career roller-coaster -- his ERAs ranged from 1.41 to 5.80 between 2002 and 2007 -- when the knuckleballer went 14-6 with a 2.84 ERA for Triple-A Pawtucket.

So far this season, though, he's 2-4 with a 5.14 ERA and more walks (28) than strikeouts (20).


What can we learn?

In the last three seasons, nine pitchers have posted sub-3.00 ERAs in Triple-A. Four were 28 years old or older, making them effectively non-prospects. One has fought through injuries, something that's a risk with any pitcher.

Of the other four, only two did so with a consistent track record of success all the way up through the minor leagues: Saunders and Slowey. It's hard to say it's a coincidence that those two are the ones who have become established middle-of-the-rotation starters in the major leagues.

Based on recent history, a dominant season at Triple-A -- provided it's accompanied by a consistent track record of success throughout the minor leagues -- does seem to indicate a good chance for success at the big-league level.