Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pitching rotation: From Point A to Point B

Tim Wakefield will start Wednesday for the Red Sox in place of Brad Penny, the veteran who might have seen his Red Sox career come to an inglorious end in similar fashion to John Smoltz two weeks ago.

Smoltz was rocked by the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, and Penny was rocked by the Yankees at Fenway Park to the tune of eight runs in four innings. Red Sox manager Terry Francona didn't come with the "At least he was throwing strikes" optimism he's brought to previous post-Penny press conferences, and he told reporters this afternoon that Penny had lost his spot in the Red Sox rotation.

"I told him he's got to kind of hang tight a little bit and get through today, and then we'll go from there," Francona said.

Odds are long that Penny will make another start for the Red Sox this season. It would be easy enough to "skip" Penny in the rotation this week, optioning Enrique Gonzalez to Triple-A Pawtucket to make room for Wakefield and filling out the bullpen with extra arms when rosters expand five days later.

The return of Wakefield and the marginalization of Penny means just more upheaval in a Red Sox pitching staff many believed to be the deepest in baseball coming out of spring training. Francona and Theo Epstein developed contingency plan after contingency plan -- and they've had to put almost all of them to use.

It's amazing, really, how the Red Sox depth chart, to borrow a phrase from football, has evolved from its Opening Day incarnation to the way it looks right now:

Late March
1. Josh Beckett
2. Jon Lester
3. Daisuke Matsuzaka
4. Tim Wakefield
5. Brad Penny
6. Justin Masterson (in the bullpen)
7. John Smoltz (rehabbing)
8. Clay Buchholz (in the minors)
9. Michael Bowden (in the minors)
10. Junichi Tazawa (in the minors)

Late August
1. Beckett (3.38 ERA)
2. Lester (3.58 ERA)
Not much has changed at the top of the rotation. Beckett and Lester each have double-digit wins and a couple of complete games to go along with a strikeout-to-walk ratio right around 3.5. Only nine pitchers in the American League have a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 3.0, and two of them are atop the Red Sox rotation.

(Roy Halladay, by the way, has 151 strikeouts and 23 walks -- a ratio of 6.57. Amazing.)

3. Buchholz (3.99 ERA)
One thing Buchholz does better than anyone on the Red Sox pitching staff is induce the ground ball. As a team, the Red Sox have a ground ball/fly ball ratio of 0.73; that is, they allow four fly balls for every three ground balls they induce. Both Beckett and Lester do better than most -- they have GB/FB ratios of 0.90 and 0.96, respectively -- but they both still allow more fly balls than ground balls.

Not Buchholz. The 25-year-old righty has a 1.30 GB/FB ratio in his seven starts this seasno, and he's getting outs via the ground ball at a rate of better than 2-to-1. (Double plays, of course, inflate that rate. Still, though, even ground-ball specialist Justin Masterson only had a rate of ground outs to air outs of 1.59.)

If the season ended today, Buchholz almost certainly would start Game 3 of the Red Sox's first-round playoff series.

4. Wakefield (4.31 ERA)
The All-Star knuckleballer surrendered just two hits and one run in 5 2/3 solid innings for Triple-A Pawtucket on Friday and reassured the Red Sox that he could field his position well enough to pitch in the major-league rotation. He had an ERA of 4.31 in 17 starts before he landed on the disabled list with a back injury and, later, with pain related to a sciatic problem in his calf.

"He can cover his position and he's a really good pitcher," Francona told reporters on Saturday, "so I think we're OK."

He gets the edge over the team's No. 5 starter because he, if healthy, almost certainly would pitch Game 4 of any first-round playoff series. His knuckleball might always be a wild card, but he's far more difficult to bring out of the bullpen because of it.

5. Tazawa (3.57 ERA)
The 23-year-old rookie erased the memory of Penny's disastrous start by tossing six shutout innings and, perhaps even more impressively, outpitching A.J. Burnett, the Yankees' No. 2 starter. Tazawa now has a 3.57 ERA in his four appearances in the major leagues and appears to be getting more and more comfortable with his role.

Barring injury, it appears he'll be the fifth starter in the Red Sox rotation the rest of the way.

One thing he did particularly well was attack the strike zone -- especially against the Yankees' lefties. Tazawa pitched mostly away from the lefties in the Detroit lineup in his first start two weeks ago, conceding the Green Monster in order not to give up solid contact on the inside half of the plate. That's a mark of a rookie pitcher, a pitcher who doesn't quite believe that his stuff is good enough on its own.

Against the Yankees, though, he pitched inside to lefties with both his fastball and his curveball, and he got results. Check out the two graphs. First is his strike-zone chart -- as viewed from behind the plate -- against Detroit on Aug. 11...

... followed by his strike-zone chart against the Yankees on Saturday:

He also disguised his curveball far better in terms of release point, not giving away his pitch simply with the location of his hand when he let go of the ball. (The idea is for each pitch to come out of the hand in the same spot, so if the purple data points are distinguishable from the other data points, that's a problem.)

The first chart, again, is that start against Detroit...

... and the second is Saturday against New York.

Tazawa has all the goods to be a terrific major-league pitcher. He's not exactly the ground-ball specialist Buchholz is -- he recorded 11 fly-ball outs on Saturday and just four ground-ball outs -- but he's making a case right now to be part of the Red Sox rotation from the get-go next season.

6. Matsuzaka (rehabbing)
The pitcher who finished third in Cy Young voting is expected to make a rehab start in the Gulf Coast League on Monday and begin to climb the minor-league ladder from there. He might be a maddening pitcher at times, but he did throw seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series a year ago and was viewed as the team's clear-cut No. 3 starter before the season.

If Matsuzaka returns in time to show off his progress before the season ends, he might again be that No. 3 starter in the team's postseason rotation.

7. Paul Byrd (in the minors)
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the struggles of Penny and Smoltz prompted the Red Sox to sign Byrd to a contract in hopes he could round himself into form in time for the stretch run. The veteran threw 74 pitches in four innings for the PawSox on Wednesday, surrendering three runs on six hits, and he'll likely pitch twice more in Pawtucket before rosters expand on Sept. 1.

8. Bowden (in the minors)
Don't make too much of Bowden's disastrous two innings against the Yankees. For one thing, he's been a starting pitcher all season and not only did he have to pitch in relief on Friday, he had to do so (a) after having warmed up once already only to sit back down; (b) with runners on first and third and no outs; and (c) against a lineup already feeling good about itself, as Francona would say.

If Wakefield gets hurt again and neither Matsuzaka nor Byrd pan out, Bowden likely would become the team's fifth starter in September.

9. Brad Penny (in limbo)
Here's the chart from Friday that tells the story:

Penny threw his fastball with good velocity (95 miles an hour) and even offset it with changeups, sliders and curveballs. But everything he threw was right down the middle of the plate. You can't win pitching like that.

Penny indicated earlier this season he has no desire to pitch out of the bullpen. He might not, however, have any say in the matter. His repertoire actually makes him a better fit as a reliever than as a starter, and he'd have a vested interest in performing well in mop-up duty as he heads back out on the open market this winter. (You can bet the Mets will be watching.)

With rosters due to expand a week from Tuesday, the Red Sox appear to have no reason to release Penny outright. If they can stash him away for seven or eight days, they can use him in mop-up duty out of the bullpen. If something goes terribly wrong in mid-September -- such as half the starting rotation catching swine flu -- he can make a spot start. Otherwise, though, he's all finished pitching meaningful innings in Boston.

N/A. Smoltz (DFA'ed) and Masterson (traded to Cleveland)
Both are gone. Neither is coming back.

Masterson, though, earned his first win as a member of the Cleveland Indians on Thursday night, tossing 6 1/3 strong innings to beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He now has a 3.78 ERA since the Red Sox traded him to the Indians as part of the Victor Martinez deal on July 24.

But you have to give something to get something, right?

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