Friday, July 31, 2009

Expect the Red Sox to keep pursuing Gonzalez, Halladay this winter

"In previous days, we had some things working, things we were really excited about, and a couple that got really close but didn't happen. That's par for the course in deadline season. We shot big on a couple things, a deal that could provide maximum impact. We were very aggressive in use of our own prospects, those deals got close. Maybe the foundation is laid for the offseason." -- Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein

Well, that's interesting.

The Red Sox landed Cleveland's Victor Martinez with a package of youngsters fronted by relief pitcher Justin Masterson and later swapped first baseman Adam LaRoche -- who becomes to the Red Sox what Mike Piazza was to the Marlins -- to Atlanta for first baseman Casey Kotchman. While Masterson provided a power arm in the Red Sox bullpen and Single-A lefty Nick Hagadone could turn into a Jon Lester-type ace, the Red Sox made both moves largely without depleting their farm system of their top prospects.

Funny thing: Neither Adrian Gonzalez nor Roy Halladay were traded before the deadline. Both will remain with their teams for the rest of the season -- and both likely will be right back on the trading block come November.

Epstein didn't exactly seem to hide the fact that he's ready to take another run at both once this season comes to an end.

The Blue Jays and Padres both reportedly demanded huge ransoms from the Red Sox in return for Halladay and Gonzalez, the team's other two primary targets all day and all week. Both have those players under control through next season and thus have at least two more chances -- the offseason and the July trade deadline next year -- to get a haul of prospects back. (Halladay is a free agent after the 2010 season. Gonzalez, actually, has a no-brainer club option built into his contract for the 2011 season.)

Epstein went out of his way, though, to say that maybe "there's a foundation laid for the offseason." He clearly intends to use the offseason to go after either Halladay or Gonzalez (or both) the way teams went after Minnesota's Johan Santana two winters ago. Rather than having to juggle roster spots and rob Peter to pay Paul, Epstein can build his roster around the players he acquires and the players he trades away.

If the Red Sox had found a compromise with San Diego, for example, the trade might have looked a little something like this: 1B Adrian Gonzalez for RHP Clay Buchholz, RHP Justin Masterson, RHP Michael Bowden, 1B Lars Anderson, OF Josh Reddick. But had the Red Sox traded Buchholz on Friday, they would have found themselves with an immediate hole in a starting rotation already depleted by injury (Tim Wakefield), ineffectiveness (Brad Penny, John Smoltz) or both (Daisuke Matsuzaka). They would have had to spin another prospect or two to the Kansas City Royals for Brian Bannister or make a similar move just to have enough starting pitchers to get through August.

Should Epstein pursue Gonzalez again this offseason, though, he'll still have the same prospects available. He might even have more prospects available given that all of the players in his system will have two more months of experience and thus will be two months closer to the major leagues. Westmoreland will be a year older. Reddick will be a year older. Casey Kelly will be a year older. Tim Federowicz -- who caught Daniel Bard at North Carolina, incidentally -- will be a year older.

He'll also be able to adapt far more easily than he would have on Friday. If he has to trade Buchholz and/or Bowden, possibly his No. 4 and 5 starters next April, he can go get a free-agent pitcher.

(He also could announce, "Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz will open next season at the top of my pitching rotation. Each one is just as off-limits as the other.")

If he has to trade shortstop Jed Lowrie to get Gonzalez, he can go get a free-agent shortstop. If he has to trade center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, he can get get a free-agent center fielder. If he has to trade reliever Manny Delcarmen, he can go get a free-agent bullpen arm. You get the picture.

Even better, he'll have a chance to shape his roster so manager Terry Francona doesn't get ulcers just deciding who plays and who sits. He can dangle a well-rested Mike Lowell and offer to pay half or more of his remaining salary just to give Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis regular at-bats at first base and third base, respectively. He can try to figure out what's going to happen with designated hitter David Ortiz and catcher Jason Varitek. He can make a decision about picking up the $7.5 million option in the contract of new acquisition Victor Martinez.

Nothing about Friday's trades precludes a run at Gonzalez or Halladay this winter. In fact, as Epstein does, it simply lays a foundation.

Using BABIP to define The Steroid Era

The idea of The Steroid Era always has kind of been vague. Rumblings of steroid use began back in the 1980s, but sluggers didn't start really launching home runs until the mid-1990s. When did it start? When did it end? What is The Steroid Era?

According to BABIP -- the advanced metric that stands for "batting average on balls in play" -- The Steroid Era lasted from 1993-2001 -- just before the first round of steroid testing began in the major leagues. The era of performance enhancers, though, isn't yet over.

Steroid use isn't just about hitting home runs. Steroid use is about hitting the ball hard. BABIP measures how often a player gets a hit when he puts the ball in play, and the harder the hitter hits the ball, the higher his BABIP is going to be. (Kevin Youkilis leads the Red Sox in BABIP this season because he hits the ball hard so consistently, while Jason Varitek and David Ortiz bring up there rear because they pop the ball up so consistently.)

That particular statistic tells the story of The Steroid Era as well as anything. Check out the progression of the average BABIP across the major leagues over the years. (The list is condensed so your eyes don't glaze over as you read it.)

1986: .286
1988: .285
1990: .287
1992: .285
1994: .299
1996: .304
1998: .301
2000: .302
2002: .292
2004: .298
2006: .303
2008: .300

See the jump? Major-league hitters saw their batting average on balls in play hover around .285 throughout the 1980s only to see it make a huge leap from 1992-94 and spike to an all-time high of .304 in 1996. BABIP numbers didn't drop back below .300 until 2001 (.297) and settled into the low .290s in 2002 and 2003 -- the years in which the first round of steroid testing was negotiated and implemented.

What's disappointing, though, is that BABIP numbers jumped back up over .300 in 2006 and have stayed there for each of the last three seasons. (So far this season, it's at .296, but we haven't investigated whether BABIP numbers rise or fall in the final two months of the season.)

The initial steroid testing appeared to take a huge bite out of the juiced-up line drives that were being knocking all over the ballpark from 1993-2001. But now that those numbers are creeping back up again, it appears that the chemists might once again one step ahead of the enforcement agents.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lowell would fit nicely as a designated hitter

Mike Lowell has been a terrific hitter over the last couple of games.

"The last couple?" catcher Jason Varitek said with a degree of indignance in his voice. "How about all year? Mike has swung the bat well all year for us. He's been one of our guys, our RBI, guy, and he continues to do so."

OK, that's true. Entering play Wednesday, Lowell ranked fifth on the team in hits, third in doubles, fourth in RBI and, most importantly, third in OS -- ahead of both J.D. Drew and Dustin Pedroia.

But it was when the third baseman landed on the disabled list for the first time this season that some began to question how much he'd be able to give his team the rest of the way. He's answered that in a big way, swinging a hot bat for the last two weeks in a lineup full of slumping bats. Jason Bay is hitting .179 since the All-Star break, and Kevin Youkilis has fanned 14 times in 46 trips to the plate. Entering play Wednesday, Lowell was hitting .429 and OPS'ing 1.113 since the All-Star break -- and delivered another run-scoring double as the Red Sox came from behind to earn a split with the Oakland A's.

Here's the only problem: He can't field.

No, really, he can't field.

Lowell used to be a terrific defensive third baseman. He won a Gold Glove four years ago with the Florida Marlins, for those who believe in that sort of thing, and he consistently has been a plus-6 or plus-7 defensive third baseman on the Fielding Bible's plus/minus system since he was traded to the Red Sox, for those who believe in that sort of thing.

This year, though, he's been atrocious. It's pretty obvious it's all because of the hip surgery he underwent in the offseason, but, still, he's been atrocious. He's a minus-22 on the Fielding Bible scale, good for 35th among third basemen. He's a minus-11.6 on the Ultimate Zone Rating scale, good for 18th among third basemen.

Charlie Finley pushed for a solution for such a problem in the early 1970s. It was called -- you guessed it -- the designated hitter. Edgar Martinez, the greatest designated hitter ever, was a terrific hitter who no longer could field because repeated knee injuries had robbed him of his mobility.

Sound familiar?

Lowell took David Ortiz's regular spot at designated hitter on Wednesday night -- and he drove in five of the team's six runs in the process. He didn't seem to mind DH'ing as much as other position players do, though he said it's not something he'd want to do every day.

"I actually loved it," he said. "I think I'd pull my hair out if I had to do it all year, but here and there, I enjoy it. For me, it's really a half-day off. ... After the game (on Tuesday), I could feel that this hip was a little more tired than this hip. I welcome it."

Ortiz, his three-run home run on Thursday notwithstanding, isn't hitting the way a designated hitter is supposed to hit. His OPS has slipped from 1.062 in June to .729 in July -- and with Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis scuffling badly, too, the Red Sox need all the hitters they can get.

"Bottom line, and I said it a few days ago: If you're hitting, you're going to be in the lineup," Lowell said. "We need guys that hit to score runs. We're trying to put the best team out there. I would hope everyone's on (the same) page for that goal. I try to keep it simple. When I'm at the plate, I try to hit the ball hard. Things have been going pretty good lately, and I don't see any reason why it should stop."

They just can't afford to trade runs at the plate for runs in the field with lousy defense. The more Francona can get Lowell into his lineup as his designated hitter, the better.

Ortiz news should shock no one

It’s not news.

You’ll see wall-to-wall coverage for the next week of the news about David Ortiz, the New York Times report that the Red Sox slugger’s name was one of 103 names on the notorious – and supposedly anonymous – list of performance-enhancing drug users from 2003. From NESN to ESPN to CNN, you’ll hear so much about Ortiz and the steroid report over the next few days that you’ll wish someone would switch the focus back to Michael Jackson.

But it’s not news.

Ortiz has joined a club that includes such luminaries as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez – not to mention Manny Ramirez, who played with Ortiz with the Red Sox and whose name also was included in yesterday’s New York Times report. The club also includes not-so-luminary names like Larry Bigbie, Mike Lansing, Matt Lawton and Fernando Vina.

No name being connected with steroid use possibly could surprise anyone anymore. If you still believed, after all the other players whose names have been associated with performance enhancers in recent years, that Ortiz was clean, well, you might want to see someone about your chronic delusion.

The level of surprise among the average baseball fan yesterday almost certainly registered somewhere between, “The sun came up this morning” and “My toaster didn’t explode overnight.”

The only possible discussion point left is how the revelation will impact the legacy of both Ortiz and the Red Sox. It won’t.

It’s not going to taint anything about the magical October of 2004. For one thing, the Red Sox rallied to win the American League Championship Series against a New York Yankees team that included Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, all connected in various ways with performance-enhancing drugs.

For another, baseball fans have grown so numb to steroid revelations that every new name further buries the last. Ramirez, the latest to topple from his pedestal, received a standing ovation from a full house – on the road, no less – when he made his return from his 50-game suspension.

Even Rodriguez, whose use of performance enhancers sent shock waves through the baseball world in spring training, appears to have seen his life and career settle back into its regular routine. (From the New York Daily News on Sunday: “A-Rod, Kate Hudson kiss at Yankee Stadium.” Ah, normalcy.)

All this revelation does is deepen the urgency for the clean players from that era – if indeed there were any – to push for a wider transparency of information. More than 100 players tested positive for performance enhancers in 2003, but that means 600 or 700 did not test positive.

We just don’t know who’s on that list. We can make educated guesses, but we just don’t know. Ken Griffey Jr. has been held up as the poster child for unenhanced success, and Greg Maddux won 300 games more on movement and deception than on arm strength. It’s hard to believe Tim Wakefield needed any juice to push his knuckleball up to 67 miles an hour.

Albert Pujols even made emphatic declarations in a recent Sports Illustrated story. The story was met with a shrug and a “Who really knows?” from most fans.

Unless the clean players of this generation take a stand against the dirty players of this generation, we’re just going to keep hearing names leaking out – and not one of them is going to surprise us.

Francona made wrong call by hitting Ortiz for Lowrie

The beauty of baseball is that you never need a home run.

To win a football game, you sometimes need to score a touchdown and not kick a field goal. To win a basketball game, you sometimes need a 3-pointer. To win a hockey game, you sometimes have to take a slapshot from the neutral zone with seconds ticking off the clock.

In baseball, you never need a home run.

Home runs are great, of course. There is never a bad time for a home run. But even a team that's losing by three runs can be just as victorious with seven or eight straight singles as it can be with three straight singles and a home run.

Time doesn't run out. Only outs run out. If you keep an inning alive with hits, be they singles or home runs, you're eventually going to score runs.

That brings us to Wednesday's eighth inning. The Red Sox went into the inning trailing by four runs, but a collision in the outfield and a Mike Lowell sacrifice fly cut that deficit to three. J.D. Drew then followed with a line-drive single to center field, and after Adam LaRoche bounced into a fielder's choice, Jason Varitek drew a walk.

(As an aside: How in the world does a third-base coach send Jason Bay -- a guy with mediocre speed who had just been thrown out at home plate in a costly play the night before -- on a shallow fly ball with no outs in a game in which his team trailed by four runs? Bay was safe -- but the single by Drew only emphasized the ludicrousness of the decision. You don't risk outs at home plate down four runs in the same way you don't steal bases down four runs. Had Bay been thrown out, fans everywhere would be screaming for the head of DeMarlo Hale.)

Jed Lowrie was due up next.

Terry Francona called him back and sent up David Ortiz.

The thought behind the move was obvious. Lowrie is a shortstop who hits line drives, a hitter coming off wrist surgery whose bid for a home run on Sunday died just in front of the warning track. Ortiz is Big Papi, the Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History, a slugger who has made a living out of distributing souvenirs to the fans in the bleachers behind the bullpens in right fields.

A home run would tie the game. Francona wanted a home run.

But Francona didn't need a home run. With the lineup set to turn over behind Lowrie, he really, really didn't need a home run. All Lowrie had to do was get a base hit, drive in a run, keep the line moving. If he hit it into a gap somewhere, even better. But all he had to do was get a hit or get on base and keep the line moving.

(Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia opened the ninth inning with back-to-back hits. Ellsbury hit a slap single into left field, and Pedroia beat a ground ball down the third-base line with which Adam Kennedy had trouble. Everything would have been different had they come to the plate in the eighth inning, of course, but it certainly drives the point home.)

Francona went for the gusto. He called for Ortiz.

Ortiz hit a pop fly on the infield that Kennedy squeezed for the third out of the inning.

The Red Sox ended up losing the game by an 8-6 score and fell 3 1/2 games behind the victorious Yankees.

Ortiz had a huge month of June, breaking out of his early-season slump in a big way. He hit .320 and OBP'ed .409 and slugged .653 and hit seven home runs and just generally looked like the old Big Papi. Since the calendar turned to July, though, he's looked quite a bit like the Big Papi that drove Red Sox fans crazy in April and May:

April: 87
July: 81

April: 20
July: 18

April: 8
July: 6

April: 22
July: 21

Home runs
April: 0
July: 5

Those five home runs are all that separate Slumping Ortiz in April from "He's Back!" Ortiz in July. His batting average and on-base percentage actually are worse in July than they were in April. When he's not homering, he's doing pretty much what he did back when all of Boston was clamoring for him either to be benched or released or drawn and quartered in Kenmore Square.

In 18 at-bats since the start of this particular homestand, Ortiz had just three hits -- and seven strikeouts.

Lowrie, on the other hand, is working his way back from wrist surgery and has hit the ball hard all week long. His numbers don't reflect it -- his batting average for the season still is just .125 -- but he's hit the ball hard.

One indicator: He's hitting the ball in the air four out of every five times he puts it in play, but he's hardly hitting anything on the infield. He's hitting the ball hard into the outfield. He's just seeing everything get run down.

Another indicator: Entering play Wednesday, his BABIP -- batting average on balls in play -- was .107, a number that's so unsustainable it's laughable.

Everything Lowrie been hitting had been going right to fielders. All he had to do is keep hitting. You could almost already see him yanking a single to right field or hitting a line drive up the gap in left-center, a hit that would score at least one run and keep the inning alive for Ellsbury and Pedroia.

Francona instead called upon Ortiz to tie the game with one swing of the bat, called on a power hitter who is a .188 career hitter coming off the bench cold. Oakland manager Bob Geren went to the bullpen and called upon lefty specialist Craig Breslow, a pitcher who seemed to be warming for no other reason than to be ready when Ortiz pinch-hit for someone.

Ortiz stayed patient at the plate. He did what he usually does. He watched a pair of fastballs miss and then took a slider for a strike. He then took a cut at a 92-mile-an-hour right at his hands, and he hit it straight up.

Inning over.

For all intents and purposes, game over.

Francona actually had sent pinch-hitters to the plate just 31 times this season -- well below the American League average (39). He's not a manager who normally likes to pinch-hit.

He should have stuck to his instincts on Wednesday. Like Ortiz, he swung for the fences and ended up with a feeble pop fly.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lowell, Red Sox still sorting out logjam

Mike Lowell showed up at the ballpark on Sunday and Monday and did what he always does before the game: He got some treatment on his hip. He took some swings. He took some ground balls. He got himself ready to play.

He then sat down and watched from the dugout as the Red Sox went ahead and played without him.

"I try to take it as a mental break for about five innings, and then I get loose," said Lowell, in the lineup on Wednesday as a designated hitter. "There's matchup situations and all that, so there's a chance you're going in -- and if you think you're not going in, that's the day you're going in, and you don't want to throw those at-bats away."

Back-to-back days without playing wasn't enough for Lowell to start growing moss. He had, after all, spent the first three weeks of July on the disabled list. But he's certainly found himself in a situation with which he's far from familiar. He's one of four players -- along with Adam LaRoche, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis -- who fit into the lineup in three positions. One of the four, barring a fairly bizarre defensive alignment, will start every Red Sox game on the bench.

Lowell, like each of the other three, has been a starting player for most of his career. He played in 160 games as a 28-year-old in 2002 and played in at least 150 games in four straight seasons from 2004-07. Days off aren't something he covets or necessarily enjoys.

He does, however, understand that it's not just about him.

"We're trying to piece together a lineup to score some runs," he said. "Adam, myself, Youk and David -- we're the four guys for three spots -- are used to playing every day, so it'll be something that's a little different. But our main focus is winning."

Lowell has done as much as anyone to help score runs. He's hitting .385 since he came off the disabled list -- by far his batting average of any month -- and already has three times as many extra-base hits as he did in 68 at-bats in June.

It's at third base that he's still having trouble. He failed to track down two slow rollers down the third-base line on Saturday, and he still has trouble with ground balls more than a couple of steps to either side. About his only defensive highlight since his return has been a snow-cone catch of a pop fly he caught while leaning over the rail in front of the visitors' dugout on Tuesday night.

"I needed about 30 seconds to recoup," he said with a chuckle. "But as long as I make the play, everyone will be satisfied."

Barring a trade in which the Red Sox eat even more salary, though, Lowell isn't going anywhere. Terry Francona's big challenge will be to get the most of all four of the bats he has available to play at first base, third base and designated hitter. Sitting Lowell against righthanded hitters might make the most sense as far as the splits are concerned, but a career everyday player isn't going to perform at his best if he's suddenly only playing once a week.

"That's why you see there aren't too many fourth or fifth outfielders or utility infielders that hit .300," Lowell said. "Rhythm is big for a hitter. To turn it on and off like a switch is something that's hard. That's why those guys that hit a respectable .260 or .270 are very valuable to teams."

The extra rest will help Lowell, who has fought with his surgically repaired hip all season, to stay healthy. That doesn't mean sitting on the bench for two or three straight days so LaRoche or Ortiz can get into a rhythm is something he's looking forward to doing.

"A couple days off here and there, with my situation, coming off surgery, is probably a little different," he said. "But as long as we're winning, it'll make it something that's a lot easier to accept."

Closers make their own luck

Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon knew the infield dribblers that Nick Green threw away on Tuesday night weren't what killed him.

"Especially when I have a three-run lead like that, walking the leadoff hitter is, regardless of who's up there is, for me, not what I'm trying to do," he said. "The leadoff walk was really what set the tone for that inning."

Every closer runs into a little bit of trouble. Just this season, Mariano Rivera has allowed three earned runs on one occasion and two earned runs on two others. But Papelbon has allowed 39 hits and, even worse, walked 20 hitters so far this season. He's allowing more baserunners per inning than all but two closers (min. 15 saves) in baseball this season:

1. Brad Lidge, 1.87
2. Matt Capps, 1.79
3. Jonathan Papelbon, 1.42
4. Brian Fuentes, 1.40
5. Bobby Jenks, 1.39
18. Jonathan Broxton, 0.94
19. Huston Street, 0.92
20. Ryan Franklin, 0.91
21. Mariano Rivera, 0.82
22. Joe Nathan, 0.78

Nathan, Papelbon and Rivera are commonly considered the best closers in the American League -- if not the best closers in baseball. The three even closed out the All-Star Game for the American League in July: Papelbon in the seventh, Nathan in the eighth and Rivera in the ninth.

But while their ERAs are similar -- Papelbon's 2.09 actually is lower than Rivera's 2.11 -- the above list shows that their effectiveness couldn't be farther apart.

Lost in the disaster: Buchholz makes strides

Clay Buchholz didn't throw a single slider on Tuesday night.

He didn't have to.

For the first time in his second stint in the major leagues, Buchholz had his plus-plus curveball working just the way he wanted it to work. He'd thrown 19 curveballs in fewer than 200 pitches in his first two starts and hadn't ever really had a feel for the pitch. After an afternoon of work in the bullpen on Monday, he certainly had a feel for it on Tuesday. All in all, he mixed 20 curveballs among his 107 pitches, by far a season high.

He threw them down in the zone. He threw them for strikes. He threw them to induce inning-ending ground balls. He threw them both to set up and to play off a fastball that, at times, was just as sharp.

"It felt better tonight than it has in probably the past three weeks," the 24-year-old righty said. "I just decided to quit thinking about it and go out and throw it, and it worked as good as I thought it would today."

And in the wreckage of the extra-innings loss the Red Sox absorbed on Tuesday, Red Sox manager Terry Francona can take one positive: Clay Buchholz continues to take strides toward becoming a pretty capable major-league pitcher.

"He gave up some early contact with his fastball, and, to this credit, he didn't shy away from it," Francona said. "As soon as we put the runs on the board (in the third inning), he went back out and attacked. He had a real good fourth, put a zero up, and was aggressive.

"There were deep counts. But after the early contact -- he gave up eight hits early -- he did OK. He got us five and two-thirds, and, at the time, it seemed much more manageable just because he got into the sixth and gave us some leeway."

And the curveball?

"His breaking ball was much more crisp tonight than we've seen," Francona said. "There were some sequences where he really attacked the zone, and when he does, he has the ability to go through hitters -- any hitters. ... On a normal night, we're sitting here saying, 'The kid really battled, and, to his credit, he got himself a win.'"

Buchholz didn't get what would have been his first win in the major leagues in well over a year. But his final line -- 5 2/3 IP, 9 H, 2 ER, 5 K, 2 BB -- wasn't even necessarily indicative of the way he pitched. The first hit he surrendered, for example, was fastball middle-in that Orlando Cabrera chopped into the dirt and then over third baseman Mike Lowell.

And after he got himself knocked around a little bit in the second inning, he came back in the third and allowed just two more hits -- one of them an infield hit that Lowell didn't field in time -- in his next three innings of work.

A year ago, a rough second inning would have turned into a rough third inning and a rough fourth inning and an early shower. Not this year -- or, at least, so far.

"It's just a 180-degree turn, the way I feel," he said. "With the two runs in the second or third inning that I gave up, it's being able to bounce back and not get any more damage out of it. That's a whole lot different than what I was last year. I feel it. I don't feel any pressure that I felt a lot last year. I just went out there and was throwing strikes and putting balls in play and getting outs. That's all you can do."

It made things easier, certainly, when the Red Sox gave him a three-run lead coming out of the bottom of the third inning.

"You don't think you have to make perfect pitches and keep guys off base," he said. "I still threw a little bit too many pitches, ... but I toned it down a little bit in the later innings I was out there and got some good work in."

About the only thing he didn't do well was pitch efficiently. He threw 19 pitches in the first inning and 24 pitches in the second inning before he got into any kind of rhythm, and he finished up with 107 pitches in 5 2/3 innings -- only four fewer pitches than Tim Wakefield threw in his complete-game win over this same Oakland team in April.

His strike percentage (62.6) wasn't particularly bad. He just still wasn't putting hitters away when he got them in pitchers' counts.

"I can't say I was trying to strike everybody out," he said. "There were just a couple of pitches that I threw during at-bats that were fouled off and not put into play."

The loss, of course, overshadowed everything else. DeMarlo Hale's decision to send Jason Bay home with no outs in the bottom of the eighth loomed large in the ninth. The inability of Jonathan Papelbon to keep runners off the bases caught up with him in a big way. Nick Green's decision to try to do too much with a critical ground ball opened the floodgates. By the time Manny Delcarmen and Takashi Saito surrendered the game's two decisive runs in the top of the 11th, a disastrous finish already was a foregone conclusion.

But the way Buchholz pitched had to be considered a bright spot -- even if he didn't necessarily think so.

"If the team loses, nobody really cares about how the starting pitcher did," he said. "It's definitely hard to swallow. The team wants to win, and the guys go out there every night and give us a chance to win. Sometimes it doesn't happen the way you think it should or think it will. Those guys put the bat on the ball tonight and found some holes and did what they had to do."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"This isn't going to be, like, a rotation"

So said Terry Francona on Friday after the Red Sox announced the acquisition of Adam LaRoche. The lineup that gave the team the best chance to win, the manager said, would play. Pride and hurt feelings were going to have nothing to do with

Kevin Youkilis is going to play just about every day. He's not affected in any way by the acquisition of LaRoche. That leaves three players -- LaRoche, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz -- for two spots in the lineup every day.

Let's look at the splits (in terms of OPS):

LaRoche, L
vs. LHP: .749
vs. RHP: .847
Of note: OPS'ing 1.250 in first three games with Red Sox.

Lowell, R
vs. LHP: .915
vs. RHP: .754
Of note: Having trouble defensively but is OPS'ing .935 since his return from the disabled list.

Ortiz, L
vs. LHP: .823
vs. RHP: .963
Of note: His home-run power remains, but his July batting average (.231) and on-base percentage (.291) look awfully similar to his April batting avearge (.230) and on-base percentage (.290).

And let's look at the pitchers the Red Sox will be facing:

Vin Mazzaro, RHP
vs. LHB: .723
vs. RHB: .845
Of note: Has never faced the Red Sox.

Brett Anderson, LHP
vs. LHB: .802
vs. RHB: .704
Of note: Allowed just two hits -- to righties Jason Bay and Nick Green -- in a complete-game shutout of the Red Sox on July 6.

Gio Gonzalez, LHP
vs. LHB: 1.553
vs. RHB: .806
Of note: Has faced lefties for just 38 at-bats in the major leagues. In the minor leagues, his numbers are pretty similar against righties and lefties.

You might be surprised, then, to learn that LaRoche is sitting out today's game against Mazzaro but will be back in the lineup -- with Ortiz sitting -- against Anderson on Wednesday. Lowell, who sat out each of the last two games, is back in the lineup and playing third base today.

It's not a rotation, Francona said. But the Red Sox are going to face far more righties than lefties the rest of the way, a scenario that appears to marginalize Lowell despite the $12 million he's being paid this year and the $12 million he'll be paid next year.

The third baseman appeared to fit best in the lineup on Wednesday and Thursday against back-to-back lefthanded pitchers. Instead, though, he's in the lineup on Tuesday against a righty -- a move almost transparent in its intention to appease a veteran who the Red Sox don't yet want to marginalize.

Reading between the lines with Terry Francona

Red Sox manager Terry Francona spent quite a bit of time talking to the media on Monday afternoon about the trade deadline: What he reads, what he doesn't read, what he knows, what he doesn't know. Here's a sampling of what he had to say:

"It's probably harder on the players. There's a lot of uncertainty this week. Part of what makes Boston so special is that we seem to be a player in everything. When I say that, obviously, we're not going after 11 guys. But because of who we are and what has been created here through ownership, we are a player in a lot of things. As soon as somebody's name gets out there, Boston is attached to it. I don't think we're the biggest city in the country -- and I'm horrible geographically and I admit to it, but we're not the biggest city in the country -- but we're a major market in baseball. That's because we have great fans and great ownership, and we have more money than a lot of teams to spend, so good for us."

The Red Sox do seem to be a player in everything. Roy Halladay's name has been omnipresent on the WEEI airwaves over the last couple of weeks. Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez are the newest favorites on the rumor mill. (This writer still prefers Marco Scutaro, but I'm not lobbying for a job with the team or anything.) Perhaps the most amazing thing about the trade for Adam LaRoche was that no one really was talking about him before he was acquired. Everyone's attention already was fixated on Washington's Nick Johnson.

One thing to keep in mind: While the Red Sox have made a couple of huge trades in the tenure of Theo Epstein, both of them involved them unloading disgruntled stars rather than adding stars. Jason Bay was a big acquisition a year ago, but the Red Sox traded Manny Ramirez -- and not prospects -- to get him. Now, if the Padres make Adrian Gonzalez available for a package of players that doesn't involve Clay Buchholz or Daniel Bard, you'd better believe the Red Sox will listen. But nothing about Theo Epstein's history should lead you to believe he's going to back up the truck for just anybody.

"For about one week out of the year, it creates a lot of uncertainty in players. There's no way to get around it until it's over. This has generally been a tough week for us since I've been here."

Mike Lowell, you have to believe, would like to know his role. He said all the right things when he met with reporters on Monday, but he also sat and talked for 10 or 15 minutes in the dugout with Red Sox sports psychology coach Bob Tewksbury before the game. It's not reaching too much to speculate that he had some things to get off his chest. He's a veteran who has been a starter his entire career, and he now has no idea if and when he's going to get regular playing time in the second half of the reason.

Trouble is, until July 31 passes, the Red Sox don't know. They might have a plan now based on the roster as currently assembled -- playing Lowell against lefties, for example, or putting him on the disabled list to get him healthy for September -- but everything is too up in the air. The Padres might be willing to deal Gonzalez. The Indians might be willing to deal Martinez. Heck, if a contending team in the National League made a reasonable offer, the Red Sox might even be willing to deal Lowell -- whose contract will be a Lugo-esque drag on the payroll next season if his hip doesn't get better.

Lowell wants to know what's going on -- and he's not the only one. But until the trading deadline passes, no one can give him any answers.

"Do I pay much attention? Through the media? No. Do I pay a lot of attention to what's going on? Yeah. Not through you guys -- because, believe me, you don't know. If I went through every article that's been written or every radio show, we wouldn't have team that's here now. You take everybody's version, and we'd have half the American League and some of the National League here."
(You want to tell us what's really going on?)
"Nope. I don't know. But I do pay attention."

We don't know. That's what he's saying. We do usually know when names are floated around -- no one's imagining the availability of Roy Halladay, and you can assume the Victor Martinez rumors are pretty credible, too -- but we don't know one thing. We don't know how the Red Sox value their prospects. We have no idea if Theo Epstein would trade Clay Buchholz or Daniel Bard to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez straight up, let alone in a three- or four-player package. Opposing executives tend to gripe about how highly the Red Sox value their prospects, but we still don't know the degree.

It would be fascinating to get from Theo Epstein some sort of criteria for a trade that would include Buchholz. He'd trade Buchholz for Albert Pujols, you have to believe. He wouldn't trade him for Yuniesky Betancourt. Somewhere, there's a middle ground. Francona is right. We don't know what that middle ground is.

"(Players) are getting asked a lot of questions. They're reading things that aren't true. Doubt can seep in there because I don't doubt you guys are asking a lot of questions that have no bearing on what we're doing. But you still have to address it because you guys ask it. ... I know what's going on. I know what's not going on. That's maybe why I don't pay as much attention to it -- because I know what's not going on."

On Friday, when asked about trade talks, Clay Buchholz said, "It’s been that way all year. I’ve had people go out and ask me about the trade talks and everything throughout this whole season. It is what it is. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’m here, and I’m hoping I’ll go out there every fifth day and help this team win."

Reporters asked Buchholz after Monday night's game about how he's dealing with trade talk. "Pretty confident I'm here for at least a little bit longer," he said.

The 24-year-old righty might just be saying that. He also might have been assured by Epstein and Francona that they've invested too much in him to trade him without ever giving him a second chance to prove himself. He might really not be going anywhere.

"I've been here long enough to know how Theo and the guys work. If they think they can improve what we're doing, they will -- but not at the expense of (what's going well). We're in a little bit of a unique position here, and I love it. We seem to be a player in a lot of things because of who we are. At the same time, we believe in what we're doing with a lot of our younger players. I think, maybe, we have a different view. We feel like we're almost dealing from a strength as opposed to a necessity -- or at least that's where we want to be. I know we're not running away with our division and we're not as comfortable with our standing right now as we'd like to be, but, at the same time, we like the mixture and we like having our young guys come through."

This is what happens when you run an efficient organization. The Red Sox can trade Buchholz to fill a need because they have Casey Kelly coming behind him. They can trade Josh Reddick to fill a need because they have Ryan Kalish coming behind him. Heck, they can trade Jacoby Ellsbury to fill a need -- if it's a really glaring need -- because they have a whole slew of athletic center fielder-types coming behind him.

The Red Sox don't prefer to make any huge moves involving their prospects because they've really enjoyed watching Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia and Jonathan Papelbon grow and flourish as major leaguers. If they can land an impact star -- preferably one under the age of 30 -- they will. But if they do nothing but work their young players gradually into their 25-man roster, they'll be perfectly happy with that.

Besides: The goal isn't just to win the World Series this year. They've won two World Series titles this decade. The goal is to be competitive every single year, and backing up the truck for Gonzalez isn't necessarily conducive to that goal.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lowrie finally gets a break

Jed Lowrie's first swing on Monday night came with two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the second inning. He jumped on a changeup down and away and laced a sinking line drive into shallow right field -- where Ryan Sweeney ran it down, snagging it at his knees before sliding into the grass.

It's been like that for the last few days for Lowrie: Fly balls into the gaps and line drives all over the plate with nothing at all to show for it. He even ripped a fastball to the warning track in right field on Sunday, a pitch right over the middle of the plate that he couldn't have hit much harder than he did.

"I thought it was out," he said that afternoon. "I hit that ball pretty well."

When he came to the plate with the bases loaded in Monday's seventh inning, he was hitting .111 since his return from the disabled list and .083 for the season. His BABIP -- batting average on balls in play -- was a "This is not a typo"-low .054.

He then got under a 90-mile-an-hour fastball on the inner half of the plate and lofted a harmless pop fly behind third base.

It fell to the grass between three Oakland defenders.

It hopped into the stands.

Two runs scored, and Lowrie cruised into second base.

When asked about the bloop hit, the 25-year-old shortstop couldn't help but laugh.

"Once again, I thought I hit a couple balls real well tonight -- and I got one down," he said. "Baseball's a funny game. You take them where you can get them."

"Line drive in the book!" center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury said with a grin from the locker stall next to Lowrie. "With the baseball gods, with three lineouts, something was bound to happen. He definitely earned it."

Lowrie got to the plate 58 times in his rehab stint in the minor leagues, including 40 at Triple-A Pawtucket. He now has gotten to the plate 21 times in the major leagues since his wrist surgery. His swing still is a work in progress just the way everyone else's swing was a work in progress in mid-April. But the way he was hitting the ball right into defenders' gloves wasn't helping.

"Sometimes you just need a ball to fall in for you, and it gets you off and running," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "It's tough. But he's got, what, 30 at-bats so far under his belt? Everyone else has three or four hundred. It's only a matter of time until he gets back into the flow and swings the bat good."

Lowrie can tell he's hit the ball hard. Everyone in the dugout can tell he's hit the ball hard. But that doesn't make it any easier to walk up to the plate and and see ".083" on the scoreboard in center field. Everyone goes 2-for-20 at some point every season -- likely American League batting champion Joe Mauer, for example, went 2-for-25 in the three games before and three games after the All-Star break.

It just looks worse when you don't have much else on the back of your baseball card other than those 20 at-bats.

"When you have 25 or 30 at-bats, every hit raises or lowers your average by 50 points or 100 points," he said. "You can get off to a great start and on your next 100 at-bats do terribly, and you're right back to where it should be. It's definitely been -- I don't want to say 'frustrating' because I've tried to stay with the approach because I've been having good at-bats. I just haven't had anything drop."

And that's why he's not about to give back Monday night's bloop double -- a hit that raised his batting average all the way to .108.

"We'll take being good or being lucky," Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "More often than not, that's not going to work. But we'll sure as hell take it."

The lost July of the Red Sox

The Red Sox have had a horrific offensive month in July. They were even worse in June. But that doesn't mean they're going to be that bad the rest of the way. Check out their month-by-month runs-per-game numbers over the past three seasons:

April: 5.21 runs per game
May: 5.54
June: 4.15
July: 5.67
August: 5.76
September: 5.74

April: 4.69 runs per game
May: 5.31
June: 5.11
July: 4.58
August: 6.30
September: 5.27

April: 5.73 runs per game
May: 4.86
June: 5.31
July: 4.25

So far this season, the Red Sox are averaging 5.05 runs per game -- down from 5.22 runs per game a year ago and 5.35 the year before that. But this downturn in production is nothing new.

In 2007, the Red Sox averaged a measly 4.15 runs per game in June but bounced back to average more than 5.6 runs per game in each of the final three months. In 2008, the Red Sox averaged 5.11 runs per game in June and 4.58 runs per game in July but exploded with 6.30 runs per game in August.

The Red Sox are in the middle of their worst offensive month since June of 2007. But despite all but standing pat -- they added Bobby Kielty on Aug. 6 but otherwise did nothing to upgrade the team's offense -- they broke out of that particular slump in a big way down the stretch.

(For what it's worth, Jason Bay has a .869 career OPS in August and a .887 career OPS in September. A turnaround might not be far off.)

Watch out for the Orioles

Among the thoughts racing through Red Sox fans' heads as they left Fenway Park on Sunday -- aside from "Is Smoltz done?" and "That LaRoche kid is pretty good. I wonder if he has a brother who plays third base?" -- had to be this one: "We just got beat by David Hernandez? Who's David Hernandez?"

Perhaps an introduction is in order.

Hernandez, who induced an incredible 17 fly-ball outs in baffling the Red Sox for seven innings on Sunday, had a 2.68 ERA at Double-A last year and a 3.30 ERA at Triple-A this year. He made his major-league debut on May 28 and, after a couple of early hiccups, has settled down as a big part of the Orioles' rotation. In his four previous starts entering play Sunday, he had a 3.33 ERA and was seeing opponents hit .237 off him.

The Red Sox couldn't touch him on Saturday.

"First and foremost, he was effectively around the zone, effectively wild up," Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay said. "But I don't think he walked anybody. He was around the plate the whole time, and you've got to give him credit. We swing the bat pretty well and he got a lot of lazy fly balls, which means there's deception to his fastball. It's getting on you faster than you'd think and you're just missing squaring it up."

Baseball America anointed his slider as the best in the Orioles' organization. What the magazine didn't do, however, is name Hernandez one of the top 10 prospects in the Orioles' organization. That honor instead went to five other pitchers -- and a group that didn't even include Brad Bergesen, a 23-year-old righty who now has a 2.57 ERA and an 11-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in two career starts against the Red Sox. (Bergesen was a tough-luck loser on Friday night, throwing six solid innings but receiving no run support.)

Watch out, American League East.

The Orioles are rebuilding fast.

"We're not as good as the Red Sox," Baltimore manager Dave Trembley said after his team's win on Sunday. "We're not as good as the Yankees. But we're not going to give in to them."

The reason for the optimism that oozes from Trembley and his team was obvious all weekend. Right fielder Nick Markakis went 5-for-13 over the weekend with a solo home run on Sunday, for example, and made an unbelievable throw from right field to nail Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate on Friday. But he's already a household name -- or should be.

"People are living in a dream world if they don't think he's one of the best right fielders in the American League," Trembley said. "I'd take it a step further and say I think he's one of the best players in baseball. ... I went up to him today and said, 'I'm putting you in the (No.) 4 slot because you're our best guy,' and look how he played."

Left fielder Nolan Reimold went 7-for-10 with three doubles and three runs scored. Catcher Matt Wieters went 3-for-7 with an RBI on Friday and Saturday and remains on track to become an offensive mold in the Joe Mauer or Mike Piazza mold. Center fielder Adam Jones didn't do much this time around, but ask Kevin Youkilis what the All-Star outfielder can do with the glove.

"The improvement that Jones made from last year to this year is tremendous," Trembley said. "We expect the same thing out of Wieters, Reimold, Bergesen and Hernandez, and if we get that kind of improvement that we got out of Jones, that we got out of Markakis after his first year in the big leagues, we're going to have a very good team.

"That's where you've got to stay the course. You've got to be patient. You have to understand the big picture. You have to give your guys a whole lot of credit."

Oh, and then there's the pitching in the minor leagues. Check out the arms the Orioles have moving through the system:

* Chris Tillman, 2.70 ERA, 99-26 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Kam Mickolio, 3.03 ERA, 41-12 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Jake Arrieta, 2.59 ERA, 70-23 K-BB ratio at Double-A; 4.34 ERA, 43-17 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Troy Patton, 1.99 ERA, 47-18 K-BB ratio at Double-A; 6.00 ERA, 21-9 K-BB ratio at Triple-A
* Brian Matusz, 2.16 ERA, 75-21 K-BB ratio at Single-A; 1.88 ERA, 39-7 K-BB ratio at Double-A

Not all of those arms have to pan out. If even two of those pitchers make it and stick in the big leagues, with the bats the Orioles have developed, the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays quickly will have company.

"Our guys have shown improvement," Trembley said. "I've seen them the whole year. If you only see them once in a while and get all wrapped up in the losses instead of the other part of the game, it's easy to let those things get out of perspective. We don't have it out of perspective at all."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ramirez upset after going a week without pitching

(This story will appear in Monday's Union Leader.)

Red Sox reliever Ramon Ramirez had a lengthy meeting with pitching coach John Farrell before yesterday’s game to discuss the righty’s dissatisfaction with his role in the bullpen.

“He was asking me how I’m feeling,” Ramirez said. “I said I feel good. I’m just not pitching for a long time. I can’t say I feel good if I’m not pitching. I want to pitch. I know it’s a very good bullpen, you know? But I’m waiting for the manager to let me pitch.”

Ramirez did get into yesterday’s game and got the final two outs of the ninth inning, both line drives to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. At the time of the meeting with Farrell, he’d made six appearances in the month of July, second-fewest in the Red Sox bullpen. He’d gone a full week between appearances before getting into Saturday night’s win in the ninth inning.

“He wants to pitch more,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “I love the fact that he wants to pitch more.”

Takashi Saito, who threw two effective innings yesterday, went into the series finale with the Orioles with just four appearances under his belt in July. Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon, on the other hand, each had appeared in eight games in the month of July. Delcarmen made four appearances during the five games in which Ramirez did not pitch.

After yesterday’s appearance, Ramirez has a 2.18 ERA in 41 1/3 innings this season, the second-lowest among Red Sox relievers. But after looking almost untouchable in April and May, Ramirez scuffled in mid-June and again in early July; he allowed three runs in his final three appearances before the All-Star break. He then bounced back with a scoreless inning at Toronto on July 18 before his five-game hiatus.

“I’ll keep waiting,” said Ramirez, a native of the Dominican Republic who speaks English with a thick accent. “I can’t control the manager. I can’t control when I’m pitching. But I’m waiting. Sometimes I feel not so happy. I can’t say I’m happy if I’m not.”

Asked and answered: Clay Buchholz

Clay Buchholz will make his first start at Fenway Park on Tuesday in almost exactly a year. Last July 29, he pitched into the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Angels and probably would have emerged with a pretty decent-looking line if not for a Garret Anderson home run and a couple of inherited runners relief pitcher Craig Hansen allowed to score.

Buchholz wouldn't see the seventh inning again that season. He left after six unspectacular innings in Kansas City a week later, failed to get out of the fourth inning in Chicago a week after that and was sent back to the minor leagues for good after getting knocked around in the third inning against Baltimore at Camden Yards.

Now, though, he's back in the major leagues and looking to reverse that trajectory. Below is an interview conducted on Friday for this story that ran in Sunday's Union Leader:

Now that you've got two starts under your belt, how do you feel like everything is going?
"The first start, it was really nerve-wracking, the first time back up, all that stuff. The last start, I felt like everything from the first batter of the game, there was a lot of stuff going on – people on base every inning. I didn’t have any 1-2-3 innings, and I had to throw a lot of pitches.

"I’m better right now than where I was last year when everything was going on. I don’t think anything is bad. I’ve got to make a few adjustments on the curveball to get the curveball in the strike zone more consistently, and instead of having just two pitches to work with throughout the first four or five pitches in the game, I’ll throw that one in there and see what else happens. I feel good with everything that’s going on so far."

What goes into the decision to not throw the curveball as much as you normally might?
"I hadn’t really had my good curveball like I normally do probably the last three times I’ve been out. My last start in Pawtucket, it didn’t feel right, and in Toronto, it felt different than it normally does. I’m working on that right now, trying to get that back in the mix to where I can use it on a more consistent basis."

Having already made your debut once but then spending a year away for the major leagues, how is it different this time around?
"The first time I came up, I didn’t know anything else except what I’d been doing, so I came up and rolled with all the punches thrown at me. Last year, being sent down and this year, being my first time back up, I think I was more nervous, from that aspect, coming back up after being gone for a while – not to try to prove a point but to show everybody that I worked hard to get to where I was at this whole year and am trying to keep it that way."

Do you worry much about pitch efficiency -- like throwing 90 pitches in four innings at Texas -- or is that something that comes with time?
"That comes from trying not to let them hit it. That was the comment I made the other day: I’ve had a lot of quick innings throughout this year with throwing it in the zone and letting them hit it at somebody. But whenever you’ve got your guys (on offense), you're trying to help them out, trying to keep runs off the board and get on a roll. I feel like it’s coming pretty soon. This team’s full of great hitters, and it’s only a matter of time before the sticks roll around.

"But I was trying to give them a way to come in and score some runs and start a little winning streak here. I started picking at the corners instead of throwing it over the middle and letting them hit it. In deep counts, you throw a lot of pitches. I’ve done that a couple of times this year, though."

Is that a matter of attacking a major-league lineup differently than you'd attack a minor-league lineup?
"No, I’ve gotten pulled in the fourth or fifth inning at Pawtucket a couple of games for being at 92 or 93 pitches. It just comes with throwing strikes, I guess. I threw a lot of strikes the other night, but when it came to the counts where I needed to put them away, I had three 0-2 counts, and all three of them ended up getting on base. That’ll get your pitch total up a little bit.

"It’s just not being scared to throw it – if you make a mistake and throw it over the plate, maybe they hit it and get a hit or maybe they hit it at somebody or maybe they don’t hit it at all. Instead of just trying to make them swing and miss, I pick to contact. That’s the key."

Does the July 31 trading deadline mean anything to you, at least to the extent that you'll be relieved when it's past?
"No, you can’t go out on the field and worry about things that are out of your control. It’s been that way all year. I’ve had people go out and ask me about the trade talks and everything throughout this whole season. It is what it is. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’m here, and I’m hoping I’ll go out there every fifth day and help this team win."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

LaRoche's swing really does fit Fenway

There aren't many lefthanded hitters who can do what Adam LaRoche did in the bottom of the eighth inning on Saturday night. There aren't many lefthanded hitters who can hit a home run over the Green Monster so close to the left-field foul pole, so severely the opposite way.

David Ortiz, of course, can do it.

"All you've got to do is have the swing, that good uppercut swing -- pretty much like mine," said Ortiz, who hit a home run of his own on Saturday night, a three-run shot to straightaway center field in the first inning. "

J.D. Drew can't do it.

"My swing is more detailed to drive the ball off the wall," he said. "Papi has that kind of swing, sort of, that gets under the ball to left field, and Adam has that same inside swing where he gets under that ball. For me, with my swing, it's hard for me to get up and over that wall because I'm hitting line drives off it versus the looping home run."


Well, as he showed on Saturday night, the newest Red Sox acquisition is perfectly capable of taking the ball out the opposite way.

"He's got a bigger, more inside-the-ball swing, so he's going to drive the ball to left field," Drew said. "I know that hurt him in Pittsburgh because it's deep especially to left-center, like 410 (feet) out there. He can drive the ball to left field with the best of them."

Fenway Park already looks like it's going to fit LaRoche far better than either of his two previous home parks:

2004-06: Turner Field
29 home runs -- 4 to left field
It wasn't until LaRoche's second season in Atlanta that he hit his first opposite-field home run at home, a shot just down the left-field line. In 2006, he hit three of his 11 home runs at Turner Field to the opposite field -- including a 423-foot blast off San Francisco's Jamey Wright. It looked as though he'd grown into his power and figured out how to take fastballs on the outside corner over the fence the other way.

( has home-run data that goes back to 2006: Check out this scatter plot of LaRoche's home runs from that season. That's a guy who has power to all fields.)

2007-09: PNC Park
31 home runs -- 0 to left field
His move to PNC Park, though, seemed to rob him of that power. He hit fly balls all over the field -- seriously, go here and select "2007 Season" and "PNC Park" and click "Fly Balls" -- but he could not seem to muscle one out to the opposite field. Just this season -- select "2009 Season" to see for yourself -- he hit a couple of fly balls either to the warning track or approaching the warning track in left field but could not get anything over the fence.

(Check out this scatter plot of LaRoche's home runs from 2008. That's a guy who has lost confidence in his ability to hit for power the other way.)

2009: Fenway Park
1 home run -- 1 to left field
His first home run as a member of the Red Sox hit the light fixture closest to the left-field foul pole, the type of home run righties like Mike Lowell or Devin Youkilis might hit. It was a fastball on the outside corner, and he jumped all over it.

If the Red Sox have their way, he'll hand out souvenir after souvenir to the fans in the Green Monster seats as the second half progresses.

Youkilis gets day off for LaRoche debut

Interesting note from ESPN's Buster Olney today:

(Tony) La Russa made what I think was a smart decision Friday. With the addition of (Matt) Holliday, it appears the odd man out is Rick Ankiel, with the bulk of the outfield playing time expected to go to Colby Rasmus, Ryan Ludwick and Holliday. Ankiel probably went to the park wondering how much of a place he'll have with the Cardinals for the next 10 weeks. But he was in the starting lineup, as it turned out. Look, in the end, Ankiel probably is going to lose at-bats, but this was a good way to remind Ankiel that he is part of the team and is valued, a carrot for him to chase.

The Holliday-Ankiel situation seems particularly relevant given the way the Red Sox lineup looks for Saturday's game against the Orioles: LaRoche playing first base, Mike Lowell playing third base and Kevin Youkilis on the bench. It will be Youkilis' first day off since he returned from the disabled list on May 20.

This is not a harbinger of lineups to come, something Red Sox manager Terry Francona made sure to emphasize during his pregame meeting with reporters.

"This isn't going to be, like, a rotation," Francona said, the implication clearly being that Youkilis is not going to lose regular playing time to the new arrival.

Youkilis will be right back in the lineup and playing third base, Francona said, for Sunday's day game. That appears to indicate that Mike Lowell will take a seat on Sunday.

You have to wonder if Francona might have been doing for Lowell what LaRussa did for Ankiel, sending one of those actions-speak-louder-than-words messages: Hey, look, the new guy is in the lineup, and so are you. You still matter. But based on health and quality of production -- both offensive and defense -- it appears that Lowell is the far likelier candidate to lose playing time to LaRoche if indeed the former Pittsburgh Pirate ends up playing four or five days a week.

Youkilis, for his part, didn't particularly want a day off -- "I just had an off-day," he said with a wry grin -- but took it in stride.

"They told me that today was my off-day," he told a group of reporters circled around his locker. "You guys know just as much as I do."

The goateed infielder is hitting .229 and OBP'ing .299 in July and has seen his OPS slip below 1.000 for the first time all season. (It was 1.031 on July 1 and now is .972.) He fanned three times against the Orioles on Friday night and has struck out 43 times in 44 games since June 1.

But a day off, he said, isn't exactly the cure.

"I don't get too many off-days," he said, "so I don't really know how to deal with them."

The plan for today?

"Root my teammates on," he said. "A lot of high-fives, hopefully. A lot of runs scored. Other than that, there's not much you can do but eat seeds and chew gum."


Jeff Bailey took some swings before the rest of the team took batting practice on Friday. No problem.

Bailey then did some throwing in the outfield. No problem.

Bailey then did some sprinting on the infield, running from first to third with a turn at second base. Problem.

The Red Sox first baseman rolled his ankle in a collision at first base on July 3 and hasn't played since. He has remained with the team -- in a weird twist of fate, he's accruing major-league service time now he wouldn't have had he been optioned back to Triple-A Pawtucket like Aaron Bates was -- but still is a week or two away from returning to any kind of action.

"It's taking a little longer than I thought," he said. "I don't really want to push it too much because I want to be 100 percent when I'm playing again. At the same time, I want to play, but I know I probably shouldn't because I know I'll just hurt myself again. ...

"It's just the running. Hitting is fine, and fielding seems to be fine. It's going straight ahead and starting and stopping. Today, when I was trying to go around the bases, that didn't feel very good."

Said Francona, "He actually got his ankle rolled over pretty good. He's doing everything. He's just not doing it to the point where we can go let him play. It just needs to heal a little more. The good part of that is he's able to swing and take grounders. We just can't let him go play in a game. It might be another week, 10 days, two weeks -- we'll have to see how he does. ... He's doing all his baseball stuff. It just hurts."

Shuffling around draft picks

MLB Trade Rumors has made an arrangement with a Detroit Tigers blogger to publish a reverse-engineered approximation of the Elias Sports Bureau rankings that determine free-agent compensation.

If a player is classified as a Type A free agent, the team that loses him receives his new team's first-round draft pick as well as a supplemental pick. If a player is classified as a Type B free agent, the team that loses him receives a supplemental pick but the team that signs him does not lose a pick.

(The top 20 percent of players at each position are classified as Type A. The next 20 percent of players at each position are classified as Type B. The remaining 60 percent get a certificate of participation and a hearty pat on the back.)

First of all, let's see how the Red Sox position players stack up:

Jason Varitek: B
Kevin Youkilis: A
Adam LaRoche: None
Dustin Pedroia: A
Jed Lowrie: None
Nick Green: None
Mike Lowell: B
Jason Bay: A
Jacoby Ellsbury: None
J.D. Drew: B
Rocco Baldelli: None
David Ortiz: B

But here's the weird thing about the system: The Red Sox actually could improve their draft spot in the first round through their spending the free-agent market. Consider this scenario:

* The Red Sox offer arbitration to Jason Bay. He opts to test the market and ends up signing with his hometown Seattle Mariners.
* The Red Sox, having failed to land Bay, open the vault and sign Matt Holliday. (This doesn't seem likely, but the fact that Bay and Holliday ought to land similar contracts makes the ridiculousness of this all the more apparent.)

Based on the current standings, the Red Sox would draft 27th in the first round next season. But they would lose that pick to the Los Angeles Angels for the privilege of signing Holliday.

Because they'd offered arbitration to Bay, though, the Red Sox would receive the Mariners' first-round pick -- No. 22 overall, if the standings hold -- as well as a supplemental choice between the first and second rounds.

And here's where it gets even more wacky: Because the Red Sox already have lost their first-round pick, they can't lose it again. Toronto infielder Marco Scutaro -- you know by now how this blog feels about Marco Scutaro -- is classified as a Type A free agent. But if the Red Sox signed Holliday or Bobby Abreu or Jermaine Dye, they already would have lost their first-round pick. If they signed Scutaro, they'd have to forfeit only their second-round pick to the Blue Jays.

(The Blue Jays also would receive a supplemental pick, but that doesn't affect the Red Sox in any measureable way.)

The reason Holliday is worth a No. 1 and Scutaro a No. 2, by the way, is based on the points Elias assigns each player. According to the approximation we're using, Scutaro is worth 83 points; each of the three outfielders mentioned above is worth at least 85 points. If a team signs two (or more) Type A free agents, the first-round pick goes to the team that lost the player with the highest point value. That's how the Brewers last year only got a second-round pick for CC Sabathia and how the Blue Jays only got a third-round pick for A.J. Burnett.

The Red Sox, for their trouble, would lose Bay and the No. 27 overall pick as well as a pick somewhere around No. 75, depending on how many supplemental picks are awarded. But they would pick up Holliday, Scutaro and the No. 22 pick as well as a supplemental pick somewhere between No. 30 and No. 50.

That's actually a pretty sweet deal, isn't it?

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Red Sox score -- but only just enough

The Red Sox offense has not come alive.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia each had two hits. Jason Varitek had an RBI single. Jed Lowrie had an RBI sacrifice fly. J.D. Drew had an RBI, um, fielder's choice. The Red Sox scored three runs -- including two in the fourth inning, their first crooked number in a week.

But the Red Sox offense has not come alive. Not yet.

"I mean, I don't think we knocked the cover off the ball," Francona said. "We had some good at-bats. We didn't probably take advantage -- when Ells had a chance to score (and was thrown out at the plate), that was a big run, potentially a big run. We did enough. A lot of times, it just comes back to pitching. If we gave up five or six, we're kind of still talking about our hitting. But I'd rather it be good enough by one or two than not good enough.

"I know I give you guys a lot of profound things. But winning is better than losing."

That's what Brad Penny's outstanding start -- 6 1/3 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 4 K, 0 BB -- did for the Red Sox. It allowed them, for one night, to pretend as though their offense still isn't scuffling as badly as it has scuffled all year.

"We had to find a way," Varitek said. "We obviously hadn't gotten things really rolling offensively. We still didn't hit the ball all over the park, but we were able to grind out a win."

Said Ellsbury, "Penny pitched very well and held them to one run, and we really like our chances when we hold them to one run."


All season, Terry Francona and talk-radio hosts alike have insisted that Jonathan Papelbon isn't doing anything out of the ordinary, that as long as his ERA is low and he isn't blowing saves, there's no reason to worry about him. Plenty of closers allow baserunners, they've said. One-two-three innings aren't as easy to come by as Papelbon has made it seem in past years.

Well, that's not entirely true. Here's the leaderboard of baserunners per inning for all closers in the major leagues with more than 20 saves -- and these stats are accurate as of Friday morning, meaning they're not taking Papelbon's tightrope walk on Friday night into consideration:

Matt Capps, 1.75 baserunners per inning
Bobby Jenks, 1.35
Fernando Rodney, 1.35
Jonathan Papelbon, 1.32
George Sherrill, 1.22
Brian Wilson, 1.20
Francisco Rodriguez, 1.19
Brian Fuentes, 1.18
David Aardsma, 1.12
Francisco Cordero, 1.11
Heath Bell, 1.09
Trevor Hoffman, 1.02
Huston Street, 0.94
Jonathan Broxton, 0.94
Ryan Franklin, 0.92
Mariano Rivera, 0.85
Joe Nathan, 0.81

Out of 17 closers with 20 or more saves, Papelbon has allowed more runners per inning than all but three -- and if you include his Houdini act on Friday night, he's allowed more baserunners per inning (1.36) than all of them but Capps.

(Rodney pitched a clean ninth inning on Friday, and Jenks did not pitch. Papelbon loaded the bases before striking out Luke Scott and Melvin Mora to end it.)

Somehow, though, he keeps escaping.

Dice-K to start working with shorter timetables

Daisuke Matsuzaka was in Boston on Friday to throw in the outfield and to meet with Red Sox management, but he was scheduled to fly back to Florida on Friday night to resume his rehab program. Red Sox manager Terry Francona sat down with Matsuzaka for a 90-minute conversation this afternoon -- the length in part because every sentence had to be translated -- to discuss his progress and the plan for the immediate future.

There is no timetable set for Matsuzaka's return. Instead, rather than set some long-term goals -- such as pitching off a mound by Aug. 15 and pitching in rehab games by Sept. 1, for example -- the pitcher will work with short-term goals and evaluate his progress on a more regular basis.

"That's maybe where we've erred in the past," Francona said, likely referring to Matsuzaka's first DL stint this season. "We're going to keep it in short segments, weekly goals, and keep arriving at those goals and communicate and either continue or change or back off where needed. ...

"Rather than point to things like (a bullpen session), we're going to continue the progression and try not to do it backwards and keep the goals a little bit shorter."

But will he pitch again this year?

"I hope so," Francona said. "I certainly hope so."

Kotsay designated for assignment

A year ago, Mark Kotsay came to the Red Sox as an everyday player and had to take a back seat on a team with World Series aspirations. He embraced the role -- and he even returned this season, taking a leadership role among starters and bench players alike. It was his idea to have "Rescue Squad" T-shirts printed up for the team's reserve position players and relievers, a way of giving those players who didn't play every day a chance to have their own niche in the clubhouse.

"This is a guy that came in last year and immediately became a leader in our clubhouse," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "That's something that we take very seriously and I appreciate very much. It was tough -- he's as professional as they get, but it's hard because you learn quickly to admire people like that. That will certainly never change."

Kotsay's leadership in the clubhouse, though, didn't make up for the fact that he wasn't producing enough at the plate to make him worth keeping around. A nagging calf injury hadn't helped matters, either. He had a line of .257/.291/.324 upon his release, and he looked like a DFA'd man walking in going 0-for-4 against Texas on Wednesday.

It became almost a no-brainer that Kotsay would have to go to make room for Adam LaRoche, a player with a very similar skill set. LaRoche will have to do this year what Kotsay did last year -- take a back seat on a team with a chance to go to the World Series. He provides a lefthanded bat for a team that's had trouble against righties, just like Kotsay, and he'll play first base full-time if Mike Lowell's hip lands him back on the disabled list, just like Kotsay. He even moved right into Kotsay's old locker between J.D. Drew and Jason Bay.

The Red Sox are a better team today than they were with Kotsay on the roster and LaRoche a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. But that doesn't mean they weren't a little sad to see Kotsay go.

Which Prince is this? Oh, just Prince.

(Just in case you didn't see the ESPYs.)

The Red Sox are an old team. There's no way around it. Of the nine players who have more than 200 plate appearances this season, only two -- Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury -- are under 30 years old. Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis are 30. J.D. Drew and David Ortiz both are 33. Mike Lowell is 35. Jason Varitek is 37.

(Edit: Jacoby Ellsbury is under 30. Jason Varitek is not under 30. Jason Varitek has not been under 30 since the Joe Kerrigan administration.)

That's a big problem this season -- particularly because the team's OPS has dwindled every month since April.

But that's a big problem for next season, too, because the Red Sox don't exactly have anyone waiting in the wings to make the type of impact Dustin Pedroia made in 2007 -- or even the type of impact Jed Lowrie made in 2008. Lars Anderson is at least a year away. Josh Reddick is at least a year away. Ryan Kalish is at least two years away. Ryan Westmoreland is probably four or five years away.

Chris Duncan pretty much becomes the player at Triple-A Pawtucket with the most potential impact immediately upon his debut with the team. No one else on that roster -- with the possible, exception of 25-year-old Aaron Bates, whose age limits his ceiling -- appears to be someone who could hit in the middle of a major-league lineup at any point in his career.

Without trading Clay Buchholz, there appears to be little the Red Sox can do this week to make a dramatic upgrade that addresses the lineup's dual problems -- being cold and being old. Cleveland's Victor Martinez would be a nice short-term solution, but he's 30 years old himself and has never finished a season with an OPS of .900. (That's fine if he's a catcher. That's not fine if he's a first baseman.)

Even if the Red Sox made a move this week to land Martinez, they'd either have to give him a lucrative extension at the age of 32 or go into the 2011 season depending heavily upon Anderson, Reddick or Zac Daeges. (That's assuming the Indians don't demand Anderson, Reddick and/or Daeges as part of the trade.)

What do the Red Sox have to do to get younger?

Well, here's the current list of 20-somethings with a 1.000 OPS:
1. Albert Pujols, 29 years old
2. Ben Zobrist, 28 years old
3. Joe Mauer, 26 years old
4. Prince Fielder, 25 years old

The synopsis:
1. Pujols is signed through 2011 -- assuming the Cardinals exercise their $16 million option -- and hasn't made a peep about any kind of desire to leave the city that loves him more than it loves the Arch.
2. Zobrist might have to have this type of season one more time before people start to take him seriously as an MVP-caliber hitter.
3. Mauer is set to ignite a frantic bidding war after the 2010 season, a bidding war either the Twins (based on loyalty) or the Yankees (based on the $324 gajillion dollars they'll offer him) figure to win. (Sorry.)

That leaves Fielder.

Cecil's kid has a .438 on-base percentage and a .610 slugging percentage so far this season, numbers that would lead the American League in both categories. He OPS'ed better than 1.000 two years ago but saw his numbers tumble all the way down to .276/.372/.507 -- in other words, what Evan Longoria has done so far this season -- last year.

He signed a two-year contract to stave off arbitration with the Brewers: He's earning $6.5 million this year and will earn $10.5 million next year. After that, though, he'll be looking at a Ryan Howard-type arbitration number -- and the Brewers might not have any choice but to send him packing.

They might even be convinced to do so this winter with both Fielder's $10.5 million salary and a package consisting of Anderson, Michael Bowden and Casey Kelly staring them in the face.

The Red Sox love cost efficiency. The trade of Julio Lugo and $13 million in cash to the St. Louis Cardinals, though, once again demonstrates the team's willingness to open its wallet when the situation demands it.

Fielder might be the perfect player for what the Red Sox need. He hits home runs. He works counts and sees pitches. He draws walks. He strikes out less often than Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis do. (The list of "Players who strike out at a higher rate than Prince Fielder" also includes Carlos Pena, Ryan Howard, Justin Upton, Evan Longoria, Grady Sizemore and Adam Jones.) He's a brutal defensive first baseman, but the Red Sox have done just fine with David Ortiz as their full-time designated hitter.

He'll also be a month shy of his 26th birthday when next season begins. The prime of his career lies ahead of him.

That's the type of player worth cashing in your chips for. That's the type of player that's worth packaging Anderson and Bowden and Kelly and Reddick and Tazawa.

(OK, maybe not all of those players. But maybe four of the five.)

That's the type of player around whom the Red Sox could build their team for the next six or seven years. If they're going to trade some of their highly touted prospects, that's the type of player they ought to be trying to get.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Clay Buchholz's year off

Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester are not, in any way, the same pitcher. Lester is a lefty and Buchholz is a righty, for one thing. Lester is more of a power pitcher with an outstanding cutter; Buchholz can touch 96 on the gun but does most of his damage with his changeup and curveball.

But the track record Lester left behind certainly can be a teaching tool as we evaluate Clay Buchholz's first two starts. Lester, like Buchholz, reached the major leagues and pitched into August of his first full season before enduring a rude interruption. (For Buchholz, the interruption was an inability to get major-league hitters out and a demotion to Double-A Portland. For Lester, of course, it was lymphoma.)

Lester, like Buchholz, returned to the major leagues in July and did not exactly pitch like a future ace right away. But Lester, like Buchholz, has always been viewed as someone who could be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the Red Sox rotation for years to come.

The Red Sox stayed patient with Lester. You'd better believe -- barring a sudden eagerness on the part of the San Diego Padres to get rid of Adrian Gonzalez -- they'll stay patient with Buchholz, too. Let's go straight to the numbers:

Jon Lester
Overall Triple-A numbers
25 starts, 3.42 ERA, 1.403 WHIP, 1.68 K/BB ratio

First big-league stint
15 starts, 4.76 ERA, 1.648 WHIP, 1.40 K/BB ratio

First two starts of second big-league stint
12 2/3 IP, 4.26 ERA, 2.25 K/BB ratio, 193 pitches, 61% strikes

Clay Buchholz
Overall Triple-A numbers
33 starts, 2.73 ERA, 1.075 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio

First big-league stint
18 starts, 5.56 ERA, 1.601 WHIP, 1.84 K/BB ratio

First two starts of second stint
9 2/3 IP, 3.72 ERA, 1.2 K/BB ratio, 193 pitches, 63% strikes

That last number is interesting. The issue for Buchholz hasn't been results as much as it has been efficiency: He threw 90 pitches through four innings on Wednesday and forced Terry Francona to go to his bullpen far too early.

But while Lester was more efficient in terms of pitches per inning, he actually threw fewer strikes in his first two starts post-cancer than Buchholz has.

Either way: They can't all be Tommy Hanson and tear the major leagues apart right away. Sometimes, even if a pitcher has a little bit of experience in the major leagues, it takes some time to get re-acclimated.

Oh, and in case you're wondering about how Lester fared in his next few major-league starts, here are the next two:
* Aug. 3 at Seattle: 5 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 4 K, 2 BB, 99 pitches
* Aug. 8 at Los Angeles: 3 1/3 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 3 K, 3 BB, 93 pitches

His ERA at that point was 6.43. His strike rate still was just 61 percent.

It wasn't until three weeks after his return to the major leagues that he started to look like the Jon Lester who has become one of the most unhittable pitchers in the major leagues:
* Aug. 14 vs. Tampa Bay: 7 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 4 K, 1 BB

(He threw 62 of his 97 pitches for strikes, a rate of 64 percent.)

Two months later, he was pitching in the World Series.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Meet Chris Duncan

The Red Sox raised a few eyebrows on Wednesday when they acquired outfielder Chris Duncan from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Julio Lugo. The Red Sox had to pay Lugo's salary, of course, but a return of anything more than a couple of packs of bubble gum for Lugo seemed totally implausible when the shortstop was designated for assignment.

The deal for Duncan, of course, was only the second-biggest deal the Red Sox announced on Wednesday. But you can get all the analysis of that trade in Thursday's Union Leader.

The question we'll address here: Who is Chris Duncan?

The son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan and the brother of one-time Yankees cult hero Shelley Duncan, Chris Duncan made his major-league debut in 2005 and has had more than 200 at-bats in a season four times since then. He has spent the entire season with the Cardinals this season, hitting .227 with a .329 on-base percentage and a .358 slugging percentage.

The 28-year-old outfielder's best season was 2006 -- he hit .293 and OBP'ed .363 that season to go along with 22 home runs, and he even hit a home run in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets.

Since then, though, he's become mostly a platoon player who played almost exclusively against righthanded hitters. He spent most of the second half last season on the disabled list with a pinched nerve and, later, recovering from surgery to address a herniated disc in his neck. It's easy to attribute his career-low batting average to his neck and back woes, but there's no way of knowing how severe the effects will continue to be.

The key is to look at his platoon splits:

Minor leagues (four seasons)
vs. LHP: .233/.333/.425
vs. RHP: .270/.363/.461

vs. LHP: .213/.289/.313
vs. RHP: .271/.371/.525

vs. LHP: .147/.194//294
vs. RHP: .266/.371/.378

vs. LHP: .231/.296/.354
vs. RHP: .226/.339/.344

(It's probably small sample size, but it'll be interesting to monitor the leveling out of his splits this season.)

The trade for Duncan appears to have quite a bit to do with the trade for LaRoche announced earlier in the day. Duncan was assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket, and there he'll stay until the Red Sox need him.

But his acquisition would allow the Red Sox to release Mark Kotsay to make room for lefthanded-hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche. Kotsay has played primarily first base this season and thus seems to be a superfluous player at this point -- except that he can play in the outfield, too. He just hasn't played there much this season. (Part of the reason for that: He's a lefthanded hitter, and that means he doesn't fit well with what the Red Sox want to accomplish when they rest J.D. Drew or Jacoby Ellsbury.)

Should Mike Lowell land on the disabled list and LaRoche become the Red Sox's full-time first baseman, they'll need a lefthanded bat off the bench. Should Drew or Ellsbury get hurt, they'll need a lefthanded-hitting outfielder. In either case, they'll be summoning Duncan.

J.D. Drew and the shift

(A tip of the cap to the fans at Sons of Sam Horn.)

J.D. Drew went 0-for-4 on Tuesday night and now is hitless since the All-Star break. He's 3 for his last 44 (.068), albeit with eight walks, dating back to July 4. For the season, he's hitting .239 with a .364 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging percentage. The last time he finished a season hitting under .260 or getting on base at a clip worse than .370 was in 2002 with St. Louis.

The entire Red Sox lineup has hit a horrific slump. Jason Bay has seen his OPS tumble from 1.120 on May 13 all the way down below .900. David Ortiz seemed to be back to his old tricks in June but is hitting .218 with a .279 on-base percentage in July. Jason Varitek has four extra-base hits in the last four weeks. No one -- no one -- seems to be able to do anything from the top spot in the order.

But you build a house one wall at a time, and you lay out a baseball diamond one base at a time. Let's start with Drew and go from there.

Many of J.D. Drew's peripheral stats remain the same as last season. His ground-ball percentage is the same. His fly-ball percentage is the same. His line-drive percentage is the same.

His strikeout rate is up from 21.7 percent a year ago to 28.6 percent this season, a jump largely attributable to a declining swing pecentage while pitchers are throwing an increasing number of pitches in the strike zone. But strikeouts haven't been his only problem this season.

What, then, is different?

Here's something to check out: Drew's batting average on ground balls, fly balls and line drives. These numbers usually don't mean much. Most players, of course, have spectacular batting averages on line drives and fairly mediocre batting averages on everything else. But let's take a look, anyway.

Drew's batting average on fly balls
2009: .284
2008: .269
Career: ..212

Drew's batting average on line drives
2009: .786
2008: .771
Career: .807

Drew's batting average on ground balls
2009: .148
2008: .281
Career: .234

There it is.

Drew actually is having better luck in getting his fly balls to drop than he has in the past. The ground balls he's hitting, though, are rolling into gloves far more than usual. He's getting hits on ground balls at half the rate he saw last season.

Why is that? Well, let's keep going: Let's look at where Drew's ground balls are going. This blog doesn't have access to some of the advanced spray charts out there, but if you just look at Drew's home games on, you get a pretty decent picture.

First, click "Ground outs."

Then, click "ALL."

Drew is capable of hitting the ball over the field. Just check out his 2008 spray chart, a graphic that shows Drew homering over the Green Monster twice, doubling off the Green Monster five or six times, and spraying ground ball after ground ball to shortstop.

This season, though, everything he's hit on the ground has gone to the right side of the infield. Everything. Drew has grounded out to shortstop twice all season. He has grounded out to third base zero times.

The Toronto Blue Jays responded to Drew's tendencies by employing a David Ortiz-esque overshift. Drew went hitless in three games against the Blue Jays; he grounded out to the right side of the infield five times. The more Drew insists on pulling the ball on the ground, the more he'll see teams employing that shift on him.

Why is that? In some ways -- and, again, we don't have access to the advanced "Pitch f/x" charts here at OneIfByLand -- there's reason to believe he is being pitched differently. Throughout his career, he's seen fastballs on about 55 percent of the pitches he's been thrown. This season, though, he's seeing fastballs 60 percent of the time -- all the while seeing fewer sliders, cutters and changeups. That's a pretty substantial jump.

The biggest hole in Drew's strike zone a year ago was on the inside part of the plate between his hands and his knees. He hit better than .300 throughout the rest of the stroke zone but hit .194 on pitches inside at the hands and hit .235 on pitches inside at the knees. If pitchers are attacking that zone -- particularly with fastballs -- it seems almost inevitable that he'd hit a lot of ground balls to second base.

Drew might want to go the other way. He did so with great effectiveness last season. But teams may not be giving him that option -- and if you try to go the other way with a pitch inside and down at the knees, all you're going to do is hit a soft pop fly to shortstop.

UPDATE: Thanks to Ryan at, we now know that Drew's batting average actually has increased significantly on pitches down and in but has dropped on pitches down and over the plate and down and away. Those are the pitches that, if you don't attack them the right away, are really easy to roll to second base for routine outs.

Opposing pitchers have made a terrific adjustment on Drew. It's up to him to make his own.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A chance for Buchholz to succeed

A quick snapshot of the first major-league inning Clay Buchholz had pitched in more than a year:
* Marco Scutaro: Groundout to shortstop.
* Aaron Hill: Groundout to shortstop.
* Adam Lind: Groundout to shortstop.

A quick snapshot of the second major-league inning Buchholz pitched:
* Scott Rolen: Groundout to third base.
* Lyle Overbay: Single to center field.
* Alex Rios: Strikeout swinging.
* Jose Bautista: Ground ball to third base. (Error.)
* Rod Barajas: Strikeout swinging.

Five ground balls. Two strikeouts. One hit.

That's a recipe for success in the major leagues.

Buchholz has had tremendous success in the minor leagues in part because he strikes hitters out and induces ground balls. So far this season, he has a 2.97 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.69 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. (That would give him an Ultimate Pitcher Rating of 5.01, a number that would rank him somewhere around 15th or 20th in the major leagues.)

A fluke? Check out how he's fared in the Ultimate Pitcher Rating categories throughout his professional career:

2008 (major leagues)
K/BB: 1.76
GB/FB: 1.52
UPR: 2.68

2008 (minor leagues)
K/BB: 3.39
GB/FB: 1.40
UPR: 4.73

2007 (minor leagues)
K/BB: 4.98
GB/FB: 1.26
UPR: 6.27

2006 (minor leagues)
K/BB: 4.26
GB/FB: 1.14
UPR: 4.85

Nothing about his success in the minor leagues has been fluky. He had trouble in the major leagues last season because the fly balls he surrendered turned into home runs at a rate of 14.7 percent -- a rate that would have been worst in the American League had he qualified.

If he can keep the ball on the ground and out of the bleachers, he ought to do just fine this time around. Depending on the severity of Wakefield's injury and how the trade market for Brad Penny develops, Buchholz might not have to make another trip to Pawtucket for a long time.