Saturday, October 31, 2009

Myron Pryor emerges as a force

Vince Wilfork played each of the Patriots' first four defensive snaps against Tampa Bay last Sunday, doing what he normally does in the middle of the defensive line. When a rush for no gain set up a third-and-4, Wilfork headed for the sidelines to make way for rookie Myron Pryor.

It was Pryor, then, and not Wilfork, who was right in the middle of the defensive line when quarterback Josh Johnson unloaded a hurried pass -- a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown by safety Brandon Meriweather.

The Patriots drafted Pryor in the sixth round of April's draft, making him the 207th player selected overall. More than half of the players drafted in the sixth round in April -- 19 of the 36, to be specific -- have yet to make an appearance in an NFL game. Pryor, who was the third-to-last pick in the sixth round, played last week as the Patriots' primary third-down nose tackle and backup to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.

Wilfork hasn't played nose tackle much on third down all season. The Patriots have kept him off the field on third down quite a bit all year in part to play to his strengths and in part to keep him fresh. Where they haven't been as consistent, though, is how they've replaced him on those snaps. It's interesting, in fact, to see who's replaced him on the Patriots' first third-down defensive snap in their last three games:

Broncos: Mike Wright lined up between Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess as the Patriots played three defensive linemen and six defensive backs;
Titans: Wilfork lined up alongside Pryor between Banta-Cain and Burgess as the Patriots went with four defensive linemen and five defensive backs;
Buccaneers: Pryor lined up between Banta-Cain and Burgess as the Patriots went with three defensive linemen and six defensive backs.

Wright has the versatility to play anywhere along the Patriots' defensive line and took most of the snaps at nose tackle on third down earlier this season -- especially back when the Patriots were playing primarily a 4-3 defense. When Wilfork sat down on third downs earlier this season, it often was Wright who took his spot in a nickel or dime defense. The fifth-year veteran had his best game against the Baltimore Ravens, finishing with two sacks and two quarterback hurries in a game in which Wilfork still seemed to be limited by his ankle injury.

The play of Wright was no small factor in the impressive first month the Patriots' defense enjoyed.

But Wright didn't see nearly as much time against Tampa Bay as he had earlier in the season. Pryor seemed to be usurping his snaps. Let's piggyback off the work of ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss by breaking down the defensive snaps per game of Pryor and Wright since the season began:

Bills: Wright 18 snaps, Pryor 0 (inactive)
Jets: Wright 51, Pryor 3
Falcons: Pryor 27, Wright 26
(That was the game in which Wilfork injured his ankle; Pryor played every snap at nose tackle in the aftermath of the Wilfork injury.)
Ravens: Wright 38, Pryor 19
Broncos: Wright 58, Pryor 28
Titans: Wright 27, Pryor 24
Buccaneers: Pryor 26, Wright 15

Oh, and wouldn't you know it: The game in London was the first game in which Pryor had a positive rating. (Note to self: Do a little more research on the way hands out its ratings before using it too extensively.)

The Tampa Bay game could be an anomaly. But while Belichick doesn't like to hint at the way his depth chart stacks up, his division of labor doesn't lie. Pryor is light years ahead of second-round draft pick Ron Brace and seems to be turning into just the third-down nose tackle to fit the Patriots' defensive scheme.

With the next month a make-or-break month for the Patriots' dreams of a first-round bye in the playoffs, it'll be very interesting to see how much the Patriots' rookie nose tackle can keep progressing.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bye week gives Patriots a chance to self-scout

The Patriots will sit down this week and go over film the way they always do, looking for tendencies, looking for weaknesses, looking at anything that can become an advantage if exploited. It might be a coverage scheme in the secondary. It might be a blocking scheme on the offensive line. It might be a formation on special teams. The Patriots, as they do every week, will pore through the film in search of any scrap of useful information they can find.

Oh, and they'll be looking at their next opponent, too.

Apart from rest -- Gary Guyton and Wes Welker said they were headed back to Georgia and Oklahoma, respectively, after practice -- the bye week gives the Patriots a chance to do some self-scouting based on the first seven games of the season.

Every team looks for tendencies in its opponent, so the Patriots this week will take a look at their own tendencies. Plays are called based on countless factors -- down, distance, field position, side of the field, anticipated defensive alignment -- and it would be easy for a team to fall into patterns in certain situations. The Patriots might discover, for example, that they almost always run to the left when they're on the right hash mark in a short-yardage situation, and that's a tendency an opponent might pick up on.

"Every good team has tendencies," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "If you look out there and look at any team in football and basketball and hockey, there's certain things they do, and if they're a good team, they probably do them well. ... I don't think tendencies are necessarily a bad thing, but there's a point where you want to have balance and be able to do things to complement them."

The Patriots are getting a head start on Miami -- particularly the defense of the Dolphins' Wildcat package that has given them so much trouble. But the bye week gives the Patriots' coaching staff a couple of days to look at themselves as an opponent would, to try to figure out where they've become too predictable in the early going.

If the Dolphins -- or the Colts or Jets or Saints, for that matter -- expect a blitz on defensive third-and-longs or a draw out of the shotgun on offensive third-and-longs, it's going to be far easier for them to stop those plays.

"Defensively, is our tendency to blitz in a certain situation or play Cover 1 or Cover 5 or stunt in a certain situation?" Belichick said. "If we're seeing that, our opponents are seeing that. Again, it might be something that we say, 'OK, but that's where we want to be. We're OK with that.' There also might be a feeling that, 'This is getting a little too predictable.'"

That can be done both through statistical analysis and film analysis. It's impossible to take one without the other given the small sample size involved and the myriad factors that go into the success or failure of each play. The rout against Tennessee in the snow, for example, almost has to be tossed out entirely -- there's no telling whether some of those pass plays would have worked if the Titans hadn't had to worry about the snow.

The Patriots can run spreadsheet after spreadsheet with statistical compilations from specific situations, too, and see what they all yield. Maybe they're surrending 4.5 yards per play when they blitz but 5.3 yards per play when they don't blitz, for example. (Those numbers are completely imaginary.) But if a wide-open receiver drops a pass in the end zone, well, that doesn't mean the blitz was a good idea.

"It's looking at all the plays," Belichick said, "looking at all the third-and-3-to-5s, the third-and-6-to-10s, the short yardages, all of the times we were in Cover 3, all the runs against Cover 3, all the passes against Cover 3, all the play-action against Cover 3, all the empty (backfield) plays. Actually seeing them is always a little more valuable than doing a statistical look -- although that's a good starting point and, a lot of times, it'll trigger something. ...

"You look it and say, 'We had a lot of production on these plays, but it's a little misleading -- they had some missed tackles, and, really, it wasn't that good.' There's other things that statistically don't look good, but you actually look them and say, 'We're on the right track here. If we'd just made this block or if we hadn't got that play called back with a penalty, if this guy hadn't slipped, we would have been productive there.' There's no substitute for actually seeing the play, seeing the film."

Does Cliff Lee remind you of anyone?

Check out Cliff Lee's pitch chart from his Game 1 win:

Does that remind you of anyone else you know? Doesn't it look a little bit like a mirror image of this pitch chart?

(What you're looking at, since it's been a little while, is the horizontal movement of each pitch graphed against its velocity, a chart that makes it pretty easy to distinguish a four-pitch repertoire of a fastball, changeup, curveball and slider. Pitcher B has a faster fastball and a slower changeup, but the two otherwise are almost exact mirror images -- a lefty and a righty with virtually the same arsenal.)

Even the spin magnitude chart -- a chart this writer only sort of understands -- makes the two look like mirror images. Here's Lee:

And here's the other guy:

Cliff Lee had a 5.43 ERA in his first full season in the major leagues, winning 14 games as a 25-year-old but struggling mightily the whole way. A year later, at the age of 26, he won 18 games and posted a respectable 3.79 ERA -- including a stretch in which he had a 2.36 ERA across eight starts.

Three years after that, at the age of 29, he posted a 2.54 ERA and won the American League's Cy Young Award. A night ago, he struck out 10 and walked no one in a complete-game victory in Game 1 of the World Series.

That sounds like just the type of pitcher the Red Sox would love.

No wonder they've been so reluctant to trade Clay Buchholz.

(Thanks, as always, to Dan Brooks.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tate gets in, doesn't miss a beat

It's hard to overstate how impressive it was that Brandon Tate played the way he did on Sunday.

Football is almost as much about scheme and system as it is about talent. Sure, the best players can thrive on pure athletic ability, but for most players -- particularly wide receivers, whose job is to be where their quarterback expects them to be -- flawless execution of plays is just as important as any 40-yard dash time.

Tate didn't participate in minicamps during the summer. Tate didn't participate in training camp in August and September. Tate didn't participate in any of the team's first six games. Tate didn't even participate in practice until last Wednesday -- and that was his first football action of any kind since he'd torn up his knee returning a punt with North Carolina more than a year ago.

All he'd done was sit in the film room and do as much studying as he possibly could.

"I've put myself in some of the other guys' shoes," Tate said, "and when the coach talks to them, I make it seem like he's talking to me, too."

But film can't compare to the real thing. He experienced the real thing for the first time on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- and it wasn't just in a limited role, either. With the Patriots' corps of wide receivers depleted by ineffectiveness and injury, Tate had to step right in as the team's fourth wide receiver.

"It's faster than college, I know that," he said. "Everybody's bigger, and everybody knows their assignments. You've got to go out there and run your route the right way and be crisp on everything."

Tate didn't catch any passes against the Bucs on Sunday. (He was the target when Brady threw his second interception of the game.) But the first time he took the field in an NFL game, he took an end-around handoff from Tom Brady and rushed for an 11-yard gain behind the blocks of tight end Ben Watson and wide receiver Sam Aiken. He also returned a kickoff for 22 yards -- something he'll likely do more and more as the season progresses.

"That felt real good, man," Tate said. "I ain't been out there on the field for so long -- and the trip to London was also big for me, too. I just soaked it all in and enjoyed it."

He now has a week of practice under his belt and an NFL game on film that he and his coaches can critique. Even better, he has nine more games to demonstrate why the Patriots considered him a steal when they snatched him up in the third round of the draft.

"I'll just keep on trying to get better in practice," he said. "It starts in practice -- I'll just go out there and work hard and get better and better."

Jason Bay's agent off base

"The only defensive statistic that I know for sure that is easily measurable is outfield assists and errors committed, and Jason is just the third outfielder in major league history to lead the league in outfield assists while not creating an error all season, the last guy being Carl Yastrzemski. It used to be that those statistics were enough. In baseball we all need a better evaluation of defensive ability but the defensive metrics we have out there are so debatable, and in most cases proprietary, that it is hard to quantify a player’s ability to play defense."
-- Joe Urbon, Jason Bay's agent

It's hard to believe Theo Epstein did anything but start chuckling when he read the salvo from Joe Urbon, the agent representing Jason Bay this offseason, in an interview with WEEI.

No one questions the way Jason Bay hits -- and if the Red Sox offered him a four- or five-year deal, they wouldn't expect the way he hits to decline much over the course of that contract.

His fielding, however, is another story.

Bay finished this season with an OPS+ of 132 -- second-best among Red Sox hitters and 12th-best in the American League, according to According to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement statistic, however, Bay ranked fourth among Red Sox position players and 32nd in the American League.

The reason? His defense.

Among the 29 qualified outfielders in the major leagues, Bay ranked 25th in Ultimate Zone Rating (according to FanGraphs) and 23rd in The Fielding Bible's plus-minus system (according to Not since 2006, in fact, has Bay recorded a plus-minus or an UZR better than 0 -- in other words, better than average.

"It’s a surprise,” Urbon told WEEI. "I think that most people who evaluate for a living, their reaction is that that is not true. All I can go by are comments by his teammates and others who have seen him play day in and day out. Obviously the only comparison we have as a Red Sox is to Manny and that’s probably not favorable to Jason, really. But the feedback I’ve gotten from evaluators is that he plays that position as well as anybody they’ve seen, and that was really from Day 1 or Week 1 coming in and playing left field at Fenway back at the trade deadline last year."

(We'll ignore the contradiction there: He implies that Manny Ramirez played left field at Fenway Park better than Bay did and then says that Bay plays that position as well as anybody.)

Here's part of the issue: Baseball is still coming around on advanced statistical measures. (Here's a Sports Illustrated story from this spring that describes the revolution as well as anyone has.) Many talent evaluators -- and, just as importantly, many players -- still believe in the idea that the player with the fewest errors is the best defensive player.

"I don’t think anybody really believes in that stuff," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia told this writer back in May. "I don’t really know how they do that. My biggest focus is, if the ball is hit to me, pick it up and throw it and get an out. You don’t need zone ratings or anything like that to tell who’s a good defensive player and who’s not. You can pretty much look out on the field and tell who can play defense and who can’t."

Bay, of course, comes out at the top of the heap in the most widely accepted statistical measures: Errors and fielding percentage. Bay finished this season with zero errors -- fewer than David Ortiz, even -- and a fielding percentage of 1.000. No player in the major leagues -- at any position -- handled as many chances as Bay without flubbing at least one.

But there's a fundamental issue with that measurement when you're evaluating outfielders: An outfielder only can be charged with an error if he gets to a ball -- and the worst outfielders aren't going to get to as many balls. Even if an outfielder almost gets to a ball but allows it to glance off his glove, he often won't be charged with an error. The only way to guarantee the official scorer will hang an error on an outfielder is if a throw gets away and allows a runner to move up a base.

Jason Bay can throw. Jason Bay might not have the world's strongest throwing arm, but it's certainly accurate: Only Houston's Hunter Pence finished the season with more outfield assists (16) than Bay (15). Urbon certainly isn't lying when he cites statistics that show Bay's arm being both accurate and reliable.

But arm doesn't tell the whole story. It barely tells half the story. The best outfielders are the ones that chase down fly balls in every direction -- and Bay just doesn't have the ability to do that. The Fielding Bible awarded him a plus-1 on shallow fly balls and a plus-6 on medium fly balls but an abysmal minus-14 on deep fly balls.

Some uncertainty exists about how much the Green Monster hurts Bay in his statistical measures, about whether balls that hit 10 feet up on the wall count against him or not. John Dewan, the creator of the plus-minus metric, claimed in a forum on the Sons of Sam Horn message board that his system includes a park adjustment named for Ramirez, its primary beneficiary during his years with the Red Sox.

But Bay had a minus-19 in his final full season with the Pirates in 2007 and a minus-11 in 2008, a season in which he spent four months in Pittsburgh and two months in Boston. As he gets older -- he turned 31 in September -- his range inevitably will decline.

"Let’s not over-focus on the defense," Urbon told WEEI. "We used to not focus on defense at all as a free agent. Now it seems like that’s all we’re focusing on, and there has to be a reason for it."

There is: When a team is being asked to shell out $15 million a year for four or five years, the type of numbers Bay's camp presumably is throwing out there, that player had better be more than a one-dimensional threat. Bay might be a tremendous hitter and an even better guy in the clubhouse, but if he's going to have to be a designated hitter by 2011 or 2012, well, he might not be worth the type of money he wants.

You must double-team Vince Wilfork

(Note: Wilfork was among the players absence from the portion of practice open to the media on Wednesday. Veterans like Randy Moss and Junior Seau likewise were absent, and with the weather miserable and the team on a bye week, the possibility of a veterans' day off can't be discounted.)

It's sometimes hard to measure the impact of Vince Wilfork.

The 325-pound nose tackle has just 19 tackles on the season, a total that ranks him ninth on his team. He has forced one fumble and has been credited with just two pass break-ups. Against Tampa Bay on Sunday, Wilfork was credited with two solo tackles and not much else. On the stat sheet, at least, he hasn't exactly been the most prolific defensive player on the field.

But there's a reason Wilfork earned a Pro Bowl nod two years ago and might earn another one this year. He still, as they say, commands attention from two offensive linemen most of the time he takes the field.

How much of that translates into actual impact, though? It's sometimes tough to tell. Let's go back to the tape and take a look at how Tampa Bay blocked Wilfork -- and what sort of impact the nose tackle was able to make in spite of that blocking:

* Wilfork played 20 snaps in the first half and was double-teamed -- two offensive linemen at least put a hand on him -- 12 times;
* Four of Tampa Bay's five offensive linemen was matched up against him at least once;
* Center Jeff Faine had to deal with him 15 times, and left guard Jeremy Zuttah had to deal with him 11 times -- and the two double-teamed him eight times;
* Wilfork beat Faine one-on-one in the second quarter and drew a chop-block penalty on running back Derrick Ward;
* On his next snap, on the Bucs' next possession, Wilfork again shed Faine in time to bat down a Josh Johnson pass;
* Only twice in the first half did Tampa Bay run the ball without double-teaming Wilfork -- once when Wilfork lined up as the right end in a 3-4 formation and once on a run that gained only a yard;
* Wilfork had both of his two first-half tackles out of double-teams, including a stop for no gain deep in Bucs' territory.

(Rookie Myron Pryor, by the way, played nose tackle in third-down and long-yardage situations thoughout the game and commanded a few double-teams by himself. The Patriots even left Wilfork on the sidelines on a third-and-1 play in favor of Pryor and Mike Wright -- and they got the stop. The rookie has made tremendous progress in the middle of the line and looks like an emerging force.)

Wilfork played only four snaps in the second half; with the score out of hand and the Buccaners needing to throw the ball downfield to have any chance, Pryor did most of the work on the interior of the defensive line. But here's how those four snaps went:

* First and 10: Wilfork lined up as the defensive end on the right side of a 3-4 and got double-teamed by the left tackle and left guard, allowing Tully Banta-Cain to get in behind him and pressure the quarterback into an incompletion;
* Second and 10: On the next play, the center was the only blocker on Wilfork -- and Wilfork got the first hit on the running back before Jerod Mayo dropped him for no gain;
* First and 10: Wilfork again lined up as the defensive end on the right side and beat the left tackle so clean he drew a holding penalty;
* First and 10: The center and the left guard double-teamed him and took him out of the play on what would be an incomplete pass.

To tally that one up: Wilfork in the second half was single-blocked twice and double-blocked twice -- and he still managed to get in on the play on three of those four snaps.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A proposal: Restricted free agency

(Consumer warning: This is long and possibly tedious, but if you're as fascinated by baseball's offseason as baseball's season, you might find it at least a little interesting.)

Baseball's salary ladder makes at least a little bit of sense at both of its extremes.

Young players are at the whim of their employer for three seasons, a system that rewards teams that draft and develop their own players and affords small-market teams a measure of financial flexibility.

Veteran players, on the other hand, as close to an open market as there is: They can sign contracts worth as much and for however many years as they can get, and they can benefit from periods of prosperity just as much as they can be hurt by periods of paucity. (Alex Rodriguez and Bobby Abreu represent the polar opposites on this scale.)

In the middle, though, players are subject to the whims not of the market but of to the whims of a three-person panel of arbitrators, professional dispute specialists who may or may not be experts on baseball and what it is that makes baseball players valuable. What it really does, though, is artifically supress player salaries for an extra three seasons in order to keep players tied to their original teams for a little bit longer.

Jonathan Papelbon will be the most high-profile Red Sox player to go to -- or, at least, to get close to -- salary arbitration. But Manny Delcarmen, Nick Green, Casey Kotchman and Ramon Ramirez likewise are eligible to have their salaries determined by an independent arbitrator, and whether that's good or bad depends more on their service time than on their ability to play baseball.

Baseball's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the 2011 season -- at which point the owners almost certainly will have to discuss the luxury tax and other ways to minimize payroll disparity across the game. That, though, would tend to drive down player salaries, and the players' association would have to get a concession or two from the owners in exchange.

Here's an idea: Restricted free agency. Read on.

I. Arbitrators value "primitive" statistics.
If you're a fan of saves, you're going to love arbitration. Check out some of these arbitration paradoxes from last season (with official major-league service time -- in years and days -- in parentheses, thanks to Cot's Baseball Contracts):

* Jose Valverde (5.090): $8 million
* Jonathan Papelbon (3.064): $6.25 million
* Bobby Jenks (3.090): $5.6 million
* Huston Street (4.000): $4.5 million
* Kevin Gregg (5.002): $4.2 million
* Felix Hernandez (3.060): $3.8 million
* Justin Verlander (3.002): $3.625 million

Let's re-rank that last list in order of Wins Above Replacement -- a Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs statistic -- for each of those pitchers in 2008, the season before that particular arbitration award:

* Hernandez, 3.9
* Verlander, 3.3
* Papelbon, 3.0
* Jenks, 1.3
* Street, 1.2
* Valverde, 0.8
* Gregg, 0.7

The Wins Above Replacement statistic puts into context how valuable a player is by measuring how many fewer wins his team would have -- using runs created or runs allowed -- if his roster spot had been filled by an average player called up from Triple-A.

Starting pitchers inherently are more valuable than relief pitchers simply because they throw more innings. That's why the Red Sox tried to hard to make Papelbon a starting pitcher and why it's hard to believe they've dismissed the idea of making Daniel Bard a starting pitcher. A pretty decent starting pitcher is worth far more than even the best relief pitcher.

Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher the game has ever seen, is earning the same $15 million salary per year as Derek Lowe -- and Rivera even pitches for the Yankees. Joe Nathan signed a contract extension with the Minnesota Twins that will pay him a little more than $11 million next season; in other words, he'll make less than what Kevin Millwood will make next season.

Rivera led all full-time relievers in WAR in 2008 -- but when relief pitchers were lumped in with starting pitchers, Rivera ranked 42nd behind, among others, Hiroki Kuroda and Scott Baker. Even as disappointing as Verlander was a year ago -- it's easy to forget now that he had a 4.84 ERA, his worst as a major leaguer -- his Wins Above Replacement ranked him ahead of Rivera.

With the history of the arbitration process as their guide, however, both Hernandez and Verlander had to settle for a salary less than half that of Valverde pretty much only because Valverde had 44 saves last season.

(None of the three actually went before an arbitrator -- but if either Hernandez or Verlander believed he could get significantly more money than he got, based on precedent, he'd have made sure there was a hearing.)

II. Arbitration gets the whole idea of compensation backwards.
Contracts should not be about what a player has done. He's already been paid for what he has done. It's about what a player will do that year and in the years ahead.

In theory, of course, young players get better each year and thus receive a greater salary each year. Still, though, teams make arbitration arguments based on what each player did the previous season as compared to other players -- and not based on what he ought to be expected to do the next season. The panel, in fact, considers the player's "contribution to the club" -- meaning what he's done in previous seasons -- and disregards projected contribution.

When teams bid on free agents, on the other hand, they're doing so based on the production they expect to receive. This is why Mark Teixeira (.919 career OPS entering this season) and Bobby Abreau (.902 career OPS entering this season) received such disparate contract offers. The Yankees expected the 29-year-old Teixeira to keep putting up an OPS of .900 or 1.000 for the next six or seven seasons. The Angels weren't sure they could expect the 35-year-old Abreu to produce the same way he had earlier in his career.

Teixeira, of course, signed an eight-year contract with the Yankees worth $180 million. Abreu signed a one-year contract with the Angels worth $5 million because no one would offer him anything better. That's how they were valued in the free market -- and, thus, that's a pretty accurate reflection of how valuable teams in baseball saw them.

You can bet an arbitrator would have seen things differently.

III. Arbitration overvalues service time.
When the panel hears a case, it is allowed to consider as basis for comparison "the salaries of comparable players in his service-time class and, for players with less than five years of service, the class one year ahead of him."

That means that while Hernandez is right up there with Roy Halladay as one of the best pitchers in the American League, based on service time, the arbitrator can't use Halladay as a basis for comparison.

He can, however, look at Brian Bruney, Zach Duke and John Maine -- so at least there's that.

IV. There are no market forces at play in arbitration. (There's a reason the word "arbitrary" comes from the same origin.)
Xavier Nady landed a $6.55 million contract from the Yankees last January, a raise of almost $3 million on his previous salary. It wasn't as if someone else was competing for his services. The reason the two sides settled on $6.55 million was because it seemed close to what an arbitrator might have awarded, anyway, based as much on the history of the process as on Nady's actual value as a player.

Oh, and Los Angeles' Andre Ethier, a player almost certainly valued more highly than Nady in every major-league front office, settled for just over $2 million.

That's the inherent issue with arbitration: In almost every other profession, the compensation of a company's best employees is based on his market value -- in other words, he or she is paid enough so another company won't steal them away. (This is why every major company in the world pays its CEO what seems to be an exorbitant salary. No rule forces them to do so. It's a matter of value.)

San Francisco's Tim Lincecum is eligible for arbitration this winter -- and there's a pretty good chance he'll be coming off back-to-back Cy Young Awards when he does so. It's unprecedented. There's no way an arbitrator could look at past history and decide what a two-time Cy Young Award winner with just three years of service time is worth.

Owners and general managers, though, have to have an idea of how the market values certain players. They can get a sense for how much Lincecum would be worth on the open market. Something is only worth, after all, as much as someone is willing to pay for it -- and for Lincecum to get the salary he deserves, more teams have to have the opportunity to buy.

V. Restricted free agency is the solution
Here's the setup: After three seasons under team control, a player becomes eligible for restricted free agency. Any team could offer the player a contract for the next season, and the player's original team would retain a right to first refusal -- much like in the NBA and the NHL.

Let's go back to Lincecum again. If restricted free agency was in play, you can bet the Red Sox -- and several other teams -- would jump at the chance to offer Lincecum $15 million or more, a number with which the Giants couldn't compete.

One could argue that Lincecum, as perhaps the best pitcher in the National League, deserves $15 million or more. But in an effort to give small-market teams a chance to hold onto their players for more than three seasons, here's a compromise as part of the proposal:
* For a player with fewer than four seasons of service time, the original team needs only to match 50 percent of the new team's offer.
* For a player with fewer than five seasons of service time, the original team needs only to match 75 percent of the new team's offer.
* For a player with fewer than six seasons of service time, the original team needs only to match 100 percent of the new team's offer.

If the Yankees were willing to offer Lincecum $20 million, for example, the Giants would only have to pony up $10 million to retain him. A year from now, if the Yankees were willing to offer Lincecum $20 million, the Giants would have to pony up $15 million.

And if the Giants chose to let Lincecum go, the Yankees would be on the hook for the $20 million they'd offered -- plus some sort of draft-pick compensation to be sent to the Giants.

Because fans tend not to want to see excessive team-hopping, though, there's one more stipulation to include: If the Yankees landed Lincecum for that $20 million salary, they'd be committed to him at that salary for each of his remaining arbitration-eligible -- or, in this case, RFA-eligible -- seasons. Lincecum in effect would be signing a three-year contract worth $60 million and would hit the open market at the same time he normally would.

Take Papelbon as another example. The Red Sox likely are going to owe Papelbon $8 or $9 million next season either because of the decision of an arbitrator or because the two parties come to an agreement that's driven by what they anticipate from a hearing. But what if there's another team that values Papelbon more than the Red Sox? What if there's a team that would be willing to pay $15 million a season for Papelbon? Shouldn't he be able to earn that type of money if there's someone willing to pay him?

Then again, if every other team shared a common view that Papelbon walked a tightrope last season that he won't survive this season, maybe none of them would offer more than $6 or $7 million. The Red Sox then could retain him at a salary more reflective of his market value.

(Imagine how fascinating it would be for the Yankees tried to decide how much to offer Papelbon in an effort to increase the cost for the Red Sox without offering so much that the Red Sox just let him go for a salary they wouldn't want to absorb -- especially with Rivera still under contract for $15 million next season.)

An arbitrator shouldn't decide what players are worth to baseball teams. Baseball teams should decide what players are worth to baseball teams. Restricted free agency isn't perfect, but the more you can put market forces into play, the more you're going to ensure that the best players earn the highest salaries and that the smartest teams wind up with the most cost-effective players.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Patriots get out the bag of tricks

"The Patriots want to blitz," Phil Simms said early in the CBS broadcast of the New England-Tampa Bay game on Sunday, "and they want to put pressure on the quarterback and they want to put pressure on the short routes."

But the Patriots hadn't blitzed. All season long, with Jerod Mayo and without, the Patriots hadn't blitzed. They'd done some shifting between a 4-3 formation and a 3-4 formation while mixing in some nickel and dime, but they'd mostly stayed home and avoided the creative gambles that for so long was the hallmark of Bill Belichick defenses. Against Denver two weeks ago, with the Broncos' "Wild Horses" offense causing all sorts of problems, the Patriots did almost nothing but stay at home in their base defensive packages -- and Kyle Orton picked them apart.

On Sunday, though, the Patriots blitzed. They blitzed corners off the edge. They blitzed safeties up the middle. They blitzed linebackers from just about everywhere. They didn't blitz too much -- by the count of this reporter, they blitzed on 13 of their 36 defensive snaps in the first half -- but they blitzed enough to keep young quarterback Josh Johnson looking over his shoulder.

And while it didn't make much of a difference against the woeful Buccaneers, who would have lost big no matter what, it did demonstrate that it did demonstrate that the Patriots' new-look defense still is capable of executing the same complex defensive packages as its predecessors.

Here's a look at how the Patriots distributed their blitzes in the first half before the score started to get out of hand:

* Brandon McGowan blitzed four times;
* Jonathan Wilhite blitzed three times;
* Adalius Thomas -- remember him? -- blitzed three times;
* Wilhite and McGowan blitzed at the same time twice, including on the interception that Brandon Meriweather returned for a touchdown;
* Gary Guyton blitzed twice;
* Meriweather blitzed once, doing so in tandem with Thomas;
* Jerod Mayo blitzed once;
* Patrick Chung blitzed once;
* Leigh Bodden blitzed once.

And that's just the first half.

Oh, and the Patriots frequently lined up Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess at defensive end, flanking Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, and both Banta-Cain and Burgess are at their best when they're going after the quarterback.

The result?

* Thomas had a quarterback hurry;
* Banta-Cain had two tackles for a loss;
* Chung had a sack and a quarterback hurry;
* Guyton had a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hurry;
* Mike Wright had a sack and a quarterback hurry;
* Myron Pryor had a quarterback hurry and a tackle for a loss;
* McGowan, Meriweather and bodden each broke up two passes.

The Patriots will face the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium in two weeks, a team that sparked the Wildcat revolution across the NFL. The Patriots weren't able to deal with the "Wild Horses" offense the Broncos threw at them, eschewing creativity in favor of conservatism.

It'll be interesting to see if they do the same against Miami.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jed Hoyer and Adrian Gonzalez

With it all but official that Jed Hoyer will make the move to San Diego, the question immediately arises: Will the Padres' new general manager use his best trading chip to restock what Baseball America ranked as the second-worst collection of talent in the major leagues -- and will the farm system he used to supervise be the farm system he targets?

Yes, he will. It makes too much sense for him not to.

The Red Sox and Padres already were a natural fit for an Adrian Gonzalez trade this winter. Gonzalez is under contract through 2011 -- assuming his team exercises a bargain-basement $5.6 million option -- and ranked 10th in the major leagues in Wins Above Replacement, a Baseball Prospectus statistic that takes into consideration both hitting and fielding. Albert Pujols is the only first baseman in the game with a signficantly better WAR number than Gonzalez.

Bill Smith -- a New Hampshire native, by the way -- had to trade Johan Santana immediately upon taking over the job of general manager with the Minnesota Twins two years ago. Hoyer, in much the same way, will have to make trading Gonzalez his first order of business.

No, trading your best player doesn't seem like the best way for a struggling team to get back into contention -- and it certainly doesn't seem like the best way for a new general manager to ingratiate himself with his new fan base.

But the Padres aren't exactly close to competing. Jake Peavy has been traded away. Kevin Correia might be the team's Opening Day starting pitcher. Kevin Kouzmanoff's 18 home runs were second-best on the team behind Gonzalez. Chase Headley was the only other hitter with an OPS+ better than 100 -- in other words, he was the only other above-average hitter to get to the plate more than 350 times this season.

Funny thing: The team's top prospect, 23-year-old slugger Kyle Blanks, posted the following numbers on his climb up the ladder:
Single-A (adv.): .301 batting/.380 on-base/.540 slugging
Double-A: .325 batting/.404 on-base/.514 slugging
Triple-A: .283 batting/.393 on-base/.485 slugging

Oh, and he's a first baseman.

You'd better believe that if it wasn't part of the conversation during the farewell lunch, Hoyer left behind a note for Theo Epstein describing exactly the type of package it would take to pry Gonzalez away from him.

Epstein, tangentially, has a couple of choices this offseason:
1. He can stand pat and hope his team still is good enough to compete with the Rays and Yankees, essentially punting a season but conserving his resources until after he's out from under the contracts of Mike Lowell and David Ortiz.
2. He can reload and go for it again.

A move for Gonzalez, particularly if it didn't cost the Red Sox prized starting pitcher Clay Buchholz, would match last winter's Mark Teixeira signing by the Yankees and, particularly if Jason Bay was persuaded to re-sign, give the Red Sox a lineup every bit as ferocious as the lineup in the Bronx -- with OPS+ numbers from 2009:

1. Ellsbury, CF (L) -- 96
2. Pedroia, 2B (R) -- 108
3. Martinez, C (S) -- 121
4. Youkilis, 3B (R) -- 143
5. Ad. Gonzalez, 1B (L) -- 163
6. Bay, LF (R) -- 132
7. Drew, RF (L) -- 131
8. Ortiz/Lowell, DH (L/R) -- 100/104
9. Al. Gonzalez/Lowrie, SS (R/S) -- Who cares?

Gonzalez even is a full two years younger than Teixeira and thus would be a better bet for the type of lucrative long-term deal he'll command when he hits the open market after the 2011 season.

He'd immediately make the Red Sox lineup both younger and, well, better -- both at Fenway Park and on the road. He'd allow Epstein to check off pretty much the only item on his offseason to-do list other than maybe sign a veteran starting pitcher on the cheap to provide insurance for Tim Wakefield.

All it would cost would be the jewels of the Red Sox farm system.

Casey Kelly would have to be included. Ryan Westmoreland would have to be included. Josh Reddick would have to be included. Ryan Kalish would have to be included. Daniel Bard might even have to be included -- something you'd think the Red Sox would do if they don't see him as a starting pitcher in the future.

That's a deal both the Padres and the Red Sox would make.

1. The Red Sox would make that deal because their resources allow them to focus perpetually on the short term. Neither Kelly nor Westmoreland, easily the team's two top prospects, are going to be factors in the major leagues until 2012 even if they started next season at Double-A and spent just one season at each level of the minor-league ladder. Rather than waiting for Kelly, for example, the Red Sox could trade him away and throw truckloads of money at Felix Hernandez when he hits the free-agent market after the 2011 season at the ripe old age of 25.

(And because of the resources they devote to the draft, the Red Sox can focus on ready-for-prime-time talent next June, no matter how expensive, in an effort to restock the shelves in time for 2012 or 2013.)

2. The Padres would make that deal because they're not going to compete without restocking their farm system -- and they're far enough away that they don't need prospects who are almost ready for the major leagues.

Consider the Bartolo Colon trade from back in 2002. The Indians, whose run of dominance in the American League Central seemed to have come to an end, traded Colon to the Montreal Expos, a team in danger of imminent contraction and thus a team with a desperation to win right away, sent back a package that included journeyman major leaguer Lee Stevens and three prospects:
* 23-year-old pitcher Cliff Lee had spent most of the season at Double-A and had just made his major-league debut. He wouldn't make 30 starts in the major leagues for the first time until 2004 but would win a Cy Young Award in 2008.
* 21-year-old infielder Brandon Phillips had just been promoted to Triple-A and actually would spend the next three seasons in Triple-A before the Indians tired of him and shipped him off to Cincinnati -- where he hit 30 home runs in 2007.
* 19-year-old outfielder Grady Sizemore split his season between Single-A Brevard County and Single-A Kinston, and he didn't even make an appearance in Double-A until the following season. He made his first All-Star team in 2006 -- four years after the trade.

Bad teams, as we've again learned with the news that Steve Phillips once offered a 19-year-old David Wright to Toronto for Jose Cruz Jr., can improve themselves by swapping established players for teenagers. The Indians lost 94 games in 2003 but won 93 games in 2005 and came within one win of the World Series in 2007 -- and every single one of their fans would do the Colon trade all over again if given a chance.

Hoyer isn't going to go all out to win next season or even the season after that -- and, by then, Gonzalez likely will be gone. Hoyer has a massive rebuilding project on his hands, and it's not a rebuilding project in which Gonzalez can assist.

If Hoyer could trade for a pitcher in his early 20s with an electric arm (Bard) and an outfielder in his teens with breathtaking athleticism (Westmoreland) and add Kalish or Kelly or Reddick to the package, he'd be doing himself a favor.

And if the Red Sox could trade for a lefthanded power hitter who's still three years shy of his 30th birthday, they'd be setting themselves up for another run at the World Series both next season and the season after that.

A team with their resources doesn't need to think too much farther down the road than that.

Red Sox MVP No. 1: Kevin Youkilis

(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season. Previously appearing on the countdown: No. 5 Jonathan Papelbon, No. 4 Josh Beckett, No. 3 Jason Bay and No. 2 Jon Lester.)

The Red Sox tried to throw $180 million at Mark Teixeira last winter, going all-out to find a way to land the switch-hitting first baseman, widely considered the best first baseman in the American League, and get him into their lineup.

As it turns out, the best first baseman in the American League might already have been on their roster. Kevin Youkilis followed up his MVP-caliber campaign in 2008 with yet another sensational season in 2009 -- and his emergence as a star did soften the Teixeira blow a little bit. Check out this season's leaderboard in a few advanced statistical categories, first basemen only:

1. Youkilis, .961
2. Teixeira, .948
3. Miguel Cabrera, .942
4. Kendry Morales, .924
5. Carlos Pena, .893

1. Teixeira, 146
t-2. Youkilis, 143
t-2. Cabrera, 143
t-4. Justin Morneau, 135
t-4. Morales, 135

Wins Above Replacement
t-1. Youkilis, 5.5
t-1. Cabrera, 5.5
3. Teixeira, 5.2
4. Morales, 4.3
5. Morneau, 3.2

Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA)
1. Youkilis, .413
t-2. Teixeira, .402
t-2. Cabrera, .402
4. Morales, .382
5. Pena, .374

Many analysts believe in wOBA -- a replacement for OPS that weighs on-base percentage more heavily than slugging percentage -- as the ultimate statistic to measure production of hitters. The only hitter in the American League to finish the season with a better wOBA than Youkilis was Joe Mauer, the all but certain Most Valuable Player.

If not for Mauer, in fact, Youkilis would have a pretty good argument to be considered the American League's MVP. His ability to move from first base to third base and back again only makes him a more impressive candidate: Without his flexibility, it seems unlikely the Red Sox could have done what they did with Mike Lowell and Victor Martinez down the stretch.

The Red Sox signed Youkilis to a four-year contract extension in January, locking him up through the 2012 season with a team option for 2013. He made $6 million this season and will make $9.125 million next season -- numbers that likewise afford the Red Sox tremendous flexibility. Check out the 2009-10 salary numbers for some of Youkilis' statistical peers:

Cabrera: $15 million/$20 million
Morales: $0.6 million/$0.7 million
Morneau: $10.6 million/$14 million
Pena: $8 million/$10.125 million
Teixeira: $20 million/$20 million

Other than Morales, a bargain of epic proportions, Youkilis is making less than any of the first basemen who put up similar production. He made less than a third of what Teixeira made last season, and he'll still make less than half of what Teixeira makes next season. For a team that still needs to find a thumper in the middle of the lineup for next season, that financial flexibility might be critical.

Either way, though, it's pretty clear Youkilis is right there with the best hitters in the American League -- and his defensive flexibility makes him far and away the most valuable player on the Red Sox roster.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Figuring out why Adalius didn't fit

For a big-play linebacker, Adalius Thomas doesn't have many big plays this season. He has just one sack and one pass break-up through five games, a far cry from the 11 sacks he had in his final season with the Ravens or the 11.5 combined sacks he had in his first two seasons with the Patriots.

Thomas' deactivation against the Titans on Sunday stunned most fans and analysts -- and it stunned him, too. The two-time Pro Bowler had been seen as a cornerstone of the Patriots' defense and not the type of player who ever would be deactivated for a reason not related to an injury.

But the Patriots had to employ a certain type of game plan against the Titans, and Thomas didn't quite fit into it. That game plan? Prevent running back Chris Johnson from getting to the edge.

Thomas has been playing out of position for much of the season. The retirement of Tedy Bruschi and the injury to Jerod Mayo created a void at middle linebacker, and as one of the best linebackers left on the roster, Thomas moved inside and played quite a few September snaps alongside Gary Guyton in the middle.

That, though, didn't seem to work for him. He didn't spend much time rushing the passer, instead frequently lining up across from tight ends or defending against the run in the middle of the field. He seemed to do OK in pass coverage but struggled at times against the run in Denver, missing some key tackles in a game the Patriots eventually lost.

He spent almost an entire possession on the sideline, watching as journeyman Rob Ninkovich had a sack and a hurry on the Broncos' longest drive of the first half. Even when he was in there, though, he missed an open-field tackle on wide receiver Brandon Marshall and found himself blocked out of the play by just about any body the Broncos put in front of him.

That wasn't going to work against Tennessee.

The Chris Johnson-led Titans have been a running team all season. They've actually averaged as many yards per rush (5.3) as they have per pass attempt, something that's not easy to do in a quarterbacks' league. Entering play Sunday, they ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (127.6) but 21st in passing yards per game (208.2). Kerry Collins might get most of the publicity, but it's Johnson's speed around the edge that defenses worry about most.

That seems to be why, even though the Patriots returned to the 3-4 base defense for which they're best known, Thomas didn't quite fit. Derrick Burgess played almost every defensive snap in the first half with Tully Banta-Cain, Pierre Woods and Rob Ninkovich rotating in opposite him -- and all four seemed to focus almost exclusively on run contain.

The Patriots sent five defenders across the line of scrimmage on just about every snap, but the two outside linebackers didn't usually go after Collins. They usually got upfield as quickly as they could to take away the outside running game from Johnson:

That's not Thomas' game. Against Denver, in fact, Thomas had quite a bit of trouble trying to corral opposing running backs no matter where he lined up.

Be it because of his lack of production or a message-necessitating lack of effort, the Patriots made the decision that sitting Thomas against a run-heavy team gave them a better chance to win.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for what it's worth, are equally woeful running the ball and passing the ball. Quarterback Josh Johnson has a tendency to scramble out of the pocket, and he's been sacked 10 times in his three starts this season.

If the Patriots believe they can give Johnson trouble by getting in his face, well, you'll probably see Thomas active and on the outside of a 3-4 defense just like you did last season and the season before that.

Red Sox MVP No. 2: Jon Lester

(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season. Previously appearing on the countdown: Closer Jonathan Papelbon at No. 5, starting pitcher Josh Beckett at No. 4 and left fielder Jason Bay at No. 3.)

Jon Lester isn't going to win the Cy Young Award this season. Zack Greinke had a season of historic proportions, and Felix Hernandez was almost as good. Behind those two, Roy Halladay seemed to fade in the second half but still once again put up numbers worthy of Cy Young consideration for the fourth straight season.

The Adjusted ERA+ numbers bear that out:
1. Greinke, 203
2. Hernandez, 174
3. Halladay, 157

After that, though?

4. Lester, 139

Lester finished this season unquestionably among the elite pitchers in the major leagues. He might just be the best lefty in the game right now. His strikeout rate (9.96 per nine innings pitched) was second-best in the American League behind only Detroit's Justin Verlander. When Terry Francona chose Lester to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series instead of playoff hero Josh Beckett, it was met with shrugs everywhere because it was so easy a choice.

At risk of being a wet blanket, though, the sensational season Lester turned in doesn't ensure he'll keep dominating in the years to come. Before this season, eight lefties since Lester was born have finished a season with at least 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings -- and they haven't all turned into Randy Johnson:

1. Rick Ankiel, 2000 (194 K in 174 IP)
Everyone knows the story by now. Ankiel tore through the National League, posting an ERA+ of 134 in his rookie season with the Cardinals -- but when he got the the postseason, he suddenly no longer could pitch. He walked 11 hitters and threw nine wild pitches in his three appearances and never pitched effectively in the major leagues again.

2. Erik Bedard, 2007 (221 K in 182 IP)
In easily his best pro season, Bedard catapulted himself into the conversation about the major leagues' elite arms with a 3.16 ERA in his final season before his arbitration award was set to skyrocket. He was traded to Seattle in a deal that netted the Orioles top prospects Adam Jones, George Sherrill and Chris Tillman, shipped to a big ballpark in which he should have thrived. Instead, an issue with his shoulder landed him on the disabled list -- and he's made a total of 30 starts in the two seasons since.

That's not exactly what the Red Sox are hoping to get out of Lester.

3. Sid Fernandez, 1985 (180 K in 170 1/3 IP)
After a decent if unspectacular debut with the Mets in 1984, Fernandez finished fifth in the National League in strikeouts and led the National League in hits allowed per nine innings in 1985. He didn't let up from there, either: From 1985-89, he averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings and accumulated a 3.18 ERA -- eighth-best in the major leagues during that span.

That's not a bad expectation for Lester, but his ceiling might be higher than that.

4. Johnson, 1991 (228 K in 152 IP)
One of the greatest lefties in the history of the game, the hard-throwing Johnson didn't put it together until he started to cut down his walks. He walked 152 hitters in that 1991 season -- no one has walked that many in a season since -- and 144 in the Mariners' awful 1992 season before morphing into the pitcher who will walk into the Hall of Fame in six or seven years. (He'll have to duck his head, of course, when he walks in.)

His strikeout totals jumped at the same time: He fanned 10.9 hitters per nine innings in 1993 and 12.3 per nine innings in 1995, the season he won his first Cy Young Award. After that, he didn't strike out fewer than 12.0 per nine innings again until 2002 -- the year he won his fifth Cy Young Award.

Johnson is in his own category. There's no comparison possible.

5. Scott Kazmir, 2007 (239 K in 206 2/3 IP)
The 23-year-old Kazmir made the Mets look silly as a 23-year-old, leading the American League in strikeouts and winning 13 games for the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays in their final year both of being hapless and of being the Devil Rays. He was poised to enter the season as the ace of the Rays' staff but strained his elbow in spring training and missed the first month. A year later, he missed another month with a quadriceps injury -- and he had a 5.92 ERA in 20 starts when the Rays traded him to the Angels.

That's not quite what the Red Sox have in mind with Lester.

6. Mark Langston, 1986 (245 K in 239 1/3 IP)
Much like Johnson, Langston broke into the league as a strikeout pitcher but didn't put it all together until he cut down on his walks. He walked more than 4.5 hitters per nine innings in each of his first three seasons but turned into a Cy Young candidate in 1987, the first year he had fewer than 4.5 walks per nine innings. His ERA then dropped in each of the next three seasons, tumbling all the way down to 2.74 in the 1989 season that prompted the Montreal Expos to deal -- who else? -- Johnson for him. Langston then signed with the Angels as a free agent and had a 3.90 ERA over the next seven seasons.

If Lester had a similar career to the one enjoyed by Langston -- he even went 15-7 with 142 strikeouts in 1995 -- it would be tough to be disappointed.

7. Oliver Perez, 2004 (239 K in 196 IP)
Here's the big cautionary tale. The Randy Johnson comparisons began to surface after a 2004 season in which the 22-year-old fanned a National League-high 11.0 batters per nine innings. A year later, though, he fought with shoulder stiffness in the spring and never recaptured the same type of magic. He then kicked a metal laundry cart in June and broke his toe, missing two months.

The goofy thing about Perez, though, is this: The Pirates treated him with kid gloves, even going so far as to forbid him from pitching in the winter leagues in his native Mexico after he threw 196 innings in that 2004 season. The team then claimed that Perez did not follow its prescribed offseason conditioning program and therefore saw both his endurance and his mechanics evaporate. A year later, they permitted him to go pitch for his hometown team in the winter -- and, a year later, his bad ERA (5.85) got even worse (6.55).

Lester saw a huge spike in his innings pitched a year ago, and many wondered if he might not last the season if he had to endure a similar workload. He and the Red Sox, though, seem to have figured out a way to keep his mechanics in order and his arm healthy. That's where the similarities between him and Perez seem to end.

8. Johan Santana, 2004 (265 K in 228 IP)
Billy Wagner didn't mince words when talking about Lester a couple of weeks ago.

"There's not really a better lefty than him," Wagner told "Johan is not as overall talented as him -- not to take anything away from Johan."

Santana and Lester have quite a few similarities, in fact: Not only are the two are close to the same height and weight, but Santana was 25 years old in his breakthrough season in 2004 -- the same age Lester was this past season. Santana had come up as a relief pitcher but became a workhorse starting pitcher for the first time in 2004. He had a sub-3.00 ERA in four of his next five seasons and has a 2.86 ERA since becoming a starting pitcher full-time; even with the elbow injury that cost him the final month of his season, he remains the standard by which all lefties are measured.

That elbow injury, though, is another warning sign: Both the Red Sox and Yankees had questions about the long-term health of Santana when they discussed acquiring him from from the Minnesota Twins two years ago. Santana had thrown more than 230 innings, including the postseason, in four of his last five seasons, and the strain might finally have caught up with him. That's exactly what the Red Sox are trying to avoid with Lester.

Then again, if the Red Sox can give five more years of best-pitcher-in-baseball performances from Lester, maybe anything else is gravy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Patriots down to three healthy RBs

Don't expect Kevin Faulk to shy away from contact this week.

"It's a physical game," Faulk said. "It's a brutal sport. You're going to get hit regardless. Sometimes we get hit when we don't even have the ball."

But staying healthy will become more and more important this week as the Patriots' depth chart at running back absorbs more and more casualties. Fred Taylor underwent ankle surgery two weeks ago and appears to be out indefinitely, and Sammy Morris left Sunday's game with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. (Neither player was present at practice on Wednesday.)

"We'll go with what we've got," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "The guys that are healthy, they'll play. The guys that aren't, we know will be back as soon as they can. I know they're working hard. We'll just take those guys day-to-day. When they're ready, we'll plug them back in there. In the meantime, there'll be more opportunities for the guys that are active."

Those opportunities presumably will go to Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Laurence Maroney, the only three healthy running backs on the roster this week. All three saw significant time against the Titans last Sunday:
* Faulk had one carry and had three receptions, including a screen pass he took 38 yards for a touchdown;
* Green-Ellis rushed seven times for 67 yards in his first appearance of the regular season;
* Maroney quieted some of the critics that had been all over him in the early going, rushing for 123 yards on 16 carries, including a 45-yard touchdown rush behind a key block from Sebastian Vollmer.

Green-Ellis in particular is likely to see an expanded role this week against Tampa Bay. Maroney almost certainly will start the game, and Faulk will play the same multifaceted role he's played throughout his career. Green-Ellis, though, likely will see some third-down carries as well as some first- and second-down carries on drives during which Maroney is taking a breather.

"Law Firm" spent the entire preseason on the bubble, the fifth-best running back on a team that wasn't necessarily going to keep five running backs on its roster. His play in exactly this type of situation a year ago, though, gave him new life -- and every injury means he takes another step up the ladder.

"BenJarvus did a good job for us in the preseason, but he did a good job for us last year, too," Belichick said. "That carried a lot of weight, his performance in the '08 season when he was called on at different points in time. ... He has a lot of versatility. I really think he can play on all three downs -- on all four downs, to be honest with you. He's not limited in any situation where he's just a first-down back or just a third-down back or just a returner or anything like that. He really can operate in all of those situations pretty effectively. He's smart, and he knows what to do in all those things, too."

What makes the Patriots' situation even trickier is the fact that they like to use their running backs in their passing game. They don't just catch the ball out of the backfield, either; most of the Patriots' four- or five-receiver sets this season have featured at least one running back split out wide.

"You've seen all our backs line up pretty much everywhere," Belichick said. "The problem for a defense when a back splits out is, how do you want to match up with it? Probably your best matchup is to put a linebacker -- not that the other guys can't cover him, but you waste a corner or a safety on a running back. Generally speaking, those guys aren't as good of receivers as your receivers, and you end up with a linebacker covering a receiver or a linebacker covering a tight end."

With fewer backs available, the Patriots' options seem to become limited in that regard -- especially if they want to have any of their backs alongside or behind Brady in pass protection.

Then again, the Patriots also are down to three healthy wide receivers, too, barring a last-minute activation of Terrence Nunn or Brandon Tate. If they want to run any four- or five-receiver sets, they're going to have to get their running backs involved.

"It's on everybody," Faulk said. "Those guys are gone, but it is on everyone to step it up. You never know who's going to be in that position, who's going to be in that spot, to be in that role."

Red Sox MVP No. 3: Jason Bay

(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season. Previously appearing on the countdown: Closer Jonathan Papelbon at No. 5 and starting pitcher Josh Beckett at No. 4.)

Two other players -- it shouldn't be hard to guess their identities -- could be considered more valuable to the Red Sox this season than Jason Bay. No player, though, personnified the ups and downs of the Red Sox season more than the slugging left fielder.

From Opening Day until June 23, a span during which Bay OPS'ed .989 and inspired "Sign Jason Bay" chants all over New England, the Red Sox went 43-27 (.614) and surged out to a five-game lead in the American League East. Over the next six weeks, though, Bay hit .177 and OPS'ed .614 as the Red Sox tumbled 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees.

But from Aug. 10 until the end of the season, Bay hit .301 and OPS'ed 1.026 as the Red Sox kept pace with the Yankees and locked up the American League's wild card.

The Red Sox knew they'd be getting a streaky hitter when they acquired Bay. Check out some of his Mays and Junes over the years:

May 2006: 1.090 OPS
June 2006: .776 OPS

May 2007: .939 OPS
June 2007: .569 OPS

May 2008: 1.077 OPS
June 2008: .831 OPS

His dip two years ago, actually, was even more epic than his dip this season:

May 2009: .978 OPS
June 2009: .701 OPS

As the Red Sox are weighing the value of signing Bay to a multiyear contract, however, it's not his streakiness that's the issue. That's the given. The issue is this: Before this season, Bay hadn't had a .900-plus OPS for an entire year since 2006. With his 31st birthday behind him, might his strong season this season be a sign of things to come -- or an anomaly?

Among the possible indicators:

Strikeout rate
2007: 23.0 percent
2008: 20.5 percent
2009: 25.4 percent

(That doesn't tell you much.)

Walk rate
2007: 9.6 percent
2008: 12.1 percent
2009: 14.7 percent

(That's a good sign but still doesn't say much.)

Line-drive rate
2007: 18 percent
2008: 17 percent
2009: 18 percent

(Too consistent to be an indicator.)

Home runs per fly ball
2007: 9.6 percent
2008: 12.4 percent
2009: 17.3 percent

There it is: Percentage-wise, Bay saw almost twice as many fly balls sail over the fence this season than he did during his lackluster 2007 season. (Bay hit just 21 home runs and OPS'ed .746 in 2007.)

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Bay has a career HR/FB ratio of 13.4, somewhere between his extremes from 2007 and 2009 -- and somewhere pretty close to the 12.4 percent he had in 2008.

Bay hit 31 home runs and OPS'ed .895 in that 2008 season, numbers that ranked him 27th and 21st, respectively, in the major leagues. His numbers, actually, compared pretty favorably to those of Josh Hamilton in 2008:

Bay: 31 HR, .373 OBP, .522 SLG
Hamilton: 32 HR, .371 OBP, .530 SLG

Bay got a little bit lucky in 2009 -- but he didn't get all that lucky. He's still a 30-100 hitter with the ability to put up a .900 OPS.

Whether he'll still be doing that four years from now, though, is the question the Red Sox have to answer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Red Sox MVP No. 4: Josh Beckett

(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season. Previously appearing on the countdown -- No. 5: Closer Jonathan Papelbon.)

The Red Sox will have to decide pretty quickly whether they see Beckett as a break-the-bank ace or as a very good pitcher who might not be worth what he'll probably get on the open market.

Beckett came into last season as the team's undisputed ace, a hard-throwing righty coming off a Cy Young-caliber season in 2007. Two years later, Beckett didn't even make the Game 1 start when the Red Sox met the Angels in the American League Division Series -- and he faded in the seventh inning of that start, surrendering a two-run triple to Erick Aybar that proved to be the difference in the Angels' win.

After a spectacularly dominant tear through the playoffs in 2007, in fact, Beckett has looked completely ordinary in his last two postseason trips: He has a 7.71 ERA in his last four playoff starts, hardly the stuff of legend he demonstrated in his first two ventures into October.

Don't misunderstand: Beckett is a terrific pitcher capable of shredding opposing lineups. Between May 1 and Aug. 15 this season, in fact, Beckett went 12-2 with a 2.17 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.38. He faded badly down the stretch, though, missing a start with back spasms and putting up a 6.02 ERA in his final nine starts of the season.

With Beckett now one year away from hitting the open market at the age of 30, both he and the Red Sox will have to figure out if he's the type of elite pitcher worth the investment the Yankees made in CC Sabathia last winter ($161 million for seven years) or if he's closer in value to the contract the Braves lavished upon Derek Lowe ($60 million for four years).

Here's a look at how Beckett stacks up with some of the best starting pitchers in the game over the last five years (min. 50 wins from 2005-09):

1. Chris Carpenter, 2.76
2. Johan Santana, 2.91
3. Roy Halladay, 3.01
4. Jake Peavy, 3.13
5. CC Sabathia, 3.27
22. Josh Beckett, 3.92

(Also among those ahead of Beckett: Mark Buehrle, A.J. Burnett, Scott Kazmir, John Lackey -- and Derek Lowe.)

Adjusted ERA+
1. Carpenter, 1.55
2. Santana, 149
3. Halladay, 147
4. Brandon Webb, 141
5. Sabathia, 135
17. Beckett, 117

K/BB ratio
1. Halladay, 4.56
2. Santana, 4.23
3. Dan Haren, 4.16
4. Carpenter, 4.02
5. Javier Vazquez, 4.00
14. Josh Beckett, 3.41

1. Carpenter, 1.057
2. Santana, 1.072
3. Halladay, 1.106
4. Jake Peavy, 1.125
5. Haren, 1.153
8. Beckett, 1.200

The Red Sox make it a practice to place a value on a player based both on his production and on the market and to stick to that value. Beckett signed a contract extension three years ago that eventually will pay him $42 million for four years, a contract widely described at the time -- and since -- as below market value.

( has Beckett being worth an average of $24.3 million over the last three seasons based on his 5-6 wins above replacement with which he's been credited. Fangraphs' value numbers, however, don't necessarily reflect market conditions: The median player on the Fangraphs leaderboard was valued at $12.95 million this season, and it's a stretch to say the average non-Yankee major league team can spent that type of money on players like Martin Prado or Orlando Hudson and still keep their payroll under $100 million.)

Beckett undoubtedly will be out to make up the difference when he hits the open market. Unless he has a year that catapults him into the Carpenter-Halladay-Santana stratosphere, however, he's probably not going to get that type of contract from the Red Sox.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vollmer pulls off impressive debut

It wasn't just the blocking.

Rookie Sebastian Vollmer more than held his own in place of Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light, looking nothing like he was making his first career start in the NFL. Vollmer lined up most of the time against two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch -- and while the Patriots' scheme meant he had some help from running backs and tight ends, he did the job awfully well even when left alone against Vanden Bosch.

Tom Brady dropped back to pass 30 times in the first half; he attempted 28 passes, and he was sacked twice. (We're ignoring the second half because the game was totally out of hand by then.) Here's how Vollmer fared against Vanden Bosch and third-down pass-rusher Jacob Ford on those 30 first-half snaps:

* 10 times, the Patriots offered help in the form of a tight end or a running back -- especially on plays that required Brady to have a little extra time. Tight end Chris Baker did most of the blocking on Vanden Bosch on the 48-yard pass to Wes Welker and the 30-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker, and tight end Ben Watson did most of the blocking on Vanden Bosch on the flea flicker to Randy Moss.
* One time, on the Titans' first drive, he whiffed on his block but got away with it because Brady unloaded quickly.
* One time, on that same drive, he got beat clean by Ford -- and Brady, seeing it, stepped up into the pocket and right into the waiting arms of Jason Jones, who sacked him for a loss of six yards.
* Eighteen times, Vollmer took on Vanden Bosch or Ford one-on-one and kept them away from his quarterback. On one occasion, in fact, Vollmer seamlessly passed Vanden Bosch off to guard Logan Mankins in a zone blocking scheme and got in the way of blitzing cornerback Ryan Mouton, the smoothness of his technique befitting a veteran of the position.

(One thing to remember before we leapfrog Vollmer over Light on the depth chart based on this game: The lousy footing, in this one-on-one matchup, usually benefits the left tackle rather than the defensive end.)

"He’s really worked hard," Brady said. "He’s very well coached. He’s a smart kid. He’s tough. You see how big he is out there, so he’s got a lot of physical tools. His intelligence gets him in the right position, the right calls. He did a great job today."

The most impressive play from Vollmer was on the tone-setting Laurence Maroney run in the first quarter that set the stage for an onslaught of touchdown passes in the second quarter. This wasn't about going one-on-one with a defensive end and keeping him away from Brady. That, while physically demanding, doesn't take as much sophistication as the maneuver pulled off in front of Maroney on the first quarter.

But that's the type of player Vollmer is -- even though he grew up in Germany and didn't start playing the game until he was 14.

"He's a smart kid," center Dan Koppen said. "He's a tough kid. He really came in from Day One and tried to pick up the offense and has done a great job of it. He really works hard every week whether he's in there or not. There's no lack of confidence in there with him. Roll him in, and let's go."

Let's take a look at the play. It was a second-and-3 snap at midfield, and the Patriots had two wide receivers and two tight ends on the field. The Titans had a pretty basic 4-3 formation on the field with designs on stopping the run. Here's how both teams lined up at the snap -- with Maroney in yellow and Vollmer, the left tackle, in gray:

When Brady took the snap, he made a basic drop to give the ball to Maroney. Plenty, though, was happening in front of him.
1. Tight end Chris Baker going after a linebacker.
2. Right tackle Nick Kaczur was blocking a defensive end.
3. Koppen and right guard Stephen Neal were double-teaming defensive tackle Jovan Haye, clearing a gap on one side.
4. Left guard Logan Mankins was mauling defensive tackle Tony Brown, clearing the gap from the other side.
5. Vollmer was pulling around Mankins to get into the gap that had just been created between Haye and Brown and to get to the second level of the defense.

When Maroney got the handoff, he hesitated. Maroney has driven Patriots fans crazy for four seasons with his hesitations in the backfield. This time, though, his hesitation gave Vollmer a chance to get to his spot -- and it created a hint of uncertainty in the defense.

Maroney, after all, is a running back who often runs sweeps to the left or the right. That's been part of his issue this season -- he hasn't gotten to the line of scrimmage on quite a few of his runs because defenders are getting to him before he can turn the corner. On the previous play, even, Maroney had rushed around the right edge for a gain of seven yards.

That tendency -- and his hesitation -- gave the Titans' safety and middle linebacker reason to believe he was about to run once again behind Kaczur and Baker around the right side of the Patriots' offensive line. Here's how everything looked as Maroney paused in the backfield:

That's when Vollmer plowed through the line to meet linebacker Keith Bulluck. He didn't blow him up. He didn't really even hit him that hard. He simply got in his way, and that was enough to prevent Bulluck from getting a hand on Maroney. It was a perfectly executed pull block.

Vollmer got from his spot on the outside of the line and led Maroney right through the gap, blocking one of only two players who would have been in position to make a tackle Koppen shed Haye to get to a waiting linebacker on the other side of the gap, and the hole was wide open.

From there, with defensive backs closing all around him, it was up for Maroney to hit the hole -- and he hit the hole.

Forty-five yards later, the Patriots had their first touchdown of the game -- and their rookie left tackle from Germany deserved quite a bit of the credit.

Red Sox MVP No. 5: Jonathan Papelbon

(A five-part series about the players most integral to the success the Red Sox enjoyed this season, counting down from No. 5: Closer Jonathan Papelbon.)

Lost in all the debate about the intentional walk Jonathan Papelbon issued to Torii Hunter in Game 3 of the American League Division Series was this: Papelbon has always pitched at his best in the toughest possible spots. Rather than giving Papelbon no margin for error, in a lot of ways, Red Sox manager Terry Francona was putting his closer in the type of situation in which he thrives.

Consider this: Papelbon isn't the only closer to walk the type of tightrope he walked this season.
Almost 80 closers since 2000 -- defined for these purposes as having 30 or more saves in a season --have finished a season having allowed 80 or more opponents to reach base. Almost 80 closers since 2000 have put themselves in position to fail by allowing runners to reach base on a regular basis.

Derek Lowe did it in 2000, allowing 114 runners to reach base in his 74 appearances in 2000. Keith Foulke even did it in 2004, allowing 84 runners to reach base in his 72 appearances en route to a World Series title. Oh, and, of course, Brad Lidge did it this season, allowing 111 runners to reach base in his 67 appearances.

Lidge finished this season with a 7.21 ERA. Lowe finished his 2000 season with a 2.56 ERA. Foulke finished his 2004 season with a 2.33 ERA.

Papelbon finished this season with a 1.85 ERA.

Only one of the 78 closers on the list, in fact, finished the season with a lower ERA than Papelbon: Francisco Rodriguez, who had a 1.73 ERA despite allowing 81 baserunners in 69 appearances with the Angels in 2006.

Luck has a little bit to do with it. The more opportunities an opponent has with runners on base, the type of opportunities the Angels had in the late innings of Game 3, no matter the pitcher, the better the odds they're going to stumble into a couple of runs.

But there might be no better pitcher in baseball at pitching out of trouble than Papelbon. One disintegration at the worst possible time doesn't change that. That's been the case throughout his career, and it certainly was the case as he was compiling that 1.85 ERA this season.

In perhaps his most impressive outing of the season, he came into the game with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth against Tampa Bay on Sept. 1 and set down B.J. Upton, Jason Bartlett and Carl Crawford in order to get out of the jam. He then struck out Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena in the bottom of the ninth to close out the game.

Papelbon situational splits, 2009
Bases empty: .246 batting/.310 on-base/.346 slugging
Runners on base: .177/.268/.274
Bases loaded: .067/.067/.067
(With the bases loaded during the regular season, opponents were 1 for 15 -- a two-run single in mid-August by Marco Scutaro -- with 10 strikeouts. That's what made Guerrero's hit in the ALDS so astounding.)

Papelbon, career
Bases empty: .205 batting/.253 on-base/.318 slugging
Runners on base: .188/.264/.272
Bases loaded: .086/.132/.171

Let's compare that to some of his peers:

Mariano Rivera, career
Bases empty: .214 batting/.261 on-base/.294 slugging
Runners on base: .208/.268/.288
Bases loaded: .232/.234/.384

Joe Nathan, career
Bases empty: .203 batting/.276 on-base/.340 slugging
Runners on base: .198/.285/.310
Bases loaded: .143/.184/.206

Francisco Rodriguez, career
Bases empty: .201 batting/.281 on-base/.329 slugging
Runners on base: .179/.287/.272
Bases loaded: .232/.337/.464

None of those three come close to the way Papelbon rises to the occasion in the toughest possible spots.

Papelbon gave fans plenty of reason to gnaw their fingernails down to nubs this season. But while he pitched himself into plenty of jams, except on rare occasions, he pitched himself out of them.

One misplaced fastball to Guerrero shouldn't change that.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

This one's for Darius Butler

A rookie's first career interception should be one of those moments he remembers forever.

"It's like throwing your first touchdown pass or throwing your first touchdown," Darius Butler said from in front of his locker after Sunday's 59-0 win over the Tennessee Titans.

But it only had been a couple of hours since Butler has intercepted his first career pass, a pick of an underthrown Kerry Collins pass in the second quarter, and it already was a blur.

"I think I might have slid or dived or something," he said.

Butler had more on his mind than football. He'd lost a friend and a former teammate early Sunday morning to a senseless stabbing on the campus of the University of Connecticut shortly after midnight. Jasper Howard, a 20-year-old junior cornerback from the Miami area, like Butler, was stabbed during an altercation outside a party right in the middle of campus. A fire alarm was pulled during a dance, and a fight began as people began to trickle out of the building. UConn coach Randy Edsall had to visit a local emergency room around 4 a.m. to identify the body and to break the news to Howard's parents.

"It's a huge tragedy and definitely a shock for something like that to happen on the campus," Butler said. "My thoughts and prayers are definitely out to his family and our UConn family, also."

Howard started all 13 of the Huskies' games last season opposite Butler at cornerback, and the two certainly had developed a friendship. Phone calls and text messages began trickling in for Butler this morning.

"It was shocking, obviously," Butler said. "Some people didn't want to tell me before my game, but I found out. It was tough. ... It's a tough situation. Everything hasn't really hit me yet. It's a horrible tragedy, and it's a big loss."

It was fitting, in a way, that Butler intercepted his first career pass just hours after learning the terrible news about his friend. Brandon McGowan hit Collins as he was throwing, and Butler swooped in to catch the underthrown pass before wide receiver Nate Washington could get himself turned around.

The aftermath of the interception, of course, wasn't the only time Butler let his thoughts drift to the friend he'd lost hours earlier.

"I'm out there obviously focused on the game," Butler said, "but at the same time, thinking about what happened to him and his future being taken away from him."

Patriots-Titans halftime: It got ugly fast

Much like the last time the Patriots played at Gillette Stadium in the snow, this one got out of hand early. The key difference: The Arizona Cardinals had wrapped up a playoff berth and were playing out the string, but the Tennessee Titans came into this game 0-5 and had to be playing with a sense of desperation.

(Every loss by the Titans, by the way, benefits the Patriots, who own the Titans' second-round pick. At the rate they're going, the Titans are going to be handing the Patriots the No. 33 overall pick in next year's draft in exchange for the third-rounder they received last April.)

It's 45-0 at the half and getting more absurd by the minute.

Assorted halftime notes:
* The Patriots didn't have a play of 40 yards or longer entering today's game. They had three in the first half: Laurence Maroney rushed for a 45-yard touchdown, a huge play in the immediate aftermath of a knee injury suffered by Sammy Morris, and Tom Brady hit Wes Welker for a 48-pass down the left side to set up a field goal. Brady then hit Randy Moss on a playground-style flea flicker for a 40-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter.

Brady finished the first half with what has to be the best first-half statistics of his career: 24 completions on 28 attempts for 345 yards and five touchdowns. Brady had six touchdown passes all season coming into today's game -- and he threw for five touchdowns in the second quarter alone. Of his first 20 pass attempts, his only incomplete pass was a deep ball for Moss that seemed to get knocked down by the wind.

It wouldn't be surprising to see Brian Hoyer take all of the second-half snaps. No sense playing Brady in consitions like this with the score looking like it does.

* Morris, by the way, needed quite a bit of help to get to the locker room in the first quarter and has not returned to the game. The injury was to his left knee.

* Rookie Sebastian Vollmer started in place of the injured Matt Light and didn't look much like he was making his first career start. It was Vollmer, in fact, who keyed Maroney's touchdown run in the first quarter, pulling from the left side into a gap on the right side and leading Maroney right through the first and second levels of the Titans' defense.

The Patriots have done their part to make life easier for Vollmer, though, frequently lining tight end Chris Baker up alongside Vollmer to help take care of Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. When Brady hit Welker for that 48-yard pass, it was Baker who had primary duty on Vanden Bosch and Vollmer who chipped away at him.

But on a sideline pass to Sam Aiken late in the second quarter, Vollmer deftly shed Vanden Bosch to fend off blitzing cornerback Ryan Mouton and give Brady a chance to get rid of the ball. And on the next play, the screen pass that Kevin Faulk took 38 yards for a touchdown, Vollmer was matched up one-on-one with Vanden Bosch and held the defensive end off long enough for the screen to take shape.

Then again, on the touchdown pass to Welker that closed out the half, Baker took on Vanden Bosch by himself and left Vollmer to block no one at all.

* The absence of Adalius Thomas didn't prevent the Patriots from going back to their traditional 3-4 defense. Jarvis Green, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork started along the defensive line, and Derrick Burgess took the spot at outside linebacker that one would have expected Thomas to fill. The alignment left out Mike Wright, but when the versatile defensive lineman rotated into the game to give Wilfork a blow, he recovered a Kerry Collins fumble to set up the Patriots' third touchdown.

Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and Pierre Woods all have seen time at outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.