Keeping the Faith
One of the Yankees' most highly vaunted off-season pickups isn't doing so well with his new team. Going into tonight's game, National League veteran Gary Sheffield, a career .299 hitter before going to the Bronx, is batting just .265 with a .380 OBP and 3 home runs for his new team. His explanation? The American League's lousy pitchers are to blame:
Sheffield believes NL pitchers attack the strike zone more, giving him more pitches to hit. In the AL, he says, hitters have to wait for the hurler to come over the platesomething he admits he may be struggling to do.
I have another theory. Maybe if Sheffield were a better hitter, he wouldn't have to rely on the opposing pitchers to throw the ball at his bat.
As usual at this time of year, there is plenty to talk about in this neck of the woods. Not only is there the good and the bad, but there is also too much uncertainty for my personal taste, thank you. I'll feel much better when this team gets to the point where the standings are the only thing that matters.
Relations between Nomar Garciaparra and Red Sox ownership are showing signs of a belated spring thaw. Turns out that Nomar's hard-ass agent, Arn Tellem, chatted with Sox owner John Henry at last night's annual Nomar Bowl, and all parties are indicating a desire to get a deal done.
Nomar certainly overreacted when he interpreted the off-season ARod trade talks as a personal affront. He was more like a bystander, albeit a very important one, caught in the crossfire of a bigger battle. Perhaps he has come to realize that fact.
But the primary reason for the change of attitude is likely the understanding that two months on the disabled list is going to be a serious impediment to commanding the kind of free-agent money Tellem once believed his client would get, either from the Red Sox or another willing team. I wouldn't be surprised if the two men haven't sat down and re-aligned their expectations to the unfortunately reality of Nomar's bad timing in being so naggingly injured for the first third of his contract season.
I like and respect Nomar as a player and a strong community presence, and I want to see him stay. That said, Pokey Reese has proven something at shortstop this season. Defensively, he has exceeded Nomar. We will certainly see the two side-by-side working the middle infield upon Nomar's return. But might the Sox consider swapping the two players, putting Nomar at second and leaving Pokey at short? Stay tuned.
The Sox have done fine so far without key position players Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon, but must they withstand yet a third big injury? Third baseman and defending AL batting champ Bill Mueller has tendinitis in his right knee and has gone to Arizona for a second opinion from the guy who fixed the other knee a couple years ago.
Let's hope we're only dealing with a 15-day DL stint, rather than more surgery for Mueller. He hasn't exactly been burning it up offensively this season and he has committed more than his share of errors, but we need the stability of having him in the lineup, even if at less than full strength for awhile. I'd really rather not have to play without a full third of our first string before Trot and Nomar return.
I have confidence in rookie Kevin Youkilis' ability to fill at least in temporarily, yesterday's fielding error notwithstanding. But plucking Earl Snyder from Pawtucket to warm the bench makes me a little squeamish. It's amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to major-league depth.
I must be psychic.
Less than three hours after I expressed optimism about the prospect of re-signing David Ortiz (see below), the deal was announced on the Red Sox web site.
Four more to go.
The signs are positive for an early signing of free-agent-to-be David Ortiz. That is encouraging considering the current uncertainties surrounding the health of Trot Nixon, Nomar Garciaparra, and now Bill Mueller. Ortiz can hit for power and also pretty well for average, he can field, he's a great clubhouse presence, and he loves it here. A happy player is a productive player.
Speaking of Nomar, some dim bulb on the Red Sox message board recently opined that Nomar is dogging his rehab because he wants out of Boston. But to do so would severely cool the ardor of potentially interested teams and diminish his market value, two things which are likely happening already. If we keep him, it will only be at a greatly reduced price, a real possibility if his health doesn't resolve very soon.
On the Derek Lowe front, his performance so far this season isn't serving the cause of a fat long-term contract, either with the Red Sox or anyone else. His stats get worse by the game, and no, it isn't a hopeful sign that he didn't walk anyone last night. As Lowe himself admitted, throwing strikes is only a good thing if the batters aren't hitting them. Others have suggested he can't handle pressure with any consistency; perhaps the pressure of a contract year is bringing him down.
At least Pedro Martinez has been better. Not great, and not his old self. But still solid, especially recently, and good enough to rank 8th in the American League in innings pitched and batting average against and second in strikeouts to teammate Curt Schilling. It is a concern to me that he has already given up as many home runs in 2004 as he did in all of 2003 and is on a pace for a career high in that category. Still, I don't think he has done anything to weaken his negotiating position much.
Jason Varitek will be, in my opinion, the most important of this group to re-sign. Not only is he in better shape now than he's ever been, but he can hit, he calls a hell of a game, and by all accounts the pitchers love working with him. Many fans consider him to be the heart of this team, the one guy (even more so than Nomar) around whom the teams of the next few years can be built. I hope management finds a way to pay him what they must to keep him away from other suitors.
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Since my announcement that comments capability has been added to this blog, I have decided I don't like the free utility I added, mainly because objectionable comments can't be deleted. In the meantime, Blogger.com's latest upgrades include comments. So I have ditched the old comment utility and added Blogger's. Just wanted to let you know, not that it really matters.
I have nothing particular to say today about the Red Sox that I haven't already said. Instead, I'll pass along my third* favorite scene from the movie Field of Dreams:
Terence Mann: Ray, people will come, Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn into the driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. "Of course we won't mind if you have a look around," you'll say. "It's only twenty dollars per person." They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack.
Mark: Ray, just sign the papers.
Mann: And they'll like walk out to the bleachers, sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they had dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.
Mark: Ray, when the bank opens in the morning, they'll foreclose.
Mann: People will come, Ray.
Mark: You're broke, Ray. Sell now or you'll lose everything.
Mann: The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers; it has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.
Mark: Ray, you will lose everything. You will be evicted...C'mon, Ray.
Ray Kinsella: I'm not signing.
(* My second favorite scene is when Ray and Annie realize they both had the same dream about Ray and Terence Mann at Fenway Park. My favorite is the end: "Hey Dad, wanna have catch?")
Anyone can have a bad game or a slump. But what seems to be happening to the Red Sox is that everyone is having bad games at the same time, and several of them in a row.
Someone on WEEI's Dennis & Callahan show (I think it was Jon Meterparel, but I can't be certain) said this week that he thought the Sox were taking for granted that they would win simply because they're the Red Sox. I don't know about that, but it seems to me that a general lack of discipline and focus may be plaguing the team. Starting pitching has been sloppy out of the gate. Last night, four different relievers got lit up too. Sox offense has been dormant early in games. Defense is near the worst in the league.
It isn't a question of ability. We know these guys are capable of more than they've been giving. Granted, the absence of Trot and Nomar leaves a big void that is hard to fill, though the bench has given it a valiant effort. But their injuries shouldn't hobble the other players.
Yes, I know that until last night we were in first place, and this morning we're only a half game out. All that means is that we've sucked less than Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay, and only roughly as badly as the Yankees to this point. That won't be enough in the long run. Plan Asitting back and letting these talented men do what they're good athasn't worked out quite as planned. It's time for Terry Francona, who presumably has settled in and gotten comfortable with his new surroundings, to figure out a Plan B and put it into action.
News Flash: MLB officials have announced a new plan to drastically reduce the duration of some major league games.
A special task force appointed by Commissioner Bud Selig has decided to spot the Red Sox' opponents 2 runs per game and just eliminate the first inning, thereby saving an average of 20 minutes per game.
Manny Ramirez is among the newest citizens of the United States of America. Congratulations, Manny.
It sure didn't take Tito long last night to yank BH Kim, not just from the game but from the rotation. Kim is out, Arroyo is back in.
I have been willing to give Kim the benefit of the doubt since he got here a year ago. Almost immediately upon his arrival to the Red Sox, a chorus of naysayers whined that he couldn't perform under pressure (see 2001 World Series). Every shaky outing, whether as a starter or a reliever, further fueled that perception even if the actual statistics didn't bear it out. I believed that Kim's 2001 problems could be attributed to youthful nerves (he was only 22) and that his struggles with Boston were due to adjustment problems that would work themselves out over time.
I was therefore more than happy to give him another opportunity this season to prove himself. His first start was better than solid; it was a legitimate reason for optimism. But he has now struggled against Cleveland in two consecutive starts for a 10.80 ERA in those games.
Francona is right to pull him from the rotation without hesitation. Every game counts in our competitive division, and there is no good reason not to go with a perfectly viable alternative in Bronson Arroyo, who has proven himself to be up to the challenge. I am aware that he too has his detractors, and he is surely not ace material, but a 4.44 ERA as a fifth starter (it's slightly higher overall) is nothing to sneeze at. This is a good move.
Alright now. The five-game losing streak is behind us, followed quickly by a four-game winning streak and then an unfortunate D-Lo catastrophe. We're still on the upswing after the sweep and the split, and we won the series against the Royals even though we really should have swept them because, well, they're the Royals. But I'm not dwelling on any negativity.
The Indians are in town tonight and the Yankees have a day off, so we have a golden opportunity to put another half a game between us and the EE. So let's all send positive vibes to BH Kim, let the bats do what they're finally starting to do (how 'bout that Pokey Reese inside-the-park homer, or Kevin Millar batting .500 in the last 8 games?) and let the chips fall where they may. I'm feeling downright positive.
Last month, I joined the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), an organization of, for lack of a better term, passionate baseball eggheads. Today's digest of the general listserv contained the following message posted by one of the members:
I mentioned the correlation between a player's SLG and walk%. There could be other factors. One might be their strikeout%. But that raises collinearity issues since the power guys strikeout alot. I ran that regression anyway and the coefficient on SLG was .2 (without strikeout% it was .19).
If we go with .2, then a .100 increase in SLG raises the walk% by .02. For a 700 PA season that is 14 walks. The coefficient on strikeout% was -.03. That would diminish slightly the effect of more walks if the power guys strikeout more (.39 correlation between K% and SLG). For a .200 increase in SLG, it is 28 walks, but now we are talking very few guys being .200 over the league average.
The top 10 guys in SLG from 1987-2001 had an average walk% of 13.7. For the other 51 guys it was .095. Over 700 PAs, that is a difference of 29 walks. That possibly shows a strong relationship. But that does not make the walks meaningless. They are still on base and can score. I don't think those walks are any less important than the walks of anyone else.
This is what I saw:
I mentioned the correlation between a player's SLG and walk%. There could be other factors. One might be their strikeout%. Blah, blah, blah.
Blah, blah, blah if the power guys strikeout more blah, blah, blah.Blah, blah, blah. But that does not make the walks meaningless. They are still on base and can score. I don't think those walks are any less important than the walks of anyone else.
What have I gotten myself into?
Did I mention that the Sox won last night, and rather decisively at that? The losing streak is now over and the winning streak stands at one. Whew.
Don't worry about BH Kim; he'll be fine. So will D.Lowe. The bats are waking up. And the bullpen continues to sparkle, as if it exists in a strange and wonderful parallel universe to that to which Red Sox Nation is accustomed.
Thanks to the nice people at Comment This! I now have comment capabilities on this blog. If it's abused (spammed) I will have to take it down, so behave yourselves.
You can, of course, still go to the forum message board to discuss any Red Sox or baseball topic you wish.
There's plenty of misery to go around right now. Here's what other Red Sox bloggers are saying:
Updated: AM 05 May 2004 -- Red Sox have 11 games left in 2nd inning
MasterCard. Accepted wherever there's hope.
So starter #1A is cutting off contract negotiations with his team. Great.
Pedro Martinez said yesterday that he is going to become a free agent at the end of this season. He said a lot more than that, most of which is unverifiable, including accusations that the Red Sox aren't negotiating with any of the other free agents either.
The Globe's Nick Cafardo notes that the timing of Pedro's announcement couldn't be more inappropriate. He also gives some credence to, but again no evidence to support, the contention that the Red Sox aren't negotiating properly with any of their potential free agents.
Inexplicably, Pedro told the Herald that he is "really sad for the fans in New England" who had hoped he would stay in Boston. But how sad can he be when the decision to cut off negotiations six months early was his?
I love Pedro as much as the next fan. But isn't this move akin to the manager's yanking a starting pitcher after allowing two baserunners in the first inning? It's May 1, for crying out loud. Pedro can't even talk to another team until November.
This isn't the first time Pedro has thrown a public temper tantrum for no apparent purpose. When he used to grouse in the old Dan Duquette days, I just presumed that Dan was being a jerk and had it coming. But this is a completely different management group, one which by most reports operates quite differently.
You can bet the farm that if the team had commented on the status of negotiations, they would have been excoriated for airing private talks in public. I'm not sure why the same reaction doesn't greet athletes who do so.
Whatever discussions have or have not taken place to date, just maybe the problem is Pedro.
With one full month under our belts, it's a good time to compare and contrast this year's Red Sox team with the team we had at this time last year. Let's assess the numbers in each area:
Record: As of this date in 2003, the Sox were 18-9 for a winning percentage of .667. Their longest winning streak of the month was seven games, their longest losing streak two games. Here in 2004, they are 15-6 (.714), with a longest winning streak of six games and a longest losing streak of two games. Assessment: BETTER.
Runs for/against: I am tracking runs (and several other stats) differently this year, per nine innings versus per game; therefore, I'll look at the spread between runs for/against to try to get a better comparison. At this point in 2003, the Sox had outscored their opponents 5.89 to 5.33. So far in 2004, Sox are outscoring their opponents per nine innings 4.80 runs to 3.36. Assessment: BETTER.
Team batting: The 2003 Sox were batting .279 with 1.19 home runs per game, compared to .270 and 0.70 home runs per game for the competition. This year, Boston is batting .260 as a team with 1.17 homers per nine innings, compared to the competition at .225 and 0.64 homers. Assessment: WORSE.
Team baserunning: Last year's Red Sox at this point had stolen 0.63 bases per game and had succeeded in 77% of attempts, while holding the opposition to 0.59 stolen bases per game and a 59% success rate. This year's team is stealing only 0.56 bases per nine innings but is successful 71% of the time, compared to opponents at 0.41 stolen bases per nine innings and a 60% success rate. Assessment: MIXED.
Team pitching: The beleaguered 2003 pitching staff at this point had a 4.81 ERA with 7.07 strikeouts and 3.85 walks per game, compared to opponents with a team ERA of 5.28, 5.96 strikeouts and 3.81 walks per game. This year's staff ERA is 2.95 with a nine-inning average of 7.08 Ks and 3.72 BBs, compared to opponents' ERA of 4.52, 7.23 Ks, and 4.52 BBs. Assessment: BETTER.
Team fielding: The 2003 Red Sox were committing 0.59 errors, 0.59 wild pitches, and 0.11 passed balls per game, compared to their opponents at 0.93 errors, 0.48 wild pitches, and 0.04 passed balls. This year, the Sox are committing 0.82 errors, 0.23 wild pitches, and 0.14 passed balls per nine innings, compared to opponents' 0.89 errors, 0.33 wild pitches, and no passed balls. Assessment: MIXED.
Analysis: This year's Red Sox have a better record in an improved division while playing without two of their top starters. Offense is off a bit from last year, though home runs are about stable. Sox batters are striking out more but also walking more (thank you, Mark Bellhorn). Errors are way up, but the addition of Pokey Reese should show results when Nomar Garciaparra comes back and we have the infield Theo Epstein intended. Stolen bases are down, but stolen base percentage is up. The big difference this year is the pitching, which right now is the envy of baseball, a far cry from the chaos of this time last year. The off-season additions to the staff and departure of last year's more questionable elements are the front office's greatest accomplishments of the off-season, and Terry Francona and Dave Wallace seem to be using them wisely. It's safe to assume that the pitching won't maintain this pace all season, but on the flip side the offense will certainly improve, especially with the return of Nomar and Trot Nixon. Overall, this year's team has tremendous depth in all areas and no glaring deficiencies. They can be expected to play consistently and make adjustments as necessary through the season.
Overall assessment: VASTLY IMPROVED.