How Do You Spell “Relief”?

Tyler Thornburg’s awkward adjustment to the American League seems to follow a theme: relief pitchers the Red Sox recruited from the National League falling short of expectations. Among these I include Mark Melancon, Brad Ziegler and even Craig Kimbrel.

About Thornburg, blogger Ian Browne reports that, “after a couple of shaky outings early in the Grapefruit League season, the Red Sox shut him down so he could build more arm strength and work on some mechanical adjustments.”   The Red Sox sent Travis Shaw to the Milwaukee Brewers to get a bonafide set-up man, who had worked out of the Brewer bullpen for an 8-5 record and ERA of 2.15 in 2016. And maybe all will be well.

But there is some deja vu about Mark Melancon who came to the Red Sox in 2012 after a banner year with Houston, then in the National League. Melancon was bombed in Spring Training, yet retained with the parent club in the early part of the season with woeful results. He was sent back to  Triple A, where his performance hardly improved.  A look at his line in 2011 and 2012 tells the tale of two teams.

Year Age Tm Lg W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP
2011 26 HOU NL 8 4 .667 2.78 71 0 47 0 0 20 74.1
2012 27 BOS AL 0 2 .000 6.20 41 0 17 0 0 1 45.0

He was traded to Pittsburg in 2013, where he had a revival and become their closer. A free agent over the winter, he was signed by the San Francisco Giants, who have a pretty strong bullpen already.

The Red Sox travailed with Melancon for a year  and Thornburg has only pitched 1.1 innings, so the comparison may be hasty, but no one expects Thornburg to be ready to anchor the bullpen in April.

Then there was the more recent case of Brad Ziegler, the side-arming National League closer, who came from the Arizona Diamondbacks at mid-season. Ziegler was not really disappointing, but proved less effective against batters from the left side of the plate. He blew a few games in dramatic fashion, leaving him with as many losses as saves. The Sox decided not to pick up his contract after the 2016 season and filled his place with Thornburg. The stats don’t tell the whole story, but the Sox’ lack of confidence in Ziegler is what inspired the Thornburg trade.

2016 36 ARI NL 2 3 .400 2.82 36 0 30 0 0 18 38.1
2016 36 BOS AL 2 4 .333 1.52 33 0 12 0 0 4 29.2

The case of Craig Kimbrel is probably the least similar to Thornburg, but he clearly had adjustment problems in the early part of his first season with the Red Sox. Following a sterling six-year career in the National League, his walks per  9 innings were a career-high 5.1, his SO/W ratio a career low (2.77), his ERA a career high (3.40) and his won-loss record 2-6.  Certainly not an unqualified success.

What can we gather from this spotty record of relievers transplanting to Fenway Park from National Leagues bullpens?  Is the American League that much harder for relief pitchers from the National League? Are the Red Sox catchers lacking skill in handling relief pitchers?  Are the Red Sox pitching coaches and even John Farrell, himself, lacking the professional wisdom to help these pitchers adjust? Or could there be a different problem with each relief pitcher acquired from a National League team?

The grooming of Joe Kelly for the bullpen answers some of these questions about catchers and coaching staff. Kelly seems to have made the complete transition from starter to reliever and National League to American League, although it has taken three years. Of course Kelly has been considered one of the best natural talents in the back of the rotation and the bullpen, since he landed in Boston. Still he needed refinement and apparently found it here.

We can only watch the evolution of Kimbrel and the revival of Thornburg for clues to the coaching and catching expertise. But now our eyes are narrowed and our expectations measured, as we wonder how the Red Sox spell “relief.”

 

Words on Today’s Menu

Sandoval

“Pablo Sandoval is a toxic, over-paid, overweight free-agent signing who symbolizes what Ben Cherington did wrong in 2014.”

Almost exactly a year ago I made these observations about Pablo Sandoval, and I’ll stand by them. But then I took the next leap and urged that the hefty Sandoval be traded. In retrospect I was wrong about that, and the Red Sox were right.

Or maybe the Red Sox were stuck with Sandoval’s contract, so they didn’t make the recommended move.  Either way, Sandoval has proven me wrong by losing weight and coming to Spring Training in good shape. He has competed for his third base role like a rookie with everything to prove. He has shown discipline at the plate and in the field, and for my money, has won back his job.

A year ago I declared that his position could be handled better by :

  1. Brock Holt
  2. Travis Shaw
  3. Devin Marrero

Holt remains a good left-handed option at third base, but he is most valuable because he can play everywhere else. He is cursed with such versatility that it is almost impossible to view him as an every-day player.

Travis Shaw is in Milwaukee, and he did not perform in the clutch last year as he had in the previous year. He is now represented by the bullpen acquisition of Tyler Thornburg.

Devin Marrero appears to have peaked. His hitting is still sub-par, and his fielding is steady, if not spectacular. If he doesn’t make the team this spring, and likely he won’t, he will probably be offered as trade bait.

Thus a year later, Sandoval is the best option at third base, and my words are on today’s menu— a dish best served cold. In spite of the unsavory cuisine, I salute the Panda, because redemption is a dish best served with forgiveness.  I’m glad for second chances for the Panda and for me.

Jetblue, Kathy and Me

Kathy and I last visited Jetblue Park in Fort Myers, FL back in March, 2012.  We bought the whole package tour complete with four tickets, official T-shirts, barbecue, and autograph session with a manager and three players, all of whom exited the Red Sox within the next two years. I like to think we did not hasten their departure.

It was bucket-list quality: sitting in the Florida version of the Monster, getting the pep talk from newly-minted manager Bobby Valentine, getting an autograph from my new hero, Jacoby Ellsbury, and sharing it all with my true love, who took up baseball in my honor.

k-in-monster-seats-at-jetbluek-at-jetblue-pk-march-2012k-b-jetblue-park-march-2012

I am returning to Spring Training without her, unless there is Spring Training in heaven. If there isn’t, there should be.

Two die-hard Jewish baseball fans promised each other that the first one to die would report to the other what they found in heaven. Bernie preceded Morty across the celestial boundary, and one night Morty awoke to the faint call of Bernie,

“Morty, Morty. I made it to heaven, and it’s wonderful up here.”

“Bernie, it’s so good to hear from you, but please tell me: Is there baseball in heaven?”

“Morty, I have some good news and some bad news. There is baseball in heaven. The ball parks are beautiful. Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg are here.”

That’s so wonderful, Bernie, but what’s the bad news?”

“Morty, my friend, you’re pitching tomorrow.”

I love that silly story. I like to think Kathy would stop by the heavenly ballpark for old time’s sake.

Now I am bound for Fort Myers to get the first glimpse of the Red Sox, 2017 Edition. I miss the one who would pepper me with questions, until she finally got bored and took out a book. You appreciate these things more when you realize you won’t be doing them again.

Spring Training warms the soul without agitating the spirit. I watch these games with a more sane passion, a tranquility more congenial to my late wife. My favorite sportswriter, Roger Angell, said of Spring Training: “Big League baseball on the west coast of Florida is a spring sport played by the young for the divertissement of the elderly– a sun-warmed sleepy exhibition celebrating the juvenescence of the year and the senescence of the fans.” When I was young, Spring Training seemed like a senseless delay to the games that counted in April. Now they seem like a leisurely anticipation of serious competition, which will begin soon enough.

Q: What are the last two words of The Star-Spangled Banner?

A: Play ball!  

“That’s funny,” Kathy would say.

“Then, how come you’re not lahhfing?” I’d say, with the mid-Maine broad “a” she preserved wherever she roamed.

“I’m lahhfing inside.”

Sweet memories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which Red Sox Team Will Show?

The last time I posted (August 11) the Sox weren’t hitting and the bullpen was hemorrhaging walks and runs.  In the interim, the Sox caught fire and those issues were dismissed with authority. They punished the ball, Koji Uhehara came back, and Kimbrel found the strike zone.

The last weekend of the season looked more like August. Kimbrel was a disaster and Pedroia started to yank the ball again( which means ground out), and Papi looked tired.  The Blue Jays took two of three and could easily have swept. O.K. so the Jays were more motivated.

Mercifully the Sox have four days to re-group, and they get to lead with Porcello against the Indians on Thursday. And yet the stumbling August team still haunts me. Which team will show up on Thursday?

The teams with momentum are the wild card teams and the Indians. The Giants and the Mets  have proven how much momentum means in past playoffs, so it is far from inevitable that the team with the best season-long stats will emerge victorious.

For the Red Sox it depends on situational hitting and a bullpen that throws strikes. They are masters of loading the bases, and experts at leaving them loaded. Hitters need to take what the pitcher gives them and go to the opposite field. Those that can bunt need to execute at the right time. More aggressiveness on the base paths. You can’t wait for the fat pitch to send over the wall. Playoff pitchers are too good to make many mistakes.

And the bullpen needs to get ahead of the hitters. Careful on the first pitch, but pound the strike zone. Kimbrel’s re-discovery of the strike zone may be a deciding factor. His performance over the weekend was sad in the deepest sense. Great talent, poor consistency.

These fragilities show how vulnerable the Red Sox are despite their epic September. Will they sustain that pace or will the Red Sox of October continue the debacle? For Papi’s sake and for mine, I hope the September Sox will come for a curtain call.

 

Sad Sox

It’s two-thirds through the season, and the Sox are losing a game at Fenway they had well under control.  After a typically uninspired West coast swing the Sox returned home on Monday, and almost squandered a ninth inning lead on Tuesday.  We got to witness the closer being pulled for a set-up man. Matt Barnes rescued Craig Kimbrel by striking out Mark Texeira.

Wednesday John Farrell pulled Drew Pomeranz right before he imploded in the sixth inning, but then rewarded Bucholz for saving the inning by replacing him with Barnes, who got hit around in the seventh. From then on the bullpen, Arbad and Tazawa, served up fat ones for the Yankees, and they scored five runs.  Ross entered in the eighth and threw two wild pitches to allow two more runs. How can an entire bullpen collapse in a matter of two days?

Meanwhile the heart of the Red Sox order from Bogaerts to Ortiz to Ramirez to Shaw has lost its collective punch. They are not hitting sharp outs; they are beating the ball into the ground or popping it straight up. It’s a hitting funk to match the bullpen malaise. To be fair, no one is even pitching to Papi. He’s getting the courtesy walk 2-3 times a game.

When there is widespread failure on a baseball team, it is tempting to blame the manager, so why should I resist temptation?  John Farrell has tremendous talent on this team, and I include the pitchers, so how can we blame the field personnel? When a team is struggling, as the Sox did on the West Coast, it is the manager’s job to re-group when they come home, shake up the line-up, wake the sleepers, or get aggressive on the bases.  Nothing is happening to indicate that  team is rejuvenating.

The saddest one is the usually reliable Bogaerts, who looks lost at the plate. He’s late on most swings and he has even begun to strike out on the low outside pitch. Someone needs to give him a transfusion of hope or at least a way to scratch out some hits. Sure the guy is still hitting .300, but he is easy pickings for even average pitchers right now.

It’s August 10, and I am ready to say that the Sox will turn it around in the next week or swoon in a most disheartening way.  They have to stop loading the bases without scoring a run.  They have to swing at first pitches when their opponents are handing out strikes, They have to shake up their bullpen, starting with the hapless Tazawa. Bring back Joe Kelly. They have to stop grooving the first-pitch strike. There are no free strikes, except the ones thrown to Red Sox batters.

I may be looking for scapegoats, but something tells me Farrell’s mettle as a manager is getting tested. I hope he passes.

 

Mr. Dombrowski Goes to Town

It is easy to sing the praises of Theo Epstein after his recruits fill out the respective All-Star squads, and I take nothing away from him

But I’ll give Dave Dombrowski plaudits before the Red Sox have played a single game in the second half. He saw the needs; he made the moves. The holes on the pitching staff are plugged and the bench is replete with role-players.

Reliable starting pitcher? Drew Pomeranz- check

Late-innings/ closing pitcher? Brad Ziegler- check

Power hitting infielder? Aaron Hill – check

Bolstering catching corps? Sandy DeLeon retained.

For two years the Red Sox brooded over their reclamation projects: Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Pablo Sandoval, Jackie Bradley Jr., waiting for them to rejuvenate. Only Jackie Bradley Jr. proved worth the wait, and I’ll admit I had given up on him. Patience may be rewarded, but it has seldom vindicated Red Sox general managers. Last year at this time the Red Sox were sellers and believers in redemption of starting pitching. In the fall came Dombroski and regime change.

Dombrowski was not patient. He brought his wheelbarrow of cash to woo David Price, and he sacrificed a valuable Minor League prospect to land another lefty: Drew Pomeranz. It may be easy to second guess these moves, but I, for one, will not wait for the end of the season to use 20-20 hindsight. I am delighted for an impatient general manager who sees a pennant within his grasp and reaches for it.

I’ll make some predictions which I think will vindicate Dave Dombrowski and make Sox fans forget Theo Epstein.

  • David Price will have a sizzling second half and win twenty games or more.
  • Steven Wright be a little less consistent, but still finish with 17-18 wins
  • Drew Pomeranz will suffer a little in the American League East, but he will still win 12-14 games
  • Rick Porcello will continue to give up gopher balls, but he will also pitch brilliantly enough to match Steven Wright
  • Eduardo Rodriguez will finally get his act together and substitute for either Pomeranz or Porcello one of whom will hit the disabled list by September.
  • Hanley Ramirez will hit 20 homers in the second half
  • David Ortiz will get hurt before September, but return for the playoffs.
  • Pedroia will get hurt in August and be replaced by Brock Holt. Never sure how long Pedey will recuperate, but he will probably return before he’s ready.
  • Top clutch hitters in the second half will be Betts, Ramirez and Aaron Hill, because Ortiz will be walked more than ever.
  • Brad Ziegler will be the closer until Kimbrel returns.
  • Setting up will be Ross, Barnes, and Uhehara. Bucholz will be traded for a good middle innings pitcher. Tazawa will be a slow comeback.

I don’t know who else will deepen the Red Sox bench, but I know Dombrowski will not be waiting for 2017 to win a World Series. That’s why I like him.

Strategy of the First-Pitch Strike

To give proper credit, last night’s win over Texas was an example of a game the Red Sox used to lose. It’s a good sign that they can win in Texas at all, but to bust their bullpen with such an outburst shows the fight in a team that used to lay down in the 8th and 9th innings. Bravo to third-string catcher Sandy DeLeon for leading the charge.

But in the long view, the Red Sox need more consistency against upper division teams like the Rangers and the Orioles, who usually have their number. Both of these teams show disrespect for the first-pitch strike that the Red Sox regard as a treaty with their foes. Both pitchers and hitters on the Red Sox tend to sit out the first pitch, as if no one expects a serious swing at it. With certain teams this strategy is  fatal, and with most teams it puts the Red Sox hitters down in the count before they get the bat off their shoulders.

Among the hitters Mookie Betts is the exception, because he never gets into a rhythm of taking any pitches. He comes up hacking, unless he needs a look at the pitcher first. But as you go to the heart of the order, Pedroia, Bogaerts, Ortiz, Shaw, these batters start with their bats on their shoulders, and pitchers take advantage of them. Obviously some of them are adept at hitting late in the count, but many pitchers get the upper hand by putting hitters behind, and these pitchers beat the Red Sox.  Each of these hitters in the heart of the order swing at bad third strikes once they get two strikcs down, because they have to protect the plate.

The pitchers are worse, because they lay out their first pitches assuming they are getting a freebie. Price, Porcello, and Rodriguez are often guilty of this, because they are trying to get ahead of batters, as they should. How many of their first-pitch strikes have ended up in the bullpen? I don’t have the stats, but my impression is they are being beaten by aggressive hitters, who know it is fatal to get behind them. It is sad to see these pitchers watch their first pitch sail over their heads as if thinking, You weren’t supposed to swing at that one. There is no diplomatic agreement that protects the first pitch in baseball.

Clearly this strategy comes and goes, because if you make assumptions about the first pitch, other teams will adjust to it and pitch and swing accordingly. But what I see right now is pitchers getting ahead of Red Sox batters, and hitters taking advantage of Red Sox pitchers’ predictability. The Sox pitchers are too aggressive in the count, and the Red Sox hitters are not aggressive enough. You see this most painfully with the Orioles, who bash the Red Sox regularly with the home run, and quickly put their hitters behind in the count.

Good baseball teams are strategic, not predictable. In May the Red Sox were strategic; in June they have been predictable. It’s time to shake-up the strategy of the first-pitch strike. John Farrell, wake up the sleepers, who thought they had the formula for winning.