Farrell in Focus

John Farrell has to prove himself all over again as a manager, the pundits say, after two years of cellar-dwelling. Rightfully so.

How’s he doing so far?

He kept Steven Wright and Matt Barnes on the pitching staff and one has anchored the back end of the rotation and the other the front end of the bullpen. The decision to send Henry Owens back to AAA has been vindicated, even in his recent major league performances. Owens has had more luck than skill to stay on the mound in his past two starts. He labors on the mound to put his infield to sleep. He seems to have no advantage facing left-handed hitters.

He gave Travis Shaw a shot at third base he needed, and a star was born.

He gave Brock Holt a shot in left field, and he co-leads with Jackie Bradley in outfield assists. Holt will never make a manager look bad, he does so many things well.

Ditto Jackie Bradley. I had given up on Bradley. In April he might have been MVP for the Red Sox, giving Pedroia a run for it.

He’s put his runners in motion, and the Sox lead the American League in stolen bases. Any other year that would have to be a misprint. By moving runners off first base, Farrell has avoided the deadly double-play, which was all-too-common on past Red Sox teams.

Not sure if he deserves credit, but the Red Sox hitters are going to the opposite field, which screws up the defensive strategies of their opponents. I was wrong about Pedroia starting the year, but I was not wrong about his needing to hit to right field. Suddenly he is hitting to right and hitting fewer groundouts.

He brought Christian Vasquez hastily back to the majors before his arm was fully healed and turned the season around for Rick Porcello and Koji Uhehara, both of whom need to use the dirt in front of home plate as targets. Today’s catchers need all the skills of a hockey goalie to keep the wild pitches down to a minimum. The entire staff can relax a little more with runners on base, because Vasquez holds them as well as any crafty left-hander.

The jury is still out on a few of Farrell’s choices: 1) Clay Bucholz (champ or chump?) 2) Patience with pitchers who walk as a strategy: see Bucholz, Owens, and Joe Kelly when healthy. When you walk two batters in a row that is either lousy control or loss of confidence. Either way you should be out of the game. Walks need to be punishable by the hook or fines, so pitchers stop pitching around hitters they fear. And the first pitch strike is no solution, if it is always the same pitch. Pitching is not easy, but the Red So have enough talent on their staff, if the staff is willing.

Overwhelmingly good decisions for Farrell in April. The outlook is brilliant for the Red Sox after an erratic spring, and Farrell deserves a lot of credit.

B+

 

Let Us Now Praise Less Famous Men

I have already had my rants about players not prepared for the Red Sox season. Now I want to credit some role players, who are always prepared.

Ryan Hannigan: Hannigan hit a home run in the final Exhibition game in 2016, threw out a baserunner and almost threw out another one. He really looks like a plumber playing for Local 1721, but he handles pitchers expertly and he makes the perfect battery-mate for a guy named O’Sullivan. Makes glad the Irish heart from South Boston.

Brock Holt: Is there a better name for a baseball player than “Brock Holt”? Holt is less obscure, but who would have picked him as a starting left fielder at the beginning of Spring Training? He does all the little things: bunts, moves the runner along, takes the walks, hustles in the field from seven different positions. Small wonder he was an All-Star utility infielder last year. Now he’s platooning with Michael Young in the most famous left field in baseball.

Steven Wright: Son of Tim Wakefield. I would love to know what makes knuckle-ballers so resilient. If the knuckler forgets to dip out of the hitting zone, the knuckle-baller philosophically watches it arc into space and land in the parking lot,  then sighs, and turns to the next batter, who flails helplessly at the next pitch. Live by the butterfly, die by the butterfly. The best part of Wakefield and Wright is the total lack of ego, which says, start me, close me, give me the mop, send me for coffee, I’m just here to do my job. My job is to release pitches from my finger tips and hope for the best.

Ruben Amaro: Jaws dropped when he left an administrative job in the front office to be a first-base coach for the Red Sox. This is like the school superintendent deciding to return to the classroom. I wish more would follow Amaro’s example. He loves baseball more than power, and he wants to work where he can have the most impact. He may be a throwback from the halcyon days of baseball, when managers played and executives left them alone. I like to think he is true to baseball’s eternal spirit.

Opening Day Fans: We start every year thinking our team will make the playoffs and who knows what can happen from there? Is there any other game with the potential for dreams like that? There are five teams in every pro sport who plan at the beginning of the year to sell playoff seats and always do. There are a dozen more who are chronic re-builders. Not so in baseball. The Chicago Cubs and the Kansas City Royals are favored to go to the World Series. If anyone had predicted that five years ago we would have been glad to take their money. Baseball is the land of dreams.

Dream on, fans, we are all headed for the playoffs.

 

Three Reasons to Trade Pablo Sandoval

Pablo Sandoval is a toxic, over-paid, overweight free-agent signing who symbolizes what Ben Cherington did wrong in 2014. It is not these three reasons that matter, however, it is the three players behind him who are are his opposite:

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

These three talented infielders belong on the Red Sox this season, because they are eager, team-oriented, and valuable at multiple positions. None of these reasons apply to Sandoval.

Travis Shaw has done nothing but hit with power and consistency since he came up from the Minors last season. He hits to all fields, with power toward the Green Monster when he gets the outside pitch. He has been competent at both first and third base, giving the Red Sox a left-handed option in their line-up.

Brock Holt is another left-handed option, and his work at seven different positions is well-known. He is a savvy player who can bunt and take a walk when it’s needed, and he hustles like no one but Pedroia.

Devin Marrero is a talented shortstop who can play the whole infield, and he is a right-handed bat. He has come to Spring Training with determination to make the team for at least three years, and this is probably his year to go to some Major League team. It should be the Red Sox, because he is from their Farm system, and he has the defensive tools Sandoval lacks.

With these options on their bench, the Red Sox should feel confident of off-loading the unhappy Sandoval. He could get a fresh start on a team that values him, and the Red Sox could purge their clubhouse of his angry vibe. They could trade for a valuable pitching prospect that might need development for a year or two.

Loyalty, versatility, and hustle should be celebrated, along with talent. The Red Sox can celebrate three such players, if they only trade the one who fails in them.

 

Pedr-annoya

Ed Note: Watched Pedroia drive in three runs with two solid hits today, March 25. I could be wrong about 2016. Maybe this will be the year he starts hot. Couldn’t happen to a better guy. If I am about to eat the words dished out below, hallelujah!

Dustin Pedroia, for all his preparation and hard work, never seems ready for baseball in the spring. I remember his first year, beating everything into the turf and even looking uncomfortable in the field, and he seems to come out every season in the same funk.

In yesterday’s exhibition against the Mets he hacked his way through another oh-fer and airmailed a throw to the plate, when he had no chance to get the runner anyway. He gets a lot of AB’s in the spring, more than most starters, but he continues to flail and flub like someone trying to break in to a new position.

Pedroia has always been my Red Sox hero. He is the Tom Brady of the Red Sox for his loyalty, for making fellow players better, for his obvious hustle. He never jumps into controversy for fear of hurting the team. He keeps his head down and runs out every grass-cutter in the infield. How can you not like that kind of player?

Well, I don’t like him much in the spring, because he looks like he’s learning the game all over again. When he is hitting, he takes the outside pitch to right field. When he’s slumping he takes vicious swings and pounds the ball into the turf– a portrait in frustration. I’m thinking, “Go the other way, Dustin. You know how good you are when you do that.” Still he swings vainly from his heels.

And it’s probably a lot more complicated than that. But why the spring malaise? Why do we look at the bench for Brock Holt, when Pedroia is the soul of the Sox? Yeah, we know something magical will happen in May and suddenly pitchers can not get him out. But what about the first month, Dustin? What’s going on then?

Yet I know no one is harder on himself than Dustin Pedroia. His frustration will be double mine. He mutters to himself and pounds his bat and glove into the wall, living the curse of spring. While I mutter, “Take it to right, Dustin.”

 

 

It Happens Every Spring

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

A: Play ball!

I love that old joke, because it reminds me that baseball has a world of its own, not contaminated by politics. It inhabits a bubble where patriotism, children, the discount bleacher seat, and seasonal optimism can play through the distractions of life, even Presidential campaigns.

Yes, baseball has its issues with exorbitant contracts, PED’s, Pete Rose, and Hall of Fame balloting, but on the field it retains its innocence and its youthful hope at the start of spring.

It’s ten degrees outside my door, but in  destinations in Florida and Arizona they are taking to the fields of spring training, and every team is trying to be the Kansas City Royals or the New York Mets, the phoenix rising from the ashes of the lower division. And for three months every team will sustain that hope, as we watch for the next pitching phenom to reverse the destiny of the perennially struggling franchise that has begun to change its culture.

Yes, there is a culture of winning teams in every sport, but in baseball you are often surprised by the team  that suddenly tastes the success of winning and assembles a community of believers in time for April. Or the team that sinks to the depths in June only to rise to the playoffs in October. Or the team that foresees its fate and begins to sell-off its high-priced talent in July. These moves all result from a changing culture, often fed by winning or losing, but also by new talent blooming too late for this year or tiring arms not equipped for the September run-up to the playoffs. It’s a long season, and it has its rhythms and hiccups, just like life.

A new bend in the life cycle is that planned retirement of beloved players, like Mariano Riviera, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz. The dignity of these final acts raises the sentimental joy of every fan, as players are celebrated in the ball parks of their adversaries. Not any player can take these final bows gracefully, but the ones who can, bring out the non-partisanship of true baseball fans, who can even boo with respect. So one story that will keep us focused throughout the season will be the last season of David Ortiz, a slugger who may finally give status to the role of designated hitter. Will he be the first to make it to the Hall of Fame?

So let us now “Play ball!” and let baseball lift us from sordid political campaigns and bitter racial struggles in the cities. Let us open to the Spring Training news to see what hope our local entry brings to the season. Let us plan our visits to the ball park, not too late in the season, when hope may have evaporated prematurely. And let us honor the pure souls of baseball like David Ortiz and David Wright who are devoted icons of their cities, their “nations.”

Baseball, the only game that reminds us that spring is a state of mind.

 

 

 

 

 

Hendu

Sometimes we remember 1986 as the year Bill Buckner let the World Series slip under his glove and the Curse of the Bambino was born. We forget that the Sox had slipped into the Series by until-then the biggest clutch hit in their history. In 1986, Dave Henderson “hit a ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike homer that lifted the Red Sox to a Game 5 victory over the Angels in the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox won Games 6 and 7 to advance to the World Series.” ESPN.com remembered the moment in an obituary for the 55-year-old Henderson, who died on Monday.

For a trade acquisition who played only two years for the Red Sox, Dave Henderson had this remarkable impact on a team supposedly cursed to fall short of a championship for decades. He didn’t hit for an average, but he had clutch power that brought him out of obscurity into local fame and adoration. Frank Malzone, who died the day after Hendu, is remembered as a lifetime contributor to Red Sox Nation, but the center-fielder who came for a short stay is remembered with similar affection.

I came to the Red Sox as a disaffected Yankee fan in 1978. (Billy Martin had just been re-hired for the third or fourth time in the farcical epic of Steinbrenner’s reign). I hadn’t seen glory days of 1968 or 1975 as a Red Sox fan, so the playoffs were new excitement to me. I remember the resignation of Game 5 and the sudden elation as Henderson turned the series around with the last strike thrown. It was a new excitement, not the kind you expect as a Yankee fan, but the kind that rocks you as a Red Sox fan. That the Red Sox went on to win that series and return to the big stage made the moment more special. Dave Henderson was a Fenway folk hero for that and later clutch swings at unexpected moments.

Henderson’s glamor was undermined by the immortal Bill Buckner, whose fielding gaff unfairly turned a great career into a sad joke. Dave Henderson was the counter-narrative to that tragedy in that he turned a floundering team into the American League Champions in the same year. His clutch swing puts the Curse in a different perspective, a team struggling to overcome its reputation as a big-game failure. The swing turned Henderson himself into a local hero, a buoyant and unruffled batter, indifferent to averages and odds-makers.

In 1986 I decided to go back to graduate school after twelve years of high school teaching. Eight years later I came to Michigan to teach teachers, a job I have cherished till today. Probably the uplifting moment when Dave Henderson entered Red Sox history had nothing to do with this turning point in my life. But it didn’t hurt. I remember 1986, not as cursed, but as blessed by the bat of Dave Henderson. Thanks, Dave.

 

Established No 1? Priceless

The Red Sox tried it without a No. 1 pitcher last year, and the results speak for themselves. They tried it without an everyday closer. No joy in that. They tried it without an experienced outfielder. Pathetic. So give the Red Sox credit– they learned from their mistakes.

They did their impression of the Evil Empire and bought the most expensive damn pitcher they could find. They sold off young talent to get an established closer. They sent Hanley Ramirez to the sidelines to learn the art of first base. We’ll see how this works.

It all starts with Dave Pricey, and that won’t be the worst name he’s called if he doesn’t pitch seven good innings on Opening Day. He seems like just the cure for the staff without a leader. He has a stellar record of pitching in Fenway Park, and he matches up well against any No 1 in the American League East.

The Red Sox have this problem of getting on the board early, and if they are behind 5-0 by the third inning they get long odds of coming from behind. If they are behind 1-0 or 2-0 in the sixth there is still hope, because the opposing pitcher will be around 80 pitches by then, and the Sox will get a high curve or a fastball that catches too much of the plate.. This is why you  want a strong No 1.

When you have the horse of the staff pitching it changes your whole attitude. You want hit for him, you want to field for him,  you want to save his starts, you even want to mop-up his mistakes. This is what the Red Sox missed last year, except for about a month of Clay Bucholz. I always believed Bucholz could be the man, and maybe he will be, now that the whole staff doesn’t depend on him.

The Yankees have proven that money may not buy a World Series, but they also proved that it may buy one in 2010. The Red Sox will be glad to prove it again in 2016