Looking over ESPN.com’s report on the third base prospects for the Red Sox, I have to agree this is their most vulnerable position. Third base usually brings power or batting consistency to the line-up, and the Red Sox have lacked that since the departure of Adrian Beltre, in retrospect a regrettable loss.
Beltre’s successor was Kevin Youkilis, the “Greek God of Walks,” a title that practically made him a poster boy for the offensive strategy of the team. But Youkilis was chronically injured and a young pretender named Will Middlebrooks was ripe for the Majors. They shared the job for a year, but Youkilis ended up with the Yankees and, with continued physical handicaps, has drifted to oblivion. Now his successor faces the same fate.
Middlebrooks has been afforded more opportunity to rehabilitate than Youkilis ever had. He has been the youth of eternal promise for three years. Except for a healthy month or two when he first took over third base in Boston, he has been a chronic disappointment. He has never found a way to lay off the low outside pitch or take the outside pitch to the opposite field. He is a gaping hole in the lower third of the line-up.
I think the time has come to cross the Middlebrooks and choose his successor. It could be Brock Holt, who is versatile enough to play anywhere, or it could be a free agent with some pop. Holt’s value as a replacement everywhere except pitching and catching suggests a need for a full-time third baseman.
But the fragility of Middlebrooks darkens his future and his ability to mature as a Major League hitter. His fielding has even been erratic this year, although injuries could be blamed for that, too. If the Red Sox wanted to spend another year re-building and not contending, he might still be worth the risk, but the Red Sox are not taking that road next year.
I cheered the arrival of Middlebrooks and accepted his replacement of the icon Youkilis. Now I think his promise has expired, and he should rehab with another team. I hope to see an established slugger at third base next year, bringing a reliable 20-25 homers to the offense.
The Red Sox have never hit like a good road team. They are very comfortable hitting the wall and the corners of Fenway Park, but they lose their confidence on the road. That would have been good enough in a rebuilding year, but now we think they are contenders.
Contenders do not always play from behind or wait for two strikes to start swinging. Contenders do not depend on big swings to produce runs. Contenders are not predictable.
At home the Sox score early and they take what the pitchers give them at the plate. On the road they wait and watch and take third strikes. There is no excuse for taking a third strike except for the occasional breaking ball that leaves you flat-footed. Facing the Royals the Sox kept holding back, hoping to get a free pass. Victorino even threw his body into a few pitches, a practice that will soon get him a reputation among umpires.
The hitters that are getting on base, Ellsbury, Gomes, Drew and Ortiz, are taking what they get and putting the ball in play somewhere. The hitters that are watching the strikes go by and then flailing, currently Pedroia, Napoli, Saltalamacchia and Nava, are always hitting behind in the count and then swinging from the heels. Pedroia, of course, always swings from the heels, but when he’s hitting well, he takes the ball to right field.
On the road the Sox don’t play much small ball. The days of powering their runs over the plate are gone, but that doesn’t mean they can’t score by bunting, stealing and moving the runner over. The double plays are killers, and the Sox should be playing to avoid them. The crazy running and sacrificing game the Astros modeled in Houston has its virtues, especially when the home team is not expecting it.
Which brings us to predictability. When the Sox are predictable, they lose. What is predictable about their game? Taking the first pitch, hitting into the defensive alignment, yanking the ball on the ground, pitching into high counts, never pitching out. These tendencies give their opponents an advantage, because they can defend them more easily.
The Beantown boys do all the right things at home, where they feel confident and expect to win. On the road they are much more predictable and defensive, both hitters and pitchers falling behind in the count. You can call it a slump, but contenders break slumps by aggressive and unpredictable play.
The players that demonstrate this kind of aggressive play are Koji Uhehara and Stephen Drew. (Yes, I am through maligning Stephen Drew).
Uhehara throws strikes and never pitches from behind. Of course he only has to do it for one inning, but that’s his job, and he does it with flair.
Drew is a fairly discriminating hitter, but he does not get behind in the count much. He is not waiting for a walk or the ideal pitch to hit. Earlier he was taking third strikes. Not anymore. He is putting the ball in play all the time, and he does it early in the count.
The Road is long and winding, and you have to navigate it with confidence, if you are a contender. Because the Red Sox are truly contenders, they should take the road aggressively and play with confidence, even though when they play on the other guy’s turf.
The Red Sox beat the Rays at their own game Tuesday night, hitting doubles, stealing bases, and hustling the defense into making errors. But they were lucky, too. Gomes hit a grounder just beyond the reach of Longoria, and Iglesias’s chopper bounced barely over the third baseman’s head in the ninth. So let’s not get too cocky.
What the Red Sox could learn from Tuesday night is how Wil Myers and Evan Longoria scored the only two runs the Rays managed in a 6-2 loss. They launched the first pitch from John Lester. He was making first-pitch strikes, and they weren’t about to waste a swing at them. Meanwhile every Sox hitter was giving away the first strike, because the Sox are patient. They have the highest number of pitches per plate appearance in Major League baseball, as Jerry Remy was at pains to point out.
Now patience is considered a prime virtue in Red Sox hitters, and they have produced a lot of runs with patience. But Joe Madden, the Tampa Rays manager, also knows that a pitcher who is trying to get ahead of batters will tend to center his first pitch, so his hitters often go up looking for that first one. This way they get a cut at the most hittable pitch in the sequence. Wil Myers took this approach every time he came to the plate, and he whacked the ball hard on three consecutive pitches, the first for a homer, the second for a double, and the third for a solid line out.
What’s good for the Rays is good for the Sox. The Rays’ pitchers will try to get ahead of every Sox hitter, and that first pitch may be the best one to hit in the sequence. At some point, you should not let them get away with a first strike. In the seventh and eighth innings Tuesday night Napoli and Saltalamachia and Drew went up whaling, and they hit the ball solidly. Really they could have done the same earlier in the game, and there might have been more base runners.
And the same for Pedroia and Ortiz, who are the souls of patience. Often their opponents will pitch around them, and there is nothing to do but take the walk. But if they dare to throw a first-pitch strike, Pedey and Papi should make them pay. This will be most important against the best teams, like Tampa Bay and Baltimore and Oakland and Texas. They will assume the Red Sox will take the first pitch and use that to their advantage.
So a good way to get on top of these teams is to get aggressive. Look for the first pitch strike, but don’t watch it. Take a rip. Not enough to be predictable, to allow the pitcher to take advantage of your aggressiveness, but to surprise them and make them shy about getting ahead on the first pitch. It’s the art of aggressiveness, the art of keeping them off balance. It’s what Madden does so well with his team, and it’s how to beat them.
The Red Sox have traditionally been tripped up by the trip west, and the abrupt 24-hour turnover from Boston to Anaheim does not favor their success. But the Red Sox have also adopted strategies this year that can play well on the road. If they remember them during the West Coast swing, they can hope to extend their dominance before the All-Star Break.
- Take what the pitchers give you. Ellsbury, Pedroia and even Papi are most successful when they hit the ball where it’s pitched, rather than yanking it. Going to the opposite field means getting on base and the Red Sox line-up is strong enough to get base-runners home.
- Be patient, but not predictable. It’s one thing to take pitches when a pitcher demonstrates poor control, but good pitchers try to get the Sox hitters behind in the count. If you are fed a steady diet of first-pitch strikes, it might be smart to go after them.
- Keep runners in motion. In Fenway the Sox ran aggressively, sometimes running into outs, but aggressiveness pays off even more in the bigger West Coast parks where outfielders are challenged to throw runners out. Likewise hustling base runners can avoid double plays and their lead runner getting picked off.
- Getting ahead in the count is a no-brainer, but pitchers like Demptser, Dubront, and Webster are much better when they start with a strike. John Lackey is the role model here. He has lowered his pitch count by going after hitters and relying on his defense to close the gaps.
- Keep the starters on a short leash. Farrell has been pretty good with this, but the Red Sox have not been grand coming from behind on the road. Farrell needs to keep games close, even if he has to yank a starter in the early innings. If they need a deeper bullpen, they might consider bringing back Aceves and playing with fewer position players.
- Mike Carp at first base. Napoli is the weak link in the infield and lately his bat has not been making up for it. Maybe he needs rest, certainly against right-handed pitchers.
The Red Sox have done all these things better this year than in 2012, so perhaps the advice is gratuitous. On the other hand, the Red Sox often become a different team on the road, not playing with confidence, not aggressive at the plate or on the base paths. Teams like Baltimore and Texas come swaggering into town expecting to take every series. They score early and hold their lead by using their bullpens. On the road the Red Sox have lacked this swagger, too willing to play like visitors.
It would be nice to see the Fenway swagger on the road again.