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.
When the Red Sox go on the road, the broadcasters and fans want to know what happened to the 2013 World Champions. Worst to first to worst again? How could it be?
The old saw about strength up the middle seems to apply. With the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury and Jared Saltalamacchia and the decline of Xander Bogaerts and, till August, of Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox had a gaping alley where All-Stars used to be.
Everyone talks about the weak hitting outfield, but the Sox did not have a heavy hitting outfield in 2013. Well, Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino finished strong, but Victorino was hurt much of the year and Nava came in under the radar with a strong finish. Ellsbury was really their most consistent hitter and lit up the basepaths, when the hits were fewer and far between. Then Ellsbury and the Red Sox went south.
But think if Pedroia and Bogaerts were hitting as they did in 2013 and if A.J.Pierczinski delivered on his offensive reputation as a catcher. How different that batting order would be. While Jackie Bradley, Jr. has won admirers with his spectacular play in center field, his hitting has been demoralizing. At this point he really can not have all the confidence he claims to have at the plate or we might consider him dissociated. He probably needs what we euphemistically call “seasoning” at Pawtucket.
The Red Sox have made the right moves to repave the pot-holed alley from catcher to center field. They trusted their young talent by returning Bogaerts to shortstop, bringing up Christian Vasquez at catcher, and auditioning a series of players in center field. Bradley Jr. may still be the center fielder of the future, but for the immediate future, they have Brock Holt and Mookie Betts, two infielders who showed amazing versatility in the outfield.
Once you are committed to re-building you can bring up all the ripening talent you can find and see what combination works up the middle. Bogaerts has been making big plays at shortstop and Vasquez has been praised for his work behind the plate. Except for third base, the infield is tightening. And Pedroia is now hitting, proving that going out and working hard everyday has to pay off eventually.
The immediate impact of the Fire Sale of 2104 has brought a solid pitcher (Joe Kelly) and a power outfielder (Yoenis Cespedes) to the Red Sox. Tuesday night they showed what a good investment they will be, as they led the visitors to a 3-2 win over Cincinnati.
But the secondary reinforcements on the Red Sox, the strength up the middle, will be the foundation for the future. Already we see the infield healing its wounds, and center field has candidates to finish the season. This could be the biggest change in the team once headed for worst in 2014.