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.
The big story of Spring Training is the rehabilitation of Grady Sizemore as a starting center fielder and the sitting of Jacoby Ellsbury with a calf ailment. There’s a long season ahead, but the results of letting Ellsbury go and signing Sizemore has to be Ben Cherrington’s coup of the spring. And ultimately the decision to send Jackie Bradley, Jr. to Pawtucket for seasoning figured shrewdly into the equation.
How can you anticipate that a physically broken player will return to All-Star form and an up-and-coming young star will need more experience before he breaks into a championship line-up? It is the kind of baseball acumen that makes champions. At this early juncture, you have to admire what John Farrell and his boss have wrought.
Ellsbury may yet be the league’s Most Valuable Player and more power to him. But his fragility had to figure in the Red Sox’ reluctance to give him the long-term contract. He only played two seasons in which injuries did not seriously impede his performance, and he was hurt in those seasons, too. He and Sizemore may share stints on the disabled list in 2014, but the difference is that Ellsbury will get hundreds of thousands for those days, while Sizemore will make hundreds of thousands for the entire year.
The Red Sox made a similar switch with Chris Capuano and Franklin Morales, two injury-plagued lefties. Morales was traded back to the Rockies after spending a year rehabbing his arm and then walking himself off the mound in the World Series. He was always a few inches off the plate, the difference between dominance as a reliever and a liability in the mid-innings.
Capuano returned to his home state with a history of shoulder injuries, but a strong record in the National League, both as starter and reliever. Like Sizemore, he was a long shot to make the team. Like Sizemore, he came in shape and worked his way into competition. He beat out the young arms like Drake Britton and Allen Webster. He comes north in a pivotal role as reliever and spot starter. Will he survive the long 162-game trek? No one knows, but from this perspective another shrewd move by the Red Sox management.
A year ago, the Red Sox performed a similar feat signing the physically-suspect Mike Napoli and the aging Koji Uhehara. More calculated risks, which made the difference between also-rans and champions. It appears they have a method to their madness. They find low-profile and physically-battered players and turn them into stars.
Or, to coin a phrase, “To sign big stars is human, To rehab the old ones, divine.”
The flocks have gathered for Spring Training, and it looks like the Red Sox are happy with the pitching staff and pitching prospects they have. Ubaldo Jimenez has signed with the Orioles, and the Yankees captured the pitching prize of the season in Tanaka. The Sox will match up with them with John Lester, Clay Bucholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Dubront and a cast of young, hopeful candidates.
No one in the rotation could be defined as a workhorse, with the possible exclusion of John Lester. They are not unfamiliar with the disabled list, especially Bucholz, who has yet to prove his arm has a full season in it. In spite of these questions the Red Sox seem to have a personnel strategy that runs counter to the American League East— bring on the youngsters!
The Red Sox have stocked their pitching staff with a number of home grown starters, considering Lester, Bucholz and Dubront, and they appear to have faith in the starters of the future in Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Drake Britton, Rubby DeLaRosa, Anthony Renaudo, and Matt Barnes. Workman has already proven he can start in the Majors. He is good enough to replace anyone at the bottom of the rotation. And Webster seems to be on the brink of gaining some composure to go with this astounding curve ball. And the others appear to be bonafide contenders. So the odds of coming up with two more starters out of Spring Training are good.
The exit of Ryan Dempster is a signal to all of these prospects that arms are for hire in Fort Myers this spring. That is a good signal to send to young pitchers, who need to feel that their time is now. They have the opportunity to join the staff of World Champions and a manager who knows pitching talent. A vacancy is just what the Red Sox needed to get their attention and get them on the fast track to the Major Leagues.
I was perturbed by the Red Sox’ inaction in the pitching market over the winter, and I think they are taking a risk now by depending on unproven pitchers. But I like the risk and I like a pitching staff that has roots in the farm system. It shows confidence in the drafted talent, the coaching in the system, and in the principle of loyalty. The Red Sox may yet prove that team loyalty is not an outmoded concept and that the young arms have realistic hopes of throwing for the parent team as soon as 2014.
Why did Brandon Workman stick with the Red Sox through the World Series while his highly touted peers Allen Webster and Rubby DeLaRosa finished on the sidelines? I think the answer is simple; he threw strikes. Workman did not throw terribly hard like DeLaRosa, and he didn’t have the devastating curve that Webster flashed, but he had location. And what’s true in Real Estate is true in pitching.
What made John Lester a devastating pitcher in the fall, while he stumbled through the heart of the season? Location. What made John Lackey harder and harder to hit as he completed his rehab in early 2013? Location. Out of all the bullpen staff, why was Koji Uhehara the first nominee to replace the fallen Andrew Bailey? Location. If any one of these pitchers does not throw strikes, the Red Sox would not have gotten into the American League Championship Series.
I think this all changed when John Farrell returned to the Red Sox. Falling behind hitters became the cardinal offense. Pitchers could stay on the mound and get slapped around a little, but as soon as they let the count go to 3-1, they were living on borrowed time. For all his talent, Franklin Morales was through with the Red Sox when he couldn’t stay ahead of hitters in the World Series. Felix Dubront would be the same way, until Juan Nieves went out to the mound to remind him what his job was. To his credit, Dubront did not nibble around the corners as much in the World Series and proved his value in middle relief, as much as a starter.
From a fan’s point of view, it is a much more interesting game when pitchers throw strikes. The other eight fielders get into the act more, and the batters get less picky when they realize the pitcher is coming after them. And if a pitcher is not hitting his spots, he paces around the mound and plays with his cap and the rosin bag— like a batter between pitches. This is base-stall. We don’t enjoy it.
For all the promising hurlers featured at Fort Myers this spring, the word is “Throw strikes.” Watch Lackey and Lester and Uhehara and Workman. They do not come to fence or parry, they come to pitch. To them 2-2 is a hitter’s count. No one wants to go 3-2. So come in with it.
And you’ll be the next Brandon Workman .
This is belated praise for the architect of the 2013 Red Sox: Ben Cherrington. Perhaps he stood on Theo Epstein’s shoulders, but what he did in one off-season outshines any year under the Epstein regime.
Look at the box score of the final World Series game: who drove in the six runs? Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew, all free-agent signings by Cherrington. Victorino was one of the most-criticized signings, but without him the Red Sox are probably not even American League Champions. He is the definition of a money player, and one who gives up his body to winning every game.
What about the signing of Koji Uhehara after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were already in the bullpen? Probably no way to predict what role he would have on the 2013 Red Sox, but maybe a hunch paid off. The word was that Uhehara had an expiration date and could not be counted on for regular bullpen duty. That was no deterrent to Cherrington.
Less dramatically the trade for Jake Peavy surely paid off at the end of the season, as Clay Bucholz never fully recovered and Ryan Dempster became increasingly unreliable. Cherrington sacrificed Jose Iglesias in a three-way trade to bring in Peavy. Then we watched the early-blooming Bogarts make us forget Iglesias. Iglesias will be a full-time gold glove winning shortstop some day, but he might never have gotten that chance on the Red Sox with Bogarts breathing down his neck.
I’m not sure what role Cherrington had in bringing Brandon Workman from Double-A ball to pitching the middle innings of the World Series, but it was shrewd choice. The Red Sox have always promoted young players very cautiously, perhaps allowing them to languish in the Minors. Ryan Lavarnway is in danger of dying on the vine. But Workman had the confidence and aggressiveness with batters that the Red Sox needed throughout the playoffs. That mindset promoted him past the Allen Websters and Rubby DeLaRosas, who could not pound the strike zone.
And of course, Cherrington brought back John Farrell, who managed this menagerie with consummate shrewdness and sensitivity.
Arguably the loss of any of these role players might have brought the Red Sox up short in their run for the World Championship, which suggests that Cherrington was prescient, the most important role player of all. Pretty amazing for one year’s work.
I’m looking forward to the Cherrington years.
Oh, by the way, Ben, could we make a good run at Jacoby Ellsbury?
I’m through second-guessing John Farrell. The man has “gut” intimations that defy numbers or logic, and they mostly have worked magic in the 2013 World Series.
Choose the players with the lowest averages on the Red Sox and place them in critical roles, and you have Farrell’s formula for success. Bat Jonny Gomes against right-handed pitchers, and he makes the difference in Game Four with a three-run homer. Start the defensive-back-up catcher, David Ross, in three out of five games, and the dude bats in the winning run in Game Five. Start the woeful Steven Drew at shortstop and watch him plug up the infield and execute miraculous double-plays. Start the youthful rookie Xander Bogarts at third and watch him work pitchers for walks and take pitches to right field, when they venture into the strike zone.
Meanwhile you bench players with proven talent during the regular season: Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamachia, and Daniel Nava. They have all started a couple of games, and they produced long at-bats and extra-base hits, when they did. (Except for Saltalamachia, who has slumped in the post-season). But they had to wait their turn, while the .220 hitters led the way.
Farrell deserves credit for his management of the middle innings pitchers as well. The starters and closers are no-brain decisions, but who to bring in for the fourth, fifth and sixth innings? So far Brandon Workman and Felix Dubront have proved nearly invincible in those roles. Probably they are logical choices for middle innings, but give him credit for seeing the vulnerability of Morales and Dempster and removing them from critical positions in the bullpen.
Bringing young talent like Bogarts and Workman along has been a specialty of the Farrell administration. Previous managers would never trust Pawtucket recruits in roles like this, but Farrell and his staff have hand-picked these rookies and turned them into Major Leaguers in a few short months. It shows not just an eye for talent, but for courage and maturity as well. For every Bogarts and Workman, there were several that did not make the cut this year.
So second-guessing is out of season for October. The World Series is not finished, but the record after five games is superb. Whatever hunches Farrell has left to play will be my hunches, too.
Currently, a lot of speculation about who will compose the Red Sox pitching staff during the playoffs. No one asked me, but I want to put in good words for these pitchers:
Lester, Lackey, Bucholz, Peavy, Dempster, Uehara, Breslow, Workman and Britton. What do they all have in common? They work fast and put the ball in the strike zone. Sometimes they get hit, even Uhehara, but they don’t fuss and fidget and walk around the mound, trying to summon the pitching gods to their aid. They look in, get the sign, and serve up another one. “Go ahead,” they are saying, “give it your best shot.”
It is well known that this is the gospel Juan Nieves and John Farrell have been preaching since Spring Training. The Josh Beckett era of delay and deliberation is over. Keep the game moving and let them hit what you have to show them. It has done wonders for the likes of Lester and Lackey, who have pitched with increasing confidence, pounding the strike zone as the year has progressed. They are truly controlling the game with their aggressiveness, not letting the batter regroup with every pitch. It is a pleasure to watch. Uhehara’s rhythm is poetic, not a hesitation in his delivery, unless you want to count the hitch you see just before he delivers the ball.
Some have not gotten the message: Tazawa, Dubront and Thornton. If they are in the zone, they can work quickly and get ahead of batters, but as the season waxes, they are increasingly behind. The hitters are waiting for their stream of pitches out of the strike zone, then getting their best shot on a 3-2 count. I have small patience for these laggers, because they are not getting with the program. They could all be dominant, but they choose to pick around the corners and fuss when they don’t get the strike calls they expect.
The first one to cut from the staff is Thornton, because he has not found the strike zone, since he came to the Red Sox. He is constantly in a 3-2 count, and then, naturally, walking the hitter. If Dubront could work rapidly and pound the strike zone, he could be the second left-hander coming out of the bullpen behind Breslow. So, of the two lefties, I choose Dubront.
Apparently Farrell likes Junichi Tazawa, but he paces around the mound, making faces after every pitch. Lately he is all over place, rarely pitching where the catcher is holding his mitt. Eventually he puts one right in the wheelhouse of some hitter, and the ball lands in the upper deck four hundred feet away. Clearly this is not what you want in a set-up man. I like the aptly-named Workman in his place, although Workman has had his own control issues lately. Workman, however, goes right after hitters, whether he has his best stuff or not. You have to admire that in a rookie.
Once the playoffs begin there should be no more free passes. Make them hit it, and let the other eight position players handle the results. Walks are poison. Thornton and Dubront? They have not proved they can do this. Britton? He started with confidence, but has lost his touch lately. Somehow a playoff staff will be assembled from these three left-handers and Tazawa. The one who regains his confidence and goes after hitters, should be the one who makes the cut.
This pitching staff should play ball, not play games on the mound.