The Red Sox pitching staff generally looks deep and ready, but the hitting looks sick, especially in the outfield. A lot of undercutting and lazy fly balls, with the exception of Jackie Bradley who is not even making contact. Probably an issue of timing, because the hitters with the long swings are struggling, like David Ortiz, Johnny Gomes and Mike Napoli. Daniel Nava is not having the spring he did last year, either.
From a fans’ view it seems like Dave Middlebrooks has learned something that all the big swingers could study–hit where it’s pitched and let the ball travel to the opposite field when necessary. You see the same measured swings from Grady Sizemore and A J Pierczinski, just trying to put the ball in play. If you can get two-thirds of your line-up swinging this way, you have an offense. Even David Ortiz has shown he can take the ball to right, befuddling the over-shift. So why can’t the whole line-up take this approach, as they work on their timing?
I’ve always thought the Yankees were better at moving base-runners a base or two at a time. Since the big boppers like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira have been sidelined, their offense has produced by consistency, more than power. But they had big run-scoring innings even with this incremental offense. They show patience at the plate with their swings, as well as their takes. This year they have stocked up with Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann and with Texiera returning, but I doubt you will see the over-swinging that some teams depend on to score runs.
Mike Napoli is the only Red Sox player who relies on the big swing to create offense. He is going to strike out a lot and hit his share of homers. He may try to strike out less this year, but he will undoubtedly lead the team in K’s and homers at the same time. What you see is what you get with Napoli.
But the rest of the line-up, especially David Ortiz, are adaptable to what they are thrown. They are professional hitters, and it’s what made them World Champions. Maybe we will see more of that when the season begins. But it will be sad if they continue to flail and pop out or strike out, when they could be producing like a team. It would be exciting to see Sizemore and Pedroia on base and Ortiz driving them in with an opposite field hit. The home runs can come later.
The Red Sox pitching is poised to have a spring of quality outings. It would great if the hitting would support them, even with three or four hard-earned runs.
For my money the stars of the 2013 Championship Season were Koji Uhehara, John Lackey, and Shane Victorino. If all three of them played in the same game they probably shortened it by thirty minutes with their no-nonsense, step-up-and-play-ball attitude. I love to watch them play.
Then we have Junichi Tazawa, Felix Dubront and Jonny Gomes with their stalling, fussing, fidgeting rituals that slow the game to a sputtering crawl. Their shenanigans between pitches resembled golf more than baseball, as they tried to break their opponents’ rhythm, spiking my interest at the same time.
Leaving aside the conferences on the mound (often called from the dugout), there are two ways for players to slow down a baseball game: fouling off pitches till the pitcher gives in and taking breaks between pitches. The first is an art that the Red Sox cultivate in their hitters, the second are stalling rituals adopted by both hitters and pitchers to summon their scattered resources.
The Red Sox are less interested in cultivating the deliberate approach to batting and pitching. Josh Beckett was given the bum’s rush out of town partially because he would not speed up his game on the mound. Look at the pitchers the Red Sox have acquired since then: Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, Craig Breslow, and Koji Uhehara. These veterans are masters of aggressive pitching and they look like they’re in charge even when they’re getting pelted (especially Dempster and Peavy).
Tazawa is the sole exception to this trend. He looks like he’s staving off an attack of gastritis as soon as he comes in. He adds drama and stomach acid to his performance by grimacing and walking around the mound until he finally decides to deliver–what will it be–ball one! He managed well in the post-season with this ritual, so it looks like more of the same in 2014.
At the plate Gomes and Pedroia are the worst offenders, adjusting their wristbands with every pitch a la Nomar Garcia-Parra, and Gomes has an intractable problem getting his helmet to sit comfortably on his head. Ortiz likes to spit on his batting gloves, but he gets back in the box with business-like intent. Nava likes to back out and re-group, but he gets down to business with the same intensity as Ortiz.
Jon Lester was a portrait of anxiety and frustration early in the season, but come August as his control sharpened, he worked faster and faster. By the World Series the hitters were starting to back out on him, so methodical was his delivery. When hitters uncharacteristically begin to stall at the plate you know your mojo is working.
Baseball is a slow game, so you might think the true masters are the slowest ones. But quite the contrary, the masters are the ones who make opponents try to slow them down, the John Lackeys, the Koji Uheharas, the Justin Verlanders. When those guys are pitching for your side, it’s a pleasure to watch. At the same time, the Shane Victorinos and the Mike Napolis, who step up and glare down a pitcher, give you that feeling that no nonsense is happening here. Their posture says, “Let’s get on with it!” We are here to play ball!
With more guts than brains, but a lot of brains, Shane Victorino was the heart of a Red Sox team that played above its talent in 2013. Yes, David Ortiz is the soul of the Red Sox, and Mike Napoli played hurt and hefty with the bat, but Victorino was a Kamikazee in the field and at the plate, a magnetic field of hustle that pushed the Sox into over-achievement and beyond.
Except for his penchant for running through walls, Victorino would be my choice for center field in the spring. He is fearless to a fault, chasing down balls with reckless abandon. He was Gold Glove quality in the tough Fenway right field, but he had fewer close encounters with immovable barriers than in center field, and that kept him in the line-up in mid-season. And you had to love a guy who would try to throw out runners at first base after fielding the “automatic” single on one hop. He joked with acquaintances who would hustle into first ahead of his throw, but he was dead serious about throwing out the unsuspecting.
He was no less gritty in the batters’ box, leaning over the plate and inviting pitchers to hit him. Many did, but mostly by his reluctance to stand aside with a fastball bearing down on him. I kept expecting umpires to warn him about leaning in to the pitch, but he found the stance that eluded their scrutiny. He took many for the team, while turning on the pitches that caught too much of the plate, like the one he hit for a grand slam in Game Six of the World Series.
He is the only switch hitter I’ve seen abandon one side of the plate for his own advantage. Plagued by an injury that weakened his stride on the left side, he batted right-handed for the rest of the year, with thundering results. Many times I’ve wished switch hitters would give up on their weak side of the plate, Jerrod Saltalamacchia comes to mind, but they doggedly move to the pitcher’s opposite side, even when said pitcher handles both righties and lefties with efficiency. Victorino broke that tradition and hit right-handed most of the second half of the season.
We knew Victorino’s body was damaged in some way the entire year. He sat on the bench for a few weeks early in the season, but mostly he just played hurt in too many places to mention. When he got on base he ran on gimpy legs and still stole timely bases. We may have forgotten his injuries because they rarely affected his performance, but he was hurting in some way from May to October.
Victorino and Jonny Gomes were Ben Cherrington’s “impact” players who were worth more than their statistics revealed. They were energy in the dugout and inspiration on the field. But when you consider Victorino’s fielding, you have to give him the nod as the daily charge in the Red Sox engine. He was “Boston Strong” and “Hawaiian Hustle” in one tightly-wound package.
When I think of the Red Sox repeating in 2014, I think: if only Victorino stays well. Other players will make their contributions, but Victorino will set the pace.
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.