Tagged: pitching

Power Outage

Looking over ESPN’s top ten prospects for the Red Sox, I fail to see a power hitter. After David Ortiz and Yoenis Cespedes, there’s not much power in the current line-up either. Whatever else happens in the Winter, the Red Sox will need to trade for a power hitter with some credibility.

Not Mike Napoli or Will Middlebrooks. Both have extended their medical benefits to their limits this year, and they are not consistent enough to make pitchers consider walking them. They both like to swing hard late in the count. Middlebrooks is not even a proven Major Leaguer. He is the lad of eternal promise, but now of broken promises. Napoli has been plagued with injuries, but he never gives you a full season of hitting. He goes on a bender for two months when he can’t hit anything. Since he can’t get out of  his slump without playing, he has to take quite a few big swings before starting to connect again.

The Sox now have incredibly agile outfielders, who will fill the gaps and keep base runners honest. But Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino and Mookie Betts will not be clearing the bases with regularity. On base they will terrify, but someone has to drive them in.  Daniel Nava? He is a steady performer, but not the power threat they need.

Comparisons are odious, but the Baltimore Orioles  and the Los Angeles Angels have power up and down their line-ups.  They don’t always need a rally to score runs– just a sold connection. If a pitcher puts two men on in the late innings, it is too easy to bring in flame-throwing relief before the third hitter gets to drive them in. Teams with power can get the rally started before that happens. The Yankees did not have healthy power hitters this year. The result speaks for itself.

If the pendulum in baseball has again swung toward pitching, then the selective power hitter is one answer to that. A pitcher has only to make one mistake to lose to a power hitter. With the short game, two or three bad pitches may not hurt you. How many double plays did the Red Sox hit into this year?

For Christmas this year, I would like a power-hitting first baseman.

 

 

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Fragility at the Plate; Foresight on Deck

Signing Grady Sizemore to a major league contract brings up the chief vulnerability on the Red Sox roster: they lead the league in rehabbed players. Up and down the roster we find players who have spent large chunks or whole seasons on the disabled list, players who are healthy today, but could be hurt tomorrow.

Last year, the Red Sox got lucky with injuries. Really? you say. They lost two closers, their number one starting pitcher, every member of their infield for twenty-one days or more, and an outfielder who played hurt most of the season. Why lucky?

First, they solved their closer problem with an aging Japanese import, who had a career season in the bullpen. No one knew how good he would be. Second, John Lackey came back from shoulder surgery in a dramatic fashion, worthy of “comeback of the year.” Third Jake Peavy pitched some of his best games in years, following a mid-season signing.  Any one of these pitchers might have sunk the Red Sox pennant drive.

In the first half of the season, John Farrell kept his infield together with bailing wire. He played Middlebrooks at second at one point, and shortstop was covered by Jose Iglesias, while Stephen Drew languished on the disabled list. Iglesias astonished the world by hitting .400 in the early going. When Mike Napoli languished in an awful hitting slump, Mike Carp and Daniel Nava added more than adequate punch to the line-up. Later Napoli sat out with plantar fascitis.

The biggest injury story was Shane Victorino, who crashed into walls and stormed around the bases with abandon throughout the season, incurring an untold range of injuries. Victorino played hurt the whole season, as far as I can determine. Whether he could do that again is best known by his doctors.

With the exception of Iglesias and Drew and Xander Bogaerts, this is the team that Cherrington says he is happy with for 2014. They are the World Champions, so it is hard to argue, until you consider their physical vulnerability. Clay Bucholz is a significant question mark since he has never had a season off the disabled list, except maybe his first.  Another wild card is Koji Uhehara, who enters the season as a 38-year-old closer, having never pitched a full season in that role before. You could say these are the anchors to the pitching staff, but they are not reliable anchors.

Of course, Spring Training brings another crop of almost-Major-Leaguers, and maybe the Red Sox know they have some aces in the hole.  There are probably half a dozen pitchers who could be ready for the big time, if their confidence and location come to fruition. They have a cluster of catchers who may be ready to step up if the aging catching duo of Pierczinsky and Ross go down.

But you can’t have too much insurance on the bench with this corps of fragile and aging bodies. Maybe it wasn’t luck that the Red Sox had Uhehara and Carp ready to fill key roles on the team. Maybe it was the genius of foresight.  Foresight needs to step up to the plate again this spring.

Location, Location, Location

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 .

 

 

 

 

The Staff

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.

Farrell and Failure

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His art is eccentricity, his aim

How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at

(“The Pitcher,” Robert Francis)

John Farrell understands that pitching is the art of learning from failure. He was not a great pitcher himself, and he has nurtured a host of Red Sox pitchers through failure, among them Cliff Bucholz, Felix Dubront, John Lackey, and most recently John Lester.

Pitchers and quarterbacks are unique for throwing to miss the target. If you put the ball right into the strike zone or right into the receiver’s hands you risk a home run or an interception. Instead you throw to the batter’s weakness or the receiver’s strength, and the difference, as a poet once said of his craft, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.

It was utterly painful to watch John Lester struggle with the strike zone on Friday night at Comerica Park. The man has won nineteen games in a season and thrown a no-hitter. As recently as this season he has flirted with a hitless outing, where his curves and cutters were biting the corners and baffling big league all-stars. He started Opening Day in 2012 and 2013, the projected ace of the pitching staff.

Lester was missing badly Friday night, turning Jerrod Saltalamacchia into a goalie blocking shots low outside, low inside. Some pitches were just off the plate and his eyes pleaded with the umpire to see them into the strike zone.

After Miguel Cabrera launched a three-run homer into the Tiger bullpen, I yelled at John Farrell on my television screen, “Now will you take him out?” It was 6-5, the Sox leading by one fragile run.  But Farrell waited with the infuriating patience that baseball managers uniquely display. He waited while Lester walked the hapless rookie Garcia in the fifth and Pena, the ninth batter in the order in the sixth, then struck out Omar Infante.

Now he comes out and takes the ball from Lester with a pat on the back. The former journeyman with the Cleveland Indians sends his ace to the showers on a strikeout.  Only a pitcher would understand what that meant to John Lester. He left on a high note after five innings of very low notes, many of them in the dirt.

mlbf_27897513_th_1In the meantime I’m gasping, “At last!” At least I wouldn’t have to witness the so-called ace squandering the rest of his five-run lead. Some shred of humanity in my cold fan’s heart is saying, “Yeah, but did you see the hell that guy went through for five and two-thirds innings? The man was practically on the cross.”

Remarkably it is the humanity of a baseball manager that makes him great, not his ruthlessness.  Leave it to the basketball coaches to scream and throw balls at their players, the baseball manager has to reason with a pitcher and pat him on the rump when he takes him out of the game. And he keeps sending him out to pitch every five days, even though his cutter is biting the dust and his curve ball is missing the corners.

As baseball scribes declare, the game is a game of failure.  You get a hit every three chances at the plate, you’re an all-star, every four times, you’re on the bench, every five times, you’re back in the minors.  Your fastball catches the clean-up hitter napping, you’re a crafty hurler; it catches the sweet spot on the ninth hitter’s bat, you’re a chump who’s lost his control.

A little like life, isn’t it? A game of failures, where the strong accept and learn from them, and the weak are defeated by them.  And our mentors and managers are there, patiently enduring our failures and patting us on the back for the smallest success.

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What Matters for 2013

Gordon Edes of ESPN.com takes a dim view of the re-treads the Red Sox brought in over the Winter. He portrays the glass half-empty for 2013: fragile bodies, disappointing 2012 performances, uncertain clubhouse culture. But Edes misses the point when he evaluates what the Red Sox have added, because the one thing that has to change in 2013 is the pitching.

The Red Sox will hit, they always have hit, but what will make the Red Sox into a contender is their pitching. So it matters that they brought in Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, and Koji Uhehara, all pitchers with good credentials. Even more it matters that the front of their rotation, John Lester, Clay Bucholz, and John Lackey make a comeback from career-worst seasons in 2012. If those three pitch as they are capable, it hardly matters who is in the line-up next to Ortiz, Pedroia and Ellsbury. The Red Sox will hit, and they will win.

On their best days, no one can out-pitch John Lester and Clay Bucholz.  The problem was they had maybe two “best days” apiece during the 2012 season.  You could see the pitches, the aggressive approach, the frustration in the eyes of the hitters, but you saw it only occasionally. These are both blue chip pitchers. Other teams always ask for them in trade talks. What will they show in 2013?

In 2011 John Lackey spelled disappointment. Many doom-sayers thought the Red Sox had overpaid for him, and I was one of them. When it was disclosed he had a deteriorating elbow condition, a lot of things made sense.  Lackey should be a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he hasn’t been healthy since he came to Fenway Park.  If he can win 14-15 games in 2013, he will be what the Red Sox anticipated when they traded for him.

Rounding out the rotation will be Felix Dubront and Ryan Dempster.  Both of them can be counted on for 10-12 wins if they stay  healthy. Both of them have to prove they can endure a full season of starting at 6-7 innings a start.  Both of them have proven they can face the best line-ups in baseball when they are healthy. So durability is the big question.

The bullpen has been reassembled with a new closer, Hanrahan, with Aceves moving back to middle relief. Andrew Bailey’s health remains a question, and Daniel Bard’s confidence needs re-building, but the bullpen can survive the collapse of either of them with the insurance of Uhehara, Aceves, Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. Franklin Morales may yet play a vital role for the Red Sox, but where and how remains a question.  The upshot is there are a lot of questions in the bullpen, but a lot of answers as well.

So what matters in 2013 is, Can John Farrell, the erstwhile pitching coach, assemble a strong pitching staff from these elements? The Red Sox were clearly counting on this when they aggressively pursued his contract from the Toronto Blue Jays.  Ben Cherrington was clearly counting on this when he signed Hanrahan, Uhehara, and Dempster.  All the noise about Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew is just distraction compared to what happens on the mound this year.

It’s a new era in Major League Baseball.  With good hitting you might stake out third place in the division. For the long haul and in the playoffs, pitching rules.