Friday, May 14, 2010

Solving the Red Sox riddle

Steady on now, everybody settle down. All over New England and indeed the World (isn’t the Internet just super!?) Red Sox fans are exploding with ridiculous negative hyperbole. The general word on the street is, the team is struggling so badly that it might be time to consider drastic options, like blowing it up and starting again. Cool heads are hard to find. Even after a short winning streak, the negativity far outweighs the alternative.

Facebook and Twitter are bursting at the seams with negative invective.

ESPN polls are asking people to vote on individual circumstances, trying to put a single percentage number as a reason for Boston’s early season struggles. As with almost everything in life, it’s just not that simple. It isn’t one single thing; it is a combination of situations and circumstances that are currently working against Boston. They won’t contrive to do so all season long, of that you can be sure, however right now they are definitely weighing Ye Olde Team down a little.

So, with that in mind, what exactly are we looking at? You don’t need to be sitting in the Phillies bullpen with binoculars in order to see Boston’s problems are basically the following sticky mess of issues. Here’s the twist, every single one of them is fixable. Faced with the below eclectic list of serious issues, lesser teams may have crumbled, lesser teams could be next best thing to winless at this stage. The Sox, instead, are still fighting and still just a good winning streak away from challenging in the toughest division in all of baseball.

Boston’s ‘issues’
  • Marco Scutaro (however not for the reason you might think at first)
  • Missing outfielders
  • The DH position
  • Starting pitching
  • Relief pitching
  • Schedule

The Scutaro situation
Two weeks Gordon Edes ‘had a pop’ at him in ESPN, calling his signing ‘underwhelming’. Plenty of other sports writers have had a go at him. Just a handful of weeks into the season and it seems everyone is trying to write off Marco Scutaro before he has had a chance to prove himself. The problem is, he isn’t doing that bad. Are people rushing to take him down just so they can continue churning out clichéd ‘The Sox always have problems at the Shortstop position’ pieces? The key here is bear in mind Marco is batting out of order, way out of order, in Ellsburys absence. Scutaro was brought in to add length, runs and OBP to the bottom of the Sox order. He is meant to be batting 8th or 9th. Instead the Sox have had to ask him to fill in as a leadoff batter. The results? A .283 average, 13 hits in his last 10 games, third on the Sox in hits (ahead of Kevin Youkilis). How can the Sox, the media and the fanbase expect more?

Finally on this note, just watch the games. Having tuned in to the vast majority of Sox games, I know my own eyes don’t lie to me, Scutaro is a very nice shortstop. He makes some great plays in the hole, makes all the outs, covers plenty of grass, and has been a great fill in for Ellsbury in his absence. Give the guy a break, he is doing much more than expected of him, in an unusual position in the lineup.

Missing outfielders
On a related note, Boston had played most of its early season games without Ellsbury and Cameron, two thirds of their outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury, ranked between 25 and 30 on most Fantasy baseball charts at season open, has played six games this season. He is the spark at the top of the Sox order, not to mention one of the most exciting young outfielders in the game. His return will be an enormous boost to the Sox lineup. Cameron’s return would also be a boost, to the bottom half of the order. That’s the key, Beltre/Cameron/Scutaro are all meant to populate the 7th, 8th and 9th spot in the Sox order. That’s what they were brought in for, and when everyone is back, the Sox order will suddenly have the length they expected of it. These two guys are going to be a huge ‘addition’ in the next couple of weeks.

The DH position
Apparently Boston has a DH that isn’t hitting .350 and sitting on 25 home runs already. You may not have heard this. Enough already with the Ortiz bashing. Any mainstream journalist that peddles this story in the next couple of weeks should be banned from writing ever again on the grounds of terminal laziness. Find something else to write about. On top of that, Ortiz has actually started to hit. Take all the precautionary superstitious measures, touch wood etc, however, it appears the big guy has started to cluster a few hits together.

Schedule
The Sox have played a pretty tricky schedule so far. Plenty of exposure to very good teams. They will eventually hit a soft spot on the schedule and reel of a ten win streak, giving them the confidence they are missing at the moment. There have been some low points, dropping games to the Orioles and struggling against the Yankees. There has also been some high points, peppering Blue Jays pitching recently, and sweeping a four game series from the Angels. It will all even out in the long run. It is a 162 game schedule, not a 30 game schedule.

Relief pitching
Hey, nobody in Major League baseball is perfect, when it comes to relief pitching. Boston are like every other team at this early stage. They are trying to find the best bullpen pieces for the right situations. The bad news is, some of the guys they brought with them from spring training are not going to help much. The good news? The core of something good, something solid, is already there. With a close game, Francona can hand the ball off to any combination of Delcarmen or Okajima and then Bard with increasing levels of confidence. Bard in particular is really finding his feet this season. The best news is Papelbon. He is absolutely dominating the ninth inning of any game he comes into, abusing opposition batters with his mid 90’s heat and a killer split finger. Boston could maybe use one more reliable bullpen arm, but hey, so could everyone else.


Probably no need to worry about this bullpen..

Starting pitching
Not so long ago people were actually endorsing moving Jon Lester to AAA to ‘sort himself out’. I wish I was making that up, however it is true. Genuine online media sources. They know who they are. Since that low point Lester 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA and 30 strikeouts in his last four starts. In that time, his ERA has plummeted from 8.44 to 3.71.

Beckett himself had a fantastic quote a few years ago about the life of the starting pitcher. He basically said in a 35 start season, on about 10 of those a pitcher feels superhuman, unhittable and untouchable. For another 15 or so he feels pretty decent. The other 10 are a struggle, sometimes a struggle just to get the ball over the plate. Look at AJ Burnett – his last start he had allowed nine runs (eight earned) on nine hits and three walks, striking out four before he was finally mercifully yanked out of the game.

Good times are just ahead for Beckett.. clearly..

The one thing that is glaring when it comes to Beckett, is that old chestnut of Tito Francona showing way too much loyalty to his players. It seems to be a running theme amongst contemporary Red Sox skippers. If it isn’t Jimmy Williams starting Steve Avery despite the Sox Front Office’s wishes, it’s Tito allowing Beckett or Lester recent chances to clean up their own messes on the basepaths. There is no doubt that most managers would have yanked Beckett in the sixth inning when his command started to falter. Tito, however, believes so much in his players that he will stick by them thick and thin, if it’s Pedroia off to a .160 start in his rookie year, or Beckett hitting and walking Yankees like there is no tomorrow.

There is a flip side to that coin of course. That same loyalty is part of the reason the Red Sox have had such a harmonious and healthy clubhouse the last several years. The players love playing for Francona, because they know he is a ‘players manager’.

With all the ridiculous panic going on around Red Sox Nation you would think the Sox were ten games under .500. The fact of the matter is they are one game over .500. A new season basically started against the Blue Jays. Boston has a clean slate and plenty of reasons to be positive about the season ahead.

Want to call it a day already on the ’10 season? I suggest you go watch a different sport. Baseball isn’t meant for you.


Shhh..it's ok..plenty of summer left..


2 comments:

Peter Kavanagh said...

On the point of Marco (or Mahco if you've got the accent, apparently), don't forget that Jed Lowrie looked promising before his injury and he could be back for the 2nd half of the year...that's if you don't think Mahco hits the bawl wicked fah!

Cormac said...

Great point, Lowrie has work to do, but the raw talent is there, no doubt about it.

Irish National baseball team

Irish National baseball team
Team Ireland at the European Championships, Croatia, 2000.

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