Saturday, August 19, 2006

Headed south...in a hand basket

[While I've written at length about my aversion for much of what passes for major league baseball, surprisingly, this summer, I've found myself watching more Red Sox baseball than I have for the past four or five years. If I'm not actively consumed by the images on the screen, I've got Jerry (Trupiano) and Joe (Castiglione) on in the background, while I'm doing some work. Because of this, I've developed my own opinions about the 2006 version of New England's boys of summer. Not surprisingly, I find myself at odds with much of what's written, or talked about on sports talk radio.

Here is my "state of the nation" report and indictment of much of what I see is wrong with this team. For much of the summer, this team has lulled most New Englanders to sleep, especially since many have been mollified by the World Championship in 2004.--JB]

Headed south...in a hand basket

The Red Sox season is over. After 121 games, the Sox, while still 17 games above .500 and still within striking distance of the “Evil Empire,” don’t need to be bothered with printing playoff tickets this year. After last October’s train wreck against Chicago that might not be a bad thing.

Francona (more on him, later) and Co. have hit the proverbial banana peel in their season and are reeling. Last night's debacle exposed them for the playoff poseurs they are, courtesy of the team that beat them on the field, but more importantly, have beaten them in the general manager’s suite.

Theo Epstein, who was the talk of the town when he maneuvered his chess pieces at in 2004, being dubbed, “the boy wonder,” has seen reality set in, as experienced by most of the other 28 members of his elite fraternity. While at least Epstein gets to breath the heady air that comes with well-heeled owners, he still is a distant second compared to the cash available in Brian Cashman’s player acquisition account.

More than any other group of modern day sports fan, the legions of New Englanders and the many other bandwagon riders from the rest of the country who call themselves members of Red Sox Nation (a fairly recent moniker, one I never heard uttered back when I was rooting for Yaz, the Conigliaro brothers, Ray Culp and Sonny Siebert), these folks live in a constant state of delusion. Now a tenuous grasp on reality isn’t new for Sox fans. Most of us who grew up with the team, pre-2004, never could be accused of being fair weather fans, as Boston baseball lived in the fog of fading playoff hopes and late-season collapses. Those older than me, remember the days when the Sox were perennial second division members, living at the back of the pack with perennial losers like the old Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics, teams that rarely if ever found themselves in a meaningful game come August, or September.

Enough of ancient history. There is more than sufficient fodder to discuss with the 2006 edition of the Sox. It has been said that pitching is 90 percent of the game. Whether it’s 90, or even 75 or 80 percent, the sorry group of pitchers that pass for a major league staff in Boston this summer are a sad assortment to hitch ¾ of your hopes and fortunes to.

With the exception of Curt Schilling, who looks wrung out and at the end of the line, bags under his eyes and all, the Sox lack no other starter remotely resembling consistency. Overpaid and over hyped Josh Beckett seems to have reached the wall, now that his innings have reached the 150 mark. Beckett, despite overpowering stuff, has a history of running out of gas around the 150-180 inning mark (his career high is 178, coming into this year). That’s not a track record worthy of the Sox’ recent contract extension.

Yesterday, Francona ran household name, Jason Johnson, out to the bump in game one. This is a guy so valuable to his team that after the game, he was cut lose, being designated for assignment after another substandard outing. While his 3-12 mark and 6.35 ERA are certainly the marks of a guy worthy of the scrapheap, why would you as a manager pin your hopes for October on someone this ineffective? While Epstein has made some decent moves in the past, his recent track record offers ample ammunition for scrutiny.

Since the trading deadline has come and gone, all I’ve heard emanating from the lips of Theo and his apologists are that there are no pitchers available. No shit, Theo! That’s because Cory Lidle was snatched up by the Yankees and future hall-of-famer, Greg Maddux, is now donning Dodger blue and pitching like he did a decade ago. A casual glance at the standings should have given Cleo (I mean, Theo) an idea what teams might be in the market to dump salary, or part with pitching for some prospects. Speaking of prospects, I’m sick and tired of hearing all the talk about Epstein not wanting to “mortgage the future for the present.” The future is all speculative. The present is that you are sniffing the Yankees’ hindquarters and battling with Chicago and Minnesota for the chance of playing in the post-season. There's no guarantee that you'll ever be this close, next year, or for years to come. A more experienced and skilled GM would have recognized that and not have been so enamored with the likes of Lester, Hansen and Delcarmen, who’ve done nothing of much value at the major league level other than light up the radar gun and get hit, in Hansen’s case and give his team 120-pitch, five-inning outings consistently, in Lester’s case. Delcarmen, if he had any real value, would be able to do more than fill a middle relief role that traditionally had been the last vestiges of the careers for 35+ pitchers on the downside of their careers, not a so-called prospect.

Contrast the Red Sox pitching, which now is forced to rely on geriatric left-handers like David Wells to chew up innings, with wild card contenders, Minnesota and Chicago. With Johann Santana pitching 7 innings, or more, in nearly 70 percent of his starts and former ace, Brad Radke (who is pitching with a torn labrum, btw), giving them solid starts of late, not to mention rookie phenom Francisco Liriano (currently on the DL), along with a #4 starter like Carlos Silva, the Twins have the superior pitching. Chicago counters with Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia, not a bad threesome to pin their hopes on for repeating as World Champions, if they can win the race to the finish with Minnesota.

Back to Francona. This is a guy whose handling of pitchers makes me look back fondly on the Grady Little years. Anytime any of his starters begins getting a whiff of 100 pitches, Francona’s into his bullpen, chewing it up, not recognizing that you might need some of these guys for the stretch-run. Francona’s been doing this since April. Particularly with Schilling and Beckett. How many times has he taken Schilling out after six, when he wasn’t at, or barely over the 100-pitch mark? And then there’s Beckett. A 24-year-old guy who throws 97 ought to be able to give you regular outings of 115 to 120 pitches. Instead, they baby this guy, which with his track record, might be a good thing. This only furthers my post so far about the Sox. If you have a guy as your #2 guy that can’t consistently get you into the 7th, you’ve got some problems, especially when the guys at the back of your rotation are 43-year-old David Wells and Jon “I’ll give you five innings” Lester.

I want to say something about the entire philosophy of pitching at the big league level that’s totally fucked. Looking back at historical prototypes for pitchers like Schilling and Beckett, you naturally settle on Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. Ryan, particularly early in his career, routinely had outings where his pitch count was in the 150 to 175 range. He pitched several ball games where he threw well over 200 pitches. This is the same guy that was still throwing in the mid-90s at the age of 45! Clemens’ career was very similar, although he didn’t have the pitch counts that Ryan did. It all comes down to how these guys were developed.

The modern pitchers, guys like Hansen, Delcarmen, Lester and even Papelbon (who in his current role of throwing 20 pitches per outing and racking up 80+ innings for the year is an absolute waste of his Clemens-esque talent), are handled with kid gloves at their minor league stops in Portland and Pawtucket. If you want to use Papelbon out of the pen (stupid and not anything I’d ever support as manager), then get Hansen up pitch-wise so he can give you six, seven innings per outing. Personally, I think Hansen is a bust, but that’s just me. Unlike many Sox-watchers, I’ve actually coached players and made personnel moves at a level above T-ball. I know what 19, 20 and 21 year-old arms are capable of. Hell, 37-year-old John Carriero (of Patriot Mutual fame) could probably go out and give the Sox more quality innings than 75 percent of the current crop of “prospects.”

I’ve gone on longer than I wanted to, but I wanted to weigh in and bring some reality to this never-ending dysfunctional dialogue that goes on about the Red Sox. The Sox pitching sucks, you can’t contend with two starters, Terry Francona is a sorry handler of pitchers (as well as managing a game) and Theo ain’t all that the Nation thinks he is.

Give it another two weeks and see if I’m not right about this. Hell, give it another three days and I think you might begin to get on board with what I’m telling ‘ya. Unless you are as delusional as most other Sox’ fans that is.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

It looks bad for the Sox especially after yesterday. Beckett was awful and now the Sox are 41/2 back of Yankees.

One thing I'd like to mention about what you wrote about the Sox is that injuries have had something to do with their recent downfall like Wakefield, Varitek, Clement so it's not just bad pitching, or Francona's managing.

Jim said...

Anonymous,

As much as I'd like to prescribe the woes of the Sox to injuries, the Yankees have been without Sheffield and Matsui for a significant stretch and Randy Johnson is no longer the dominant pitcher he once was, but they now are holding a 4.5 game lead over Boston.

Here's an interesting snapshot on Beckett; since signing his 3-year, $30 million dollar extension, July 19th, he is 2-3, with a 5.97 ERA. What's even more interesting, on the night of signing the extension, he gave the Sox 8 innings of 4-hit shutout ball against the KC Royals, a club that could be characterised as a AAA team, masquerading as a big league club.

After the KC performance, Beckett is 1-3, with an ERA of 7.32. Not the stuff that you pay $30 million for.

A deal at the deadline for some pitching help was needed and Epstein didn't get it done!

Joe said...

yI think this is kind of a curious take coming from someone whose pitching career was cut short by an injured arm. Certainly pitch counts have been watched more closely in recent years than ever in the history of baseball, but I think it’s a baseball-wide phenomenon for most every manager other than Dusty Baker (ask him about Wood and Prior) and Frank Robinson. I’m also a bit skeptical of the comparisons to Ryan and Clemens, both of whom strike me as freaks of nature rather than the ideal to whom all might aspire. For every Ryan there are several Catfish Hunters, who was injured at age 31 and out of baseball before his 34th birthday.

I also think it’s early to be writing off Lester, Hansen and Delcarmen. Lester and Hansen are 22 and Delcarmen is 23. They are all learning under fire at the major league level (without a lot of success just yet). Jonathan Papelbon was in Class A when he was 23. Schilling was a rookie in the Baltimore bullpen at the same age. I think that they all show a ton of promise, and based on what was available for pitching at the deadline, I’d just as soon keep these guys as trade them. Maddux stated that he wasn’t going to waive his no-trade clause to move to the east coast. Lidle came with a steep price tag in Bobby Abreu (hopefully I’ll address this in the blog). The Red Sox gambled on effective returns from Wells and Wakefield rather than give up a chip for three weeks of Kip Wells. I’m OK with this. As for bullpen help, middle relievers are notoriously unreliable, and I didn’t see anybody I’d want to give up a top prospect for. The reported Oswalt deal allegedly included Lester and Hansen, so it’s not like there wasn’t a price at which the young guys would have been dealt.

I think that the Red Sox aren’t set up financially to be able to throw money around to try to keep up with the Yankees, and they need to develop cheap young players to try to beat them. Like it or not, they simply do not have the same resources available to them as the Yankees (again, hopefully this becomes a blog entry). I believe that trading young guys and taking on the Bobby Abreu salary would have hampered Boston’s plan for long-term success. To do so, and then have guys like Beckett and Timlin fail, and not make the playoffs this year anyway would not have been good management and might have set the team back a few years. I believe we’d be having the same conversation every year.

Jim said...

You are correct--my once promising baseball career was derailed by an arm injury. Curiously, the injury had less to do with actual pitch counts than being asked to pitch Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, through much of my junior year of HS.

Having coached from LL up through the Twilight League (summer college wooden bat level), I've always been aware of pitch counts, as well as the individual capacity of my pitcher. Yes, I had an absolute high water mark for my 18, 19 and 20-year-old pitchers, but also recognized that the 6'3", 230 pound 20 year old could get to 125-130 on an August night and my skinny, 18 or 19-year-old was done at 95 or 100.

My point and not as clearly articulated as it could be, was that Francona seems to have a "one pitch count fits all" mentality with his staff.

I'm not going to rehash all the issues with Theo. Part of the attraction he holds has less to do with his GM acumen and more to do with his being young, trendy and a gadfly about town, IMHO.

Check the Sox record. Other GM's before him won just as many games, but he's the guy who is credited with "reversing the curse" to coin Shaunessy's hackneyed term, so I guess he's earned some time for his prospects to mature.

While not particularly fond of Duquette, the man, as a GM, he had some success, until 2001 caused NE to sour on his ways. From some of the fallout surrounding the debacle against the Yankees, the Championship of 2004 might not be enough. RSN is restless and clamoring for blood. If the Sox don't right the ship on the left coast, things will get really ugly in another week or two.

While Clemens and Ryan might not be "ideal" examples, they were not much different than most other pitchers, who routinely completed their starts.

Having your bullpen take over a game in the 6th inning might be the rage at the moment, but doing things just because everyone else is doing them seems a tad anachronistic.

Obviously you and I will have to agree to disagree.

As we discussed at breakfast the other morning, I'd very much like to see a post about the financial comparisons and whether the Sox' claims of poverty are realistic.

BTW, don't you love "Manny being Manny" and leaving the game with a cramp in his hammy? Radke is gutting it out with his torn labrum on what could be his final lap and Manny, despite his almost superhuman ability to hit a baseball gets away with being the selfish player that he's always been.

weasel said...

Jim, in my IMHO, there's never been anything H about your O ;)

How are things with the twilighters, by the way? As much as I enjoy this bile spewing all around at the inept pros (and state workers, politicians of all stripes, and big paper 'journalists': splitters and running dogs to a man and woman) I look forward to your Twilight League updates. Are they always on t'other blawg?

weasel said...

Of course, I'm still trying to figure out how I can have "in my in my" in a sentence, but still.... Its like an ATM machine or PIN number, I suppose.