You know we’ve got to find a way: Red Sox 2006 edition

August 20th, 2006 → 3:51 pm @

“I feel like somebody just kicked my ass. Actually somebody did…That was fucking unbelievable.”

Thus spake David Ortiz in the wake of Friday’s twin killing; one can only imagine what his mood was like after yesterday afternoon’s abomination. Ortiz (putting up monster numbers for the fourth straight year) and Manny Ramirez (putting up monster numbers for the 12th straight year) are far and away the best 3-4 combo in the game; at this point, there’s legitimate debate about whether they’re the best ever.

And right how they’re toiling for a team that appears to be heading quickly down the toilet. There’s a lot of time left in the season, and even after a frighteningly bad stretch, the Red Sox are still only 4.5 games out; a pair of wins tonight and tomorrow will bring them back within 2.5. Admittedly, that doesn’t seem likely. And admittedly, this appears to be a Red Sox team that will miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Are the Sox squandering one of the last remaining years of Manny and Papi?


Ever since the trade deadline, there’s been a lot of chatter — online, in print, over the airwaves — about the Red Sox’s long-term plan versus a focus on the present. I’m at least partially the cause of (or at fault for, depending on your perspective) this discussion because of a scene in the introduction of my book, where I write about a senior staff meeting the Sox held in the days immediately following last year’s playoff loss to the White Sox. In that meeting, Theo Epstein spoke frankly about the future of the organization. “In general, we’ve had a lot of success in player development,” he said. “We’re going to need a lot of patience, because there’s going to be a lot of failure. It could get rough. … Sooner or later we might need to take a half a step backward in return for a step forward. … What if we win 85 games [next year]? We’re bringing up some young players that are going to be better in ’07 than they will be next year. And they’ll probably be even better than that in ’08. … We can be both a large revenue club [that can afford to sign high priced free agents] and have a strong farm system. But it’s probably not going to be a seamless transition. This year we had a great year. We will probably be worse next year.”

In my book, Epstein’s comments — made less than a month before he walked out of Fenway in a gorilla suit — are offset against those made by Larry Lucchino. This scene has been interpreted as Epstein throwing in the towel for 2006 and Lucchino wanting to go for it year after year.

That’s not accurate. Epstein and Lucchino were both, in their own ways, discussing the team’s approach to dealing with the public, not its approach to dealing with the team. That hasn’t changed much: take advantage of what you have, don’t mortgage the future, search out possible bargains, and spend big money when you find someone worth it. This Sox administration has always been willing to trade its prospects so long as it felt like the deal made sense — it was Jon Lester, after all, who was set to go to Texas along with Manny during the week or so in which it looked as if A-Rod would be playing in Boston. And last month it was Lester (along with Coco Crisp) who would have gone to Atlanta for Andruw Jones.

What’s more, it’s hard to look objectively at this year and see a team that had decided to throw in the towel. The 2006 Red Sox have a $120 million payroll. Among this year’s new acquisitions, there’s Mike Lowell, a $9 million third baseman. The Sox spent $5.5 for two middle relievers, and a combined $6 million for a shortstop and second baseman. That, right there, is higher than the Florida Marlins payroll, and more than half of that of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Instead of Mike Lowell, Alex Gonzalez, Mark Loretta, and Kevin Youkilis — a $15 million infield — the Sox could have had Andy Marte, Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, and Youkilis — a $1.25 million infield (slightly more if you factor in the money the Sox sent to Atlanta in the Renteria-Marte deal). Instead of Rudy Seanez and Julian Tavarez, the Sox could have begun the season with Sanchez and Hansen, for a savings of about $5.5 million. Instead of Beckett, they could have begun the year with a rotation of Schilling, Wakefield, Clement, Wells, and Papelbon, with Foulke out there as the closer, Lenny DiNardo as a backup starter, and Arroyo sent packing for Wily Mo Pena, who would have been the team’s full-time center fielder. That, my friends, would have been a rebuilding year.

Instead — and despite the fact that the Sox were basically held together in 2005 by spit, luck, Damon, Ortiz, and Ramirez — Boston made a series of moves it thought would both allow the team to compete in 2006 and compete down the road. (I’m not going to argue the Damon non-signing again. The Sox couldn’t have re-signed Damon unless they’d offered him a seven-year deal. And I still think within a year or two we’ll all be glad Johnny’s not picking up his annual $13 million check from Yawkey Way.)

So what happened? Well, where do you want to start? Jason Varitek hit like a shell of his former self; then he got injured. Trot Nixon hit for less power than at any point in his career; then he got injured. Matt Clement, David Wells, Tim Wakefield, and Keith Foulke all spent (or are spending) serious time on the DL. Coco Crisp got injured and had a harder time adjusting to Boston than was predicted. Mike Timlin got injured and stopped looking like an ultra-durable 33-year old and started looking more like the 40-year old he actually is. Seanez and Tavarez were both busts. That’s a whole mess of crappy luck. The real mystery isn’t why the Sox are sucking right now; the real mystery is how they managed to do so well for so long with so much going wrong.


But back to the trade deadline. Let’s say the Sox had pulled off one of the blockbuster deals that was being discussed. Let’s say they’d acquired Roy Oswalt. Or Andruw Jones. They’d both be worth between 7 and 8 win shares for the two months remaining in the season — and that could, potentially, be enough to make up for the lost ground with the Yankees. Except these were trades, and in most iterations of these trades, the Sox would be losing Crisp, Lester, and perhaps another player. Lester and Crisp are projected to be worth between 7 and 8 win shares each over the season’s final two months…which leaves a net gain of zero. Having Andruw Jones in center would undoubtedly have made the Red Sox a better team…but the rotation would still be relying on two guys closer to AARP membership than they are to their teenage years, and the non-Papelbon bullpen would still be frighteningly shoddy. Oswalt would have bolstered the rotation, to be sure…but he wouldn’t have done anything about the relief, and wouldn’t have done anything to help bolster the offense. This is, after all, a team that yesterday relied on Javy Lopez for protection after Manny drew a couple of intentional passes.

How about Bobby Abreu, whom the Yankees picked up for chump change (in terms of what they had to give up)? As Gordon Edes and Nick Cafardo pointed out in yesterday’s Globe, Abreu would have cost the Sox $27.7 million for a season and a third. That’s a lot of cake. Instead, they got Eric Hinske for a little less than a season and a third at a cost of just over $4 million. Last year, Abreu had 17 win shares; Hinske had 12. And if twenty million dollars can only get you a net gain of five win shares, you’re not spending your money wisely. (A quick aside: the Sox haven’t made a decision to forego high-priced free-agents; to the contrary, they’ve decided that in order to cough up the money for truly valuable free-agents — those in their late 20’s as opposed to their late 30’s — they need to spend their money wisely.)

I’m not saying win shares are the be all and end all of evaluating players; like every metric, it’s flawed. Clearly the Sox thought straight up deals of Crisp and Lester for Jones or Crisp and Lester for Oswalt were worth it: they would have pulled the trigger on either one of those. But start throwing in other young pitchers in their first year of MLB service, and a good deal becomes a bad one.


On October 27, 2004 — you remember that day, right? — John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino sat in a hotel suite in St. Louis. “We don’t really want to go for it in any particular year,” Henry told me. “We want to be competitive every single year. Larry thinks we can expect to make the playoffs eight out of 10 years. I feel like we can do 10 out of 10.”

I asked what the difference was between going for broke one year and staying competitive every year.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes on both goals,” Lucchino said. “You can’t go for broke without some longer term perspective and you can’t have a longer term perspective, particularly in Boston, without some kind of annual focus on getting to the postseason. We have to operate on both dimensions every year, and I think we have. There’s a lot of focus on what we’ve done at the major league level and our post-season success and all that but if you look below the surface, we’ve had a pretty good couple of drafts the last couple of years. And commitments to player development.”

That was Lucchino talking, not Epstein. It’s true that Epstein warned of the possibility of needing to take half a step back before the team could take a step forward…but not because he was advocating that. He was advocating a more tempered public relations approach. The Red Sox have been on the verge of an aging team for several years; all things considered, they’ve managed to make that transition pretty gracefully.


As of late, I’ve been accused of being an apologist for the Red Sox administration. I understand where that comes from — in Boston, anyone who doesn’t turn into Chicken Little is accused of being an apologist. But the fact that I understand where the Red Sox are coming from does not mean I think they’ve executed their plans brilliantly. I’m no baseball scout, so I won’t try to pretend to know what to look for when it comes to evaluating pitchers. I do know this administration has a mixed record (at best) of picking up pitching talent. There are obviously reasons (beyond the 2003 World Series; Mark Bellhorn had a great 2004 World Series and no one’s throwing cash at him) the Sox felt Josh Beckett was worth $30 million. I don’t know what they are, and the past month has made me wonder if any of us will ever know. The failure of Seanez and Tavarez this year would be easier to take if it hadn’t been preceded by the failure of a lot of other middle relievers the Sox thought might succeed, from Matt Mantei to Chad Bradford to Ramiro Medonza…the list goes on.

This season has been hard to stomach, but I understand what’s going on: shitty luck plus aging players is no recipe for success. I also understand why it didn’t make sense to go all in this year: all in still likely wouldn’t beat the Tigers or the Yankees. If, in a year, Beckett’s ERA is still hovering around 6.00 and the young guns in the bullpen are still coughing up runs, I’ll be more upset, both at the time and for the future. After all, we only have two more years of Papi and Manny anchoring the middle of the batting order.

Post Categories: David Ortiz & Feeding the Monster Sneak Peeks & Josh Beckett & Larry Lucchino & Manny Ramirez & Oblique references to Marvin Gaye lyrics & Red Sox ownership & sabermetrics & Theo Epstein & trade deadline

There’s too many of you crying: Josh Beckett edition

August 20th, 2006 → 12:12 pm @

Before yesterday’s game, one of the Yankees coaches came up to A-Rod as he was on the field during batting practice. “It’s 96 miles-per-hour,” the coach said. “And straight.” A pithy — and completely accurate — description of Josh Beckett’s fastball. I’ve said before that I think one of Beckett’s problems is that he can’t blow fastballs by hitters in the AL the way he could in the NL. So is the difference between a total disaster and a potential ace as easy as learning how to throw the splitter?

I hope so. And while the numbers aren’t encouraging, they’re not completely bleak, either.


In his nine starts since July 8 — roughly between a quarter and a third of a pitchers’ season — Beckett has lasted an average of exactly six innings. His ERA over that span is 6.83. In 5.2 innings yesterday, Beckett allowed nine walks, the most of any pitcher this season and the most of his career. He added to his baseball-leading HR total. Things have gotten so bad that people trying to make an argument that Beckett doesn’t blow are reduced to parsing out stats to the point of the absurd: before yesterday’s game, the Fox broadcasters were talking about how Beckett was 5-0 in daytime starts and had only given up 8 dingers at Fenway.

There’s no easy answer to why Beckett’s been so horrendously crappy as of late. Five of those starts came before Jason Varitek landed on the DL, while six of them came before Dave Wallace returned as pitching coach. Indeed, the only trend this year seems to be that when facing a winning team, Beckett becomes a loser: he has a 6.80 ERA in his 15 starts against teams over .500 and a 3.61 ERA against those below.

Put together, all of this doesn’t look good. A ruler-straight fastball combined with a horrendous record against winning teams does not a $30 million contract make.

But there is reason to think we’re right now witnessing the worst that Beckett has to offer.

There are plenty of pitcher who don’t have a whole lot of movement on their fastballs who are successful major league pitchers — like, say, Curt Schilling. And it’s not like Schilling doesn’t rely on the heat: he’s usually leading the majors in first-pitch strikes while throwing fastballs to start off hitters around 75 percent of the time. But overall, Schilling throws fastballs just 65 percent of the time, which makes it that much harder to sit on his 92-mph pitches; when he’s ahead in the count, that number is 56 percent; when he’s behind, it stays at 65 percent.

Beckett doesn’t throw an enormously higher percentage of fastballs — this season, he’s at 71 percent. But when he gets in trouble, that figure jumps to 78 percent.

After more than a month of throwing batting practice, it looked like Beckett took the mound yesterday running scared. He was nibbling, almost as if he was afraid to throw strikes (hence the nine walks). When he’d get in trouble, he’d either keep on throwing out of the zone or he’d try and whip one down the pike. The Yankees are too good (and too patient) a team for that kind of crap, and all afternoon they’d just wait for a ball in the zone and then smack it.

But, unlike Matt Clement’s start against the White Sox in last year’s playoffs, Beckett didn’t seem as if he had no idea where his pitches were going to end up. And Beckett has shown he can throw knee-buckling curves to compliment his fastballs. Throw in a good splitter — which can be taught — and you’re back to an ace-in-waiting. And as much as Beckett’s recent struggles seem to have put him into a spiral, he’s shown that he can thrive off his own success.

I wouldn’t bet on a Beckett transformation this year. But he’ll have one more year working with Schilling, and three more years in Boston. There’s no need (yet) to think of the 2003 World Series MVP as a reclamation project. There certainly is cause to hope he learns how to become more of a pitcher.

EDIT: Monday morning thoughts. Last night, Papelbon showed how to use the splitter as an out pitch. Beckett, take note.

Post Categories: Curt Schilling & Josh Beckett & Oblique references to Marvin Gaye lyrics

Remind me why we had to take this guy as a throw-in in the Lowell trade?

August 15th, 2006 → 10:33 am @

I know — or I hope I know, anyway — that the Josh Beckett we’ve seen over the last few weeks isn’t the Josh Beckett we’re going to see for the next few years. As I said about a week ago, it looks to me like Beckett needs to work on his maturity (and his need to prove he’s more of a man than the hitters he’s facing) more than anything else. This is a guy with too much talent to implode. And we’d do well to remember how young he is, almost exactly the same age as rookie Jonathan Papelbon. (As a quick aside, please, please don’t start posting comments about how Papelbon would be as good a starter as he is a closer. History is littered with failed starters who became dominant closers. Papelbon might become a very effective starter; his performance this year doesn’t guarantee it.) But as Gordon Edes wrote in today’s Globe, Beckett’s thrown up some really awful numbers: a 5.74 ERA post All-Star break, a 12.00 ERA in his seven losses. That looks like the numbers of someone who isn’t good at getting out of jams.

Some other quick notes from last night: Demarlo Hale made a mistake when he sent Manny home in the eighth. But it wasn’t a flat-out stupid move: the Sox were four runs behind in the eighth, facing a pitcher regularly breaking 100 mph (Wily Mo said the pitch he struck out on was the fastest fastball he’s ever seen), and Tigers center fielder was throwing to third when Hale waved Manny home. It was only an Alex Gonzalez-like play by shortstop Carlos Guillen that got the out. Was it disappointing? Sure. Was it a move worthy of complaints about Hale’s ability or articles dissecting all the criticism? Nope. Hale’s done a great job. He took a risk and it didn’t work out. Let’s move on.

Finally — and I know this is risking a flurry of hate mail — let’s look at what happened last night to the Mets ace. After starting the year with an inflamed big toe and spending two weeks on the DL with an inflamed right hip, Pedro Martinez left last night’s game after a disastrous first inning with a strained right calf. Once again, I’ll remind people that the Red Sox had offered Pedro a three-year contract worth $40 million. Once again, I’ll remind people that the reason the Sox didn’t offer Pedro four years (besides the fact that Pedro never gave the team the chance to match the 11th hour offer by the Mets) was concerns about his durability. And once again, I’ll remind people that Pedro’s track record against NL teams has been markedly different from his performance versus the AL East. I’ve gotten tons of hate mail — more repulsive, hair-tingling, inane vitriol — about the fact that the Sox didn’t keep Pedro and I’ve dared point out why that might have made sense. I’ve gotten more nasty letters directed at Larry Lucchino, Theo Epstein, and the team’s baseball operations crew about this issue than any other. Those letters are confusing emotion with reality. We all miss Pedro. On some level, all baseball fans have a deeply romantic streak; on some level, we all wish our heroes would always stay young and would always retire with the team. And in reality, especially during this era of exploding free-agent salaries, it doesn’t always make sense to do this.

Post Categories: Josh Beckett & Pedro Martinez

Yo, Josh: Shut up and listen (Or: welcome to the ESPN cover curse)

August 4th, 2006 → 10:31 am @

Josh Beckett leads off this week’s, ESPN: The Magazine. The cover, which features a fierce looking Beckett sitting in the Red Sox dugout, is headlined, “Tough Town, Tough Race: Josh Beckett Couldn’t Be Happier.”

There aren’t many people who actually think Beckett couldn’t be happier. After last night’s fiasco — Beckett gave up six runs on two homers in the sixth inning, including Shin-Soo Choo‘s first career grand slam — his ERA is back at 5.00 and he’s given up more home runs (31) than Manny Ramirez has hit (30). To put it another way, Beckett is having a worse season, than Matt Clement did in 2005, with a higher ERA (5.00 to 4.67), a higher slugging percentage (.467 versus .398), and a higher OPS (.779 versus .731).

Sox fans — and the team’s front office — have more faith that Beckett will become a dominant starter than they do that Clement will ever pitch effectively again. Clement, who has another year left on his three-year deal, has pretty much become an afterthought, while Beckett was given a three-year, $30 million contract extension last month. Part of the reason for this is Beckett looks (and plays) the part of the tough talking, hard-throwing ace, while Clement looks like a dweeb always on the verge of tears. “It’s awesome,” Beckett told ESPN when asked about playing in Boston. Last year, even after being selected for the All-Star team, Clement often seemed more intimidated than exhilerated; about halfway through the season, he told me how he used to be able to bike to Wrigley Field during his tenure with the Cubs; in Boston, he said, he practically had to wear a disguise when getting into his car.

Beckett’s attitude does more than help stave off the boo-birds. Clement appears psychologically incapable of pitching in an environment like Boston, at least when he’s not doing well; Beckett should (and hopefully will) thrive off the attention. This is a man, after all, whose ego Curt Schilling admiringly compares to his own. (“He’s cocky,” Schilling told ESPN. “So am I. You have to be cocky to be good.”) But right now, Beckett’s ego seems to be getting him in more trouble than anything else. As I’ve said before, the days of him being able to rear back and blow hitters away with his disturbingly straight fastball are over; this ain’t the NL East. (Beckett’s thrown over 70 percent fastballs this year, and hitters’ batting average is more than twice as high when Beckett’s throwing heat as when he’s throwing curves.) And at some point, you have to hope Beckett will cut the “I call my own games” crap and realize he has something to learn from the team’s catchers. There’s a reason Schilling — one of the best prepared pitchers in the game — trusts Jason Varitek enough to call all his starts. There’s no good reason Beckett should be calling off Varitek (or any other catcher — and that includes Doug Mirabelli).

Beckett may be leaning away from his knee-buckling, shoulders-to-shins curve because snapping the ball is one reason for his history with blisters. He may just consider it a blow to his manliness to rely less heavily on the pitch that made him famous. If it’s the former, you have to hope that modern medicine — which can improve people’s vision with lasers and take tendons from one part of the body and strap them on somewhere else — will come up with a cure for delicate fingers. If it’s the latter, you have to hope that Beckett will learn as much from Schilling’s humility as he will from his arrogance. Schilling didn’t become a dominant pitcher until he got a good talking to from Roger Clemens. Beckett certainly does have the skill to be the staff’s next ace; this is, after all, the player with whom John Henry was so enamored he tried to find a way to hold on to Beckett as part of any deal to sell the Marlins. But as this season has shown, he still has a long way to go.

Post Categories: Josh Beckett

Josh Beckett and the importance of learning how to pitch

July 15th, 2006 → 12:49 pm @

Before the season began, Peter Gammons predicted that, should be remain healthy, Josh Beckett would be the American League Cy Young Award winner. Well, so far, Beckett has remained healthy, and it appears as if 2006 could be the first time in his career that he tops 200 innings. But the Cy Young? Not so much. Beckett’s 11-5 record shows nothing so much as how deceptive a pitcher’s won-loss record can be; his 5.12 ERA is more indicative of how he’s pitched this season. Indeed, last night’s 7-run, 8-hit, 4 1/3 inning effort is beginning to feel disturbingly familiar.

So what’s the problem? It doesn’t seem to be his stuff: he began last night’s game by getting Jason Kendall to whiff on a 97-mile-per-hour fastball—and he’s reached 95 in almost every start this year. Here’s one theory, and it’s one that’s at least been discussed within Yawkey Way: Beckett has never learned how to pitch.

At first blush, that probably seems like a ridiculous statement. Beckett shutout the Yankees on short rest to clinch the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, and has been cited as one of baseball’s marquee pitchers for as long as he’s been in the game. But that could be the problem. For as long as Beckett’s pitched, he’s been someone blessed with preternatural ability and lauded for his skills. In 1999, he was the first high school righthander to be selected second overall in the draft in more than two decades. Baseball America named him the top high school prospect in the country, and he was USA Today‘s High School Pitcher of the Year. He spent only one full season in the minors (2000), and has been a full-time major league starter since he was 22. Compare his development to that of Jonathan Papelbon, a college closer whom the Red Sox converted to a starter in the minors, asking him to develop a fuller repertoire of pitches. In the NL—or, as us American League snobs like to call it, AAAA—Beckett could, more often than not, rely on his natural ability to overpower and overwhelm the opposition. In the AL, he’ll get his share of strike-outs, but he’ll also find that there are plenty of hitters who can use the power he generates to smash a ball into the stands. (It’s no accident that Beckett leads the league with 27 home runs allowed.) When he’s not blowing pitchers away, he’s often getting lit up.

So what does that mean going forward? When it’s working for him, Beckett has a jaw-droppingly nasty curve, and there’s no reason he can’t learn to mix in a little Greg Maddux with his Nolan Ryan. (This is what’s allowed Pedro Martinez to be one of the all-time greats. Witness Game 5 of the ALDS in 1999, when Martinez—essentially pitching on guile and guts—shut down the Indians without any of the power he used to whiff five of the first six batters in that year’s All-Star Game.) But that transition is going to take a bit of time…

An aside: I’m convinced the reaction to Beckett as compared to Matt Clement should serve as case study A in how a player’s demeanor, and perhaps even his physical appearance, can have as much to do with fan reaction as his on-field performance does. Last year, Clement finished at 13-6 with a 4.57 ERA. He helped anchor an exceedingly shaky rotation’s first-half. And he was hit in the head by a screaming line drive. But Clement–asthmatic, hunched over, in need of glasses–appears kind of shlubby, and, even though he never tries to make excuses, he’s often looks as if he’s sporting the Derek Lowe Face. Beckett, on the other hand, looks and talks like a warrior. Last year’s reaction to Schilling as compared to Keith Foulke is another example. The Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series without either one, and Foulke’s performance in the ALCS was as gutsy and brave as anything I’ve seen. But Schilling is well spoken; Foulke is defensive and has a tendency to lash out. Schilling was consistently applauded just for making it out to the mound; Foulke took as much abuse as anyone on the team.

Post Categories: Baseball & Curt Schilling & Jonathan Papelbon & Josh Beckett & Keith Foulke & Matt Clement & The Derek Lowe Face

So it’s no Pedro-Roger in the ’99 playoffs…

June 21st, 2006 → 9:34 am @

June 28, Fenway Park: Josh Beckett versus Pedro Martinez. I’m taking odds on how many times they show the two pitchers’ respective records versus the Yankees in the playoffs.

Martinez: 1-2, 4.72 ERA
Beckett: 1-1, 1.10 ERA, plus a complete game shutout on three days rest to clinch the ’03 Series.

Post Categories: Josh Beckett & Mets & Pedro Martinez & Red Sox & Yankees