Do the Red Sox have enough for a post-season push?

Things and More Things
by Jim Silva

    Right this very moment, the Red Sox are in the midst of a three way battle for the AL East crown with the Orioles and Blue Jays. With three teams so tightly packed, it is the most closely contested race in all of baseball. So should Red Sox fans be thrilled that they are in the thick of it or should they be disappointed that they haven’t opened up a big lead on the rest of the teams in the East? How did the Sox get here and what will the rest of the season bring? It’s an exciting time to live East of the Rockies (mountains AND team)!
    During the off-season, fans and commentators speak about the “what-ifs” that need to happen for a team to win as if they were almost a given. That is the beauty of the off-season – all things are possible. So here are some of the “what-ifs” that the Red Sox needed to see happen for them to be in the race. Thing 1: Jackie Bradley Jr. will turn into a full-time center-fielder who’s bat finally catches up to his amazing glove skills. Thing 2: Xander Bogaerts will hold onto his offensive gains from last season and continue his consistent defensive play. Thing 3: Hanley Ramirez will display solid glove work at first base. Thing 4: Pablo Sandoval will handle third base without stinking up the joint. Thing 5: The starting rotation will stop runs from scoring as opposed to you, you know, causing runs to score.
    Yeah, that’s a lot of what-ifs. Normally when a team starts the off-season with that many questions, there isn’t much expected of them, but these are the Red Sox so you have to know most of the questions have been addressed by spending money to answer them. That is certainly true of the starting rotation question. Last season everyone and their mother, with the possible exception of Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox GM, knew that the team needed to find some quality pitchers to start games for them in 2015 or they would lose more games than they would win. Instead of adding pitching, former GM Dombrowski signed Hanley Ramirez, a shortstop, to play left field, and Pablo Sandoval to play third. I guess one way to address a need for run prevention is to add more run scoring tools. So Dombrowski spent roughly $110 million on Hanley through 2019 and roughly $100 million on Panda. The short of it is, the signings didn’t work out last year, and they didn’t work out in fairly spectacular fashion. This year is going better on one front and horribly on the other, but the Red Sox have mostly plastered over that one for now.
    Dombrowski was shown the door and his replacement signed David Price to help solve Thing 5 – the starting pitching. Price is an ace, so that’s an excellent way to solve the problem or at least a very good start. Signing Price cost them north of $210 million – no big deal for the Red Sox. After a slightly rougher start than the red Sox would like, Price has posted an ERA in the mid-two’s over a six start run although his ERA over the last month is 4.01. He is giving up home runs at an impressive rate, including eight in that same six start run I referenced. After Price, Porcello and Steven Wright have saved the first part of the season as Clay Bucholz has struggled to be worthy of ANY spot in the rotation and Joe Kelly has been alternately bad and injured. Still, three of five works or at least can be worked with.
    Thing 4 got off to an ugly start and then got worse! Sandoval came into camp looking a bit out of shape, to put it gently. He looked horrible with the glove then turned himself into a meme when his belt exploded as he swung the bat. He lost his job and then suffered an arm injury, seemingly caused by an interaction with aliens or some such nonsense. He is currently on the DL after surgery and will likely draw his $17.6 million for playing Xbox, or learning to make Paella, or whatever else someone does when they are paid to heal. His replacement, Travis Shaw, is hitting reasonably well and playing excellent defense at third, so in the face of potential disaster, Thing 4 has turned into a win, albeit an expensive one paying two guys to do one job.
    Hanley Ramirez was an unmitigated disaster in his first season back with the Red Sox. Stationing him in left field turned out worse than pretty much anyone could have expected. When the Sox brass said that they were going to move Hanley to first base, it seemed like a heck of a lot better idea than wish-casting him into left. Everyone assumed that if he could play non-horrible defense at first base then his bat would make that a pretty good move. What has actually happened to this point in the season has been a mild surprise as Ramirez has managed to almost reach the non-horrible defense mark at first, but got off to a slow start with the bat. If he had a modest contract, he would probably be viewed as a fine place-holder at first while they waited for a stud prospect or a big free agent signing/deadline trade. But since he is making superstar money for years to come, his numbers are a disappointment. Since he hasn’t been horrible (WAR of 1.3 so far), there is still a chance he can salvage the season by going on another hitting spree. Five home runs in the last month is pretty good – but, combined with a .230 average and .278 on-base percentage, will not move the Red Sox toward a championship, so Thing 3 isn’t working out the way you would hope as a Sox fan.
    Sometimes Things work out so well that they make up for other Things that didn’t go how you had hoped, and Thing 2, otherwise known as Xander Bogaerts, has worked up even better than one could have expected. His glove has been steady, showing that his growth of 2015 was real. And his bat – wow, his bat – he is being called the best right-handed hitter in the AL by some sports writers. He might even be hitting enough to make up for Hanley’s meh-tastic start. He is currently hitting .312 with a .368 on-base percentage and has knocked 14 homers. If he wins the Silver Slugger at shortstop, the award for the best hitter at each position, then he is a superstar and could carry the Red Sox past their weakness at first base. Thing 2 – check.
    These days it is almost enough to be a Gold Glove winner in centerfield to hold on to your job, even if you don’t hit like a starting outfielder – ask Kevin Kiermaier about that. Last season, Jackie Bradley Jr. showed his chops with the glove and wasn’t horrible with the bat. He was a guy the Red Sox could reasonably keep in the lineup while looking around for someone to start over him. This season though, Bradley Jr. has looked like a budding superstar – a 4.6 WAR season so far. He is doing everything the Red Sox had hoped he would with the glove and the bat and if he keeps up a pace close to this, you won’t be able to pry him out of the starting center field spot with a crowbar. Thing 1 is here to stay!
    Currently driving the Red Sox to a post-season near you is a high-powered offense that is outscoring every team in baseball including everyone’s darling, the Cubs, a team playing in the equivalent of a phone booth – the Rockies, and the club that most resembles a beer league softball team, the Orioles. The Rockies are closest at 21 runs back as of today. The Red Sox as a team are currently the slash line champions with league-leading batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage – .285/.351/.468. Obviously almost everyone on the team is having a good-to-great year and they already have four non-pitchers with more than 4.0 points of WAR accumulated. Swimming a half a pool length past the rest of the field is Mookie Betts. With 6.9 WAR, the 23 year old right-fielder is making an excellent case for the MVP award. He isn’t just doing it with the bat either as 1.4 of that 6.9 WAR is based on his defense. Betts leads the league in runs scored and total bases and he has also swiped 20 bases in 23 attempts. With 67 extra base hits, including 28 home runs, there is almost nothing Mookie can’t do. The only knock on his game is that he doesn’t draw many walks, but that is picking nits as his on-base percentage is .354, four points above his career average. If the Red Sox make it to the post-season put your money on Betts to take home the AL MVP.
    At this point in the season, the Red Sox look like a team with enough. Enough to win the division at least, although the Blue Jays and the Orioles will battle to the end, and possibly enough to win the AL crown. They have the bats, the gloves, and the depth if injury strikes. Do they have enough to win a World Series? Their rotation might have been a bit thin to take on teams like the Nationals, the Giants, or the Cubs, but a deadline deal added a young starter in Drew Pomeranz, who went into the eighth for a win in his last start. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against another World Series ring ceremony in Boston.

What it looks like when your firemen actually put out fires instead of starting them.

My Kingdom (Farm System) For A Pen
by Jim Silva

    Not a lot went right for the Red Sox in 2015. They finished 5th in the AL East, which is a nice way of saying “last”. Their rotation was awful, but their pen was – oh, the worst pen in baseball according to xFIP – a version of ERA that takes fielding out of the equation and just looks at events the pitcher has more control over like walks, strikeouts, hit by pitch, and fly balls allowed (which indicates home run frequency). Their pen as a group had a WAR of -1.4 so they were firemen in the Fahrenheit 451 sense of the word, lighting things on fire. Only one reliever finished the season with a FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) below 3.00 and that was their closer, 41 year old Koji Uehara. Logically what would you do if you were the GM and your closer was the most consistent member of your bullpen? Why, you would go out and trade four prospects for a new closer, right? Well that’s what the Red Sox did in trading for Craig Kimbrel. Look, trading for a closer to push other relievers back to the 8th and 7th is the new, hip way to revamp bullpens – just ask the Yankees, Dodgers (who tried), Astros, and A’s. But giving up the farm (literally) to get 60 innings a year from a guy who will be facing hitters with the bases empty is a mistake the Red Sox will be ruing for years to come. They gave up two prospects in the top 50 in baseball plus two other players of value for three seasons, or about 180 innings (if he stays healthy  and effective the whole time) – of Kimbrel.
    Kimbrel posted his worst full season in the majors last year and still managed eye-popping numbers in some categories. His ERA, hits per nine innings, WHIP, home runs allowed per nine innings, and strikeouts per nine innings were all career worsts. But would you be happy with your closer amassing 13.2 strikeouts per nine, allowing 6.1 hits per nine innings, with an ERA of 2.68 and a WHIP of 1.045? Of course you would! Unless of course you were paying that closer $9 million to be what he had been in the past. Aside from the numbers above, his season was in line with his career numbers as he succeeded in 90.7 of his save opportunities, which happens to be his career mark. It also happens to be higher than the career save rate of Mariano Rivera (89.1), who was pretty good (for a Yankee). As for the first two-thirds of this season, it hasn’t been a joy ride for Kimbrel. He spent time on the DL and has watched his ERA yo-yo up and down all season (currently sitting at 3.41 as compared to a career ERA of 1.80 ). That said, it has mostly been an effective year, even though Kimbrel’s walk rate is at 4.9 walks per nine as compared to a career rate of 3.5. The strikeout rate is at 14.1 and his hits per nine innings rate is at 5.1, so it’s not like Kimbrel needs to nibble to get guys to fan. He is also on track to match his career saves rate – a tick over 90%, and if he can close out the year dominating the AL then maybe the Sox will forget what they gave up to get him, at least for a little while longer.
    The Kimbrel trade wasn’t all the Sox did to fortify the pen in the off-season. Carson Smith is only 26 and last season was his first full season in the majors. In spite of his inexperience, Smith spent the season dominating lesser mortals with his nasty offerings. Carson Smith is 6’6” of hard throwing Texan. He is mainly a two pitch pitcher throwing his fastball (averaging 92.9 mph) and slider with about the same frequency. He is very hard to hit (6.3 hits per nine innings), misses a lot of bats (11.8 k’s per nine), manages to control his nasty stuff (2.8 walks per nine), and keeps the ball in the yard like Sister Mary Constance at recess (0.3 home runs per nine). He can’t be a free agent until 2021 so the Red Sox picked up not only their new closer in Kimbrel, but also their closer of the future in Carson Smith.
    The Mariners rode him hard using him in 70 games and he started this season on the DL. He came back for three scoreless appearances in May before his elbow gave out, and he recently went under the knife – Tommy John surgery. TJ surgery takes at least a year to come back from, but the Sox should stick with Smith for the long run. As for the cost to get Smith, Miley’s innings, while important, were not pretty so it is much easier to justify trading almost 200 innings of Miley for 70 innings of Smith if Smith looks as beastly as he did last year.
    So, two moves to bolster the pen to support new ace, David Price – and they didn’t give up anything irreplaceable for this season, even though they single-handedly rebuilt the Padres farm system, and then gave up a lot of innings when they sent Miley to Seattle. The plan was for the pen to back up to the 6th inning with Kimbrel closing, Uehara as the primary setup man, Carson Smith pitching in Uehara’s spot or in the 7th which is now the domain of Junichi Tazawa. That’s some nice depth and some excellent quality. There is a catch though. There is a non-zero chance that the Red Sox pen will collapse entirely due to injury and overuse.
    Tazawa has made over 200 appearances in the last three seasons and during the second half of 2015 he looked cooked. Opposing hitters turned into Lou Gehrig in Tazawa’s last 22 appearances before he was shut down, posting a slash line of .386/.421/.636. The relief pitcher from Yokohama saw his ERA balloon from 2.58 in the first half to 7.08 in the second half. His strikeout to walk ratio dropped from 5.71 to 2.67. When Junichi is right he pumps 94 mph fastballs, splitters, as well as the occasional slider and changeup with solid control and enough swing and miss stuff to be used as a closer on many teams. He looked excellent to start 2016 but since May started has had an ERA over 4.00 and has given up seven of his 8 home runs to bump his home runs per nine rate to 1.8. Interestingly his strikeout rate is up – now above 10.0 per nine – even while he struggles to keep the ball in the park, so are we seeing the effects of overuse or are the home runs just a fluke? The Red Sox will be paying attention to Tazawa down the stretch as they try to make it to the post-season.
    So what of the disposed closer? The plan was for Koji Uehara, who has closed games for the Red Sox for the last three seasons, to get his turn in the 8th inning and the Sox stuck with that until Kimbrel went on the DL forcing Koji to resume his closer’s role. Uehara is not your typical late inning reliever. His fastball, which he throws about a third of the time, doesn’t reach 90 miles per hour on average. He relies on a wicked splitter, that he throws the other two-thirds of the time, to get outs. His numbers look like a guy who throws heat because his splitter is such a swing and miss pitch. Well, I’m not sure what’s in the Boston water, but like Tazawa, Uehara is giving up long balls at well above his career rate of which is now at 1.1 home runs per nine. To date, the 6’2” righty has given up 2.0 home runs per nine innings pitched.
    Uehara has a career strikeout rate (in the states) of 10.8 per nine through the middle of August and his control is unbelievable. His career rate is 1.4 walks allowed per nine and he has actually had seasons where he has averaged fewer than one walk per nine innings. Normally you would expect that low of a walk rate to go with a higher hits per nine rate, but Uehara’s career rate is 6.3 hits per nine innings pitched. His career WHIP of .851 is unheard of and amazingly, every season since 2010 he has kept his WHIP below 1.0 for the season. Basically that means you just can’t get on base against Uehara. Uehara’s one weakness is relative. He has allowed a home run per nine innings for his career – most likely a lot of them were solo shots since, again, you can’t get on base against him. Ok, there is another weakness – he lacks a cool nickname. Uehara, but I’m not? Koji Beef? Split Personality – you know – because he throws the splitter and that sounds like a super-villain name? Eh, maybe there’s a reason he doesn’t have a nickname, but even without one he is as unhittable as ever to start 2016 although he has been uncharacteristically wild so far. The former will likely continue as the latter probably will correct with more innings – that is if he can make it back from a strained pectoral muscle before the regular season ends.
    Matt Barnes is one of those guys we all love to see come up, but then are driven crazy by until they get traded. He throws wicked hard, averaging almost 95 mph with his heater while mixing in a change and a curve. Barnes issue, at least at the major league level, has been his inability to control his pitches. This problem manifests in two ways – leaving balls out over the plate where they can be turned into souvenirs, and walking too many batters so the home runs he gives up score multiple runs. In his first 52 major league innings (through the end of 2015), Barnes gave up 10 home runs and walked 17 batters. So far this season, Barnes has given up 3.9 walks per nine – even worse than his career average of 3.4 per nine. The difference being that the 6’4” righty has kept the ball in the park (0.8 home runs per nine – substantially below his career rate of 1.3 per nine) and limited hits to 7.9 per nine innings. This is more in line with his minor league numbers. Well, his walk rate mimics his minor league numbers – also 3.3 walks per nine in just over 398 innings pitched, but Barnes has limited home runs to minor leaguers – 0.6 per nine, and hits – 8.3 per nine. His minor league WHIP of 1.285 doesn’t speak to dominance but it isn’t bad. If he can recreate what he has done in the minors for the parent club, then he would be a serviceable arm in the Red Sox pen, even if he never turns into the dominant closer the Sox thought they were getting when they chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft. So far this season it looks like he just might.
    Of course Robbie Ross throws hard like almost everyone in the Sox pen, and uses his fastball over 60% of the time. The difference between Ross and the aforementioned Mr. Barnes appears to be the effectiveness of their secondary offerings. Ross contributed 0.8 WAR from the pen last year – not a world beater, but certainly a contributor. He has been a solid contributor to Texas and Boston in three of his first four seasons – the exception being 2014 when the Rangers attempted to turn Ross into a starter, which clearly didn’t work. The diminutive lefty is useful because he can throw more than one inning – a chore he carried out 11 times in 2015. Interestingly, the Red Sox used him as a closer in September. That seems like an underuse of Ross, although when your pen is the worst in baseball, what the hell! With 7.9 K’s to 3.0 walks per nine (and 1.0 home runs) and strong peripherals in the second half of last year, Ross comes into 2016 with a flexible role that won’t likely be high leverage. This year has been one of Ross’ best so far with a WHIP of 1.195, a FIP (ERA taking into account only what the pitcher can control) of 2.97, only 7.2 hits allowed per nine, and a minuscule 0.2 home runs allowed per nine. Not sure why all the Red Sox relievers seem to have increased their strikeout rates but Ross has been no exception, fanning 9.7 men per nine – his career rate is now at 7.4 per nine. Also, like many of the Sox relievers Ross has walked more men per nine with a mark of 3.6 per nine so far, up from his career rate of 3.2. Manager John Farrell is still using Ross for more than an inning making him both more valuable and unusual.
    Trade deadline acquisition Fernando Abad has put up really nice numbers from the pen this season, albeit mostly for the Twins. In his six appearances for the Red Sox he has allowed at least a run, although it could be just the adjustment that goes with playing for a new squad, and one that is in a pennant race. With Minnesota, a team woefully far from the pressure of the pennant race, Abad was stingy with hits (7.1 allowed per nine innings) and home runs (0.5 allowed per nine innings), but walked a few too many hitters (3.7 per nine innings) all the while striking out 7.7 batters per nine. The lefty from La Romana in the Dominican throws four pitches with his fastball getting a bit over half the use and the other three (cutter, curve, and change) making up the other half. It will be interesting to see how Boston uses him because he has been death to lefties and a lot less effective against righties. One stat illustrates that fairly well – his strikeout to walk ratio. Against righties Abad strikes out 1.36 batsmen for every one that he walks. Against lefties the number jumps to 6.50 per walk which looks like dominance especially when you pair it with the batting average against him of .179 as compared to .271 which is what righties hit against him. If the Red Sox can afford it, they should use Abad as a LOOGY (a lefty specialist) where he can shine, instead of trying to get a whole inning out of him. Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s fade might press Boston to use Abad in a role less suited to his skill set, which would be a shame.
    Acquired for two minor leaguers in July, Brad Ziegler has maintained good peripherals including a low home run rate of 0.7 per nine and excellent control issuing only 2.2 walks per nine since moving to Boston. With an ERA of 2.82 (2.92 since joining the Sox), Ziegler is a durable quality arm who can help the Boston club reach the post-season. His two blown saves and three losses for the Sox have something to do with the talk about the Red Sox courting recently released former closer Jonathan Papelbon. Ziegler has been tried at closer and setup man for the Red Sox, but as he is not the typical flame throwing beast usually given the role, he will have a short leash. With Kimbrel back from the DL, it is unlikely that the sidewinder will close again this season unless Kimbrel is unavailable. But Ziegler still induces lots of grounders with his funky delivery and should be trusted in high leverage situations in spite of his early struggles to hold onto leads in Boston. His ERA is still below 2.5 in his stint in Boston and below 2.75 for the season so it isn’t like he is throwing grapefruits out there.
    The Red Sox bullpen will be better than it was last year – that isn’t saying much since they were so bad last season. But they should be a strength in 2016 – both deep and flexible. Of course the rotation has to pull their own weight. Last year the poor rotation work led to Sox relievers being overworked and if that happens again they might very well implode again. Carson Smith should have taken a lot of the heat off of Tazawa but that obviously hasn’t happened because of his injury. With Ziegler aboard and Ross and Barnes contributing, they should be able to weather Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s stretch of ineffectiveness. But if Kimbrel goes down again the pen is in trouble. David Price and a hopefully quick return of Steven Wright will help take some of the pressure off of the relievers. If not, I bet Red Sox legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield would be willing to come back and eat some innings.

"Can Porcello and Wright lead the Red Sox to the series?" is a question nobody asked in the pre-season.

The Price of Price
by Jim Silva

    What is the right price for an ace? And who would pay it? This off-season that question was explored multiple times with the Red Sox answering in their own way when they grabbed David Price from league rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays by offering $217 million for seven seasons of his services. That is a hefty price to pay, but the Sox had boxed themselves into a corner last season when they spent all of their magic beans on two donkeys – neither of whom could pitch – infuriating the Boston faithful. And boy did they pay! The Red Sox rotation only had two starters manage an ERA under 4.00 and those two pitchers only combined for 39 starts, about the equivalent of one and a quarter rotation spots.
    So what did they get in David Price? Well, he is very slowly aging, or so say his stats. He will pitch this season as a 30 year old and he still averages 94.2 mph with his fastball which he throws just over half the time. He mixes in a change, a cutter, and a curve with his two and four seam fastballs to keep batters guessing wrong more often than not. He is a horse, throwing 200+ innings every season since 2010 except for 2013 when he only threw 186.67 (and led the league in complete games with four). He led the league last season in ERA at 2.45 over his 220.33 innings with a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.79 as he struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings. In short, he pitches a lot and he dominates when he pitches. David Price is clearly an ace, but he is more than that.
    Former rotation mate Chris Archer refers to Price as a “culture changer” in an article by Michael Silverman for the Boston Globe. And here is another reason why the Red Sox will benefit from David Price, again from Archer, “He’s going to change the way those guys think over there – for the good”. Price, like former Rays teammates Archer and James Shields have signs that say, “If you don’t like it, pitch better!” That motto of self-responsibility (which purportedly came from James Shields’ dad) is refreshing in this time of blaming others and refusing to take responsibility for one’s own fate. Price posts his sign in his locker so that he can see it everyday. He certainly takes care of his own business when he pitches, going deep into games, striking out more than nine batters per nine innings, and keeping walks and home runs down, all leading to FIPs (fielding independent pitching – a version of ERA) that is often lower than his ERA. Price will give the Red Sox leadership and 200+ quality innings, which is exactly what they paid for. Through his first 24 starts he has definitely been a horse leading the league in innings pitched, although it hasn’t been as pretty as Red Sox Nation would like. His peripherals are consistent with his career numbers with two important exceptions; he has allowed 1.0 home runs per nine – double his average from last season – and he has given up 9.4 hits per nine, up 2.5 hits per nine from 2015. He has been the third best starter so far with an ERA of 4.34 and league worst hits allowed total of 163, but if he returns to close to his 2015 form, watch out for Boston’s nine.
    Last year’s rotation was short on sure bets, which is why they had to go out and get price, but they were loaded with guys who were talented enigmas, few more enigmatic than Clay Buchholz. He has never thrown 200 innings or made 30 starts in a season, but he threw a no-hitter in his second major league start. He is older than David Price at 31 and has spent time on the disabled list almost every season with injuries of varied seriousness including esophagitis, knee surgery and multiple DL stints due to back stiffness. Last season ended with an elbow injury after Buchholz put up ERAs that declined every month from 5.76 in April/March, to 3.31 in May, down to 2.21 in June, and finishing with a July where his ERA was 1.46 in two starts before his elbow finished his season. He throws reasonably hard with a fastball that averaged 92 mph and four quality pitches. Confusing isn’t he?
    Will Clay be the good Clay Buchholz or the bad Clay Buchholz? The healthy Clay or the fragile Clay? After parts of nine seasons anyone who says they know what he will do this year is a nut job. The middle ground would be his career numbers with an ERA of 3.90 with 8.5 hits per nine innings, 3.2 walks per nine, 0.8 home runs per nine, and 7.1 strikeouts per nine. His strikeouts are trending up over the last few seasons and his walks and home runs are trending down. So here was my nut job prediction at the beginning of the season: if Buchholz stays off the DL this season, he will post an ERA below 4.00 while putting up double figure wins and fewer losses. It seemed like a pretty safe prediction for most guys basing it on career numbers, although Clay Buchholz has made me look bad by losing his rotation spot with an ERA of 6.31 as a starter, while allowing opposing hitters to slug .531 against him – disastrous numbers. If he can straighten himself out in the pen and return to the rotation you can bet that I won’t hazard a guess as to what he will do the rest of the season. So far he has looked quite good in the pen and that might mean a permanent role change for Buchholz. His WHIP since moving to the pen has been 1.017 – half a batter better than he did as a starter – and batters have slugged only .257 – ah, much better.
    Rick Porcello, who is only 27, is being paid like an ace even though he has never pitched like one as a professional. At over $20 million a season through 2019 the expectations are naturally, if unfairly, high. What Porcello does best is stay healthy and deliver slightly above league average innings. Up until last season he was a ground-ball pitcher who limited home runs and didn’t strikeout or walk a lot of batters. Entering 2015 he had career numbers of just under 1.0 home runs per nine, just over 2.2 walks per nine, and just under 6.0 strikeouts per nine. He has averaged around 30 starts a season since he broke in at the start of the 2009 season and his ground ball rate is usually around 60% so last season was an oddity but might turn into the new normal if the start of 2016 is any indication.
    The 6’5” New Jersey native was not a ground ball pitcher last season due to an apparent change of approach that led to a career high 7.8 strikeouts per nine, but also a career high 1.3 home runs per nine innings. He maintained his excellent walk rate, but his hit rate spiked to 10.3 per nine – over 10.0 for the first time since 2012. The increase in hits and long balls led to a career worst ERA (4.92) and his worst FIP (4.13) in four seasons. The good news for the Red Sox is that Porcello seems to have held on to the good parts of his transformation and ditched most of the bad parts so far in 2016. His strikeout rate is over 7.0 and his walk rate is a career low 1.6, and although he has allowed 17 home runs, five of those came in his first 25.67 innings (for a home run rate of 1.8 per nine). Since then, his home run rate has stabilized at 1.1 home runs per nine. Porcello seems to have found some middle ground where he has maintained the strikeout and walk rate, but limited the home runs. To start the season his ground ball rate was up slightly to 51% so maybe he is trying to find his way back to what worked for him while maintaining the ability to blow hitters away when he needs to. The irony of the decreasing ground ball rate is that Porcello now has an excellent pair of glove men up the middle to turn his ground balls into outs if only he would let them! It boils down to this: with a WHIP over the last month of around 0.8 and an ERA of 2.61, maybe paying him like an ace was spot on even if it came a year early.
    Joe Kelly is another hard thrower averaging over 95 mph with his fastball and while throwing hard is good, knowing where it will go is better. The aphorism that any major league hitter can hit a fastball no matter how fast it is has proven to be especially true with Kelly’s heater. The problem with a lack of command is that when you walk a bunch of batters – Kelly’s career average is 3.5 walks per nine innings – then the batters learn that they can wait until you eventually have to pipe one of those fastballs so that they can crush it. With heat like Kelly’s one would expect a higher strikeout rate than his career mark of 6.5 per nine innings (giving him a pedestrian strikeout to walk ratio of 1.88), and more missed bats. But Kelly’s career hits per nine rate of 9.2 per nine innings shows that he just isn’t fooling anyone. Until he can figure out how to control the fastball and master his other pitches well enough so that the batter doesn’t know what is coming next, then Kelly will remain what he is – talented, frustrating, and mediocre. Kelly only lasted nine games – six of them starts – before they sent him down to Pawtucket. He battled shoulder impingements early,  and the Pawtucket team has used Kelly mostly in the pen. Relief looks good on him so far. It will be interesting if the big club trusts Kelly out of the pen if/when he makes it back up or if they try to stretch him out again to battle for a rotation spot or take a turn to rest one of the five starters.
    The rotation outlier – the weird kid who eats paste and wears Dungeons & Dragons t-shirts is Steven Wright. He is an outlier not just because his fastball averages 83.5 mph, but because he throws a knuckleball, and throws it 90% of the time. There just aren’t many knuckleball pitchers in baseball anymore. Partly because it is a hard pitch to master, but also because pitchers who throw 83.5 mph just don’t get drafted very often. The Red Sox are more open to knuckleball pitchers since they experienced success with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield who won 186 games for Boston between 1995 and 2011. Knuckleball pitchers don’t follow the normal development curve of most pitchers often getting better as they get older. Probably more than any other pitch the knuckleball is a feel pitch that you don’t throw hard so the more you throw it, the better you get with the added bonus of not wearing out your arm. Noted knuckleballers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro pitched until they were 49 and 48 respectively while Wilbur Wood led the league in starts four years in a row from 1972 through 1975 and innings pitched in 1972 and 1973. Wood would have continued to crank out absurdly high innings pitched totals if Ron LeFlore hadn’t shattered his kneecap with a line drive early in the 1976 season effectively ending his career.
    Wright is 31 now and had only started 26 games in the majors when the season began. It would be fascinating to see Wright or another knuckleballer pitch more than 375 innings like Wilbur Wood did in 1972. Of course the innings would have to be effective to have any point, but if Wright at 31 has learned to more or less control the knuckleball then he could save the bullpen and starters by pitching every four days, plus anytime one of the regulars had to miss a turn. He could also serve as the mop-up man allowing the Red Sox to keep more position players on the bench. His numbers would likely suffer from a usage pattern like that, but if he and the team came to an understanding about his stats and signed him to a long term contract, it could change the way the Red Sox pitching staff goes about its business. The beauty of the knuckleball is that nobody, including the pitcher, knows how the ball will break once it leaves his hand so batters can’t get used to the pitch since it is always different. The benefit is that a knuckleball pitcher could throw complete games or pitch on back to back days since the “3rd time through the lineup” problem that most pitchers face doesn’t really apply to them.
    As to Wright’s performance to date, last season was his first chance as a regular (at least for a piece of the season) in a major league rotation so the sample size is small – nine starts. But Wright showed that he is capable of baffling major leaguers with his junk to the tune of a career FIP of 3.82 while striking out 7.3 batters per nine, walking 3.2 batters per nine, and allowing only 7.9 hits per nine. His minor league numbers have shown good control, especially for someone who throws the knuckleball as often as Wright does, so with more time in the majors his walk numbers should come down. So far, Wright has pitched like an All-Star (which he was this July) winning 13 games in his first 22 starts and leading the league in home runs allowed at a minuscule 0.5 jacks per nine innings, while compiling an ERA of 3.01.
    At age 22, Eduardo Rodriguez was an epiphany for the Red Sox last season. After only eight starts in triple-A last season he was pressed into service and put a headlock on a starting rotation spot with his 105 pitch debut where he struck out seven and only allowed three hits and a pair of walks while not allowing a run. Caveat here – the guy was only 22 so there were certainly some rough spots, but his overall numbers were good and he finished strong with six quality starts, an ERA in the mid-threes in his last nine starts, making up the months of August and September, and four wins in his last five starts. He does it with a mid-90’s fastball and a change-up slider combination that is still a work in progress – remember his age. It’s not like Rodriguez came out of nowhere as he hasn’t posted a FIP above 3.89 since 2011 and was a top 100 prospect, but relying on a 22 year old to anchor your starting rotation, which is what Rodriguez did last season, is a big risk as they go through the ups and down that most rookie pitchers battle when they first come up. Rodriguez started 2016 on the disabled list with a knee injury and has not looked especially sharp since he came back up. His last month has been better with an ERA in the threes, so maybe he is back on track to provide a much needed number four starter to go with Price, Porcello, and Wright.
    The starter that the Red Sox added at the trade deadline, Drew Pomeranz, is on his fifth team at the age of 27. Teams want him for his potential but seemingly sour on him quickly when he doesn’t show what they expect from him. The Padres got his best half season of work and wisely, according to most baseball analysts, flipped him for a great prospect (Anderson Espinoza) in what might be the best deal for a seller in this season’s trade market. Pomeranz pitched one heck of a half season of baseball making the All Star team with his 2.47 ERA, 1.059 WHIP, and minuscule 5.9 hits allowed her nine. He also limited opponents to 0.7 home runs per nine innings while striking out 10.1 bat-wielders per game. It certainly helps to pitch in an excellent pitcher’s park, but it should also be noted that Pomeranz put up even better numbers on the road than at home. The tall Texan also made some changes to his approach that support his stats looking more real than mirage. He added a third pitch to his fastball/curveball approach – a cut fastball. Starters with only two offerings aren’t going to fool as many batters the third time around a lineup, so the additional pitch makes it easier to believe in Pomeranz’ improvement.
    Since coming to Boston there has been chatter that he had some arm woes when the Padres traded him that might account for his 6.20 ERA in his first four starts with his new club. His last start might ease those fears a bit and Pomeranz is only 27 so nerves might also be part of the rough start. He went from a last place team to a pennant race with one of the best organizations in the history of baseball – you’d be nervous too. Whether he is just rotation depth or a legitimate number three or four starter might determine whether the Boston club makes a push deep into the post-season.
    Brian Johnson, a lefty at triple-A, and Henry Owens, another lefty at triple-A, are the two arms waiting in reserve who have seen action this season at different points. Owens has a higher perceived ceiling because of his stuff, and had 12 starts with the parent club going into the season, but sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Owens has been inconsistent, getting hammered at times including eight homers allowed in 64.33 big league innings through 2015. He got off to an excellent start in triple-A with good k-rates, and at 23 the Sox aren’t going to give up on him anytime soon. Johnson’s stuff isn’t as pretty as Owens’ but his results have been excellent at every stop. Johnson only had one emergency start in the majors to start 2016 so there wasn’t much anyone could say about his body of work at the major league level. Two numbers that stand out from Johnson’s time on the farm is a 6.5 hits per nine rate, and a minuscule 0.4 home runs per nine rate. Owens has similar rates (6.7 hits per nine and 0.6 homers), but with worse control and better strikeout numbers – Johnson has walked one fewer batter per nine and struck out a batter and a half fewer. Better control might give Johnson the edge in an extended trial although Owens has more experience now. If either man makes 20 starts in the majors this year, it will probably be a sign that the Red Sox rotation went horribly wrong, but that is not an indictment of either man’s future value. Both could easily be rotation fixtures someday.
    In the pre-season, if you had told Sox fans that Clay Buchholz would fail so badly that he would be demoted to the pen and David Price would have an ERA over 4.00, they would have probably started sobbing into their Curt Schilling bloody sock hankies figuring that the Red Sox would be near the bottom of the division. Thanks to Steven Wright and Rick Porcello, who between them have won 28 of the Sox first 61 games, the Boston club is only 2.5 as of August 11th. If Eduardo Rodriguez can maintain his recent return to usefulness, Price can lower his ERA into the 3’s, and one of Pomeranz, Owens, or Brian Johnson can chip in, then the Sox might be able to forge a deep post-season run on the backs of a tremendous offense and acceptable pitching. As things stand today, the Red Sox hold the second wild card spot, but with two teams within 1.5 games of them. If none of the rotation improvements come to pass, then the Sox are doomed to just miss out on the playoffs.  Then they will have to hope for one of their young solid arms to mature for next year.

Two-thirds of an outfield has become whole. The travails of Hanley Ramirez.

Two Star Defenders and a Box of Rocks
by Jim Silva

    The 2015 version of the Red Sox outfield was pretty similar to what the 2016 Red Sox are running out there on a daily basis – one change really. But that one change should prove to be significant in moving the Sox back into contending in the AL East. Left field has historically been the spot to stash your big basher who maybe wasn’t the niftiest with the glove. Last year, Boston ran out arguably one of their worst defenders ever to play left field in Hanley Ramirez.
    How bad was Hanley? The converted shortstop failed the eye test and the stat test. It was more or less assumed that anyone athletic enough to play shortstop should have had an easy time making the shift to the easier part of the defensive spectrum. But last year’s experiment with the former Marlin, former Dodger, former Red Sox infielder was anything but easy. To be clear, Ramirez has always been a “bat first” shortstop so it wasn’t like they were moving a Gold Glove winner out there to ply his gilded glove. When he was in LA, it was widely understood that the Dodgers were conceding runs defensively at shortstop to get Hanley’s bat in the lineup. When his bat was special, the calculus was defensible. And it was special in 2013 and 2014 when he posted 5.1 and 4.6 oWAR (offensive wins above what a replacement level player would contribute) respectively. With numbers like that even when your dWAR (defensive wins above what a replacement level player would contribute) is negative you come out ahead. As a bonus, 2013 was actually a solid defensive season for Ramirez with a DRS of 3. The three seasons before that had Ramirez costing his team 17, 11, and 18 runs with his weak defense, so being neutral or even a little above neutral is a great thing by comparison. In Ramirez’ last campaign as the Dodgers shortstop he regressed toward his former defensive crapaliciousness costing the Dodgers nine runs. If Kobe Bryant had been a Dodgers starting pitcher there would have been an article in the LA Times talking about how Kobe had forced the Dodgers to let Ramirez sign with the Red Sox.
    So jump ahead to last season and that early spring optimism about how Hanley would certainly be able to make the move to left. Optimism soon turned to face palming as Ramirez put on a display of fecklessness that inspired this highlight film by Joon Lee on Twitter.

In limited time, due to injury, Hanley cost the Red Sox 19 runs with his “glove work”. What of his special bat work? Well, in the first half he hit .274/.320/.497 – nice power numbers at least. And the second half? Ramirez hit all 19 of his home runs before the break. It seems pretty clear that his second half was marred by various injuries as he batted .164/.190/.255 in August and then his season was done, as was his god-awful career as an outfielder. But enough of 2015! The other two gents who graced Fenway in 2015, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts are back and they both bring with them special gloves.
        Jackie Bradley Jr. is now patrolling center field as the starter instead of splitting time in all three outfield spots as the Phillips (in honor of the late Oakland A’s player, not the strange-headed screwdriver). 2015 saw Bradley save his team eight runs in the equivalent of half a season. He has always had the good glove rep ever since he was taken in the first round in 2011 out of college. Until last season, his bat had always been too costly to run him out there on a regular basis. With regular playing time Bradley’s hitting became an asset with a second half slash line of .267/.352/.539.
    Bradley Jr. only had 1376 plate appearances in the minors, the equivalent of under three full seasons, and he generally dominated with the slash line of a premier leadoff hitter with doubles power (.294/.391/.460). But starting with 107 plate appearances in 2013, Bradley looked like he was unable to make the offensive transition to the majors. In his first 822 plate appearances his slash line was a disappointing .215/.289/.348. Last year’s apparent breakout second half was probably just in time to give Bradley one more chance at the starting job. His elite glove will always earn him chances at a spot on the bench, but unless he can hit the Red Sox will move off of him and give one of their youngsters a chance.
    One of the most exciting young baseball players in the majors is Mookie Betts. Playing as a 22 year old last year he put up a 4.9 WAR season, garnered MVP votes, and improved on a really good half season from the year before. He saved his team 10 runs with his glove after saving 4 runs the year before. Betts hits for power, gets on base, hits for average and steals bases at a high rate nabbing 21 in 27 attempts last year. He hits righties and lefties well, both for power and average. Probably most terrifyingly to opponents, he was even better in the second half than in the first half.
Plate Appearances
On Base
First Half
Second Half
The Red Sox had the luxury of moving Betts from center to right this season to take advantage of his strong, accurate arm (he saved 4 runs in 2015 with his throwing alone). Remember that Betts is a converted second baseman so he is still (unbelievably) learning to play the outfield. He is already good enough to annually compete for a Gold Glove in right and his bat will put him in the conversation for MVP every year, especially if the Sox contend.
    An outfield with Bradley in center and Betts in right with not-Hanley in left will be better than what the Red Sox rolled out last year, and will help them contend in the AL East. So who will not-Hanley be in 2016? The other outfield spot was filled by many different people last season. Super expensive right-fielder Rusney Castillo – a 2014 signee from Cuba – made a lot of outs from the batter’s box in 2015. The Red Sox ran him out there 80 times (289 plate appearances) to see him post a slash line of .253/.288/.359. While his second half splits are better than his first half, they are still not good enough to warrant giving him regular playing time in spite of his excellent defense. At 28 he might be what you see now although often international signees take time to adjust to the differences in the American game, not to mention living in a new country and speaking a different language. There are of course $70+ million (the contract the Red Sox gave him to sign) reasons to give Castillo every chance to succeed. He is a talented athlete but the list of failed athletic baseball prospects is long and covered with broken glass – or maybe strikeouts.
    The Red Sox started the season with a platoon of Brock Holt and Chris Young. The right-handed Young was supposed to mostly face lefties as his career splits are pretty clear. His slash line against righties is .224/.292/.410 in 3287 plate appearances while his slash line against southpaws is a robust .263/.362/.475. Young used to be a stellar glove man but has declined noticeably in the last three to four seasons to the point where he is at best, neutral in the field. At 32, Young has to crush lefties to take up a roster spot for much longer, and it is unlikely the Red Sox will keep him around past this season since they have the money and resources to go get someone who can play everyday.
    Holt’s best skill is his ability to play everywhere. As a left-fielder he is good enough to start but not good enough to star. He carries an average glove out to left, which will be a huge asset when compared to poor, besieged Hanley, but his bat is fairly mundane. His 162 game average in the majors is not what you’d expect from a left-fielder – especially the four home runs part. He will hit for a respectable average and get on base at a decent clip. His slugging comes primarily from the 30 or so doubles he will hit, but he strikes out too much for a guy with Kuiperian (Duane) home run power.
    To date, Mookie and Jackie are off to excellent starts. Betts has traded some walks for home runs so his slugging is up while his on-base percentage is down. He is playing excellent defense as is the guy to his right, Jackie Bradley Jr.. JBJ has had an excellent first half, far eclipsing his best numbers and is beginning to see people talk about him as a superstar. A half a season does not a superstar make, but combined with his solid half last year this looks like real progress. If it is, then the Red Sox are being rewarded mightily for their patience.
Andrew Benintendi is moving quickly through the minors. He’s a center-fielder with good speed, extra base pop and a fancy minor league slash line of .315/.413/.573 in his first 241 at-bats. He is off to a good start at high-A and if he is moved aggressively could be ready next year. With Benintendi still a good bit away, the Sox have employed a number of players in left. Holt, Young, and Blake Swihart who the Sox have given the most playing time, have all spent time on the DL, so they have been running Bryce Brent and Ryan LaMarre out there. Both outfielders are 27, but profile differently. LaMarre is known more for his glove and his speed, but has put together a solid start to the season at triple-A with the bat as well. LaMarre hasn’t put it together in very short auditions in the minors and won’t be given much of a chance in Boston. Brent has some pop, but hasn’t shown enough to get much of a chance to stick either. He would probably be a 10 to 15 home run guy with a low batting average if given 600 plate appearances. These are the Red Sox, and they are competing for a championship, so there is little chance either man sticks with the big club once Holt, Swihart, and Young make their way back off the DL. In fact, don’t be surprised if the Sox make a move for an upgrade in left if their other three more palatable options are slow to come back. As for Rusney Castillo, he is 28 and stinking it up at Pawtucket, showing no power and no ability to get on base, so at this point he is looking like a big mistake as opposed to a possible solution to left field. It got so bad this year that the Sox took Castillo off the 40 man roster, exposing him to the waiver wire and nobody claimed him. He probably needs to go to another team where he might find a coach interested in straightening out his swing, but his giant contract makes that unlikely.
    If Rusney Castillo can fight his way back to Fenway (by improving his ability to get on base), the Red Sox would have a stellar defensive outfield and would be more versatile with Brock Holt moving around all the time. At this point that is Ben Cherrington wish-casting, but the Red Sox have the money and the only acceptable outcome to the season is a deep playoff run. The Red Sox are not likely to sit still and see what happens for too long if they think they can nab a left-fielder, keep Young on the bench as a pinch-hitter against lefties, and use Holt as a swiss army knife kinda player. If they end up sticking with Holt in left, it will at least be a huge improvement over last season, and less time spent face-palming is always a good thing, right?

The Red Sox infield drama of the spring has been resolved, so how is that working out for Sox fans so far?

Pablo’s Belt, Hanley’s Glove
by Jim Silva

    This spring was quite the fun time for Red Sox Nation. They got to watch a battle to the death between Pablo Sandoval and his appetite with the winner being Travis Shaw. They had the pleasure of watching Hanley Ramirez learn his second new position in two years – this time first base. When you are a fan of a team with as much money as the Red Sox it must be surprising to see shenanigans like this going on at the corners of your infield, but the Red Sox are trying to make the best of two big mistakes they made last year. Let’s look at those moves and the rest of the infield picture for 2016.
    The middle of the infield is set for 2016 and at least a couple years after with two stars turning the double play. The Red Sox appear to have taken the aphorism about being strong up the middle to heart. Dustin Pedroia has never had a bad season in the majors since he became a regular, although his 2015 was besieged by injuries (a problem for our hero over the last few seasons) and caused him to put up his worst numbers, from a cumulative standpoint, of his career. Middle infielders don’t generally age well. They get beat up playing around second base and getting taken out by slides. It will be interesting to see what happens to middle infielder longevity with the change to the sliding rule. I imagine the Pedroia family had an extra serving of crab cakes when that rule change was announced.
    In his prime, Laser Show did almost everything well and has been well loved for it with a Rookie of the Year award, four All Star game appearances, a Silver Slugger, four Gold Gloves, and an MVP award in 2008. He is everything you’d want in a son (if you were a baseball manager) and more! Last year he was off to a great start when his hamstring popped and then re-popped effectively ruining his season. If he can stay healthy it is reasonable to expect an excellent year out of him with the bat. Pedroia has accumulated 45.2 WAR in his 11 seasons (nine full seasons) so if he can have an average season of say 4.0 WAR, then he is a huge asset, especially for a middle infielder. His career slash line of .299/.365/.444 is about what you’d expect from him at this point in his career. Not everything is roses for the Muddy Chicken (this guy has more nicknames than you do!).
    Pedroia used to be good for 20+ stolen bags but dropped to six in 2014 and 2 in his injury-marred 2015. And he shouldn’t steal anymore! He is 8 for his last 16 attempts in the last two seasons which means he is costing the team runs. But that is small potatoes compared to what his aggression running the bases has done to the team. In 2015 Pedroia cost the Red Sox 16 runs. The other area where the numbers are causing questions about how Petey (how many nicknames does a brother need?) is going to age is defense. The numbers over the last several seasons have supported his reputation as an elite defender with DRS from 2011 through 2014 of 18, 11, 15, and 17. But last season, perhaps due to the balky hammy, he dropped to -3. If the Crimson Crocodile (sorry – made that one up – couldn’t help it) can stay healthy this season we will be able to see if this is the beginning of decline or just a statistical anomaly (or maybe his game truly was altered by his injury).
    From the batter’s perspective, the man standing to Pedroia’s left is another potential perpetual All Star – Xander Bogaerts. Finally (Bogaerts was only 22 last season but has been on the Red Sox radar for years now) the young shortstop broke out. His slash line was .320/.355/.421 and represented an 80 point jump in batting average, a 58 point jump in OBP and a 59 point leap in slugging. Bogaerts also stole 10 bags while only being caught twice – he was two for five  in his first full season, 2014. His offensive blossoming earned him the Silver Slugger award as the best hitting shortstop in the American League. One caution for the Red Sox faithful – those lofty offensive stats were compiled on the back of a .372 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) which is pretty lucky and could portend a regression. Or not – Bogaerts is killing it this season with over 100 hits before the All Star break.
    The stats say that the shortstop from Aruba is just an average shortstop with the glove, but that is a step up from where he was just a year ago. In 2014 Xander (who shockingly doesn’t have a nickname) cost the Sox 16 runs due to a lack of range and a scattergun arm, while last season he improved to a DRS of -1 – so basically neutral. Bogaerts has become a top of the order hitter and average defender, which from the shortstop position is extremely valuable. Could he be more? His minor league numbers showed a lot more power than he flashed last year. In high-A/AA he hit 37 doubles and 20 homers – that was in 2012. He even hit 28 doubles and 12 homers in 2014, his first season in the minors. So is he a budding power hitter or a batting average machine? Maybe he is both. If he took a different approach last season to become a top of the order guy because that’s what the Red Sox needed, then that shows that he can make adjustments – a tremendous attribute for a young player. It means he might be able to merge those two players into one and ultimately become a solid glove man who hits 20 homers while hitting .280 – in other words a superstar.
    Ah the corners! Last year the Red Sox made a big, weird splash by spending enough money to choke a horse to sign Pablo Sandoval (5 years and $95 million with an option year) and Hanley Ramirez (4 years and $88 million with an option year). There is nothing wrong with a team with deep pockets like the Red Sox throwing some of their money around to improve the club, but it was widely agreed that what they needed to spend their money on was starting pitching. So the 2015 season started with Sandoval at third and Ramirez making the switch from shortstop, where he was a butcher on the order of Sweeney Todd, to left field. It turned into a complete disaster defensively with the pair combining to cost the team 30 runs.
    So this year the plan coming into spring training was for Sandoval (Kung Fu Panda, and not for his martial arts skills) to get into better shape over the winter, and Hanley to work hard making the switch to first base. One of those two things happened and one didn’t. The Round Mound of Pound (why do the Sox have so many nicknames?) came into camp looking like both of his nicknames and was a butcher at third, but Ramirez by all accounts put in a lot of work and embraced the move back to the infield looking at least decent at first. When teams like the Red Sox say that there is open competition at a position between an expensive veteran and a youngster they almost never mean it. This time it appears that they meant it as they gave the starting third base job to Travis Shaw and benched the Panda.
    Truly the plan went wrong when they signed Sandoval in the first place when they had substantial data to tell them that he wasn’t going to be close to worth the money they offered him. Sandoval wasn’t a bad player. In fact he was a good player whose value came from his ability to switch-hit doubles and 10 to 15 homers without striking out all over the place. A career .287/.339/.451 slash line is worth something, but when your third baseman is 5’11” and weighs 255 pounds you have to know that he isn’t going to age well. Moreover, he was already starting to show that his peak was aberrant when he hit 23 homers and batted .315 as a 24 year old. His highest homer total in the four seasons between that 6.1 WAR season and 2014 was 16 in 2014 with his batting average peaking at .283 in 2012. What he had become was a .278 hitting third baseman who would hit 15 or so homers and get on base at a .330ish clip for a WAR of 3.0ish. Not bad, but not worth $19 million or more than a two year contract. Oh no – not even close. What’s more is that his glove work has been all over the place but trending toward mediocre. In 2011 he developed a reputation based on a truly excellent 14 DRS season. Since then he has had only one season with a positive DRS (4 in 2014) while putting up negative numbers during all his other campaigns (-4 in 2012, -5 in 2013). So what were the Red Sox paying for? They were paying for a superstar in the prime of his career, and what they got was a declining sporadic player with weight problems who rewarded them by putting up his worst season ever in the majors. Panda cost the team 11 runs with the glove according to DRS, hit 25 doubles and 10 homers but posted a slash line of .245/.292/.366 for a WAR of -2.6. They would have done better putting a poster of Rico Petrocelli on a traffic cone at third but letting Sandoval bat against righties (.266 average with all 10 of his homers), and then just taking the automatic out when he had to face a lefty (.197 average and a .231 slugging percentage). It was an expensive nightmare Sox fans will not soon forget, and Sandoval made sure of that by reporting to camp with his gut hanging over his baseball pants.
    The situation with Ramirez wasn’t great either but there is hope. Hanley Ramirez was a legitimate superstar when he was a young shortstop. He averaged 5.8 WAR for his first four years as the starting shortstop for the Marlins (after a trade from the Red Sox) and he combined high batting averages with 25 home run power, but he was just average with the glove at best. But you know, that was a few years ago, and since then he has proven over and over again that he doesn’t have a solid glove at short and would cost his team runs to keep his bat in the lineup. The bat though – wow – it was always good to great. With the Dodgers in 2013 and 2014 Ramirez put up 5.1 and 4.6 offensive WAR respectively. So it wasn’t unreasonable to think that a guy athletic enough to play shortstop could move to the next to the last stop on the defensive spectrum and at least manage not to stink up the joint. But stink it up he did to the tune of -19 DRS with some memorable blunders that made the lowlight reels of Sports Center. Again, this shouldn’t have been a total surprise to the Red Sox brain trust because Han-Ram had an average DRS of -10.4 for the last five seasons at a position he had played for years and he wasn’t exactly lauded for his work ethic.
    But what of his stick? Here is where everyone was surprised. Aside from the 19 home runs, Hanley failed to hit, posting an offensive WAR of 0.8 – more than a point below what you would expect from an average starter in the bigs. His batting average dropped to .249 – well below his career mark of .296, which dragged his on-base percentage below .300 for the first time in his career. Ramirez also mostly stopped running, dropping from 14 successful steals in 2014 to 6 in 2015. This wouldn’t be the first time the dreadie-wearing batsman had an off year and came back, but he is now 32 with many seasons of getting beaten up around the bag. Could it be that he is in decline, or does he have a few more seasons of hitting mastery in him? Unlike Sandoval, Ramirez isn’t carrying around a lot of extra weight and he reported to camp in shape and worked hard to become a decent first baseman. All indications are that he is in for a rebound year at first base. He blistered the ball in spring and it looks like his dip last season might have been due to a banged up shoulder that is now healed. If Hanley can handle first and hit like Hanley then the Red Sox ship might turn in the right direction. So far his first half numbers have been mostly “meh”, especially for a first-baseman. Han-Ram is going to have to step it up to be more than average this season.
    So with Sandoval collecting large sums of money to not play, what do the Red Sox have in Travis Shaw, their new third baseman? Last year Shaw made his major league debut and acquitted himself nicely banging 13 homers in less than half a season (248 plate appearances). He hit .270 with an OBP of .327 not drawing many walks (18) while striking out 57 times. Based on his minor league numbers it is clear that his power is legit as he has banged 69 home runs in the equivalent of just over three seasons. He also showed on-base skills with a minor league career OBP of .359 so perhaps the security of a starting job will allow him to relax and take a few more walks.
    Shaw played first base primarily although he saw five starts at third and played left once. In the minors he played about four times as much at first as he did at third, but still managed almost 900 innings at third. It’s not clear why the Red Sox didn’t try to turn him into a full-time third baseman since that is much more valuable than a first baseman. If he is good enough to play there, then you would think they would put him there and leave him there. So it is reasonable to worry that his glove isn’t good enough to stick at the hot corner. It is clear however that his glove is better than Sandoval’s at this point as Panda’s glove work in spring was described as “unplayable” by people who actually saw him “play”. If Shaw takes to third and is decent then it’s a win for the Red Sox, especially if they can figure out a way to salvage the Panda Predicament. He is lost for the season after a mysterious shoulder injury led to season-ending shoulder surgery. If this disaster of a career turn is enough to light a fire under Sandoval and he can get into shape and play, then the Sox would have a really nice problem on their hands, but not until 2017. One thing to ponder is that in 2017 David Ortiz will have retired and they will need a new fixture at DH. If Panda can resurrect his bat it could be his job.
    Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge made up the infield part of the bench at the start of the season. Holt plays everywhere except catcher, pitcher, and batboy (slacker!) and is a reasonable answer at all of them. He did best at second and in the outfield and worst at third and short, but the fact that he can play everywhere without killing your team makes him truly valuable. His bat isn’t exciting but it is solid which is what makes him such a super sub. He now has 1175 major league plate appearances with a slash line of .277/.338/.376 so he hits like a middle infielder. He also has 21 stolen bases in 24 attempts so while he doesn’t run often, he does it well. The lack of pop with only six home runs in his first 1145 plate appearances is supported by 2070 minor league plate appearances with only 15 “long” balls so don’t expect him to go all Jose Canseco on you just because he has started the season with two homers. One nice development last season was an increase in walks that pushed his OBP from .331 to .349. There isn’t a team that wouldn’t be thrilled to have such a versatile player on their bench and one who can hit a little at that. But as soon as the Red Sox get fancy (trading Pedroia for an arm) and try to make him a starter he just becomes a starter who can hit a little and is ok with the glove.
    Rutledge is confusing. When he played for the Rockies he had moments where it looked like he might be a power-hitting starting middle infielder. Rutledge’s raw offensive stats look kind of like Holt’s with a career slash line of .261/.310/.398. Translated to 162 games they look like this:

Plate Appearances
Home Runs
Holt has a few more doubles but Rutledge has more home run power. Their stat lines above also show that Holt has better strike zone command than Rutledge does but slugs less. So it wouldn’t be hard to argue for one over the other if you are only talking about their bats. Until last season, Rutledge had only played 2nd and short but the Sox tried him at 3rd a few times. He has played mostly shortstop during his major league and minor league career with a decent amount of time spent manning 2nd and 132 innings at 3rd over the last two seasons in the minors. Unlike Holt, he generally hurts you with the glove. He has never had a positive dWAR in any of his four tours of the bigs so you really don’t want him out there too long. Both his range and fielding percentage are mostly below league average with range being the worse of the two devils. If Holt can hold down the middle while Rutledge can take over at third from time to time where his limited range wouldn’t be as noticeable, the Red Sox might have something. Rutledge and his decent power would be a nice bat to pinch hit for you when you have guys on base you want to drive in, while Holt could pinch hit to start an inning. Not a bad combination to have on the bench.
    Marco Hernandez and Mike Miller are filling in for Holt and Rutledge while they recover from injuries. Both players are place-holders as neither of them can hit a lick. Well, actually Hernandez has shown a decent hit tool, little power but a bit of speed, so it is possible that he could displace Rutledge. Miller and Hernandez both sport legit gloves so in the short term they will hold down the infield fort.
    Down on the farm the Bosox are growing themselves a fine crop of infielders led by third baseman Rafael Devers and second baseman Yoan Moncada. Moncada is getting the most press and looks like his bat and speed (49 steals in 52 attempts) could be devastating. He is at high-A so he could end up in the majors next year if everything breaks right for the 20 year old. Devers is more of a power hitter and so far has delivered on his promise although his 24 walks in 469 at bats is a small concern. That said, the guy can’t legally drink yet (he can barely see R-Rated movies!) and he is already raking at high-A. Ready and waiting at triple-A is glove man Deven Marrero. He is a rangy shortstop who won’t hit for much power or for a high average but will steal a base or 20 when he gets on. He would immediately be the best glove man at short if he joined the parent club but will have to wait for his chance. At 25, he is done cooking and would probably be a better fit for the bench than Rutledge who duplicates many of Holt’s abilities.
    The Red Sox made two bold moves that show they aren’t trying to make friends – their goal is to win and win now. It says a lot that they didn’t hesitate to admit their mistakes benching Sandoval and moving Ramirez to first. If it works, they are geniuses, if it backfires and they don’t win with these moves then angry Red Sox fans will gripe about the stupid signings of last seasons for years to come.

Can the Red Sox catchers recover from an ugly start, complicated by injuries, to contribute to a playoff drive?

A Potentially Unmatched Masked Duo
by Jim Silva

    Not many teams can say that they have two good catchers – even fewer can say that they have developed two good catchers who are major league ready. But the Red Sox are rich in the catching department and even have one man behind the dish who might be a star in the making. In Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, the Red Sox might eventually have one of the best catching tandems in the majors. The 25 year old, Vazquez, started the season on the disabled list and it looked like Ryan Hanigan would be the stand-in who would be the odd man out as soon as Vazquez and Swihart were healthy at the same time, but as we approach the trade deadline, that isn’t exactly how it has played out. What can Red Sox fans look forward to from their catching crew?
    Swihart was one of the youngsters everyone was calling Dave Dombrowski about when the Red Sox were struggling and needed pitching. Dombrowski wisely held onto Swihart – good young catchers are much harder to find than pitchers these days. What makes Swihart even more valuable is that he is under team control for several more years. The young catcher was ranked in the top 20 by everyone who bothered to rank prospects in 2015. The Red Sox fan base can look forward to several years of watching Swihart hit because hit is what he does best. His major league audition looked similar to his minor league career hitting numbers. His minor league slash line of .286/.340/.427 shows Swihart to have a good hit tool with decent, although not world beating, power and good plate control that doesn’t result in many walks but does result in moderate strikeout numbers. Last season in 309 plate appearances he managed a slash line of .274/.319/.392 while striking out 77 times. Swihart has shown the ability to adjust and grow at each level so it is reasonable to expect his numbers to improve as he adjusts to the league and matures. At 24 he is young for a catcher so it is reasonable, even for objective non-Red Sox fans, to expect more from him offensively.
    Defensively, Swihart doesn’t have to be great to have value because he can hit for average and knock doubles enough to put him in the top five or so catchers in baseball. Although last season he only managed to throw out 28% of runners attempting petty theft (below the league average of 32%), his minor league career numbers show that he can throw, as he has nailed 39% of base-swipers since 2012. Swihart did allow the second most passed balls in baseball at 16 and cost his pitchers some runs with his framing (-7 DRS from his framing alone), but baseball people who watch him report that his physical tools and intelligence are cause for optimism that he will become at least an average defensive catcher.
    Christian Vazquez is the yang to Swihart’s yin. He is a defensive stud with a canon arm who saved the Red Sox 13.7 runs with his tremendous pitch framing skills. If the Red Sox had traded Swihart, they’d have been just fine running Vazquez out there to save games with his arm and glove instead of his bat – that is until he blew out his elbow and submitted to Tommy John surgery. If he can return to form (and if pitchers can, why not a catcher?) then he will continue to provide All Star quality defense when Swihart is catching a breather.
    As to Vazquez’ ability with the bat, it is reasonable to state that he won’t be an automatic out, but that he should probably bat in the 9th spot in the order on a good offensive team, which the Red Sox are. His minor league slash line is inflated by one monster season in the Sally League (high single-A) where he hit 18 homers, batted .283 and slugged .505. To date, his slash line in the minors is .267/.346/.393. There isn’t a lot of pop in his bat but there is some ability to get on base via the free pass including a season in double-A where he struck out 44 times while walking 47 times. With only 52 games at triple-A there is likely some development left in his bat. Even if he only hits .240/.308/.309 like he did in 2014 in his major league debut, with his arm and glove he is still valuable – especially as the short end of a catching pair that includes Swihart.
    The guy the Red Sox planned to pick up the slack while Vazquez rehabbed his arm is veteran and old guy (especially for a catcher) Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan has been someone’s backup catcher since 2007 and at the age of 35 is nearing the end of a good career. Hanigan has always had the ability to get on base as his career OBP of .352 will attest. But he achieves that robust on base percentage without the benefit of power or speed. He does it by walking more than he strikes out (career: 241 walks to 237 k’s), making him an anomaly in this age of free swingers. He also possesses a good arm according to his career caught stealing rate of 37%. The career backup saved the Red Sox 1.3 runs with his framing skills so with Vazquez out, the Red Sox calculated they would be fine until Hanigan is forced back down to Pawtucket to await the zombie apocalypse or an injury to one of the Red Sox catchers.
    Ah, the best laid plans… Yeah, it didn’t work out quite the way the Sox had planned. Vazquez came back and resumed his role of stud defensive backstop. His arm hasn’t quite looked the same yet. Runners have tested him a bit and while they haven’t made him look like a clown back there, his caught stealing rate is down to a merely mortal 35% at the time of this article. In other words his defense is just fine, thank you. His bat, on the other hand, has looked insufficient. His walk rate is down, along with his batting average and on-base percentage, while his strikeout rate is up. It is still early, especially for him, as he had to work his way back from surgery, so his off-season wasn’t the same as his teammates’. Still, the Sox have to be at least a little worried. And that’s not the least of it!
    Blake Swihart in left field. Yes, Blake Swihart, the 24 year old potential star catcher was playing mostly left field in a platoon with Chris Young when he ran into a wall and severely sprained his ankle. Even if Swihart doesn’t look like the second coming of Muddy Ruel behind the plate, why would you mess with his development as a catcher? Before his call up, he had thrown out 39% of base thieves. While he wasn’t hitting quite as well in the bigs as he had last season, there were some good signs that he was showing maturity as a hitter. Swihart had increased his walk rate while his strikeout rate had decreased a bit. Even though his average is down, his OPS is up because of the walks and three triples. I doubt anyone is seriously worried about Swihart’s stick so unless he is destroying the Red Sox pitching staff, why is he running around in left when Christian Vazquez is hitting under .220? Before going to the DL, Swihart had caught six games while spending 13 games in left (two more games than he had played in the outfield over his entire minor league career). It might take a while for Swihart to get back on the field, and it will be interesting to see how the Red Sox use him when he is healthy again. Is it possible that his misadventure in left that landed him on the DL was caused by inexperience?
    So now the Red Sox are starting Vazquez and using Sandy Leon as their backup because Hanigan is on the DL. Leon is only 27, but is seeing action in his fifth major league season this year with Boston. Leon is a weaker hitting version of Vazquez. He is the ultimate catch and throw guy behind the plate with a major league career slash line of .216/.291/.264 but a caught stealing rate of 45%. His hitting numbers look like a pitcher’s slash line while his throwing numbers look like Vazquez. The pairing of Vazquez and Leon matches top notch defense with mediocre to awful offense – and maybe the Red Sox can afford to give up one spot in the batting order as an automatic out, but they have Swihart who is anything but an automatic out. The Red Sox have some interesting decisions to make about their catchers.
    Having catching depth like the Red Sox have is a luxury in this age where apparently nobody wants to put on the tools of ignorance, and it means that at least at that position, the Sox will almost assuredly be ahead of the game. If desperation forces the need to trade a young player, either Vazquez or Swihart should bring back value and still leave the Red Sox in a better spot than most teams in baseball. The franchise that has featured Rick Ferrell and Pudge Fisk behind the plate is now set to watch two potentially great catchers, Swihart and Vazquez, try to find themselves. The player who isn’t anointed starter either gets traded or helps the winner of the battle extend his career behind the plate. The Red Sox seemingly can’t lose in this situation although I suppose they could screw it up somehow (like moving Swihart to the outfield). Oh, did I say that out loud?

Next up – The Boston Red Sox, starting with a bit of history. What does it take to be considered a great Red Sox team?

So Close in ’46!
By Jim Silva

The Red Sox are off to a good start after some off-season moves, some maturation of prized rookies, and some positional adjustments of some expensive players. Will they win the World Series this year? Who knows; it is certainly possible. Are they the best Red Sox team ever? Well, obviously that is impossible to say at this point in the season, but the Red Sox have a very long history which, until 2004, had been filled with much futility and frustration. But while they went 96 years without a World Series championship, they had some really great teams that just failed to close the deal. The best – very possibly the 1946 Red Sox who made it to the World Series but lost in a heart-breaking seven game series to the Cardinals that included one extra inning game and a one run loss in game seven. Were they the best? Let’s take a look at that team led by Ted Williams and managed by Joe Cronin.
    A minor conflict called World War II had stolen Marine pilot/left fielder Ted Williams (talk about positional versatility!) from the Boston club. Team America held onto him for three seasons 1943, ’44, and ’45 when Ted was 24, 25, and 26. He was just coming off a 1942 season where he had won the triple crown after just missing it in 1941 (finishing fourth in RBI by five runs driven in while winning the batting title and home run crowns). He also hit .406 – the last man to eclipse .400. DiMaggio and his 56 game hitting streak won the MVP in 1942 even with substantially inferior batting numbers. Williams would lose two more seasons to the Korean War where he served some time as John Glenn’s wingman and had to land a shot-up plane on its belly with no landing gear, but that’s for another article. Williams would return from World War II as a 27 year old and pick up right where he had left off. While he didn’t win the Triple Crown, he did lead the league in several offensive categories including walks, on-base percentage, total bases, slugging, and runs scored. Williams would win the league MVP after finishing second two years in a row before his military service. Williams’ 1946 season was his best from a WAR standpoint – fortuitous pun intended. So was this like the Braves teams of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” where the team rode one or two stars to victory and would have collapsed completely without their elite? Certainly Teddy Ballgame was a superstar and his absence would and did cause trouble for the Red Sox, but the Boston club was loaded in 1946.
    The Red Sox did a lot of things better than the rest of the American League in 1946. They led the league in runs scored, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage to name a few statistical categories. Their team got on base at a .356 clip and was second in the league in home runs meaning that many of those long balls likely came with runners on base. The Sox were embodying Earl Weaver before Earl Weaver. Williams, of course, had a pretty large impact on the team’s OBP with his .497 effort, but center-fielder Dom DiMaggio got on base at a .393 clip, and shortstop Johnny Pesky at a .401 rate. This being Boston, the team cranked out a lot of doubles, leading the league in that category too. They were paced by Pesky with 43, but Williams, second baseman Bobby Doerr, and first baseman Rudy York all cracked at least 30.
    In the pitching department, the Red Sox hurlers managed a team ERA+ (park adjusted ERA relative to the rest of the league) of 108 where 100 is league average. So even in a hitter’s park the Red Sox managed to be better than league average by a solid margin. They got a career year out of starting pitcher Mickey Harris who would win 17 games – the only time he reached double digit victories or made the All Star team in his career. 24 year old Boo Ferris also managed his best season being credited with 25 wins, an .806 winning percentage, and an ERA of 3.25 in 274 innings. 30 year old ace, Tex Hughson hurled his last star-quality season, winning 20 games with an ERA of 2.75 over 278 innings, and leading the league with a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.37. Burrhead Dobson threw in 13 wins, mostly in the rotation, and even Jim Bagby, the Sox swingman, contributed league average innings and seven wins.
    In short, the 1946 Red Sox managed 104 wins in a 154 game season due to a combination of stars at their peak and players having career years at the same time. They had a superstar in his prime, a future Hall Of Fame member, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, in Ted Williams. They had Bobby Doerr at second – another future Hall of Fame inductee. They had seven time All Star Dom DiMaggio in center. Dom wasn’t the superstar that his brother Joe was, but he was a rangy centerfielder with a strong arm. DiMaggio and shortstop Johnny Pesky were on-base machines leaving lots of men on base to be driven in by Williams et al. Pesky, like the Little Professor (DiMaggio) covered a lot of ground at shortstop so the Red Sox had some defensive standouts to go with their pitching and offense.
    The 1912 Red Sox are the only other Sox team that could lay claim to the best Red Sox team ever, and honestly they might have been. The Red Sox from 1912 through 1918 were the Yankees before the Yankees were the Yankees. They took the World Series four times during that stretch. Smoky Joe Wood was only 22 in 1912, but still managed to go 34 and 5 also winning game 8 (game 2 had been declared a tie after 11 innings) of the World Series to give the Red Sox their second World Series victory. The 1912 Sox won one more game than the ’46 Sox and then went on to win one of the most exciting World Series ever, besting the New York Giants and Christy Mathewson. So the 1912 club has an argument, but the two teams are certainly close.
    If the World Series victory is the difference maker then take this into account. While running out a two RBI, game-tying extra base hit in the 8th inning of game seven of the 1946 series, Dom DiMaggio pulled a hamstring and had to be pulled from the game. Leon Culberson came in to play center field in his stead. Culbertson didn’t have Dom’s arm or outfield skills. With two outs and Country Slaughter on first, Harry Walker hit a soft liner between left and center and Slaughter, who was running on the pitch came all the way around to score when the relay throw was late and a bit wide. DiMaggio was clearly the best defensive outfielder on the Boston club and had an excellent arm. It is possible that Slaughter wouldn’t even have tested DiMaggio’s arm. DiMaggio claims that the outcome might have been different because he knew the outfield better implying that he would have gotten to the ball sooner. Here is the YouTube link showing the actual play.
    Who knows what would have happened had Slaughter failed to score from first on the two out hit, but as that was the difference-maker, it sure makes the ’46 Sox and the 1912 Sox look pretty similar. Who would have won a head to head match up? It’s impossible ever to know, but clearly the ’46 Sox were a great team that the 2016 Sox can only hope to come close to matching.