Category: Dailies

SOX LOSE – BUT RELIEVERS GET THEIR REST

The Red Sox have begun their ten game road trip with two excruiating losses to the Blue Jays.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is the team’s best relievers – Keith Foulke and Jonathan Papelbon – are rested.  And I mean well rested.

Would someone please explain to me why exactly we are seeing Martin Van Buren, David (don’t call me Risky) Riske and all the others in the last innings of these big division games, and not Foulke or Papelbon? 

Oh, I get it.  You cannot bring those guys in unless the team is ahead. 

See where this leads?  In about 40% of your games, the team is going to be behind late in the game.  If you stick to the silly, outdated idea that your best pitchers only see the light of day when the game is tied or your club is in the lead, you will live to regret it.  Take Monday night, for example.  The Sox battled back from a 6-0 deficit to tie the game in the eighth inning.  However, instead of bringing in Foulke or Papelbon to keep the Jays at bay the Sox went with Riske.  Boom – a double and a single later the game is lost.

More of the same last night.  The Sox battle back to make the game close – 7-5.  But instead of bringing in Foulke, at least, the Sox go with Riske and he allows an insurance home run.

I continue to believe Papelbon is being seriously misused, not to mention underused, in the role of relief pitcher.  But I suppose that battle has been lost.  Seeing him hardly used at all (fewer than 15 innings in May) is just in excusable.  There is no reason why he has to assume the Dennis Eckersley role – that is, the role whereby he never sees the light of day unless its a closing situation or he needs mop-up time to stay sharp.  Tie game, eighth inning against a division foe?  USE HIM!

PAPELBON MISUSE BORDERS ON CRIMINAL

It is, without question, the single most startling statistic compiled by any current member of the Red Sox.  It is a statistic that should have owner John Henry – a man who knows a thing or two about extracting value from assets and the kind of owner who took the time to write a personal e-mail to Bill James asking him to join the front office – enraged, running from room to room, demanding that something be done NOW.  It is a number that should bring shame to every so-called baseball expert on the team’s payroll.

What is the number of which we speak?  Nine 

For those that do not know, that is the number of innings that Jonathan Papelbon has pitched in the month of May. 

Don’t you see?  This business of using perhaps the best young arm in the game as a "closer" is pure madness.  Madness on such a scale that I can barely bring myself to watch any game other than one started by Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett, because I cannot stop thinking that whoever is on the hill is taking Papelbon’s rightful place in the rotation.

Just when we thought this team was going to eschew all of baseball’s outdated modes of thinking, we see this.  Can you imagine Roger Clemens being used as a closer in 1986?  No doubt he would have done well, closing out for Boyd, Hurst, Nipper and the others.  But would the team have won the division and later the league title?  Not a chance. 

Starters win games.  Period.  Look at the Sox.  The club is 8-2 in games started by Schilling, and 6-3 in games started by Beckett.  That is a combined record of 14-5.  Excellent.  In games started by the others – Tim Wakefield, David Wells, Lenny DiNardo and Lord knows who else, the club is below .500 – 12-13.  That is why the team as a whole, despite having two terrific starters who are nine games over .500 on their own, is only 26-18.

Imagine if Papelbon started, and was even 75% as effective in the role as he has been as a closer.  You are possibly looking at a record of – at worst – 6-3 – in his starts.  In that event, the team is maybe 29-15, a much better record.

Using Papelbon as a closer is a catastrophic mistake.  Nothing in recent years compares to it.  The Hanley Ramirez situation (not just the trade, but the fact that Renteria was signed with this kid tearing up the minors) is for another day, but at least in that case the team acquired a great pitcher. 

For a while, I convinced myself that something else was a work here – perhaps a long term plan to ease JP into the rotation by limiting his innings in the early part of the season.  But it’s obvious he was the closer all along.  After all, why would Foulke be given the boot out after blowing ONE save?  No way a team as forward thinking as this one does that without some advance planning.

And JP himself appears to have joined the bandwagon.  He recently said “I don’t even think of starting anymore.  I am a closer now.”  That’s great.   Guess his agent got to him and told him that the closer role is the easiest path to riches in major league sports.  Why pitch 225 innings to earn $10 million when a team is willing to give you the same money to pitch 65?

Here is what really irks me.  The Sox already have played seven very significant games against the Yankees, all of which have a two-game swing in the standings.  JP has pitched in four of them for a combined 4.1 innings, during which he has allowed no hits, and has struck out five.  That sounds almost like evidence that he was used effectively, if all four were saves of close games, but consider this: three of those four appearances were of, at best, modest significance.  Indeed, two of them came in losses.

May 1 – JP pitches ninth inning in 7-3 win.

May 10 – JP pitches ninth inning to hold the fort in a 7-3 loss.

May 11 – JP earns a big save in 5-3 win.

May 23 – JP pitches ninth inning to hold the fort in 7-5 loss.

Imagine if JP could pitch as he has against the Yankees, but do so as a starter.  Is there any possibility that the Sox lose last night’s game against Randy Johnson?  Is there anyone who seriously thinks that using arguably your hardest-throwing and most effective Yankee killer in four innings of seven huge games is a good idea, especially when two of those performances were of the “hold the fort variety?”

It gets worse if you keep looking at it.  Fifteen saves sounds great – BUT – let us be honest here.  Ten of those saves (66%) involved leads of two runs or more, and six of them (40%) involved leads of three runs, the maximum allowed for earning a save of less than three innings.  How many of those ten large lead saves would have been blown up and turned to losses by say, Mike Timlin?  Even if he blew two (statistically not likely), it still might of have been worth it if Papelbon was 6-3 as a starter.

It is clear what has happened.  Fear.  Baseball executives and managers alike fear blowing a ninth inning lead almost more than anything.  It is a consequence of managing in an era where complete games have vanished.  In the old days, a starter pitched the ninth.  If he lost the lead in the ninth, he lost the lead in the ninth.  To him, and the team, it was a loss – nothing more, nothing less.  BUT, now that ninth inning leads are turned over to someone else, that person is defined solely by how well they do in that inning, and that, consequently, reflects on the front office and manager.  Since blowing a ninth inning lead is – I confess – traumatic under any circumstances, a team almost would prefer to lock up close wins than gamble that same pitcher might produce more wins on the front end as a starter.

The result of this – I fear – is that the Sox will end the season having nurtured a great closer.  JP will have 47 saves, maybe 1-2 blown, and make the All Star team.  Of course, the Sox either will be out of the playoffs, or get knocked off early, but they’ll have their closer.

I am old enough to remember Dave Righetti, the lefty pitcher for the Yankees.  He was a decent, promising lefty starter – compiling a 14-8 record in 1983 at age 24, including a no-hitter on July 4 against the Sox.  Well, the following year, he was converted to a closer, and he did ok, compiling annual save totals for several years in the 25-35 range.  But it is interesting to note that in all the years he pitched for the Yanks as a closer (1984-1990), the team never made the playoffs.  I am not putting all that on his shoulders, but it certainly suggests that having a good closer guarantees little. 

I have said my piece.  I am not going to let this get me down.  If the team wants to throw away a once-in-ten year talent like this, let ’em.  I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to defend it.

THE NBA IS BACK

OK – no one cares. No one is watching. Especially in Boston. Stipulated. But the NBA playoffs have been UNBELIEVABLE!!! Among the highlights:

1) Dallas-San Antonio Game 4 was one of the best games I’ve seen in a long time. Overtime, great shots, ex-Mav Michael Finley hitting two huge threes in Dallas. Avery Johnson’s two point guard offense against his ex-coach George Popovich who has switched his starting lineup in response – and two questionable calls in Dallas’ favor. Followed up by Game 5 where Tim Duncan hits his first twelve shots. SA wins by one. Dallas had a chance but missed, Dirk tries to tap the rebound in two-handed but misses. The champs are still one game from elimination but the Mavs will play Game 6 without Jason Terry whose huge mistake punching Finley may cost the Mavs dearly.

2) Game 5 in Phoenix – Double OT. Nicholson in the front row – how does he do that? Phoenix winning despite a ton of mistakes by two tired teams near the end. In the series Mike Dunleavy has done an incredible job devising a scheme to stop Steve Nash. Reminds me of the 1979 Michigan State "ball defense" which was so effective against Larry Bird and others. Not enough is made of Amare Stoudimire being out – in the Nets series they mentioned Clifford Robinson’s 5 game suspension every other minute. Here they rarely do – a tribute to Nash, Mike D’Antoni and everyone else. Without him though, the Clippers are clearly the better team. Question is their effectiveness in closing out games.

3) Cleveland beats Detroit in Detroit in Game 5 despite a huge mental lapse by Tony Snow who grabbed a rebound/loose ball after Detroit’s seemingly final shot and inexplicably throws it down court where a Detroit player runs it down, calls time and the Pistons get it at halfcourt with 1.9 seconds left. Now Detroit faces a Game 6 on the road and LeBron James looks at making history.

4) Miami winning Game 5 despite a great effort by NJ – who double-teamed Dwayne Wade at the top of the key down the stretch – as KC Jones did against Michael Jordan in Game 3 of the 1986 Celtics-Bulls series.

A few more observations:

The coaching has been excellent. Dunleavy’s scheme on Nash, Avery Johnson’s starting two point guards, D’Antoni somehow keeping Phoenix competitive without Stoudimire, Eddie Jordan’s adjustment on Wade and Pat Riley’s effective use of the Heat personnel.

Bill Walton and Snapper Jones remain the greatest color team in basketball. Walton was great last night in a largely one-sided game. Talks like fans do when we’re kidding around about sports – "biggest game in the history of Clipper Nation." "The crowd rising to its feet as one" – "biggest game in the history of the Maverick franchise." "Steve Nash and Bill Russell are the same person.”

One more thing – for pure basketball – there can be no debate – these games blow away any game in this year’s NCAA tournament. It’s a no-brainer.

GIVE FRANCONA SOME LOVE

As the glow of 2004’s epic title begins to fade, more and more fans are ripping manager Terry Francona.  Its comical to listen to sports radio, as even in the face of victories fans strain to find things to fault.

They obviously forget the old days, when the Red Sox were managed by old geezers who took pride in managing by hunch, filling their staffs with old drinking buddies instead of qualified coaches, and ignoring statisical data regarding their own players as well as opponents.  As recently as 2003, when Grady Little was at the helm, the club was still mostly in the Stone Age when it came to decision-making during games.

Last night, Francona made a nice little move, or should I say non-move, one many managers would make – to be sure – but one that many fans, if given the chance to manage for a night, would not have.  With two outs in the eighth inning, and a man in scoring position with two outs, Francona declined to pinch hit for his weak-hitting shortstop, Gonzalez, and instead let him hit against the hard-throwing Orioles reliever, Chris Ray.  Francona, naturally, was thinking ahead to the ninth inning and he wanted to keep his best defensive infielder in the game.  Of course, he popped out, and a valuable opportunity to drive in an insurance run was off the board.

The following inning, with Papelbon on the hill trying to earn the save, Terry’s non-move was vindicated when, with one out, Gonzalez made a truly great play – not a spectacular play – a great play – against Nick Markakis.  He fielded a grounder in the hole to his right and immediately, against the momentum of his body moving toward the outfield, made an almost perfect throw to first base for the out.  Almost any Red Sox shortstop since Rick Burleson would not have made the play – it would have been a chore for any current backup.  The second out thus was made, and when Papelbon induced another grounder to short you knew it was over.

The decision to leave Gonzalez in will not go in any scorebook.  But it was wise, and Francona deserves credit for having made it.

Now about his decision not to use Papelbon as a starter ….

SOX NEED HELP

Watching the Sox these days is not fun.  For one, the lack of depth at starting pitching has caught up with the club – fast.  Right now, its basically Beckett and Schilling and pray for a chilling.  (Sorry, that’s the best imitation of "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" I could think of.)  And even then, as we’ve seen now in two straight starts, Beckett is no guarantee either.

I like TIm Wakefield.  I have always said it makes sense to start him.  He’s like the stock market – better to keep investing in him on a regular basis because eventually, he’ll get hot and you’ll make more than you lose over time.  But this passed ball thing is as much his problem as it is the catcher’s.  Yes, Mirabelli eventually got used to it, but most catchers throughout history have struggled with knuckleballs.  I remember an otherwise very steady Mike McPharlane have fits with Wakefield.  Something has to be done, as the passed balls are coming at really bad times.  Criticizing Bard won’t help.

Jonathan Papelbon must be moved into the rotation now.  I don’t care how many talk show hosts and pundits contend that "moving him would weaken the bullpen."  Its a dumb argument.   If a guy can pitch well it makes sense to put him in there as much as possible.  The Sox have lost two straight series.  Throwing Papelbon out there every fifth day would significantly decrease the likelihood of that happening very often.

The hitting has been fair at best.  The Sox rank 17th in the all of MLB in runs scored; 22nd in slugging percentage and just 16th in OPS (combined slugging plus on base percentage).  Those are pretty bad numbers for a team that plays in Fenway Park and has a $100 million plus payroll. 

The problems at the bottom of the order have drawn much attention.  Old friend Bill Mueller (who I pointed out had totals almost identical to Johnny Damon) is off to a great start with the Dodgers – in 22 games he’s got an on base percentage of .435 and a slugging percentage of .493, making his OPS a nifty .928 (27th in the National League).  But to lay all the blame at the lower end of the order would be a mistake.  Several Sox players haven’t done much.  Varitek looks pretty bad – his OPS is just .693 (67th in the league).  Loretta has been worse – his OPS is .601 (87th in the league).  Gonzalez has been horrific, compiling an OPS of just .540 (93rd in the league).  These guys are not all at the bottom of the order, they are spread throughout, so rallies are getting killed throughout the game.

I remain optimistic that with the return of Coco Crisp, the offense eventually will be good enough.  And there is always a chance that the team might seek help via trade.  Yes, this is a flawed team, certainly no juggernaut.  But there is time to do the right things to make it better.  Putting Papelbon in the rotation would be a good start.

Ten Questions for Theo Epstein

1)      Would you at least concede the Arroyo/Pena trade makes you a weaker team this year? If you agree, what does this say about your opinion of the team’s chances this year?

2)      Is Adam Stern better than Willie Harris? If he is why isn’t he on the team – at least until Coco Crisp returns?

3)      Do you honestly believe Rudy Seanez, Julian Tavares and David Riske are appreciably better than Manny Delcarmen?  If not, why did you commit valuable financial resources to average relievers?

4)      Do you ever foresee a time when the Sox start the season with an under 25 position player from your farm system in the Opening Day lineup? Or are the days of Yaz, Fisk, Lynn, Rice, Greenwell, Burks, Nomar etc., gone forever?

5)      Craig Hansen is older than Houston Street. Why is he in Double A?

6)      Jonathan Papelbon is older than Josh Beckett. If we concede he has to be a closer for now, do you feel any regret at all for not starting him from the outset this year?

7)      Does Kevin Youkilis’ early season success make you wish the Sox had played him earlier? Or are you satisfied that he could not have played regularly before his 27th birthday?

8)      Can a rookie beat out a veteran? Can the Red Sox say a rookie is better than the player we have at the position and he’s going to play? As an example see Nomar/John Valentin.

9)      Since the new Sox ownership took over and you became GM, the Sox seem to have had more success signing hitters than pitchers – other than the obvious choices of Schilling and Foulke. Is this unique to the Sox or common in MLB?

10)  In hockey they call a game against a division rival a 4-point game – 2 your team can get and 2 the other team can’t if you win. Why don’t the Sox treat Yankee games this way? It appears to be simple math but there is a huge disconnect between the Sox and the fans on this one.

“EEI”

WEEI.  If you live in the area and are a sports fan, you know what I’m talking about; it’s a sports radio station.  Most listeners know it by the nickname, “EEI,” much in the way an old-timer from Beantown would refer to the A.M. station WBZ by the shorthand, “BZ.” 

WEEI’s ratings are high among its target demographic – guys that follow the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, Bruins and major local college teams.  And judging from the number of calls that come in from other parts of the globe, many people listen to WEEI internationally on the internet.  In short, the station is a hit.

I am not here to slam WEEI.  The listeners, by and large, seem pleased with its content.  The owners of the station are making money.  People that do not care for the station’s style have alternatives – there is satellite radio, as well as a sports radio station forty miles to the south that has decent hosts, guests, the whole bit. 

No, I am here today to discuss business.  The baseball business that is.  In particular, does it make sense for the Red Sox, a privately held team with no ownership ties to the station, to be so cozy with WEEI? 

For a moment we will put aside the fact that the team has given WEEI the right to serve as its flagship station for play-by-play radio broadcasts of Red Sox games.  No doubt the contract, which is quite lucrative from the team’s perspective, contains obligations on the club’s part to provide the station access to various players and club personnel, all of whom become in essence part of the station’s programming offering to listeners.

No, I am talking instead about all the other stuff.  If you listen to the station, you know what I mean.  General Manager Theo Epstein and President Larry Lucchino each have a weekly interview segment during the busy morning rush hour.  Principal owner John Henry appears on air during evening drive time a few times a year, usually when something pretty big happens.  Players like Curt Schilling and the manager, Terry Francona, have weekly gigs with various hosts.  Other players appear for occasional interviews.  I assume that most of these appearances are voluntary, even if the interviewees are being compensated, and they are undertaken as part of the team’s perceived need to publicize its activities.

Indeed, there is no question that radio appearances feed the fans’ need to hear Red Sox brass and players talk, as regularly and frequently as possible, about the team, its prospects, goals, etc.  The gigs, in essence, are part of the product.

But sometimes WEEI takes a position that fans the flames of discontent in Red Sox Nation.  Take one story that had legs during spring training.  One day, I turned the station on at least ten times, and on at least eight of those occasions I stumbled upon an endless discussion about whether Manny Ramirez’ failure to arrive prior to March 1 is a major problem for the ball club, its psyche, whatever.  No matter how many players insisted it was no big deal, the station’s on air personalities almost to a man disagreed.  When Sox GM Theo Epstein was rumored to be returning from his temporary “retirement”, it was the same thing – “his return will make the team look ridiculous,” said one host – over and over and over.  (Both stories, in the wake of the team’s fine start, are long forgotten.)

And the owners are not spared.  To the credit, I suppose, of the station and its personalities, Henry’s hat, voice and strange mannerisms all have been the subject of ridicule, despite the team’s apparent cooperation with WEEI management.

This type of thing – letting the public in on the back story – obviously has its supporters among programming gurus.  Take American Idol, for example.  The show has sky-high ratings.  Even during the audition phase, millions watch in rapt attention.  Still, of the thousands of hours of footage shot at the auditions, evaluation sessions, etc., featuring attractive and talented young people from every corner of the country, the producers generally choose to spend about half of the allotted time showing hideously bad performances, petty comments from losing contestants, infighting between the judges – even bits about the criminal records of various participants.  In other words, people who know a lot about these things seem to believe that there is an audience for this kind of stuff; that the product alone – talented young amateur singers strutting their stuff – is simply not enough to draw a big audience.  Is it possible that a similar conclusion has been drawn by the Red Sox and their PR advisors?  Has some sort of bizarre, devil’s bargain been struck between the team and WEEI?

Whatever a PR guru might think about all this, I question whether these soap opera stories really are a valuable part of the publicity machine of a baseball team.  Of course, intelligent fans are always going to want to hear club officials discuss the team’s plans for the future, proposed trades, etc.  But is the whining and complaining and questioning that fills the hours on WEEI really good for the Red Sox?  Does it make people respect the team more, dig deeper into their pockets for tickets or gear, or watch more games on the club-owned television channel?

I don’t really have the answers to these questions, but a few comments made recently by Epstein and Lucchino, combined with some new policies they have adopted, suggest to me that they have their doubts.  First, there was the vague announcement by the club that hence forth, public discussion of trades, negotiations, etc., will be subject to tighter controls.  Second, when asked a few weeks back whether there was anything he could learn from the Patriots success, Epstein said “of course,” and then he proceeded to talk mainly about the football team’s ability to “deliver a consistent message from the top of the organization down through the coaches and players.”

Not long after I started this piece, I saw a note on the Globe business pages suggesting that the team is looking at the possibility of creating its own radio station.  To that story, I offer the following – well, duh?  Sounds like a pretty good idea.  A Red Sox radio station, operated with some independence to maintain integrity but nonetheless ultimately subject to club control, could serve as the flagship station for play-by-play coverage as well as a forum for talk shows, club interviews and the like.  It would probably be a smashing success and a cash cow for sponsors eager to align themselves with a team that could offer access to Fenway Park, meet-and-greets with players and coaches, etc. 

Oh sure, the Sox are not stupid.  They would hire sports talk show hosts and give them some authority to question and criticize.  That’s baseball.  I listen to NFL radio on Sirius all the time and they have plenty of guys that talk about all sorts of negative things about the teams.  BUT, and it’s a big but, there is a line they do not cross.  They do not ridicule, and they do not speculate about sensitive issues.  And they sure as heck wouldn’t beat to death some story about some player showing up three days late for spring training.

A Red Sox radio station would be a blow to WEEI, but the station would simply go forward and turn the heat up even higher.  In the end, it might be good for the fans.  An end to the sports radio monopoly and an even freer reign on the part of the unaffiliated radio station to continue slamming the club at every opportunity.