Tuesday, July 10, 2007

All-Star Break Musings. Red Sox Round-Up.

Tonight, major league baseball plays it's annual All-Star game. This year, it is being played at Lefty O'Doul Stadium in San Francisco, and I will probably watch at least a few innings. All-Star games are terrible wastes of time, and the biggest joke about them is that for the past few seasons the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. This stupid idea was thought up by the idiots who run this fine game after the 2002 debacle in Milwaukee that finished in a 7-7 tie after eleven innings, the end of which showed Omissioner Selig at his best when he threw his hands in the air in frustration when both the AL and NL managers decided that they didn't want to push their pitchers any longer after the bullpens had been emptied. Apparently, it was a crazy idea to pick 30-32 players for each squad, then try to get them into the game.

The "cure" for this was to "Make It Count!" This meant assigning meaning to the game in the form of the aforementioned World Series home-field advantage for whichever league wins the game. How about doing the sensible thing and assigning that advantage to the team with the best record?

Let's look at last year's standings: In the AL the Yankees, 97-65, won the East. The Twins, 96-66, won the Central. The A's 93-69, won the West. The Tigers, 95-67, won the Wild Card. Now, normally, you'd have the best record matched against the worst, 1-4 and 2-3, but for some reason, the Wild Card cannot play a team in it's own division in the first round. Why? Who knows? So instead of a Yankees-A's, Twins-Tigers matchup we had Yankees-Tigers, which the Tigers won, and the Twins-A's, which the A's won. That led to the ALCS Tigers-A's matchup that the Tigers won to advance to the World Series.

The NL ended up with a similarly silly mess, compounded by the fact that the Padres and Dodgers ended the season with identical 88-74 records. The Padres were awarded the West due to their 13-5 head-to head record against the Dodgers who were awarded the Wild Card. The Mets, 97-65, won the East, and the Cardinals, 83-78, won a weak Central. Again, you'd think that the first round matchups would have been Mets-Cardinals, Padres-Dodgers, but nooo! The matchups ended up being Mets-Dodgers, Padres-Cardinals. Here, the Mets beat the Dodgers and the Cardinals beat the Padres, so the NLCS was a Mets-Cardinals matchup that the Cardinals won to advance to the World Series.

The 2006 World Series was a joke, so let's not get into that in detail. Simple math should have dictated that the Tigers, with their 95-67 regular season record, (7-1 for the first two rounds of playoffs) should have earned home field advantage over the Cardinals and their 83-78 regular season record (7-4 for the first two rounds of playoffs). By coincidence, the All-Star game in Pittsburgh's PNC Park (which is a beautiful stadium) went the AL's way as they beat the NL 3-2, but can we count on such coincidences continuing to repeat?

Now, we see players in the All-Star game stay in the game for most of the playing time, and some players never get into the game at all. Maybe the "honor" of having been selected to the team is enough for most, but it would sure as hell piss me off if I were part of such a roster but didn't get to play. These guys are supposed to be the best (a point that is open to debate when you consider the many ways All-Stars are chosen, but that isn't the debate here), so let them all play!

Now, on to the Red Sox...

The team has the best record in baseball (53-34) and leads the AL East by ten games over the Yankees and Blue Jays, who are each one game under .500. Are we looking at a 100-win season? Probably not. 95 is a more likely figure. To do that, the Sox have to go 42-33 the rest of the way. The Yanks need to go 53-24 to reach 95 wins, while the Jays must go 52-23. The division appears to be safe, but one never knows (as this past weekend's sweep at the hands of the Tigers in Detroit shows). Let's review the team, position-by-position:

First baseman Kevin Youkilis has been terrific. He has been more aggressive at the plate this season than last season, which has led to him having produced more runs at this stage of the year than he did at this time last year. And he is still exhibiting good discipline at the plate. He is also playing a fine defensive first base. Trouble is, he missed the last Detroit series and part of the previous Devil Rays series with a quadricep pull. He needs to be healthy in the second half as his bat has become a reliable weapon.

Second baseman Dustin Pedroia has proven my early predictions about him to be wrong, and I couldn't be happier about that. After six weeks of getting the bat knocked out of his hands, he has rebounded, and is now hitting .318. He has done so well that manager Terry Francona has moved him from the 8-9 spot to the two spot lately. He is also playing great defense, exhibiting good range and a strong arm.

Third baseman Mike Lowell has been terrific, and is an All-Star. He is the team co-leader in homers with Papi (14) and the leader in RBI (63). How many of us thought THAT would have been the case back on Opening Day. He is, despite an awful start with the glove, playing good defense lately, and he remains a cornerstone of this lineup.

Shortstop Julio Lugo has had a terrible season at bat. He is hitting .197 with a .270 on-base percentage, something Terry Francona finally woke up and corrected by dropping Lugo to ninth in the order. Somehow, Lugo is among the league leaders in steals with 22, and has only been caught twice. Imagine what those numbers would be if he'd merely operated at his career norm coming into the season of .340 OBP. In the field, he started well, but has seemed shaky of late. Ironically, he hit well in the final game of the Detroit series. Go figure.

Left fielder Manny Ramirez is an All-Star despite having an off-year. His production rates are down all across the board. He is, however, capable of getting hot and carrying the team for a solid month. His defense has been typical Manny--underrated with the occasional adventure.

Center fielder Coco Crisp has been terrific with the glove. He has made a dozen genuine highlight reel catches, and came oh-so close to catching Pudge Rodriguez's game-winning gapper in the last of the 13th on Saturday night. At the plate, he is coming along nicely after a slow start. He is the OTHER Red Sox threat to steal (16 in 21 tries).

Right fielder JD Drew has been terrible. The guy has not hit worth a damn except for about a weeks worth of games in Interleague play (another dumb idea by the idiots who run the major leagues). He is getting out in front of everything, and has become a lunger at the plate. His defense has been decent, but they are paying him to produce about twice as many runs as he has given the team to this point.

Catcher Jason Varitek is a hard worker. There is no question about that. The pitchers love his game-calling skills, and he has been better at throwing opposing base stealers out lately. However, he is also one of the most frustrating hitters on this team. He goes through stretches in which he pounds the ball, then suddenly falls apart and begins to swing at every off-speed piece of shit slider in the dirt. At 35, I wonder if Terry should sit him TWICE a week and give Doug Mirabelli another pitcher to catch. Still, Doug is 36 and has one swing. But as long as Tim Wakefield is pitching, Doug will have a job.

Designated Hitter Papi Ortiz has been a mystery. He has "just" 14 homers, but is second in the AL in doubles with 29, and third in walks with 60. He is hitting .314 so he can still hit. I think Jerry Remy hit it on the head when he observed that Papi appears to be trying to pull the ball too much to right field. Papi is a devastating hitter who has used the left field wall at Fenway to his advantage all through his Sox career. He simply needs to get that swing back (I know, easier said than done). The good news is that he has plenty of time to find the magic again.

Bench: Alex Cora has been terrific. He has played second and short, and played them well. He has also hit better than expected (.278 BA and a team-leading 5 triples). Wily Mo Pena. Where to start? The holes in his swing, the holes in his glove or the holes in his baserunning? Sure, he launches a 480-500 foot homer about once a month, but is that worth all the negatives in his game? Eric Hinske is not a good major league player anymore, which is a sad thing to acknowledge for a man who was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2002 with the Blue Jays. His bat is slow, and he isn't a finished defensive player at any position. Recent callup Jeff Bailey played some first base over the weekend and got his first major league homer. That was the good news. The bad news is that he has been in the minors for ten years. Jacoby Ellsbury, who was recently sent back down to AAA, electrified the team with his speed during the week he spent in the bigs, and he will be back. I've already talked about Doug Mirabelli.

On the pitching side of things, the team has an AL second-best 3.76 ERA. The starting pitchers have been pretty good. All-Star Josh Beckett has been terrific with an AL-leading 12 wins and just two losses with a 3.44 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 102 innings. Daisuke has 10 wins, a 3.84 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 119 2/3 innings. Tim Wakefield is 9-8 with a 4.39 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings. Julian Tavarez is 5-7 with an ERA of 4.97 after his last horrendous start. AAA callup Kason Gabbard is 2-0 with a 4.87 ERA in four starts. That is the starting rotation as of this moment. The missing piece is Curt Schilling who is currently on the disabled list. He was 6-4 with an ERA of 4.20 and 71 strikeouts in 92 innings when he went down. Since his near no-hitter in Oakland on June 7th, he was pounded by the Rockies at Fenway, and by the Braves in Atlanta. Both his velocity AND location seemed to be off in those starts. At age 40, can he come back and be something close to a dominant pitcher again?

The bullpen has also been pretty good. All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon has 20 saves, an ERA of 1.93 and 46 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings, which is just ridiculous. Fellow All-Star Hideki Okajima has been the find of the year. He has given up four (4) runs and just 24 hits in 43 1/3 innings for an 0.83 ERA. He has 37 strikeouts, has four saves and has become the primary setup man for Papelbon. Lefty sidewinder Javier Lopez has been good, as has Kyle Synder in long relief. Veteran Mike Timlin has been pitching very well since his return from the disabled list a few weeks ago, which is good since both Brendan Donnelly and Joel Piniero have landed on the DL themselves. Manny Delcarmen has returned from AAA to give the Sox another power arm in the late innings, and he is pitching with more command and confidence than in his previous stints.

Keys to maintaining the pace: Manny and Papi getting back to their familiar power production. JD Drew waking up from his three-month nap. Kevin Youkilis getting healthy. Julio Lugo remembering how to hit. Terry Francona finding a good option to bat in front of Papi and Manny. The team is leading the AL in OBP with a .358 mark despite the down years from Manny and Drew, who are traditionally high OBP guys (and still are, just not at their usual standards).

On the pitching side, they need Schilling to return and be good. Failing that, they will likely try to trade for a starter, as I cannot see them trusting a stretch drive to Kason Gabbard or Jon Lester in the rotation. Beckett, Daisuke and Wake simply have to continue to pitch as they have been pitching. Papelbon and Okajima must continue to dominate hitters they way they have thus far, and the non-closer types like Lopez, Timlin, Delcarmen and Snyder must continue to provide what they have brought to the table thus far.

The second half of the season begins with an eleven game homestand that will see the Sox welcome the Blue Jays, Royals and White Sox to Fenway Park. I just hope none of our guys (or anyone besides A-Rod) gets hurt in tonight's exhibition game.

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