Saturday, June 19, 2010

And like that...

And like that... for the next few months we have only one team to root for, only one box score to check in the daily rags, and after a whirlwind playoff run - New England wakes up punch drunk, pissed, angry and opens their newspapers (online of course) to see what their hometown ball club has been up to... and they smile - all is right in the world as the red stockings are tied for the most wins in all of baseball and back only one game in the loss column for first place in the 2010 AL east, which might go down as the best division of all time.

But the road to this point came not without its bumps..

For starters, less than one month ago - on May 23rd, the Red Sox were 8.5 games behind the Rays. Quickly the season was beginning to slide away. They needed a bat, their supposedly great defense went all swiss cheese on us, and in between them and the Rays there our hated pin-stripped rival acted as a road block; who on May 17th where a full 6.5 games up in the wild card. Things were dire, outlook was bleak, and everyone from Sully from Southy to that Curly Haired Boyfriend Dan Shaughnessy to the prick Dirt Dog to the entire talk radio universe - they all were ready to quit. And, they probably thought that they had their reasons...

... except they play 162 for a bigger reason:

Since May 17th, the ole own team has gone 22-8, the Rays have started to play like the team they actually are, the Yanks played at a solid pace - but just not solid enough (16-13)... and just like that; 1 game back. Bam. Best division in baseball, maybe - when its all said and done - the best divisional race of all time. And while we have more than half the season to go - you know what, I like our odds... and either way I'll love our journey.

So what happened on those lost nights where the Boston faithful watched large men dawning green and white charge to a 7th game disappointment? How the hell did they turn this shit show around so drastically, so fast, and relatively quietly. Well, lets take a quick gander:

What happens when a team who is ranked 3rd in the league in runs scored all of a sudden adds one of the best power bats to the line up? Well, they rocket to the most runs scored in the league by a healthy margin is what happens. The Red Sox are far and away the best offensive team in baseball right now - having scored 383 runs to date. Next best... The Yankees with 367, then the Rays at 350, then the Rangers at 348, then nobody else for a while. And they didn't need to go out and trade Clay or Kelly or Kalish to get this bat... they just needed two things; trust and patience. And hats off to Tito and Theo and who ever else was involved in sticking with the Large Father while everyone from Maine to Methuen was calling for his head. Bench him, play Lowell, send him to Minors... a lesser team, a lesser organization may have obliged under pressure - but that is why this is not a lesser team. That is why they have made the playoffs 7 out of 8 years. That is why they win 95 games a season. They stuck with him and he rewarded them mightly.

April/March: .148/.238/.286 1 hr 4 rbi 5 r
May: .363/.425/.788 10 hr 27 rbi 16 r
June .259/.427/.552 4 hr 14 rbi 15 r

And the league has noticed, as they are no longer attacking Papi. He was only walked 4 times in March and April as pitchers smiled as he approached the batters box - a reversal of roles which probably hurt me more than the lowly batting line. But then those smiles turned down a bit and they walked him 10 times in May. And my god - did he crush the ball in may. His may, this year, will go down as one of the best months of hitting in the history of baseball. And like that, the smiles were wiped off of their face holes and they now were emotionless again, nervous, and yes - filled with fear. And as Papi now glides to the plate with the excited grin of a Little Leaguer who hit his growth spurt early, they have already walked him 16 times in June. He was always best when pitchers were fearing him... and jesus he is certainly at his best. Those May numbers are of course unsustainable, and he was getting a lot of pitches to hit as people thought he was done and challenged him. Not anymore, the average will drop - but that OBP is still a pretty thing to look at and when they do make a mistake he will smash it. One more quick point - a lot of us don't remember this, but pre-steroids... nobody just hit all the time. The game was lived on streaks, some stretches of greatness, some stretches of slumps, but most of the time it fell in the middle. I think we will see more and more of this trend moving forward. Steroids, more than anything else, allowed players to heal faster, play through injury, and remain confident - those are three of the biggest slump factors.

But what is even more amazing is the team has surged ahead with several injuries. Josh Beckett, Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dice - K have all spent time on the DL - some nearly the entire season. Their replacements, men named Bill Hall and Darnell McDonald, guys who had no shot to make their high school team, college team, independent league, minor league baseball, or the big show like Daniel Nava (we touched on his story a while back and by now its known on a national scale - but even still... as he is raking at the pro-level, people are still saying he is just a fill in, he can't keep it up, Hermida has more upside, he will be on the Pawtucket shuttle when Ellsbury is back, etc. and he just keeps hitting. And if the Erin Andrews story gets any bigger she will be banging him by tuesday for more headlines, she loves herself a headline). Even the elderly statesmen, Tek and Lowell, with their broken backs, shotty knees and plastic hips have contributed when called upon.

And of course, there is the defense. A topic of debate here on the report for a few weeks was how could Theo focus so much on the defense and miss so badly. Well, a mix of some bad bounces, small sample size, getting used to fenway, cold weather, bad luck, horrible pitching and a tough schedule was the reason. They have rocketed up to become a top defensive with a team UZR over 6. Their two best players have been JD Drew and Adrian Beltre. Scutaro has been playing really well, Pedroia is his normal nastiness at 2nd base. The team who couldn't throw a runner out, who was run on relentlessly like the Kansas City Chiefs has turned into one of the least run on teams in the league. Again, not by free agency, not by bringing up some minor leaguer whose bat would be a hole in the line up... but by good coaching, making adjustments on both the pitchers and catchers end and fucking hard ass work.

But we expected great defense out of Beltre - that is why we got him for this "bridge" season. The issue was, at what cost is great defense worth blocking a prominent hitters position like third base. I argued that it depends on the make up of the team, how good the starting pitching could be, how many ground balls they induce, and ultimately how many runs it could save... and for the Red Sox - it was very important.. more so then having a good bat who couldn't play any defense (see Mike Lowell). So I was fine with it... and all of a sudden he is playing like 04 Beltre. an OPS over 9, and average - that will come down - over .330. His 48 rbis and 87 hits also lead the team. The most interesting tidbit about Beltre is his hot/cold splits. And by hot and cold I mean the temperature outside. So far this year, when it is below 69 degrees - he is batting .279, an OBP of .320 and slugging .353 in 140 plate appearances. When it is warmer than 69? .404/.429/.728 in 114 PAs. And guess what, it is only getting warmer. He has been absolutely terrific and would probably be considered the best all around player on the team so far (his stellar defense coupled with fantastic offensive output) except for one not so small, goatee'd, aggressive bald thing...

...Kevin Youkilis is an animal. He not only leads the team in OPS+ with 167, he is 23 points ahead of the next guy. He is, without a doubt, one of the best 5 players in all of baseball and so far only 3 have been better with the bat.

1) Justin Morneau who, with his bat alone, has been worth 2.7 WINS this year for his team. The man has an on base percentage of .446
2) Miggy Cabrera who his crushing the ball to a tune of a .645 slugging percentage (.35 points higher than the next guy).
3) Robbie Cano - who happens to be that next guy with a .610 slugging percentage and 2.5 wins in his swing so far

Then its Youks. Youks crazy stance and rugged swing has given the red sox 2.4 wins by itself. After these four players, there is a pretty significant drop off, with Hamilton, Konerko, Longoria all around 1.7 wins.

In 2008 when Youks made a significant offensive jump - especially from a power perspective (a .100 point increase in ISO*), every sabermatrician out there developed theories and reasons why it was an outlier, why he would regress. His HR barely made it out of the park, his BABIP is high, and so on. But the next year he didn't regress, his BABIP stayed the same, as did his ISO - although he did strike out more and walk less. Then this year, he has fixed those two components of his game. He is striking out less (16% of the time vs 25% last year), he is walking more (16% vs 13%), and his ISO have taken another leap (from .250 to .275). And now, we realize, he is just doing what Kevin Youkilis has done every year since he became a full time player at the late age of 27 - he is getting better and better and better.

The pitching staff, well - we have had our share of injuries, lots of them, but with John Lester as the ace - great work from Clay, strong enough outings from the double chinned Lackey, some surprise starts by Wake, help from Dice K when he is not injured, and strong work from the bullpen they have more than held their own. Here is an interesting stat... Only one team, Kansas City, has had more pitchers throw in a game this year with 21. The Red Sox have had 19 different arms appear in games. That usually means one of two things: You're really bad or really hurt. Obviously our situation is with the latter, which makes the success all that more amazing. It also - once again - proves the point you can never have enough pitching. Tampa bay has only had 13 by the way.

We could use some pieces for sure, an extra arm in the bullpen would be the biggest and most pressing issue (but what team in the majors couldn't use another arm in the pen). Bard is blatantly throwing too many innings - to the point where I fully expect his arm to come flying off in a bloody heap causing Joe West to toss him for delaying the game - and I'd love to see them get a good 8th inning guy to take that 7th inning role. But as we roll into Fathers Day weekend, you need to just sit back and smile... don't you? Baseball is funny that way, as fans we live in the moment, we ride the wave of the daily box score, we get emotionally high one night and hung over the next with late inning heroics and follies... and we should, the ride is the best part. It is where the true fans live. But when you step back and look at how seasons have historically unfolded you see that teams go on streaks, they win 8 out of 10 and lose 8 out of 10. And you're never as good as you are during those winning streaks and you're never as bad when the losses pile up.

The saying is you win 60, you lose 60, but it is what you do with the other 60 that really counts. Well, the Sox are 19 games away from their 60 expected wins... and it is only June 19th. You can't ask for much more than that out of a ball club.

Sit back, buckle up and lets get ready for a nice ride. The best times are yet to come - the team has the luxury of taking their sweet ass time with Beckett and Ellsbury and Dice K. Once we get past the all star break and into the long, sweltering summer stretch - we will start to see those guys come back, with no mileage on them. May take a bit to wipe the rust off - but I think the best days are ahead for this team.

* ISO stands for Isolated Power, which is a measure of a hitter's raw power, in terms of extra bases per AB. Its formula is ISO = (2B + (3B*2) + (HR*3)) / AB


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