Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Bonus 4-Game Lollapalooza Blog Package and 25-Game Update

Games 22 through 25 - Red Sox
Regressing to the Mean

Texas Rangers 4, Red Sox 3
Rangers 8, Red Sox 5
Rangers 4, Red Sox 1
Cleveland Indians 2, Red Sox 1

Before the season, if you had guaranteed me that the Sox would be in first place in the A.L. East after 25 games, despite not having Nomar and Trot, only getting 1 start from B.H. Kim, and having Bronson Arroyo face Kevin Brown twice, I would have hugged you. And then you would have gingerly backed away from me, because you probably don't know me and might think it odd to be hugged by some random guy in a faded Red Sox cap.

Last week, though, if you'd told me that the Sox would lose 4 straight to Texas and Cleveland to fall to 15-10 while the Yankees won 6 straight to climb to within one game of the Sox, my reaction would have been substantially different. It might have involved breaking things, an activity that was prevented last night only by the fact that I was holding my sleeping 10 week-old daughter while I watched the Sox leave 12 men on base against the Indians.

So, the 25-game conundrum is this: happy or ticked? Pleased or irritated? Optimistic or sky-is-falling?

After having several blog-free days to contemplate these cosmic questions (a combination of work-related obligations and crappy Dell home computer malfunctions) I believe that the Sox are in a good place. They were a very, very fortunate 15-6 team, riding a spectacular performance by their pitching staff, especially the bullpen, to compensate for a mediocre (at best) start by the offense. The early-season schedule was complicated by several rainouts and more than the Sox fair share of extra-inning affairs. This week's stumbles can be laid squarely at the feet of the law of averages, as a team that overacheived its expected results was sucked back towards its true level - a true level that is expected to rise appreciably as injured regulars return to the lineup. And with that, we press on to our completely unscientific review of the season's first 25 games:

Things I Like:

1. In a Bizarro World twist on last season, the Sox bullpen has been flat out dominant. The Sox lead the majors with an exceptional 2.42 bullpen ERA, and have only given up 46 hits in 74 1/3 innings. As noted in this space, they recently reeled off 32+ scoreless innings, and 11 1/3 hitless innings. Last year I held my breath when the bullpen made a regular season appearance. This season, when the Sox have a lead after the 6th inning, I'm expecting a win. Like the Yankees of the late 90s, the Sox have the ability to shorten games with Embree, Timlin, and Williamson handing the ball to Keith Foulke in the late stages. That puts a ton of pressure on opposing pitchers and hitters, and is a huge psychological advantage.

2. While the starting pitching hasn't been as otherwordly as the bullpen, Sox front-liners have still posted the third-best ERA in the majors (3.63) and the best in the American League. This despite the fact that Pedro (4.17) and Derek Lowe (4.98) have performed notably worse than their career averages (2.60 and 3.61, respectively). All of which means that the starting pitching can be expected to be better than it has to date, which is still pretty damn good.

3. While there haven't been many bright spots on the offensive side of the ledger, a handful of guys have kept the club from entering Montreal Expo territory (snide aside: and shouldn't that territory be Washington, DC?).

Manny has been Manny, posting a .354/.425./.576 (Average/OBP/SLG) line and driving in 16 runs, and displaying a hustling, heady baserunning and fielding style that critics found absent in the past.

David Ortiz has continued where he left off last season, tying for the team lead in homeruns with 5, and leading the team in RBI with 18 and posting a .911 OPS. Ortiz is also great theater at the plate, because he never looks overmatched and always seems capable of blasting the next pitch into the stratosphere. He's just a blast to watch.

Jason Varitek is using the final season of his contract to make a great case for a sizable renewal, posting a .993 OPS with 5 homers and 13 ribbies. On top of his usual above average defense and superb handling of the pitching staff, it's not hard to argue that 'Tek is one of the two or three best catchers in the league, in the conversation with Jorge Posada and Ivan Rodriguez.

Mark Bellhorn leads the AL in...walks. And is the Sox only league leader in any offensive category. Ooof.

4. Nomar and Trot will be back by June. I like that a lot.

5. Curt Schilling's been Curt Schilling, and Tim Wakefield's been Tim Wakefield (circa. 2002). Which is to say, the Sox have an inning-eating horse, and a team-first, very good, very versatile arm. Both of which are very nice to have.

Things I'm Still Wondering About

1. Meet the new Derek Lowe, same as the old Derek Lowe. Yes, it's early, but his first month this year is closer to last year's dismal effort than his spectacular 2002. The rule, remember, is that we cannot under any circumstances badmouth Lowe after last year's ALDS, but that doesn't mean I don't want him to start performing better.

2. The jury's still out on Terry Francona. Yes, the Sox clubhouse seems a loose, positive environment. Yes, the Sox are in first place, and yes, the Sox have taken 6 of 7 from the Yankees. But I can't shake the nagging thought that Francona's not much of an in-game manager. Lots of little things have bugged me, like a seemingly high number of strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out double plays, questionable pinch-hitting calls (last night, David McCarty for Pokey Reese with two men already out in the top of the 8th - only marginal increase in offense, lose Reese's glove, and lose Kevin Millar's bat for the rest of the game. Don't get it.), and overuse of Cesar Crespo (yes, the Sox have injuries, but Crespo shouldn't have 43 plate appearances in Pawtucket, let alone Boston). Terry's got lots of time to prove me wrong, and I'm only wondering about him, not down on him, but there's something Grady Little-ish about the new skipper.

3. Where is Billy Mueller? While I'm officially worried about Kevin Millar (see below), Mueller seems just to be slumping, but at some point, a slump becomes a season. Last year's AL batting champ is posting .235/.325./.363 numbers - abysmal in the no. 2 slot in the lineup - and I've seen him have multiple miserable plate appearances. Slumps happen - hell, today's Washington Post goes on at length about Derek Jeter's current 5 for 39 slide - but I'm waiting for this one to end.

Things That Have Me Worried

1. The offense. Well, not worried, per se, because I fully expect the bats to wake up, but I'm definitely nonplussed about the sputtering start. I suppose any team that has to give significant plate appearances to Pokey Reese (66), Cesar Crespo (43), David McCarty (26), and Gabe Kapler (66) won't light the league on fire, but 2003 seems like a long time ago. The Sox are 28th in the majors and last in the AL with a .218 average (.681 OPS) with runners in scoring position. The offense is leaving men on base in droves. And they're still 15-10. How 'bout that.

2. Kevin Millar may be toast. The team's emotional leader has posted sub-par offensive numbers (.672 OPS, 2 HR, 7RBI), which is bad enough. He's also looked really overmatched, which is worse. If he can't catch up to high heat, Millar will be of very little value to the Sox for the rest of the year.

3. Pedro is being Pedro, and not in the good way. The Sox' current 4-game skid coincides directly with Lord Pedro's announcement that he will test the free agent market after his contract expires at the end of the season. The announcement also accused Sox management of not playing straight with him. I love Pedro, but his me-first prima donna act is wearing thin, especially on a roster full of stand-up guys who are playing their asses off and have been for two years. Shut up and pitch, and the rest will take care of itself. Bitch about your contract when your ERA is sub 3.00 and you've started more than 31 games in a season for the first time since 1999.

To sum up, 4-game losing streaks suck. First place with a banged-up roster that's last in the league in batting with runners in scoring position doesn't. The Sox need to take advantage of a relatively weak schedule over the next several weeks, and be ready to fire all jets when Nomar and Trot return to the lineup.

Just for fun, an annoying big-media note:

I used to enjoy Chris Berman. Back in the day, his approach was new, different, refreshing, and fun. Now, his schtick is tired, dated, and done better by dozens of guys. But Berman still gets the big stage because, well, he's Chris Berman. Sunday night on ESPN's Baseball Tonight telecast prior to the Sox/Rangers game, Harold Reynolds and John Kruk began bemoaning the emphasis on "new" statistics like on-base percentage. "And don't even get me started on OPS," sputtered Berman, in his best blowhard.

Sure, Chris, wouldn't want to "get you started" on one of the single numbers that best corrolates to runs scored - much more so than batting average. Wouldn't want to let facts get in the way of worn, old-school cliche-ridden baseball analysis. Seriously, take your oversized ego and your overstuffed pink jackets and retire already. Go join Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver in the Home for Baseball Personalities Incapable of Creative Thought. Take Rob Dibble with you.

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