Change-UpJune 16, 2010
Are Things Looking Up for the Red Sox?
By Patrick Sullivan

The Boston Red Sox weathered the slow start, guys we knew could play better started to do just that, the balls started to bounce their way, they now hit well with runners on it's smooth sailing now, right? They've ironed out their problems and Boston just needs to keep after it and chip away at the 4-game deficit New York and Tampa Bay currently enjoy over them. Perhaps the hole they dug themselves may prove to be too big, but they're out of their rut.

But are they? I'm not so sure, and here's a handful of reasons why.

1) John Lackey continues to look awful.

Yes, he's 3-1 in his last 4 starts. Yes, the ERA is coming down. But it's June 16th and Lackey currently has a 4.87 K/9. Of the 61 starters in the American League who have tossed at least 60 innings, only 9 have posted a lower K/9. Only 2 pitchers have a less impressive K/BB.

But he's pitching better of late, no? It's hard for me to see that he is. Amazingly, that 4.87 K/9 is actually DOWN to 3.42 over this 4-start "good" stretch for Lackey. His ERA sits at 4.54 while his xFIP is 5.21. He's been bailed out by a superb Red Sox defense and some good balls-in-play fortune.

John Lackey's far from out of the woods, and it's hard to see how the Red Sox fulfill their goals for this season without an effective Lackey.

2) Injuries

The Daniel Nava story has been a blast. Darnell McDonald has filled in admirably. Bill Hall has really come around of late and his ability to play more or less every position, albeit badly, has been invaluable. Felix Doubront has been great in the Minors this year and it will be fun to watch him take the hill Friday night. Tim Wakefield's ability to fill in and make a start whenever needed is huge.

But let's be honest with ourselves. Scott Atchison started a game last Saturday. Nava led off while Hall played shortstop last night. The depth, the scrambling, the fill-ins, it's all great fun but it will also catch up in due time. The Red Sox need strong aggregate contributions from the likes of Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron if they are going to be the team they can be in 2010.

3) Adrian Beltre will not keep this up.

I love the guy. He's been the best 3rd baseman not named Evan Longoria in the American League. He's raking, and like he always does, he's playing defense. The Red Sox and Scott Boras could not have scripted this any better. It's June and Boston has already got its money's worth out of Beltre while Boras licks his chops as Beltre once again will hit the free agent market after the 2010 season.

It's not going to last, though. Beltre is hitting .333 on the strength of a .367 BABIP, a figure he almost definitely will not be able to maintain. Beltre's ZIPS projection on his Fangraphs page for the rest of 2010 has him at .293/.337/.473 while he currently sits at .333/.366/.524. The drop-off might not feel precipitous, but the Red Sox will begin to get less and less out of Beltre.

4) Clay Buchholz is having a 2008 Daisuke type season.

In 2008, Dice-K was 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. As Larry David might say, prett-AY prett-AY good. But beneath his win-loss record and earned run average, Matsuzaka had a pedestrian K/BB ratio and a downright awful 5 walks per 9 innings. Somehow he maintained a .260 BABIP-against for a full season and a ridiculous strand rate.

Fast forward to 2010 and Clay Buccholz is 9-4 with a 2.67 ERA. Ostensibly, Buchholz looks like a Cy Young candidate. But like Matsuzaka in 2008, his peripherals don't seem to line up with those of a great pitcher. He's posted just a 1.71 K/BB, and his good fortune shows itself in his .281 BABIP-against and his incredible, unsustainable 3.9 HR/FB%. Some of those fly balls Clay is giving up will begin to land on the other side of the fence, and some of those grounders will find more holes.

5) The Bullpen

In February, while many touted the Boston bullpen as a real strength, I expressed concerns. Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon all slipped in the 2nd half of 2009. Manny Delcarmen was more or less awful all season long. Daniel Bard seemed to be the only real sure bet in the pen.

Sure enough, it's more or less how 2010 has played out. Bard's been excellent, Papelbon somehow ekes by with seemingly weaker stuff, and the other three have been awful. Nobody has more appearances in the American League than Bard, so Boston will need others to step up before long, or else they will need to acquire another arm. It's likely that they will need both to happen, but it's hard to see a quick fix on the horizon.


The storyline for the Red Sox this season has been that they have been able to battle through a slow start, some crippling under-performance and terrible injury luck to crawl back into playoff contention. All of these things are true. What I wanted to highlight in this post was that there are two sides to that coin. The Red Sox have also been the beneficiaries of unlikely performances, while there may not be a quick fix to some of the problems that continue to plague the team.

All in all, I would say the problems above are easily offset by the potential a healthy quartet of Beckett, Matsuzaka, Ellsbury and Cameron offer. But if those four cannot provide a boost down the stretch, look for items discussed herein to sink Boston's hopes.


Hi, coupla comments.
-You say Lackey isn't doing that well, in part because he's been bailed out by the superb Sox defense. But barring injuries (which you're right to worry about), won't he continue to have that superb defense behind him, so he can win with lower k/9?
-Same with Buchholz: he at least *thinks* he's deliberately pitching to soft contact, and letting the defense help him.
-On the bad side: Beltre's fielding is semi-awesome, but semi-awful. He has great range and makes great plays, but some of his many errors are not due to great range, but just misplaying easy plays. This is worrisome.

Let's not forget another (a third?) side to the coin, and that is expected results from the non-injured. Much of this season was played with a poorly hitting, unlucky Victor Martinez (who has had a number of slow season starts before), and he has since corrected whatever was causing problems there. Meanwhile, Dustin Pedroia has been bother by a knee injuring, sinking him to his worst segment of production in his major league career, but he also seems to be turning around.

I think a mentality of "hold it steady" is a proper one...some negatives will continue to crop up, while other issues will repair. Certainly, the bullpen issues were predictable and there is no reason to expect "repair" there, so that's the one area that deserves major attention.

Also, regarding the Dice-K/Buchholz comparison, while it is safe to say that pitchers typically regress to a "mean" in certain categories, why is it that Dice-K's 2008 is always attributed to "luck". As we've seen with Ichiro's BABIP, certain players do not have typical baseline once luck evens out. Qualitatively, Dice-K nibbled throughout 2008, refusing to throw hittable pitches at the cost of extra balls out of the zone. Doesn't it make perfect sense that this would result in a higher BB/9 and lower BA allowed? I suspect Buchholz has been a bit lucky so far, sure, but if things start bouncing wrong I'm sure he'll make adjustments, and perhaps his baseline isn't quite typical either.

Isn't your point about injuries really a reason to be optimistic? If they are still playing this well without Ellsbury and Cameron for most of the season, without Beckett being healthy or effective all season and while being forced to use third and even fourth options in the outfield, doesn't that show that this team is built very solid top to bottom throughout the organization?

Buchholtz isn't really comparable to Dice-K at all. One is a young, high strikeout pitcher just learning to control the strike zone on the major league level, the other a veteran pitcher who throws alot of pitches out of the zone. Buchholtz was more than a full walk per 9 better throughout his minor league career and over 2 K/9 better as well. Regression in his BABIP will likely be tempered by his development at the ML level.

While Beltre's BABIP is certainly high, he is hitting the ball very well. After a lousy 2009 his line drive rate has returned to career normal levels and his HR/FB rate is only slightly up from his average level. He may not hit .333/.366/.524 going forward, but getting .293/.337/.473 plus 15-18 runs saved on the season is still elite production from a 3B. The decline is significant, but we are still getting great production out of him.

I would not be so down. Given all that has gone wrong, this is a great position for Boston to be in.

Given all that has gone wrong, this is a great position for Boston to be in.

I guess I am just not so sure. I think you will see performance declines from Beltre and Buchholz, and I don't have much confidence in the bullpen or John Lackey at this point.

The wildcard is the injuries and I don't know that ANYONE has an accurate read as to how that will unfold.

Injuries are such a wildcard it is hardly worth thinking about. What would happen if Evan Longoria was out for the season? Or Jeter or Rodriquez? No team will ever be immune from injuries. I wouldn't say that Beltre and Buchholtz are capable of those numbers all season, but that doesn't mean they will suddenly be detriments to the team. They has surpassed expectations while other have been injured or underperformed. Regression to the mean works both ways. Only Lackey really worries me and from what I have seen, the front office can address the team's issues better than anyone else.

I wonder if there isn't a parallel with Jon Lester for Buchholz. Strikeout pitcher in the minors with some control issues on occassion. Upon getting to MLB K rate dropped while adjusting. Some improvment in control came first then the improvement in K rate followed. I know Lester is a tough comp for anyone due to the cancer and wondering how much it may have effected his development, but if Clay can show some control gains going forward this year I'll start to wonder if the strikeouts won't follow.

Let's compare what we can expect in the balance of the season versus what we have had so far:

Infield: Scut and Youk are performing as expected. Beltre will probably decline but will be balanced by Pedrioa returning to norm. Net effect even.

Outfield: All three positions should improve dramatically, including Drew. Net effect: big positive.

Starters: Clay has been lucky, but Lester has his early season flops well behind him. Their stats may flip-flop, but probably no net decline looked at together. Beckett will probably replace Wake at some point -- that is certainly a big plus. Let's assume Lackey and Dice stay even (although both have a lot of room to get better). Lots of moving pieces, but overall, starters should probably do a bit better.
Bullpen: agree it is weak. But Theo will certainly be focused on rebuilding it. Based on unknown trades, is likely to improve.

All the above ignores surprise injuries, and there will be some. But the bottom line is that the club as a whole should be improving.

The upside potential is large. The Red Socks have a lot of things that can go right for them.

Beckett and/or Daisuke could pitch well or very well while Lackey is likely to be stronger in the second half - that's his usual pattern, right?.

The Red Sox offense is exceeding expectations, perhaps, but Youkilis, Pedroia, and Oritz provide a very good middle of the order. If Ellsbury can get back in the lead-off spot, you've got the potential for a lot of runs.

Why assume that Beltre will not perform offensively? The park is friendly, and hitting is contagious.

They're going to be a little bit better than last year. With a little luck on the injury front and reasonable performance from the starting pitching, they could be very good.