Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jon Lester Is Not An Ace

At 28 years of age, Jon Lester is in his prime. At least, he should be. Yet, Lester is having a miserable season, in which he can't seem to do anything right. Lester shows no signs of being the pitcher he once was from 2008 to 2010, when he posted a cumulative 3.29 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and was among the game's best lefties.

In each of those three seasons, Lester pitched at least 200 innings and he struck out at least 200 batters in two of them.

Yet, even before then, much was expected of Lester, a lefty who showed so much poise and promise.

After his 2006 rookie season, in which he threw 81.1 innings and went 7-2 with a 4.76 ERA, Lester was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Red Sox Nation held its collective breath hoping for good news. This was just a kid at the very beginning of a promising career.

Thankfully, Lester fully recovered.

Following successful treatment, Lester returned to the Red Sox midway through the 2007 season. HIs comeback was highlighted by a dramatic Game Four World Series clincher against Colorado, in which Lester pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings, giving up three hits and three walks while striking out three.

Lester became just the third pitcher in World Series history to win the series clincher in his first post-season start.

The Red Sox had a 23-year-old lefty who would be in their rotation for years to come, who had already pitched on the biggest stage and who had performed admirably. Things were looking up for Lester and the Red Sox.

In 2008, Lester went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and threw a no-hitter at Fenway Park. The Sox seemed to have their future ace. In each of the next two seasons, Lester continued to build on his success and established himself as one of the top young lefties in baseball.

But last season, things began to unravel for Lester, and that process has accelerated this year. Though he was named to the All Star team for the second consecutive season in 2011, and led the Boston rotation in wins and strikeouts, Lester took a step back. The lefty won 15 games but failed to reach 200 innings for the first time in four seasons and failed to strikeout 200 batters for the first time in three seasons.

When the Red Sox needed Lester to step up in September and be their ace, he failed to do so. Lester lost his last three starts and was never a stopper as the Red Sox wildly spun out of control. The team posted a 7-20 record that month, a historic collapse for a team that had been in first place for much of the season.

This year, Lester picked up right where he left off last September, showing futility far too often.

The Red Sox are 7-12 in Lester's starts this season. Lester got rocked again last night, lasting just four innings. It was the fifth time this season that he has not made it to the fifth inning. The lefty has not lasted past the seventh inning since May 14. Over his last two starts, Lester has given up 10 earned runs on 16 hits in 8 1/3 innings.

Think about that; the Red Sox have lost 12 of Lester's 19 starts. It's mid-July and he has a 4.80 ERA. In nine of Lester’s starts, he has either lost a lead or allowed a run to break a tie. That's your No. 1 starter, folks.

This is the guy that has been chosen as the Opening Day starter for two seasons running. He's the guy who had previously shown so much promise, potential and hope. He's the guy upon whom the Red Sox thought they could depend, on whom they placed so much responsibility. And Lester has failed to respond positively. When called upon, he repeatedly cannot answer the bell.

If he remains healthy, Lester should have about 14 more starts this season. If he somehow manages to average six innings per start in that stretch (which is not a given considering his performance this season), Lester would tack on another 84 innings to the 116.1 he already thrown this season. That would put him squarely at 200 in 2012. It could also prove to be the highlight of his season.

It should be noted that though Lester has been viewed as an ace and as the Sox No. 1 starter, there have always been questions about that status.

Yes, Lester threw the no-hitter. But some rather unremarkable pitchers have also done that. Just in the past decade alone, Anibal Sanchez, Jonathan Sanchez, Ubaldo Jiminez, Dallas Braden, Edwin Jackson, Francisco Liriano and Phil Humber have all thrown no-hitters. That's not exactly a who's who list, or a group of future Hall of Famers.

The point is, even an average pitcher can have a spectacular game, the likes of which becomes his career highlight. That's not to say that Lester is average, but make no mistake; pitching a no-hitter doesn't make someone a star or an ace. Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Grover Alexander and Lefty Grove, for example, never threw a no-hitter in their illustrious careers.

Lester has never won 20 games in any season. In 2010, he had 19 wins going into his final start of the year. In that big moment, instead of stepping up and winning his 20th game for the first time — for himself and his team — Lester melted down. He lasted just four innings, giving up a whopping eight runs on nine hits and five walks. Lester folded in a big moment, a chance at a personal milestone. And a victory would have given the Red Sox 90 wins that season.

Winning 20 games one season does not make a pitcher an ace. But it looks good on the resume and it helps make the argument a little stronger. Most aces win 20 games in multiple seasons.

Moreover, Lester has never won an ERA title or a strikeout crown either. If he wants to be thought of as an ace, he needs to win at least one of those. A couple of each and a few 20-win seasons would solidify the argument.

Let's be honest; Lester is not in the same category as Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay, Jered Weaver, David Price, CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels and on and on. Those guys are all bona fide aces.

Lester is not an ace and he has never even been an elite pitcher. He has been a very good pitcher and in most seasons would have been a No. 2 starter on most staffs. This season, he looks like a back of the rotation starter — at best.

In fact, instead of sending Franklin Morales ( 3-2 in five starts, 10 earned runs, eight walks, 31 Ks in 26 1/3 innings) back to the pen, wouldn't it truly be in the Red Sox best interests to send Lester instead?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Red Sox Mired in Mediocrity

Major League Baseball has reached it's recognized mid-point, the annual All Star break. In reality, more than half the season is already over. After playing 86 games, the Red Sox are a .500 team with a 43-43 record. There are 76 games yet to be played in 2012.

Boston limps into the break having lost eight of their last 11 games. At this point, they look totally lost. It hardly comes as a surprise.

The Red Sox have been a middling ream for most of the season — other than those times they've been just plain bad. As the saying goes, water always finds its level. So do sports teams.

In April, the Sox had a five-game losing streak, followed by a six-game winning streak. They finished the month with an 11-11 record and never broke .500.

The Red Sox started May with a five-game losing streak and later posted a five-game winning streak. The Sox were as many as seven games below .500 in May and didn't get back to .500 until May 21. It took them until May 29 to break above .500 and they finished the month just one game over .500. Their May record was 15-14.

The Red Sox endured a four-game losing streak in June, followed by a four-game winning streak. The team got as many as three games over .500 in early June, but quickly fell three games below once again. Toward the end of June, the Sox again worked their way back to five games above .500, their high-water mark for the month and the season. The Sox posted a 15-12 record in June.

The team started the month of July five games over .500. But they immediately proceeded to lose five consecutive games, again reverting to the break-even mark in the span of just one week. So far this month, the Sox are an abysmal 2-6.

This is hardly what Red Sox ownership was expecting from a team that had an Opening Day payroll north of $175 million — the third highest in baseball, following the Yankees and Phillies.

Yes, the Red Sox have been plagued by injuries, losing their projected closer Andrew Bailey and left fielder Carl Crawford before the season even began. Jacoby Ellsbury was lost just two weeks into the season and hasn't played since.

At various points this season, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Scott Podsednik, Will Middlebrooks, Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, Daisuke Matsuzaka (twice), Aaron Cook, Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett have all spent time on the disabled list.

Despite their depleted roster, amongst all Major League teams, the Red Sox are sixth in batting, fifth in OPS, fourth in slugging, third in hits, third in total bases, second in runs and first in extra-base hits.

Clearly, offense is not the Red Sox problem. The returns of Ellsbury and Crawford will hardly make a difference.

From the very beginning, starting pitching has been this team's Achilles' heel.

Red Sox starters have a 4.81 ERA, third worst in the American League. And Sox starters also have a 1.38 WHIP (walks, plus hits, per nine innings), the fourth worst in the AL.

The Red Sox were counting on big time performances from the trio of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz this season. What they've gotten instead are big time busts.

Lester has 5-6 record to go along with a 4.49 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. That's simply unacceptable. But what are the Sox to do? How valuable is he right now? Does anyone truly believe that other teams will be beating down the Red Sox door to obtain Lester after his September collapse and total failure this season?

Lester has now established a long trend of incompetence going back to last season and it has really hurt his value to the Red Sox — whether he stays with them, or if they seek to trade him.

Beckett is 4-7 with a 4.43 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP. He us under contract for $15.75 million per season through 2014 and as a 10/5 player (10 years in the majors, five with his current team) can veto any trade. If the Sox are successful in any attempts to deal Beckett, they will be paying a substantial portion of his salary to pitch for another team, perhaps even against themselves. This has to be terribly frustrating to the Sox front office.

Buchholz leads the Sox in wins, but his 8-2 record is misleading. HIs run support average of 9.96 is the second best in the majors, after his teammate Felix Doubront (10.59). And Buchholz has a miserable 5.53 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. On another team, he might not have a win this season.

For his part, Doubront has been a pleasant surprise this year. Though his 9-4 record is the product of that aforementioned MLB-best run support, Doubront has fanned 97 batters in just 96 innings this season. That's a strikeout ratio of 9.09, 10th best in the majors.

However, the other side of the coin is Doubront's 4.41 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. And then there's the question of durability and stamina.

After missing almost all of last year, how much does Doubront have left in the tank for the second half? As it stands, Doubront averages just 5.65 innings per start, putting pressure on the bullpen.

Doubront pitched a career-high 129.1 innings back in 2008, which was five seasons ago. Between the majors and minors, Doubront threw 105 innings in 2010 and just 87.2 last year. Against that backdrop, Sox executives clearly have to be asking how much further he can go.

As good as some of their recent starts have been, can the Red Sox really stake their season on the likes of Aaron Cook and Franklin Morales? Not likely.

The reality is that the Red Sox cannot be a contender without an ace, and they will be hard pressed to acquire one before the deadline. Considering their swings and misses in the free agent market in recent years, will the Sox get in on the bidding for Cole Hammels? It will cost them dearly in terms of prospects, and then there will be a massive long term contract obligation as well.

While Red Sox fans would love to see the club purge itself of all its overpaid, underachievers, those are exactly the types of players that other GMs aren't looking to acquire at the deadline. Every team has scouts and a player's stats are public knowledge. There isn't a team in baseball that thinks that Lester, Beckett or Buchholz will be their difference-maker in the second half. The same goes for Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.

Fans may be eager to trade players like Ryan Sweeney and Scott Podsednik for a pitcher, but both have limited value. Even Jacoby Ellsbury's value has fallen at this point.

Ben Cherington may get creative and offer a package of players in return for a front line starting pitcher the Sox can control for the long term. But it will likely cost them some combination of major league talent like Lester, Ellsbuury and Cody Ross, plus prized prospects such as Ryan Lavarnway, Xander Bogaerts, Anthony Ranuado and Matt Barnes.

However, if management is of the same view as many of us — i.e., this season is lost, cannot be salvaged and is merely another bridge year to younger, homegrown talent that can meaningfully contribute down the line — we will likely watch the Sox continue to tread water and disappoint their fan base in the second half.

The Red Sox have spent the better part of the past decade building a winning brand in Boston and their fans have come to expect excellence. Given the high ticket prices and player salaries, is it any wonder?

However, the Red Sox have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons and have not won a playoff game since 2008. Unfortunately, those marks of futility are likely to be extended again this year.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Red Sox Rolled the Dice on Matsuzaka and Came Up Short

So much was expected of Daisuke Matsuzaka when he arrived in Boston that perhaps he was destined to disappoint. But no one ever expected this level of futility.

After all, Dice-K was a six-time All Star in Japan and was crowned the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. He also led his league in strikeouts four times, wins three times and ERA twice.

That pedigree led the Red Sox to bid $51,111,111.11 just for the right to buy Matsuzaka out of his Japanese contract and to attempt to sign him to a major league deal. The enormous figure — two to three times the Lions' payroll — shocked the baseball world, from Japan to the U.S.

The Sox then spent an additional $52 million to sign the Japanese righty to a six-year contract. The deal was negotiated on Red Sox owner John Henry's private plane en route from Southern California to Boston. As a sign of the Dice-K mania to come, the flight was followed by both the Boston and the Japanese media.

Matsuzaka arrived in Boston like rock star. He had his own entourage, including a massage therapist, physical therapist, interpreter and personal assistant. He also had an enormous flock of Japanese media that followed him wherever he went in his first spring training, as well as at every game that season.

Matsuzaka was said to possess up to seven pitches, including the infamous "gyro-ball". It appeared he had the stuff to be an ace, and he had certainly cultivated that pedigree in international competition.

But his tenure in Boston hasn't gone anything like Red Sox executives or fans had hoped.

In 2007, his first year with the Sox, Dice-K was a bit of a mixed bag, going 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP. Matsuzaka allowed 8.4 hits and 3.5 walks per nine innings. Those numbers were signs of what was to come in subsequent years.

The upside was that Matsuzaka made 32 starts in 2007, threw 204.1 innings and struck out 201 batters.

Clearly, wins and losses are team stats. But given the fact that Matsuzaka had an advantage over hitters who were seeing him for the first time that season, losing 12 games was a surprise. That said, the greater concerns were his high ERA and WHIP.

However, Dice-K helped the Red Sox win the World Series that season. He was expected to improve as he acclimated to life in the Major Leagues and the U.S.

All was well... we thought.

In 2008, Dice-K had by far his best year with the Red Sox, going 18-3 with a 2,90 ERA. But those numbers, while impressive, overshadowed some more troubling stats. For example, Matsuzaka made just 29 starts and threw only 167.2 innings. The latter was a byproduct of the righty's typically short outings.

Matsuzaka's innings per start dropped from 6.4 in 2007 to just 5.8 in 2008. He was undermined by high pitch counts and a lack of command that led to 94 walks, fourth highest in the Majors.

The striking reality lurking beneath the flashy 18 wins was this: Dice-K threw the fewest innings of any pitcher to have ever won at least 18 games in the history of baseball.

The following year, a pattern of injuries began to set in, which became a recurring theme over the remaining four years of Matsuzaka's Red Sox contract. He made just 12 starts in 2009; 25 in 2010; eight in 2011 and just five this season.

Over the last four seasons (2009 - 2012), Matsuzaka is 16-18 with a 5.17 ERA, a 1.49 WHIP, a 1.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and zero complete games. This is the guy that was supposed to be an ace, a Japanese wizard of pitching. Go figure.

Matsuzaka never seemed to trust himself or his defense. He wouldn't challenge hitters and attack the strike zone. Instead, he nibbled at the corners and threw too many pitches to each batter. All too frequently, he succumbed to high pitch counts early in games, often by the fifth inning.

For their $103 million investment, the Red Sox got a total of 49 wins over six seasons; an average of 8 wins per season. In six years, Dice-K gave the Red Sox exactly one complete game.

Matsuzaka was never worth all that money, or all the hype that accompanied his arrival in Boston.

Dice-K went on the disabled list once in 2008 (tired shoulder), twice in 2009 (weakness in his throwing arm) and then missed most of 2011 and 2012 due to Tommy John surgery.

Now he is back on the DL yet again — for the eighth time in his six-year carer — with an injury to his trapezeus muscle.

It is possible, though not certain, that we have seen the last of Daisuke Matsuzaka in a Red Sox uniform. Most Sox fans can only hope. However, in the second half of the season, the Sox will likely need pitching depth.

Lefty Felix Doubront threw a total of 87.2 innings last season and is already up to 89.2 this year. Clay Buchholz threw just 82.2 innings last year and is already up to 86.1 this season. Franklin Morales started the season in the bullpen and has made three starts. The last time he made more starts in the majors was in 2008, when he made five.

The point is, the Sox may well need Dice-K again at some point this season.

And that is a very scary prospect.