Friday, July 13, 2012

Red Sox Offense First Half Review

A year ago today, with the All-Star Game playing out on television in the background, I reviewed Boston's bats in my first post ever.  What a difference one year makes.  In 2011 the Red Sox pulled into the break after sweeping the Orioles at Fenway with a 55-35 record, 20 games over .500 but a mere one game in front of the second place Yankees.  They'd just won ten of their past eleven games, owned the best record in the American League and had their eye on 100 wins.  But as summer gave way to September, they started to slideThen, well, they blew it.  And everything changed.  Theo Epstein, Terry Francona, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek, mainstays with the team for years, all retired or moved on.  I guess you could say they jumped off a sinking ship.

Fast forward a year, and after a rollercoaster but ultimately disappointing first half the Old Towne Team sits at 43-43, in a flat-footed tie with Toronto for last place in the American League East, 9.5 games out of first behind their archrivals. Everybody's hurt, nobody cares, and the clubhouse feels toxic.  The city's turning on them; Fenway is still sold out every night, but rarely are all the seats actually filled.  These underachievers have treaded water for three months but have sputtered lately, dropping six of their last seven after Oakland swept them and the Yankees came to town and took three of four.  And it's not going to get any easier; check out this brutal schedule, a grueling three week midsummer stretch starting tomorrow night when they kick off the second half with a three game series at the Trop:
3 games @ Tampa Bay, then they return home for a
4 game set with the first place Chicago White Sox and
3 games against Toronto.  Then it's the most challenging road trip of the year with
3 games @ Texas, the best baseball team in the land, followed by
3 games @ New York to play the Yankees, and to cap it off
3 games against the Tigers at home

Now that seems especially cruel.  If we're somehow over .500 after surviving that run through the gauntlet, it will be a Bobby Valentine miracle.

But enough gloom and doom.  I want to talk about Boston's offense which, as always, has been quite good.  Good enough to keep this team competitive against all odds.  Given that Ellsbury and Crawford have played a combined seven games, that Gonzalez couldn't hit the ball out of Little League field, that Pedroia got hurt and went AWOL for a month, that Youk was a shell of his former self, that Bobby V has used about a bajillion outfielders and a gazillion different lineups, it defies belief that the vaunted Red Sox lineup has somehow kept churning out runs.  So many cogs are broken or missing, and yet the machine still runs smoothyl.  Boston's walking wounded ranks first in the AL in doubles, second in runs and hits, and third in batting average, slugging, OPS, and total bases.  They can still score in bunches; twelve times they've hung at least ten runs on the board, exactly the same number at this time last year.  But unlike last year, instead of getting better throughout the season they've gotten worse, with their OPS falling from .811 in April to .775 in May, .754 in June and just .687 thus far in July.  Perhaps all the injuries are finally taking their toll, so thankfully Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury are coming back at the right time.

More about the speedy duo later.

C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.235/.285/.513)
Back in April if somebody told you Salty would have more home runs at the All-Star Break than Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, and pre-trade Kevin Youkilis combined, you probably would have raised a skeptical eyebrow and retorted something sarcastic like "Yeah, and the Phillies will be in last place, right?" And yet, Salty's 17 bombs (tops among big league catchers and already a career high) and .278 ISO are second on the team behind Big Papi's 22 big flies and .295 ISO.  The big 27 year-old catcher, in the same mold as Joe Mauer and Matt Wieters, seems to finally be having the breakout season scouts projected for him when he was a first round draft pick and later a prized prospect in Atlanta's farm system.  But, and you knew there was a "but" coming, outside of his improved power stroke he hasn't made strides in any other aspect of hitting.  His plate discipline is still atrocious; he whiffed five times for every walk last year and is fanning 4.5 times per free pass this season.  His ugly batting average is identical to last season's paltry mark, and his pitiful OBP is three percentage points lower.  Additionally his defense leaves a lot to be desired; he led the league in passed balls last year, is second in errors this year and has allowed more stolen bases than any other AL receiver.  As a power hitting backstop that's also a liability in the on-base department and won't win a Gold Glove any time soon, he's essentially a rich man's J.P. Arencibia.  On the plus side, no longer splits time with a washed-up Jason Varitek and has proved he can withstand the rigors of catching five days a week.  The uptick in playing time has helped him grow comfortable with the pitching staff and stay more consistent at the plate this year, but since he's already two-thirds of the way to his career high of 103 games played his workload bears monitoring.  He may be in danger of wearing down during the dog days of August, and I can't imagine that he'll blast more than 30 home runs this season (he's currently on pace for 32).

1B Adrian Gonzalez (.283/.329/.416)
Gonzalez enjoyed a terrific debut with the Sox last year, looking like a serious MVP candidate for most of the summer and putting together what may have been his finest all-around season.  A full year removed from offseason shoulder surgery, Gonzo seemed poised for even bigger things in his encore campaign.  After all, my preseason MVP favorite claimed to be fully healthy and said he could drive through the ball again, leading Red Sox Nation to believe that he could perhaps hit with even more power in 2012.  Instead, the opposite has happened.  He managed to go yard just six times in a disappointing first half and watched his ISO nosedive to .133, the worst mark of his career.  The scary thing is, this power outage has been going on for a full year now.  Dating back to last season's All-Star Break (or home run derby, if you believe it harms a player's swing) A-Gone has left the building just 16 times.  That's quite alarming for somebody who averaged twice as many long balls per year from 2006-'10 despite playing half his games in Petco.  Health doesn't seem to be the issue, as he's the only Red Sox positon player to appear in all 86 games.  He's only 30 years old, so age isn't a concern.  Everything in his batted ball data checks out, except for his anemic 6.1 HR/FB% (ten percent below his career rate) that has nowhere to go but up from here on out.  So what gives?  His plate discipline has completely abandoned him since his arrival in Boston.  His walk rate has plunged from 13.4 percent in 2010, his last year with the Padres, to 6.2 percent this year, his worst mark since his humble beginnings with Texas.  It makes sense that he's walking less often in Boston, where he's surrounded by talented hitters and not getting pitched around as he was with San Diego.  But 6.2 percent is horrible for a hitter of Gonzalez's stature.  It reflects a more aggressive, less selective approach at the plate that seems to be steering him off course.  More than a third of his swings have been at pitches outside the strike zone, and the problem is that he's making contact too frequently on these hacks. He used to swing at balls a quarter of the time, but would miss them almost half the time. Now he's going fishing more often and making contact on those offerings more than three quarters of the time. That bad combination leads to weaker contact, and more of it, explaining why he's not driving the ball with as much authority this season.  But he's one of those players who's simply too good to not figure it out, and in fairness it's not like he's been totally useless, either.  He leads the league with 27 doubles, just rattled off an encouraging 18 game hitting streak, and brings Gold Glove caliber defense to the table every night.  He's been a beast with runners in scoring position too, batting .372/.406/.570.  I still like his chances for a big second half--Michael Bourn can't keep outhomering for much longer--and see him finishing the season with something close to a .290-20-100 line.  For $21 million, that's the least he could do.  But it goes without saying that he needs to step it up after the break if Boston's going to have any chance of playing in October.   He exited Sunday night's game against the Yankees with an undisclosed illness, so hopefully the four days off gave him enough time to recover.

2B Dustin Pedroia (.266/.326/.400)
The first third of the season was business as usual for the Laser Show, on pace for his typically stellar numbers and batting close to .300.  But on May 28th he sprained his right thumb fielding a grounder against the Tigers, and instead of taking a couple weeks off to let it heal he valiantly played through it.  Pedroia, always a gamer, desperately wanted to avoid a DL stint.  He sat out for a week and immediately rushed back into game action, but the injury affected his swing and clearly hampered him at the plate.  He endured a horrible June slump, batting just .194/.269/.269 for the month with no home runs. Then, just as he seemed to be breaking out of his funk during a west coast swing, he got jammed re-aggravated the injury and was forced to the Disabled List, leaving the Red Sox without his services as they try to kick it into gear after the All-Star Break.  If he had just played it safe and sat out an extra week in early June, maybe none of this would have happened.  Maybe his thumb would have already healed by now.  Maybe he would have hit better after coming back, and I doubt he'd be sitting on the shelf for the rest of the month.  Sure, Pedro Ciriaco hit well against the Yankees, and hopefully he can hold the line while Pedroia's on the mend, but that's a chance the Red Sox shouldn't have had to take.  He's out of his cast and took batting practice today, so the team is hopeful he can return from the hyperextended thumb when he's activated on the 19th.

3B Will Middlebrooks (.298/.335/.538)
The 23 year-old rookie went from the team's best prospect (Baseball America) to the guy who pushed Kevin Youkilis, the second longest tenured member of the team, out of town with a historic start to his big league career.  Called up at the beginning of May to replace Youk (on the DL with a back injury), Middlebrooks came out swinging and hasn't stopped.  If you project his current numbers over 162 games, he'd have 37 doubles, 34 home runs, 125 RBI and 311 total bases.  Those are David Wright in-his-prime numbers.  He's so good that Valentine made Gonzalez play right field for awhile and shifted Youkilis across the diamond just Middlebrooks could stay in the lineup.  With the new kid on the block streaking and the curmudgeony veteran slumping, General Manager Ben Cherington showed Youkilis the door.  The day after the "Greek God of Walks" was shipped to the Windy City, Middlebrooks was named AL Player of the Week.  Like his predecessor, Middlebrooks has a knack for coming through with men on base, as evidenced by his monstrous .352/.377/.648 numbers with runners in scoring position.  But like all young players, he has his flaws. He strikes out in nearly a quarter of his at-bats, and his 44/9 K/BB rate ain't pretty.  His defense at the hot corner is subparbar, and his bat was already starting to cool off before he missed the week of games leading up to the Break with a sore left hammy.  He could return as soon as tomorrow night, but don't be surprised if he looks a little rusty.  Meanwhile, Youkilis has taken off since joining the White Sox, but after seeing Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick explode you knew that was going to happen. 

SS Mike Aviles (.260/.283/.410)
Theo's last good trade brought Aviles to town from Kansas City for next to nothing.  With shortstop already manned by Lowrie and Marco Scutaro, Terry Francona used his new super-utility player everywhere, especially at third with Kevin Youkilis out.  Aviles performed well in his new digs, batting a rock solid .317 for Boston down the stretch.  With Lowrie and Scutaro out of the picture after both were traded away to the National League this past winter, Aviles settled in as the everyday shortstop.  The general consensus here in Boston seems to be that he's done a bang-up job, that he's been productive with the stick and played good defense, but the truth is that outside of his blazing hot three week start to the season, he's been worse than Julio Lugo at the plate.  Since April 27th he's batted .243/.262/.363 with a 39/8 K/BB rate.  Valentine had him batting leadoff pretty consistently until the end of May, a huge mistake given that his OBP was hovering around .300 at the time, and has since dropped him to the bottom of the order.  I like Aviles there a) because he's been the most productive there and b) because he's still more formidable than most eight or nine hitters.  He has decent pop, drives in runs because he hits very well with runners in scoring position (.329/.346/.548) and can steal a bag if you need him to get something going for the top of the order.  He's never played more than 110 games in a major league season before, so it will be interesting to see how he holds up over the rest of the summer.

The Outfield
Normally I'd divide this up into left, center and right, but the outfield's been such a mess this year.  The injury bug has eaten the Red Sox alive for three consecutive years now, but this season the outfield has been wiped out, decimated like the British cavalry in War Horse charging the German machine guns.  With this patchwork outfield there are some nights I swear I don't recognize anybody out there.

Daniel Nava (.275/.388/.427)
I think he's the baseball equivalent of Rudy Ruettiger because while he has all the character, effort, pride, etc. you could ask for, he ultimately falls short on talent.  If you're like me, you probably still remember the grand slam Nava hit at Fenway in his first major league at-bat two years ago.  It was a special moment for a player who had persevered through so much adversity (like Rudy's sack), one of the few highlights from an otherwise forgotten season in which Boston failed to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.  What you probably don't remember is that Nava came up to bat 187 more times in 2010, and not once did he knock one over the fences.  He was a nice story for a few minites but, to put it bluntly, he stunk.  It's no surprise he was DFA'ed last year, and I can't say I'm shocked nobody claimed him.  Who would want an outfielder in his late 20s with minimal big league experience and no pop in his bat?  He didn't play a single inning in the bigs last year.  The Sox didn't even bother to invite him to spring training this season, but when they needed a spark/live body who could play outfield in May, who did they call?  The miracle worker.  Since being recalled on May 10th he's done everything you could have asked from him and more, namely get on base a lot and play a capable left field.  His season trajectory has been a mirror image of Will Middlebrooks' year; both were called up in May, peaked early, settled down in June and have cooled off lately. Valentine switched him and Aviles in the lineup to take advantage of Nava's on-base skills, and sure enough his OBP plummeted 60 points in those six weeks.  Ellsbury will bat leadoff tomorrow, and Nava will ride the pine, but it was fun while it lasted.  For the time being at least he's earned a spot on the big league roster.  His teammates could learn a thing or two about heart and hard work from him.

Ryan Sweeney (.283/.319/.400)
I think I'd rather have J.D. Drew than a guy who hasn't trotted around the bases since July 27th, 2011.  So, yeah, feel free to take a pitcher deep any day now.  Hell, why not wait two weeks and do it on the 27th?  Make an anniversary out of it.  Not quite Fenway's 100 year celebration, but do something to commemorate it.  Maybe run around the bases backwards, like Jimmy Piersall when he socked his 100th career homer.  Write a song called "Sweeney Caroline."  But Jesus, just hit one already! All jokes aside, Sweeney has performed just as expected; mediocre.  I'll admit I was surprised as anyone when he busted out of the gates with a red-hot start that produced a .368/.398/.540 line with 13 doubles by early May. But then he remembered that he was Ryan Sweeney, and the wheels fell off.  Since May 8th, he's batting just .204/.245/.269, walking less and striking out more than ever before.  And did I mention he still hasn't hit a home run?  Who does he think he is, Juan Pierre?  I'd prefer to see Valentine just scrap the platoon idea, lefty-righty splits be damned, and give the more deserving Ross all of Sweeney's at-bats, but I'm guessing rightfield will just become a revolving door to keep all these outfielders satisfied.

Cody Ross (.264/.345//537)
Cherington scooped Ross out of the free agent bargain bin for a one year, three million dollar deal as a cheap replacement option for J.D. Drew in rightfield. The former postseason hero with San Francisco has been a revelation in Beantown, exceeding every expectation by playing some of his best baseball since his heyday with the Marlins a few years ago.  He's hit some majestic shots over the Green Monster, towering home runs that sailed over the seats and looked like they might never come down.  Originally projected to platoon with the light-hitting Sweeney, Ross has instead spent a good chunk of the season playing left in lieu of an injured Carl Crawford.  His ability to handle all three outfield positions has been a godsend for Valentine, who's been forced to reshuffle his depth chart all season long.  Ross skidded into the Break with just one hit--a home run--in his previous 20 at-bats and his days of regular playing time are numbered.  He's always mashed southpaws throughout his career, and this year has been no different; his OPS against lefties is a whopping 455 points higher than it is against righthanded pitchers.  This makes him more well-suited to a reserve/platoon role, much like an Andruw Jones, so his PT should decrease when Ellsbury returns.  He'll still be a valuable piece and will be waiting in the wings should Ellsbury get hurt again.  Speaking of Tacoby Bellsbury...

Jacoby Ellsbury (.192/.300/.269)
Does the 2011 AL Comeback Player of the Year have another big comeback left in him?  He hasn't played since April 13th.  Missed all but seven games with a subluxed right shoulder, which is a fancy way of saying he dislocated it.  Is set to bat leadoff in his return tomorrow.  I'm not expecting him to be anything close to what he was last year, when he finished runner-up in the MVP race to Justin Verlander, but he should give this team a much needed boost.  As long he stays healthy I'm going to peg him for 45 runs, seven homers, a batting average in the .280 range and  18 steals.  I'd take that; wouldn't you?

Carl Crawford (+)
Has yet to make an appearance in 2012.  His recovery from his initial wrist injury suffered multiple setbacks when he also hurt his elbow and his groin.  He's been the definition of a walking medical bill this season, but is slated to return on Monday.  I don't know what to expect out of him.  Prior to the season I liked him as a bounceback candidate, and the hopeful part of me still wants to believe he will hit like the Crawford of old.  The other part of me, the more logical side, thinks he's going to do even worse than last year.  I'll go conservative and predict 30 runs, four home runs, a .250 average and 12 steals, but obviously his ceiling is much higher. Anything he can provide will be a plus.

DH David Ortiz (.312/.406/.607)
Saved the best for last.  Boston's lone All-Star representative's late career renaissance continues as his career follows a similar path to Paul Konerko's.  Left for dead as recently as April, 2010, Ortiz has rebounded and continued to produce at an elite level in spite of the uncertainty surrounding his next contract and his expressed disenchantment with the organization  His most encouraging trends from last year--cutting down on his strikeouts and increased success against lefties--have continued in 2012.  The 36 year-old's whiff rate, at just thirteen percent, is the lowest of his 16 year career, and his slugging percentage against southpaws is the same as it is against righthanders.  He's not afraid to go the other way and use the Wall, an approach he seemed to get away from during his down years. It also helps that he's in the best shape of his life.  This past winter he committed to eating healthier, and as a result shed around 25 pounds.  Noticably trimmer and fitter, Ortiz looks faster on the basepaths and has more room to turn on the inside pitch.  Every chance he tells the media how great he feels.  He's playing great too, as he's been far and away the best, most consistent hitter and leading MVP candidate of the 2012 Boston Red Sox.  You could make a case that, other than Josh Hamilton, he's been the best hitter in the entire American League this year.  He's well on his way to passing the 30 home runs and 100 RBI/runs benchmarks while maintaining triple slash numbers reminiscent of his prime years, back when he and Manny Ramirez terrorized American League pitching.  He just launched his 400th home run, and is making a run at Edgar Martinez for best Designated Hitter of all-time.  Over the past ten years among DH's, there's Big Papi, and then there's everybody else. 

The other guys
Despite being tapped out with all these injuries, the bench hasn't been too bad.  When Kelly Shoppach (.885 OPS) gives Salty a breather (usually against lefties) there's no drop-off in production.  Nick Punto has been all glove but no stick, as expected.  A resurgent Scott Podsednik was hitting well before he too was injured.  Thanks for nothing, Marlon Byrd.  Miss Darnell McDonald's dreads.

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