Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Rays' Resilience

Archer and co. have pitched the Rays into contention (ISportsWeb)
Before Opening Day, the Red Sox and Blue Jays were the two teams most favored to win the AL East. Nobody gave the Rays, who finished 2014 with a losing record and recently lost Ben Zobrist, David Price, and the best manager in baseball (Joe Maddon) much of a chance. While their pitching looked great, their offense, or severe lack thereof, appeared to be a fatal shortcoming, and nobody knew what to expect from rookie skipper Kevin Cash. For the first time since becoming a powerhouse in 2008, people were picking them to finish last in their division.

Now, nearly halfway through the season, they are tops in the AL East. This isn't merely a recent development, as they've been in first or second place every day since April 24th. Until this week they were red-hot, too, having completed a torrid three-week stretch in which they went 15-5.

With each win and every day atop the standings, Tampa Bay continues to defy the pundits who forecast mediocrity for them in 2015. They've fashioned the third-best record (42-34) in the American League despite scoring just 18 more runs than they've allowed, a run differential that suggests their talent is closer to that of a .500 team than a division leader. Their record also equals that of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team with the highest payroll in baseball at approximately $275 million--or $200 million more than the 28th-ranked Rays are spending this season.

This is nothing new, as Tampa Bay has been assembling terrific teams without much cash or offensive firepower for years now. Their budgetary constraints and pitching-friendly ballpark have prevented them from building the type of potent, star-studded lineups found elsewhere in their division, and this year is no different in that regard. The Rays rank third-to-last in the American League in runs scored, which corresponds to their bottom-five rank in doubles, average, slugging, and OPS.

Their best hitter and franchise cornerstone, Evan Longoria, is mired in another disappointing season, and because of injuries to James Loney and Desmond Jennings he's not had much help. Were it not for the unexpected production of Steve Souza (a team-high 14 home runs), Logan Forsythe (.835 OPS) and Joey Butler (.845 OPS), the Rays would undoubtedly rank last in scoring. Tampa Bay has compensated for its deficiencies at the dish with aggressive baserunning and sound defense, as the Rays rank second among AL teams in stolen bases and fielding percentage.

Tampa Bay's real strength, as expected, has been their pitching, which boasts the lowest ERA in the Junior Circuit. This comes as something of a surprise given that two of their best starters, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, haven't thrown a pitch for them in 2015. Cobb, who underwent Tommy John surgery in May, won't be coming back (neither will Drew Smyly, who managed just three starts before needing shoulder surgery). but Moore, who had the same procedure last year, is due back this week. An All-Star and Cy Young candidate the last time he was fully healthy, Moore figures to bolster what has been the second-stingiest rotation to date.

In their absence, Chris Archer has emerged a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He currently leads the American League in ERA (2.01), WHIP (0.95), and ERA+ (194). The 26 year-old has taken the leap after a pair of good but hardly-great seasons, displaying improved command (trimming a full batter off his career walk rate) and harnessing his elite strikeout potential (10.7 K/9) in his third full season. Jake Odorizzi was also in the midst of a breakout season (2.47 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) before landing on the disabled list with a strained oblique. The Rays are eagerly awaiting his return, which should be soon.

The rotation's true X factor has been Nate Karns, who had all of five big league starts under his belt prior to this season. Thrust into the rotation because of injuries, he's already tripled that number this year. More important than the quantity of his innings has been the quality, which has been better than anyone could have expected: his 3.28 ERA is nearly half of what his career mark was coming into the season.

Tampa's shutdown bullpen has been every bit as impressive, with its top five relievers in terms of appearances all flashing sub-three ERAs. A sixth, Jake McGee, has been stellar since making his way back from offseason elbow surgery, re-asserting himself as the team's top fireman with a 1.69 ERA and absurd 24/1 K/BB ratio. The former closer has been invaluable as the setup man for Brad Boxberger, who had just three saves to his name coming into the year but has already racked up 20. Thus, on the rare occasions when Rays starters struggle, their formidable bullpen is capable of stopping the bleeding and giving Tampa's offense a chance to climb back into the game.

So with Loney, Moore, Odorizzi, and John Jaso due back in the coming weeks, the Rays should enjoy a considerable boost from their midseason reinforcements. Odorizzi and Moore will make a great rotation even better, while Jaso and Loney should provide offensive upgrades over their placeholders (Rene Rivera, Jake Elmore) behind the plate and at first base. So although there are three teams within two games of Tampa Bay, it's possible the Rays won't need to add much at the trade deadline.

It's also possible that, as well as the Rays have played thus far, their best is yet to come.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Boston's Former Cardinals Crash and Burn

Joe Kelly will try to figure it out in the minors (Yahoo Sports)
With Joe Kelly's demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket today, the Red Sox have officially lost last summer's trade with the St. Louis Cardinals--the one that sent John Lackey packing to St. Louis in return for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig, neither of whom are currently on the big league roster..

In fact, I think it might be the worst trade Ben Cherington has ever made. Kelly and Craig have both been massive busts in Boston, while Lackey has continued to be an effective starter for the Cards. Kelly has not developed into a viable starting pitcher, much less the Cy Young winner he predicted he'd be. With a 5.67 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, he's been one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball this year. At this point, his best bet is to take his heater to the bullpen, where he may enjoy a renaissance a la Andrew Miller.

As for Craig, he has yet to rediscover the stroke that made him a .300 hitter and one of the league's best RBI men. Not even Fenway Park could help restore the former All-Star's bat, as he's hit a meager .130/.235/.192 since joining the Red Sox. His age, injury history, non-existent production, and costly price tag (he'll earn $11 million next year) makes him all but untradeable.

Meanwhile, Lackey has continued to thrive in St. Louis. He faded down the stretch last year but has bounced back strong this year, posting a 3.41 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 3.14 K/BB ratio. He's been one of the most reliable starters for the first-place Cardinals, leading the staff in innings pitched and helping pick up the slack in Adam Wainwright's absence. Even at 36, he shows no signs of slowing down.

At the time, trading a veteran starter in his mid-30s for a hard-throwing hurler in his mid-20s made plenty of sense, but taking on Craig's costly contract and expecting him to bounce back proved to be too much of a gamble. Boston really could have used Lackey in its rotation this year, and had absolutely no need for Craig given its already-crowded outfield situation when he arrived. Now it looks like the Sox are stuck with him, unless they can convince somebody that regular playing time will rejuvenate the soon-to-be 31 year-old's bat.

I still think Kelly has a future as a shut-down reliever, but that's not as valuable as a reliable starting pitcher, especially given the struggles of Boston's rotation this year. This trade is just one of many reasons why the Red Sox have underperformed this year, but it's now clear that they'd be better off had Cherington never done this deal.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sox Should Stick Kelly in Pen

Kelly's overstayed his welcome in Boston's starting rotation (Fox Sports)
How many beatings does poor Joe Kelly have to take before the Red Sox realize he is, in fact, not cut out to be a major league starting pitcher. How long before they realize what the rest of the baseball world has known all along; that his live-wire arm is better suited for the bullpen than the rotation?

Because right now, at least, it's obvious that Kelly has no place in John Farrell's stable. He was roughed up last night, surrendering eight hits and five runs as he failed to make it through the fourth. The beating inflated his ERA to 5.67--fifth-worst in the majors among qualified starting pitchers--while his WHIP ballooned to 1.50 (eighth-worst).

After a promising April in which Kelly averaged over a strikeout per inning and managed a 3.5 K/BB ratio, he's reverted into the mediocre starting pitcher he was prior to this year. Since May 1st, Kelly has made 10 starts, of which the Red Sox have won only two. His earned runs have exceeded his strikeouts during that stretch, a period in which he's struck out more than three batters in a start twice. Meanwhile, his K/BB ratio has been an ugly 32/23.

Expand the sample size a little further--to include his last dozen starts--and the numbers look even worse. He has a 6.39 ERA over that span, getting raked to the tune of an .813 OPS. For every decent start Kelly makes, he has a clunker like last night's, failing to display the consistency one would hope to see from a major league starter.

With their season already doomed, the Red Sox appear to be sticking with Kelly for two reasons. One is a clear lack of superior alternatives. The other is Kelly's tantalizing velocity, which thus far has produced the fourth-highest average fastball speed among starters. When a pitcher throws that hard and is able to sustain it throughout the course of a start (Kelly was still throwing darts when Farrell yanked him yesterday), it's hard not to be seduced by the possibility that he'll blossom into the next Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer.

Therein lies the problem. Kelly's struggles have nothing to do with velocity but everything to do with how he attacks hitters. He's the epitome of a "thrower," lacking the command and secondary pitches needed to make his heat effective. Kelly knows this, as his curveball and slider have both been mediocre pitches, which causes him to rely on his gas. But with over 70 percent of his pitches coming in as fastballs, he's not fooling anybody. Batters are looking dead-red and punishing him for it.

Anyone can come out and blow away three batters in an inning, but it takes a tactician to survive several trips through a major league lineup. Everyone can hit the fastball, otherwise they wouldn't be in the Show. Navigating your way through a batting order is less about velocity and more about location, deception, and pitch-sequencing. How do you think Mark Buehrle won over 200 games, or Tim Wakefield lasted nearly two decades?

At 27 Kelly still has time to figure it out. Maybe like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling he will be a late-bloomer. With their season sunk, the Red Sox can afford to give him more time this year. But what about next year, when they'll be trying to contend? Boston, and Kelly, won't have that same luxury.

Another way Boston could try to salvage this situation would be to put him in the bullpen and hope for the best. If he thrives there like Andrew Miller did, then they'll have a nice bargaining chip at the trade deadline. If he struggles, then he can rejoin the rotation and try his hand at starting again. Either way, it seems clear that a change is in the best interests of both parties. Kelly can't continue to be pounded like this. He could really use some relief.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Red Sox Rout Royals

Ramirez kicked off the scoring with his second inning solo shot (Boston Herald)
In the midst of a season where everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, the last-place Red Sox enjoyed a day where everything went right.

Boston authored its most dominant victory of the season yesterday, bludgeoning the Kansas City Royals 13-2. The 13 runs marked a season high for the Sox, who lost the only other time they scored in double digits this season. It was also the team's largest margin of victory this year, surpassing their 8-0 pasting of the moribund Philadelphia Phillies back on Opening Day.

A season that began with so much hope and promise has quickly deteriorated into a nightmare. In between those two routs the Red Sox were abysmal, going 29-40 and getting outscored by 64 runs. There is no quick fix, as their pitching, hitting, baserunning, and defense have all been horrendous. Frustration seems to be setting in, first manifesting itself in the form of Wade Miley's outburst in Baltimore, then again on Saturday with David Ortiz's ejection.

But on Father's Day, at least, all was right in Red Sox Nation. Boston didn't just beat the best team in the American League (on the road, no less); they clobbered them. The bats, mysteriously quiet for much of the spring, came alive on the first day of summer to pound out 16 hits, all but three of which went for extra bases. Miley continued to redeem himself in the aftermath of his blow-up with six shutout innings, lowering his ERA to 4.50 after his second straight strong outing.

It has to be a great feeling as the Red Sox return home for a three-game set with the O's, having just won their first series in two weeks. Mookie Betts, back in the leadoff spot, scored three times and was a single shy of the cycle in extending his hitting streak to nine games. Brock Holt, who cycled on Tuesday, bolstered his line with a triple and two doubles. Dustin Pedroia also had a trio of hits including two doubles, shaking off the knee soreness that caused him two miss two games earlier in the week and snapping a stretch of 12 hitless at-bats.

Ortiz, still smoldering from Saturday's ejection, belted a towering home run over the right field bullpen. The blast--Papi's fourth in the past 11 days--was also the 476th of his career, breaking a tie with Stan Musial and Willie Stargell for 30th on the all-time list. Hanley Ramirez hit a monster home run of his own, crushing his team-leading 15th of the year over the left field bullpen for the game's first run. Xander Bogaerts continued to impress at the plate with three doubles and a game-high three RBI.

Miley, meanwhile, allowed eight Royals to reach base in his six innings but none to score--impressive given that he notched just two strikeouts. It helped that the Boston defense behind him did not commit any errors.

This is exactly the kind of game Ben Cherington must have envisioned when he brought in Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval over the winter, assembling what at the time was widely thought to be the best offense in baseball. The Red Sox were supposedly returning to the formula that helped them win it all in 2013, building a deep lineup that could blow teams out of the water on any given night. It hasn't panned out that way, but perhaps with the weather warming and several Sox hitters coming around, the team's frustrated fans may finally get to see what Boston's bats are capable of.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Doerr Defying Age

Doerr was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1986 (Boston Baseball History)
Having survived 97 years and 72 days, Bobby Doerr is officially the longest-living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He just passed former catcher and manager Al Lopez, who passed away on October 30th, 2005. Doerr, the oldest living former Red Sox, is also the only living person to have played a major league baseball game during the 1930s.

Pretty cool.

Doerr debuted on Opening Day 1937, not even two weeks past his 19th birthday. Under owner Tom Yawkey and player manager Joe Cronin, Boston was slowly returning to respectability after nearly two decades in the American League cellar. Doerr joined an infield with future Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx at first and Cronin at short, plus All-Star Pinky Higgins at third. The outfield featured perennial All-Stars and .300 hitters Ben Chapman and Doc Cramer, while the rotation was anchored by Bobo Newsom, Wes Ferrell, and the indomitable Lefty Grove.  For Doerr to make such a star-studded roster out of spring training, less than a year after graduating high school, was exceedingly impressive.

Batting leadoff in Cronin's lineup card, he paced Boston's 11-5 rout of the Philadelphia A's with three hits. His next game he cracked two more hits, including a double. The game after that he slugged his first home run, a two-run shot that drove Yankee starter Bump Hadley from the game.

What was shaping up to be a phenomenal rookie season for Doerr was derailed in just his fourth big league game, when Ed Linke beaned him above the left ear his third time up. Doerr remained conscious and returned to the starting lineup for Boston's next game, but soon fell into a nasty slump. He was batting a lowly .232/.338/.319 when Cronin removed him from the starting lineup in favor of the veteran Eric McNair, who went on to enjoy a fine season by hitting .292 with 12 home runs, 10 steals and a .793 OPS. Doerr remained on the big club but played sparingly until September, by which point he was too rusty to be of much use. He finished his rookie year at .224/.313/.313 in 170 plate appearances--easily the worst figures of his career.

Doerr cracked the starting lineup for good the following year, earning the confidence of Cronin and settling in as the team's everyday second baseman. The consistency and added experience led to immediate improvements at the plate, where he batted .289 with a .363 OBP, 80 RBI, and 202 total bases. Boston improved by leaps and bounds too, jumping from 80 wins and fifth place in 1937 to 88 wins and second place in '38.

Both Doerr and the Sox continued to improve in 1939. The Red Sox received a boost in the form of Doerr's former minor league teammate Ted Williams, who was one of the best hitters in baseball upon arrival. Doerr, just four months older than Williams but already in his third big league season, batted a robust .318 and more than doubled his home run total from the previous season.

Williams and the Sox slipped in 1940, but Doerr didn't. He enjoyed his first 100 RBI season by driving in 105, something he would accomplish five more times over the remainder of the decade. He also clubbed 37 doubles, 10 triples, and 22 homers--all career highs to that point--while slugging .497 and racking up 296 total bases.

While Doerr was snubbed from the All-Star team in 1940 (Joe Gordon and Ray Mack were selected instead), he made the '41 squad despite seeing his production dip across the board. He was on hand for the American League's miracle comeback in the bottom of the ninth. Trailing by one and down to their final out, the AL walked off in shocking fashion on a three-run homer by Teddy Ballgame.
Doerr and Williams attended nine All-Star Games together (Padres Public)
Doerr was an All-Star again in 1942, and received MVP consideration for the first time after exceeding 100 RBI again and drastically improving his defense. His offense sagged a bit in 1943 with the deadened ball in use during the war years, but he rebounded to have his finest season in terms of rate stats in 1944, when he batted .325/.399/.528--all career highs. His season--for which he was named AL Player of the Year by the Sporting News--was cut short, however, by draft orders that required him to report for induction at the beginning of September. Doerr had previously been exempt because he was married and had a son, but with the war at its peak in 1944 that was no longer enough to keep him out of the service.

Doerr returned from the service in 1946 along with Williams and teammates Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, and Tex Hughson, who helped lead Boston to 104 wins and its first pennant since 1918. Doerr was an integral part of that team, what with his 18 homers, 116 RBI, and outstanding defense at second. He finished third in the MVP vote that year behind Williams and Hal Newhouser--the only time he ever polled in the top five. Though Boston lost the World Series to St. Louis in seven games, Doerr shined in his lone Fall Classic, batting .409 and leading the Red Sox with nine hits.

Though Boston was unable to replicate its successful 1946, narrowly missing out on several pennants, Doerr continued to be an elite run producer throughout the rest of the decade, driving in tons of runs because of his high batting averages and batting order position behind Peaky, DiMaggio, Williams, and later Vern Stephens--all on base machines. His defense remained strong as well, with he and Pesky teaming up to be one of the best double-play combinations in baseball.

A bad back ended Doerr's career prematurely after the 1951 season, even though he was just 33 and still near the top of his game. Accordingly, his career statistics are not particularly impressive, for he played only 14 seasons due to injury and war. Even so, he still amassed more than 1,000 runs, 2,000 hits, 1,200 RBI, and 200 homers--good numbers for a second baseman--and made nine All-Star teams. He was also, as mentioned, a strong defender and had great power for his position, with his 223 home runs ranking third among second basemen at the time of his retirement. From 1946-1950, only four players drove in more runs.

One can only wonder what Doerr would have accomplished had he not a) been plunked as a rookie, b) lost a prime season to World War II, and c) been forced to retire when he still seemed to have several good years in front of him. His numbers likely would have approached Jeff Kent's, although it's impossible to say how he would've aged, especially since most players back then were done by the age Doerr was when he retired.

Though many of Doerr's Red Sox records have since been broken by Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, he is still the only player in franchise history to hit for the cycle twice. Brock Holt might have something to say about that.

Poor Pedroia

Pedroia's playing well, but none of the other Red Sox are (Zimbio)
Poor Dustin Pedroia. The guy's having his best season in years, and nobody seems to notice or care. He's hitting over .300, his power has returned, and he's playing his usually stellar defense. He's All-Star worthy, the surefire MVP of a team loaded with big names like David Ortiz, Pablo Sandoval, and Hanley Ramirez.

Now he's hurt.

Pedroia sat out last night's game, a 5-2 Red Sox win, with knee soreness. That's the second time in the last three games he's been unable to suit up but just the third game he's missed all year. Remarkably, Boston won both those games, yet lost when Pedroia played through the pain Wednesday night (and went 0-for-5).

That hardly seems fair, given how competitive Pedroia is. He wants nothing more than to win, and you know Boston's recent misery just has to be killing him on the inside. He's doing everything he can, but he's just one guy on a 25 man roster. The ship is sinking despite his best efforts to bail out the water rushing in.

Hopefully he doesn't have to go on the disabled list. Hopefully he's able to get back on the field soon and start helping Boston win some ballgames, start turning this thing around. Because if he has to sit out for the next few weeks and the Red Sox keep sliding, he's going to lose his mind.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Warriors Win, LeBron Loses

Curry and the Warriors are flying high after winning the NBA Finals (SFGate)
Three games. That's how long it took the Golden State Warriors to figure out that they were the better team, and how to start playing like it. That's how long it took the Warriors, winners of 67 regular season games, to realize what they were up against: a 53-win team (from, it must be said, the weaker conference) without two of its three best players. That's how long it took Golden State to realize that they could pretty much let LeBron James do whatever he wanted, because in the end he simply didn't have the supporting cast needed to win a seven game series against the best team in the NBA.

The tide turned in Game 4, with the Warriors staring at an improbable 2-1 series deficit and faced with a must-win scenario in Cleveland. They came out and crushed the Cavs, winning by 21--the most lopsided game of the series. Aside from the first quarter and a few moments early in the third, Cleveland was never really in the game. Golden State quickly pulled away, both in the game and in the series.

Steve Kerr starting Andre Iguodala for the first time this season in Game 4 changed the entire dynamic of the series. Not only was he a force to be reckoned with on offense, scoring as many points (22) and draining as many threes (four) as MVP teammate Stephen Curry, but he also stifled James with his defense, limiting LeBron to 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting.

Freed from the bench, Iguodala re-emerged as the two-way force he was during his 76ers days. The former point-forward led the team in minutes in Game 5, stuffing the box score with 14 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists (a team-high), and three steals (also a team-high), helping Golden State to a 104-91 victory. He was at it again in last night's series-clincher, dropping a team-high 25 points while chipping in five rebounds and assists along with two steals. Fittingly, Iggy was named Finals MVP for helping Golden State get over the hump, even if he couldn't hit a free throw to save his life.

The award just as easily could have gone to Curry, though, who averaged 26 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.2 boards per game. He never seemed to tire despite averaging over 42 minutes a night, logging just 20 fewer than LeBron over the course of the series. Curry was a true warrior, fighting his way through double teams, mesmerizing Cleveland's defense with his remarkable ball-handling skills, and coming up with big shots when he needed to. After earning his fair share of criticism for struggling with his shot early in the series, he bounced back to provide MVP-level production and lead his team to the promised land.
James did all he could, but in the end it wasn't enough (Yahoo Sports)
In reality, the true MVP of this year's NBA Finals did not play a single minute for the Warriors. Disregarding wins and losses, LeBron James was far and away the most valuable player of this series. He averaged close to 46 minutes per game, which is almost unfathomable. He outscored Curry by nearly 60 points--roughly 10 per game--while also leading both sides in rebounds and assists. James's performance was nothing short of legendary, and yet it wasn't nearly enough.

One has to wonder how the series would have played out had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both been healthy. At the very least, their presence would have relieved some of the massive burden placed upon LeBron's broad shoulders. The series probably would have gone seven games. Cleveland could have won.

But without them, the Cavs never stood a chance. No matter how well James played, it was never going to be enough. He's only one guy, after all, and one mortal being can only do so much. His ragtag supporting cast immediately brought to mind memories of the last and only other time Cleveland made the finals, when a 22 year-old James dragged them there in 2007, only to be squashed by the Spurs in four games. James has changed a lot since then--he has matured by eight years and is infinitely more comfortable on the game's greatest stage--but the rest of the Cavs proved just as useless.

To his credit, or perhaps to his detriment, James kept them involved throughout the entire series. He trusted them the same way he'd trusted Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, feeding them for open looks and giving them every opportunity to contribute.

Problem is, James Jones, Iman Shumpert, and Josh Smith are not Wade, Bosh, and Ray Allen. I wouldn't trust those guys with a 20 point lead during the regular season, let alone in crunch time during the freaking NBA finals.

But James seemed not to notice nor care just how incompetent his teammates were. He kept dishing them the rock, almost instinctually, often passing up good looks close to the rim to hit them for open shots on the perimeter. More often that not, they bricked those shots, which is why there won't be a Game 7 tomorrow night. James executed, but the rest of his team did not.

LeBron's selflessness has always been a double-edged sword for him, at once his greatest asset and undoing. Nobody with LeBron's size and scoring ability should be able to pass like he does, always finding his teammates with laser passes in the most unbelievable of places, like he has eyes in the back of his head. It's his Steve Nash-esque court vision that makes him a cut above the Kevin Durants and Kobe Bryants of the world. He has the eyes of a point guard in the body of a bulldozer.

It was obvious from the start, however, that Cleveland wasn't going to win this series with LeBron playing the role of facilitator. The Cavs were only going to win if James took over and averaged 40+ points a night. With his supporting cast reduced to ashes, LeBron needed to adopt the Kobe Bryant mentality for this series, the give-me-the-damn-ball-and-get-the-hell-out-my-way mindset. If he truly is the greatest player in the world, which this series proved he is, then he needed not just to play like it, but to act like it. He needed to get mean. He needed to be selfish.

LeBron may be able to do that for spurts, but he has proved incapable of doing that for prolonged stretches. He is too nice, too trusting of his teammates. He's hardwired to pass the basketball, to get it into the hands of open comrades. He shares too much. He's too generous.

It's also hard to be a killer when you run out of gas, as James and his teammates clearly did. He missed six of his last nine shot attempts last night and was a non-factor in the frantic final two minutes, when Josh Smith, of all people, nearly willed Cleveland back into the game with a barrage of unlikely threes. James, passive and exhausted, seemed to quit when his team needed him most, settling for lazy jumpers rather than attacking the hoop with his customary ferocity. He played to the score rather than the clock, and in the end it might have cost the Cavs the game.

When the chips were down and all hope seemed lost, LeBron reverted into the passive, gun-shy, scared little kid who disappears during the game's critical moments, like he's melted right into the court. There one minute, gone the next. Poof.

I'm hesitant to criticize James too much because he really gave it his all in his series. Without his heroic performances, the Cavs would've been swept. A lot of people seem to think they wouldn't have even made the playoffs without him, which I don't necessarily buy (if the Celtics and Nets could make the playoffs, then a team with two legit superstars definitely could, especially in the East) but still see their point. James single-handedly made this series interesting, even if he couldn't carry his team to the finish line. He played his heart out.

If only he'd had some help.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Last Place Here We Come

Atlanta's Freddie Freeman (M) scores as Sandy Leon (R) looks on (Gazette Net)
The Red Sox lost again last night, the seventh time in a row. Following their 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, they're now 11 games under .500 and nine games out of first. Heck, they're six out of fourth.

Once again, the culprit was Boston's anemic offense, which managed all of two runs against a Braves team that was supposed to be a doormat this year. Once again, the Red Sox struggled with runners in scoring position, going just 1-for-7 in those situations and leaving seven men on base. That explains how, despite outhitting their opponents 10-9 and putting a dozen men on base, they scored half as many runs. It didn't help that Boston bounced into three double plays, either.

Leave it to the Red Sox to lose a game where they didn't allow an extra base hit, didn't make an error, and used only three pitchers to the Braves' five.

Boston was also unable to take advantage of a decent turn by Rick Porcello, who lasted into the seventh inning and pitched well enough to keep his team in the game. The problem was, as it has been all year, is that he didn't get a lick of run support. The Sox had yet to score when Porcello departed in the seventh inning.

Even more frustrating was that the game ended with the winning run at the plate for Boston. Down to their last out and trailing 4-1, the Red Sox rallied. Pablo Sandoval smacked a ground-rule double, Mike Napoli reached on an error, and Mookie Betts singled to center to score Sandoval. That brought up Alejandro De Aza, the last hitter Red Sox fans hoped to see in such a situation given that he's barely above the Mendoza line and has driven in all of eight runs this season.

Sure enough, De Aza failed to deliver. He hit a dribbler out in front of the plate, which closer Jason Grilli gathered and fired to first to end the game.

Tim Britton, Sox beat writer for the Providence Journal, wrote that Boston's season died Friday night when the team blew a seven-run lead to the Blue Jays and lost 13-10. I'm inclined to agree with him. It can't be overstated how demoralizing losses like that are to team morale, when sure wins wind up as heart-crushing defeats. This is especially true of the Red Sox, who have struggled all season and rarely enjoy such large leads. After just being swept by Baltimore, they really needed to get back in the win column and could have used a big win to boost their spirits. Instead, they left Fenway Park that night with their heads in their hands.

I'm with Tim. Stick a fork in this team, because they're done. I know there's still 97 games left to play, which is a lot of baseball, but it's plain for all to see that this year's squad just doesn't have it. Not enough hitting, not enough defense, and definitely not enough pitching. Last place, here we come.

To win 90 games, Boston would need to go 63-34 the rest of the way--a .649 winning percentage. The Red Sox, as currently constructed, are not winning two out of three from this point forward. Even if they win 60 percent of their games going forward, they'd still only finish with 85 wins, which isn't enough to earn a trip to the postseason. The hole they've dug for themselves is simply too deep.

I believe the lineup is going to hit eventually--it's too good not to, especially as the weather warms. David Ortiz has already started turning things around, and so has Sandoval. Mike Napoli and Hanley Ramirez are capable of carrying the club when they get hot. I'd expect Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Blake Swihart to all get better as the season progresses and they gain more experience.

But the pitching staff just isn't good enough, certainly not good enough to carry this team into the postseason. Clay Buchholz is too inconsistent, Rick Porcello doesn't miss enough bats, and Wade Miley just flat-out sucks. Joe Kelly lacks the command and secondary stuff needed to complement his blazing fastball. Justin Masterson is simply a bust, the same way Stephen Drew was a bust last year.

So unless the Red Sox really turn things around during the next six weeks, they're going to be sellers at the trade deadline again. With this summer shaping up to be a seller's market, however, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Toronto's Torrid Hitting Fuels Streak

Pricey free agent addition Russell Martin has been a huge success (US News)
Things were looking pretty bleak for the Toronto Blue Jays on the afternoon of June 2nd. The Jays had just been shut out for the first time this year, dropping Game 1 of a doubleheader to the Washington Nationals 2-0. The team who many thought would win the AL East this year had fallen a season-low seven games below .500, much closer to last place than first place.

Then the Blue Jays started winning, and they haven't lost since. They took the nightcap 7-3, then routed the Nats 8-0 the following day to take the series finale and the series. At the end of a week-long road trip, Toronto was just getting started.

The Blue Jays returned home from our nation's capitol and swept the red-hot Astros, winning the first two games handily before punctuating their second sweep of the year with a come-from-behind, walkoff victory. They followed that sweep with another of the Miami Marlins, which featured another thrilling comeback-walkoff.

Having climbed above .500 for the first time in a month, Toronto traveled to Boston for a three-game set at Fenway. The Jays broke out their bats, scoring 13 runs in the opener and finale--31 in all. In between Toronto ran its win-streak to double digits with a 5-4 victory in 11 innings--the team's second extra inning win of the year and first since April 18th. All three wins were exceptional, with the visitors overcoming a seven-run deficit in the opener, winning the middle game in extras, and pounding the Bosox 13-5 in the finale.

With yesterday's rout, the Blue Jays completed their third consecutive sweep, tying a franchise record with their eleventh straight victory. They've averaged an incredible eight runs per game over the course of their streak, bludgeoning opponents with the best offense in the game. Their pitching has been better as well, allowing three runs or less in seven of the eight games before falling victim to Fenway's friendly confines.

It took them two months, but the Jays have finally bloomed into a team worthy of the preseason hype. They have the majors' best run-differential and have murdered lefties like few others in the Wild Card era.

Not coincidentally, Toronto's win streak has paralleled the re-emergence of All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, who has hit safely in all 11 of their victories. Reyes, who returned from a four-week absence on Memorial Day, has notched at least one hit in 17 of 18 games since coming off the disabled list, raising his OPS 170 points during that time. He's played a huge role in Toront's win streak, driving in 11 runs out of the leadoff spot and scoring in eight straight games.

Toronto's lineup has also benefited from the resurgence of Russell Martin, who went a month between home runs before jacking three last week, including the game-winning blast in Saturday's extra inning affair. Martin's also currently riding a six-game hit streak, while teammate Edwin Encarnacion has hit safely in seven straight. Jose Bautista, who cranked four home runs in a four-game span after managing just seven through his first 47, also appears to be finding his form after a slow start. If they hit like they have in the past, Josh Donaldson keeps hitting as he has, and Devon Travis comes back strong, Toronto's going to light up scoreboards all summer long.

It's funny that the Blue Jays are essentially the team everyone expected their rival Red Sox to be, leading the majors in runs scored (by a lot, as well as doubles, slugging, OPS, and total bases) but ranking near the bottom (third-to-last) in ERA (and home runs allowed). Toronto's won by outslugging its competition thus far, but for that to continue its position players must stay healthy and productive. That won't be easy given that Martin, Bautista, Encarnacion, Reyes, and Chris Colabello--over half the starting lineup--are all on the wrong side of 30. The pitching will have to improve eventually, because the lineup can only cover their mistakes for so long. Look for Alex Anthopoulos to seek out starting pitching help at the trade deadline--Cole Hamels would be a huge get.

In the meantime, Toronto will shoot for a franchise-record 12th straight victory tonight in Flushing behind Mark Buehrle, who's delivered a pair of strong starts during the run including his first shutout in almost two years. The Mets, who have the same record as the Jays (34-30) and currently sit atop the NL East, will counter with Noah Syndergaard, the rookie phenom who was still in diapers the last time Toronto reached the postseason. Mets fans hope Syndergaard (2.96 FIP) and Citi Field's carvernous dimensions can combine to stifle Toronto's torrid offense, but after seeing the Jays turn Fenway Park into a pinball machine I certainly wouldn't bet on it.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Hits Keep Coming

Last night's game featured 23 runs and 27 hits (Boston Globe)
Last night's game at Fenway Park was exactly the kind of hitting bonanza Red Sox fans expected to see plenty of this year, where Boston's juggernaut lineup scores a bunch of runs, its terrible pitching staff lets up more, and in the end the Sox lose by a football score.

With both teams sending mediocre starting pitchers to the bump and the air still warm from an 85 degree day in Boston, the conditions were ripe for a slugfest. After a five-run first inning in which Pablo Sandoval and Mookie Betts homered, the Red Sox were off and running. Toronto got one back in the top of the second on Justin Smoak's triple into the triangle, which led Betts to crash headlong into the outfield wall.

Boston appeared to put the game out of reach with Dustin Pedroia's three-run shot in the third, which increased the home team's lead to seven and drove Jays starter Drew Hutchison from the game. Of course, no lead is ever safe in Fenway Park, especially when Joe Kelly and co. are pitching.

Kelly gave those three runs back in the top of the fifth, and when he left the game after the sixth his ERA had risen to 5.45. He was still in line for the win until Matt Barnes, Junichi Tazawa, and Tommy Layne proceeded to allow nine runs in the seventh inning. Sandoval's ninth error of the season didn't help matters, and Smoak capped the monster inning with a two-run shot into the Monster seats. The inning, which began with Boston leading 8-4, ended with Boston trailing 13-8.

The Red Sox mounted a serious threat in the bottom of the eighth, scoring one to narrow the gap to four and loading the bases for Mike Napoli. Napoli, the potential tying-run, could have knotted up the game with one swing of the bat. Instead the bearded slugger struck out on three pitches, frozen by a Brett Cecil curveball right down broadway.

Boston reached double digits with Rusney Castillo's RBI double in the ninth, but it was too little, too late. Cecil fanned Pedroia to end a game in which Boston scored 10 runs, pounded out 12 hits, slugged three home runs, and still lost. Leaving nine men on base didn't help, but at least they tallied more runs last night than they did during their miserable three-game trip to Baltimore.

With their fourth loss in a row, the last-place Sox slipped eight games below .500. They'll try to snap Toronto's nine-game winning streak this afternoon behind Clay Buchholz, who had been a roll before getting roughed up by Oakland last Sunday. The Red Sox will get another chance to fatten their averages with R.A. Dickey, who owns a 5.35 ERA and 5.38 FIP, on the hill for the Jays.

But as last night proved, even if they do that won't guarantee victory.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sox Swept, Sinking Fast

Farrell (L) and Miley pictured moments before their shouting match (Boston Herald) 
It's starting to turn into that kind of season for the Red Sox, the kind of season where they take one step forward, then two steps back. The kind of frustrating year where they're hot one week, cold the next, and ultimately end up underperforming expectations. By a lot.

Over the weekend Boston swept the Oakland A's at home. In and of itself, this was not impressive. The A's were, and still are, the only team in the American League with a worse record than the Sox. Furthermore, the Red Sox were at home, where they've actually had a winning record this year (hard to believe, I know). All three games were close, too, with Boston winning each by three runs or less.

So even though it took the Red Sox two months to earn their first sweep of the season, and they won three in a row for just the second time all year, and at the end of it they were still last in the AL East, there was hope. They were starting to hit. Their pitching had been better. Things were looking up for the Olde Towne Team, especially with a three-game set against Baltimore, with whom the Sox shared last place. With an off day for travel, Boston would be fully rested and ready to continue their recent tear.

Didn't happen. The Red Sox stumbled into Camden Yards and dropped three in a row, falling a season-worst seven games below .500. They were blanked 1-0 in the opener despite Miguel Gonzalez, the Orioles starter, leaving the game in the fifth with a strained groin, for which he was just placed on the DL. They left nine men on base and went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, wasting another magnificent start by rookie Eduardo Rodriguez, who gave them six shutout innings while striking out seven.

The lineup, which has struggled all season long despite the high-priced additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, dropped the ball again in the middle game as Boston fell 5-2. That one was more on Rick Porcello, who allowed the Orioles to jump out to a 2-0 lead and was scored upon both times Boston scratched out a run. Porcello's pitched poorly all season with a 5.26 ERA to show for it, making the $82.5 million contract extension he received two months ago look like a mistake with each time he takes the ball.

The finale featured a similarly ugly outing from Wade Miley, who was bombed for three home runs and had more runs allowed than innings pitched in his final line for the fourth time this year (out of 12 starts). After being rightfully removed from the game, Miley proceeded to lose it on John Farrell in the dugout, as if it's somehow the manager's fault that Miley owns a 5.07 ERA on the season. Down four runs by the end of the third, the Sox rallied but ultimately came up just short, losing by one run for the second time in three days.

And with that, Boston has now lost three in a row five times this year. They've been swept three times, though this was the most inexcusable given that a) Baltimore was a last place team going into the series.and b) the Red Sox used their two best starting pitchers. They're back home tonight, where they've played decently this year, but against the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays, winners of eight in a row. The Jays have the kind of lineup that can feast off Boston's weak rotation, especially with righty mashers Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson capable of launching balls over the Monster.

Tonight's game in particular has all the makings of a slugfest, what with two mediocre starting pitchers (Drew Hutchison and Joe Kelly) facing opponents that have given them serious trouble this season. Tomorrow afternoon's tilt could bring more of the same, with probable starters R.A. Dickey and Clay Buchholz a combined 5-12 on the season. The Red Sox should have the upper hand in Sunday's series finale with Rodriguez back on the bump versus Marco Estrada, and they'll likely need a strong start after the heavy workload Boston's bullpen will have to carry today and tomorrow.

Rodriguez, a 22 year-old rookie, is the only Boston starter who can be trusted right now. That says all you need to know about how this season is going for the Sox.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Sox Sweep, Starting to Hit

Hanley Ramirez has helped lead the charge for Boston (NESN)
The Red Sox earned their first sweep of the season yesterday, coming from behind to beat the Oakland A's 7-4 at Fenway Park.

Things were looking pretty bleak for Boston as "Sweet Caroline" faded from the stadium loudspeakers, for the Sox entered the bottom half of the eighth facing a 4-0 deficit. Their chances of winning at that point stood at a slim four percent. By inning's end, however, it was a whopping 97 percent. In the span of three outs the odds had completely flipped with Boston exploding for seven runs and eight hits against five different A's pitchers. When Tommy Layne preserved the lead to secure his first save since 2012, the Red Sox clinched just their second win of the season in a game where they trailed after seven innings.

The meltdown by the A's bullpen wasted a phenomenal start from the rookie Kendall Graveman, who blanked Boston through the first seven innings before Rusney Castillo finally touched him for a home run to lead off the bottom of the eighth. Bob Melvin promptly yanked Graveman, who exceeded 100 pitches during Castillo's at-bat, only to watch Oakland's seeming comfortable lead evaporate. When the dust settled at the end of the inning, Boston had gone from being down four to being up three, snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat and reminding everyone that no lead is ever truly safe at Fenway.

The big inning continued a recent resurgence for the Red Sox at the plate. After averaging a pitiful 2.83 runs per game during May, Sox hitters have appeared to turn the corner as of late. In the admittedly small sample size of seven June games, Boston's batted .300 and increased its average scoring output by nearly one run. It's no coincidence that this uptick in offense, combined with steadier pitching, helped the Sox go 5-2 last week.

In particular, the middle of the order has really stepped it up. Hanley Ramirez has rediscovered his early season power stroke with three home runs and nine RBI over his past 11 games. Mike Napoli's caught fire after a brutal start, slugging six home runs and compiling a 1.024 OPS since May 18th. Blake Swihart's also been better since struggling after his initial call up, notching hits in 9 of his last 11 games including his first career home run.

Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts aren't the only ones hitting anymore, but Boston's offense still isn't firing on all cylinders. David Ortiz and Pablo Sandoval are slumping badly, and Mookie Betts has underperformed the massive expectations he created with his monster spring training. If they can get going soon too, then the Red Sox will go on their first real sustained run of excellence of the year. If they hit like they're capable of hitting, then Boston will look like the first place team everyone thought they'd be coming into the season.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Rodriguez's RBI

A familiar sight over the years: A-Rod greeting teammates at home (ABC News)
There is only one man in baseball history who has compiled more official RBI than Alex Rodriguez, and his name is Hank Aaron. While no longer the home run king, Aaron is still the king of counting stats in many regards. Just look at his player page on Baseball-Reference--it's really quite impressive.

The same can be said about Rodriguez's, especially when you consider that he was a shortstop for the first half of his career and a third baseman for the remainder (though he's now a full-time DH, as most 39 year-olds are). His resume is so well-rounded, and like Aaron, he neglected to have a down season for the longest time. Even his numbers from recent years, when he was old and hurt, are still pretty good.

That's what it takes to be one of the top RBI men of all-time. You have to be in the lineup everyday, driving in runs, year after year after year. Rodriguez has racked up 1,997 to this point in his career, which means he had to average 100 ribbies for 20 years. Most times, if a guy does it for 10 he's a Hall of Famer. It's crazy to think that A-Rod knocked in his first run in 1994--21 years ago--and had his first 100 RBI season in 1996. He's been around a long time.

More importantly, he's been consistently outstanding during the bulk of those seasons. He's the only player in history to top 100 RBI 14 times, and one of just three (Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx are the others) to eclipse the century mark in 13 straight seasons. He may have company in both those categories soon, as Miguel Cabrera is working on a string of 11 straight 100 RBI seasons and is on pace for a 12th here in 2015. Given that he just turned 32 and his eight-year contract extension doesn't begin until next year, Cabrera will have plenty of time to catch Rodriguez and perhaps Aaron atop the all-time leaderboards.

Albert Pujols is also a threat, with a dozen 100 RBI seasons to his name and six seasons remaining on his contract beyond this one. No longer the elite hitter he once was, he's still a capable run producer and will continue to pile up RBI batting behind Mike Trout in the Angels' lineup.

Rodriguez, who is still 300 RBI behind Aaron, isn't going to catch the former home run king (or in home runs, for that matter). He's only under contract for two more years after this one, by which point he'll be 42 and likely finished as a ballplayer. While still a great hitter, he doesn't have the time, health, or supporting cast needed to drive in 100 more runs this year, then 100 in each of the next two years as well. Had he been able to avoid injuries and suspension over the past five years, he probably wouldn't be too far behind, but for now Aaron's record appears safe.

It's weird to me that people were always so quick to claim Rodriguez wasn't clutch--especially during his Yankee years--even though his monster RBI totals were plain for all to see. Granted, he played in some loaded lineups during those years, but he still had to get all those RBI. David Ortiz had terrific teammates too, but that didn't stop people from labeling him one of the best clutch hitters of all time. Never mind that from 2003-2012, in almost the same number of games and plate appearances, Ortiz accumulated 1,088 RBI, and Rodriguez recorded 1,078. That's a difference of one RBI per year, and somehow their reputations as run producers were night and day. Ortiz always came through with the game on the line, it seemed. Rodriguez never did, and only padded his stats in the late innings when games were already decided. It's not true, of course--Rodriguez has virtually the same career OPS in high leverage situations (.956) as low ones (.955)--but that's how the argument went.

I was surprised to see that Rodriguez has only led the league in RBI twice, though both times he was the major league leader (in 2002 and 2007). He narrowly missed two other RBI titles, as he was only a half dozen off the mark in 2001 (shocked to see Bob Boone led that year) and one off Miguel Cabrera in 2010. Cabrera missed the final week of the season, allowing Rodriguez to close the gap. A-Rod nearly equaled Cabrera, only to fall one shy on the season's final day despite having a man on third in each of his final two at-bats. He walked and grounded out, leaving the RBI title secure with Cabrera.

Rodriguez's next major milestone will be his 3,000th hit, which he figures to reach sometime soon (only nine to go after last night's four-hit effort--his first since 2011). It's also possible that he'll get to 2,000 runs by the end of the year, though he still needs 50 more. Health will be the limiting factor, of course, but now that Rodriguez scarcely plays the field he should be able to stay in the lineup almost everyday. That's where he'll need to be if the Yankees hope to remain in first place.