Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sole Possession

The Red Sox now have sole possession of first place. For a team that started 0-6, and at one point was 2-10, that's remarkable. Since that 2-10 start, the Red Sox have rattled off a 27-12 run, including a seven game winning streak, a five game winning streak, and an ongoing four game winning streak. They've been getting contributions from all over, including the injury replacements in the rotation. Both Wakefield and Aceves are a combined 3-0 in the rotation, a huge improvement from the struggles of Daisuke and Lackey. In their 24 2/3 IP as starters, the two have only allowed 5 earned runs, good for a 1.82 ERA. If they both keep it up the Red Sox could have a tough decision on their hands, once Lackey is ready to come off the DL.

Lately, the bats have been contributing just as much. In their finale of the Cleveland series and the opener of the Detroit series, the Red Sox won 14-1 and 14-2. This was the first time in the history of the team that they had won consecutive road games by 12 or more runs. In their last three games, they've done a spectacular job knocking out the opposing starting pitcher. Mitch Talbot, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello combined for 8 IP, while allowing an incredible 21 earned runs. All three had pitched well so far in 2011, with Scherzer and Porcello both sporting ERAs right around four. After their starts, both Tigers starters had ERAs right around four.

Hell, in their their 4-2 win over the Indians earlier this week, Jason Varitek even managed to throw out two consecutive base runners. Over the last three full seasons Varitek has caught 17% of the runner attempting to steal on him. Assuming that number is representative of his true talent going forward, that puts catching two consecutive base runners at just under 3%. When the 3% likelihood things are coming up, you know things are going well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Red Sox notes

Although he didn’t end up pitching for the Red Sox, as he was sent down in the flurry of moves surrounding the activation of Dan Wheeler and the trade for Franklin Morales, I noticed that Michael Bowden appears to have turned a corner as a reliever. He was the low upside starter who seemed destined for trade bait, but as a reliever his strikeout rate it up (10.6/9, up from 6.8/9 for his career in AAA) and his walk rate is down (2.3/9, down from 2.9/9 for his career in AAA). Those numbers indicate he could be a viable MLB reliever for the Sox, especially given how weak the bullpen has been so far this season. Since they have other pitchers who don’t have options remaining, the Red Sox will likely only turn to him if guys like Albers or Atchison don’t get the job done.

It’s nice to see Wakefield pitch well, since he’s going to be in the rotation for a bit. It’s doubly nice to see him handle the NL well, backing up my post from last year. Wakefield wasn’t striking a ton of batters out (3 K in 6 2/3 IP), but he managed not to walk anyone and got more ground balls than fly balls. For a guy who has a career ground ball percentage of 40%, that’s a nice little start.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia seems to finally be capitalizing on the promise that led him to be ranked as high as the 18th overall prospect by Baseball America and be the centerpiece in the trade that sent Mark Teixeira to Atlanta. It is a small sample size, but in his last ten games Salty has hit for a .323/.382/.677 line, with three home runs and two doubles. His hits have come at key times, including driving in the only run in the Red Sox 1-0 win over the Tigers on May 18th. The strikeouts (8 in the 31 at bats over his last ten games), mean that his batting average will come down, but even if he's hitting .250/.320/.425, Saltalamacchia will be a big step up from the catching in the first month and a half. Despite the hot bat, the Red Sox are being fairly conservative with him – his 10 game run has actually been spread over 16 Red Sox games and includes one where he was a late inning replacement and did not bat. If he does continue to hit the Red Sox will have very little choice but to give him the lion’s share of playing time behind the plate, especially with Varitek struggling with a .526 OPS, which is 52% worse than the league average.

Harmon Killebrew

Harmon Killebrew passed away this week, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. Many writers have already weighed in on his career and life, but for whatever reason he’s always stuck out in my mind. It's funny to say that for a player I've never seen play (not even a highlight) and has absolutely to affiliation with any team I root for. I think it was a baseball card that was found in a giant shoe box of my dad’s old cards. I don’t think it was valuable, most of his cards were mid-1960’s Topps and a mint Killebrew is only a few bucks on EBay, but all that black ink on the back was exciting. And I’m not sure if I could come up with a better name for a slugging third baseman. Harmon Killebrew. He just sounded like he destroyed baseballs. Even after the steroid era, Killebrew is still 11th overall in home runs and he can thank steroid testing for keeping him there. Manny Ramirez was only 18 behind him, and if not for his 50 game suspension a couple years ago and his second suspension this year, Killebrew would almost certainly be bumped to 12th by now.

In many ways, Killebrew was one of the first modern sluggers. He struck out a lot for the era (20%, with a single season career high of 25%), which led to a fairly low career batting average of .256. But he also took an awful lot of walks, leading to his very solid OBP of .376. When you consider the fact that he played most of his career in the era of the 15” tall mound, when top pitchers such as Bob Gibson put up ERAs in the 1’s (1.12 for Gibson in 1968), Killebrew’s offensive production, particularly his .509 slugging percentage, is that much more impressive.

(photo credit: cthoyes)

Monday, May 16, 2011

More random thoughts

So this is how a winning team plays. After finally making it to .500 by sweeping the Yankees in New York in a rather impressive series, the Red Sox looked like they were going to blow the game, falling behind the hapless O's by six runs. But the Red Sox struck back for five in the fifth, one in the sixth, before getting two in the ninth off an Adrian Gonzalez walk-off double that just missed being a home run.

Jose Bautista continues to be an incredible hitter. He may very well be the best hitter in baseball right now. In a well publicized stat, he's hit 70 home runs since the start of last year (54 last year, 16 so far this year). Number two? Albert Pujols at 49. His current line is .368/.520/.868, good for an incredible 1.388 OPS, good for a .230 point lead. What is also incredible is that despite his power, he's only driven in 27 RBI. Given his 16 home runs, he's only driven in 11 team mates. That's only 40% of his RBIs are teammates, 10% lower than any other hitter in baseball.

The Indians/Royals 19-1 blowout was ugly, and was over after the Indians put up 10 runs in the fourth off of Vin Mazzaro. I thought I'd take a look at how fluid the Pythagorean winning percentages are at this point of the season, and how a single blowout can change the expected winning percentage dramatically. Pythagorean winning percentage is pretty easy to calculate, and was developed by Bill James to estimate what a team's winning percentage should be. It is runs scored squared, divided by the sum of runs scored squared and runs allowed squared. Coming in to the game, the Pythagorean winning percentages looked like this, with the Indians ahead, but the Royals still projected as an above .500 team:

Pre Blowout Scored Allowed Pythgorean Season Wins
Cleveland 181 140 0.626 101
KC 187 174 0.536 87

After, it is a different story. The Indians, now the proud owners of the best run differential in baseball, which goes nicely with their best actual record in baseball, are now a 108 win team, based on the runs they've scored and allowed. The Royals were not quite so fortunate, dropping from a projected 87 win team, to a below .500 79 win team. That isn't to say that last night should really change anyone's opinion about the Royals by 8 games over the course of the season, but more of an illustration about how the tools we use can be sensitive to extreme results.

Post Blowout Scored Allowed Pythgorean Season Wins
Cleveland 200 141 0.668 108
KC 188 193 0.487 79

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Some random thoughts

Justin Masterson, the former Red Sox prospect who was a key part of the Victor Martinez deal, looks like he's turned the corner in Cleveland. In a very nice start last week, he allowed nine hits over seven innings. Eight of these hits were singles, and five of those were infield hits. Effectively, it was like facing an entire lineup of Derek Jeters! Overall, Masterson has put up a 2.11 ERA in 47 innings, while posting solid strikeout and walk rates. While he has been a bit lucky with the home runs (2.8% HR/FB, where the major league average is about 10%), he finally is becoming the pitcher he thought the Red Sox thought he could become.

Ben Zobrist is having a bounceback year in Tampa Bay, and got a lot of press for having a monster double header against the Twins a week and a half ago, when he hit two home runs and drove in ten runs. Since that game, Zobrist has continued to hit very well, going 12/35 (.343 average). In an interesting little twist, in those nine games since the double header, Zobrist has not driven in a single run, despite scoring ten himself. The run binge has balanced out his stat line, putting him at 25 RBI and 28 R for the season, good for fifth and first in the AL, respectively. After falling to 2-8, the Rays are now tied atop the AL East with the Yankees at 20-14. For a team that lost an incredible number of free agents in the offseason and was missing Longoria for almost all of this season, that's awfully impressive.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox are still struggling with uneven play. They managed to make it to 14-15 by beating an incredible run of starting pitchers - Felix Hernandez, Dan Haren, and Jeff Weaver. Of course, after that they dropped their next three games. Winning their last two has pulled them back to two games below .500, but they're only four games behind the Yankees and Tampa Bay. It is still early, but it is not going to be early for too terribly much longer...