All posts by Caleb Pykkonen

Series Grades: Baltimore

The Red Sox wrapped up a very solid opening series against Baltimore with a 4-3 win on Thursday night. Both the starters and the bullpen already looked locked in, and most of the lineup looks the same way. Great way to start the year.

OVERALL GRADE: A

Hitters Overall: B

Designated Hitter: B+

All he needs to do is hit, and that’s essentially what Papi did against the Orioles. Ortiz had a rough go of things in the first game of the series, but he came through with a big home run in the middle game and recorded 3 singles in the finale.

Catcher: C

A.J. Pierzynski had a serviceable debut to his career in Boston,  but it would be nice if he could improve upon his 2/8 start to the season. If Pierzynski can have similar numbers to what he posted last year he will end up being another positive free-agent pickup. David Ross had a solid game 3 as he reached base twice, but he was also not able to stay in front of a Brandon Workman pitch that cost the Sox a run in the 6th.

First Base: A-

Mike Napoli had a solid series against the Orioles; most importantly he provided 4 big RBI in the second game of the series. Napoli picked up right where he left off last season — hitting for extra bases and striking out.  He did make an error in the 9th inning of game 2 that made Koji’s save a bit more difficult than it should have been, but the Sox had a 4 run lead at the time of the error so we’ll let him off the hook.

Second Base: A

Dustin Pedroia played all three games of the series, and he came out of the gate swinging a red-hot bat. Pedroia had 2 hits in the first game and 4 base hits in game 2 (to go along with a sweet diving stop), and in the third game he had a 1-out double in the 9th but was left stranded by David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Overall, the Sox will always take a 7-hit series from their franchise player, so keep up the good work Pedey.

Shortstop : A-

Xander Bogaerts had a fantastic start to his year. The Rookie Shortstop sensation reached base 8 times in the series and provided a great boost to the lower part of the lineup. His bat will likely see him moving up in the lineup in the near future.

Third Base: C

Will Middlebrooks struggled with the bat in the first two games of the series, but he picked up his first two hits (one of which was a double) in game 3. Middlebrooks is a player who’s spot in the lineup in relatively safe for the time being, but he needs to keep having positive at bats like he did in the third game if the Red Sox lineup is going to be as potent as it was last year. His glove looked a bit iffy at times in the series as well, but he played relatively solid overall.

Center Field: B

Grady Sizemore started the first two games of the series in center and it was great to see him back in the big leagues. In the first game he went 2/4 and produced the Sox only run, but he failed to reach base in the second game. As we noted after Opening Day, if he could keep up a consistent bat and remain healthy it will very much help make up for the loss of Jacoby. Jackie Bradley Jr. started the third game and managed two hits (one of which produced a run). Hopefully he can hit better than last season, and if he can he will pick up some much needed playing time over the course of the year.

Left Field/Right Field: B-

These spots were manned by a platoon of Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, Mike Carp and Jackie Bradley Jr. The platoon at these positions (mostly in left field, as Shane Victorino played right field most of the year) was a key aspect of the deadly offensive attack from last year, so it would be nice if Farrell could again maximize the output from these positions by using a rotation of the players listed above. They had a solid series, and they’ll have their ups and downs throughout the year, but mostly it was just very fun to see Gomes hitting leadoff in the last game.

Pitchers Overall: A

Jon Lester: A 

Lester was masterful in his 7 innings on Opening Day. The Sox ace threw 104 pitches, and the only 2 runs he gave up were off of a double play ball by Delmon Young in the 2nd and a long ball by Nelson Cruz in the 7th.  Lester fanned 8 Orioles batters, and he did a great job of mixing pitches — PITCHf/x says he through 5 different pitches today. He got into some trouble in the early innings, but was able to work out of it well. Overall, the Sox couldn’t have asked for any more from Jon in his first start of the regular season.

John LackeyA-

Lackey pitched an extremely solid 6 innings in the second game of the series, and he picked up the Red Sox’ first win of the year. The Orioles’ only runs again came off the bat of Nelson Cruz (a 2-run shot in the 4th), and Lackey only allowed 2 other baserunners during the rest of his time on the mound. Just like Lester, Lackey could not have pitched any better — aside the fact that his pitch count was a bit high by the 6th inning.

Felix Doubront: B

Doubront had a solid outing in the last game of the series. He ran into a bit of trouble in the 4th inning, but managed to stop the bleeding after only giving up 2 runs. If the Sox starters can manage to hold the opposition to 2 runs per game every time out this year, it’s going to be a very fun 2014. That wont happen, but it was still very fun to watch the first three starters go this week.

Bullpen: A

The boys in the ‘pen only gave up 1 run in three games. ‘Nuff said.

 

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Howdy Ho Everybody! Baseball is Back!

We’re back!

Well, technically we made our return two days ago when Mr. Childs kindly posted the Red Sox opening day roster, and I guess we never really left. But, it’s been far too long since we we’ve consistently posted content, and we’ll try to change that.

Anyway, after yesterday the Sox only have 161 games left on the schedule and the playoff race is already heating up. The boys from Beantown fell 2-1 to the Orioles on Opening Day, but it was still a pleasure to watch baseball once again. Below are some brief thoughts after watching the first game back in action:

Hitting

Boston had a rough go of things yesterday in terms of producing runs. In fact, the only time they were able to score was off a Grady Sizemore round-tripper. However, the absence of runs was not due to a lack of hitting; the Red Sox managed 9 hits, including 2 doubles and Sizemore’s HR, and 3 BBs. Because they had men on base all day Boston came close to scoring on many ocassions, and they also nearly added runs off long flyouts from David Ortiz and Xander Bogaerts. Both flyouts might very well have been dingers on a day when the wind wasn’t blowing in from Left Field. Nevertheless, the Red Sox obviously need to do a better job pushing runs across the plate if they are going to compete for the AL East Division crown once again. In the end, there were too many missed opportunities to feel good about the day at the dish.

Looking back on the game, the most enjoyable part was seeing Grady Sizemore go 2-4 including his home run. Sizemore made his first appearance since September 23, 2011, and he showed that he could provide a spark to the already dangerous lineup if he remains healthy for the year. That is a big if, but it would be a welcome surprise if he could replace a healthy chunk of Jacoby Ellsbury’s production. The health issues will be a concern for John Farrell and the Boston front office, so it would be very surprising if Grady is their every-day center fielder for the entire season. It is likely that he will share time with Jackie Bradley Jr. and Shane Victorino as the season wears on. But here’s hoping that he can play in enough games to have a significant impact on the Sox’ season.

Pitching (Jon Lester)

Jon Lester pitched about as well as anybody could have hoped for yesterday, and it’s simply a matter of bad luck that he had to walk away from the game with a loss. Lester left the game after 7 innings pitched and 104 pitches (73 strikes), wracking up 8 Ks along the way and only giving up 6 hits and 1 walk. This is the type of day that Lester needed to have coming out of the gate, and if he continues to pitch this well for the entire season (something he is capable of doing, as evidenced by the majority of his career) it will prove to be a great help to the Red Sox as they look to compete with Tampa Bay and New York.

Moving Forward

The Red Sox next play tomorrow at 7:05 PM ET, and they will have John Lackey going against recently-acquired Baltimore right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez. Lackey will be looking to start right where he left off in 2013, and he is one of many players on the Sox roster that will need to reproduce what he did in 2013 if Boston is going to contend again. Although last year might have been a surprising year for Lackey considering how poorly he pitched in 2010 and 2011, he proved that he could pitch well above replacement level for an entire season in 2013. Lackey also played an important role as a member of the postseason rotation, posting a 2.77 ERA in 5 games (4 starts). Hopefully he can start just like Lester did yesterday, and maybe tomorrow the Sox bats will also come alive like they did for all of 2013.

 

Series with Dodgers On Deck

Bold Series Predictions: The Sox are going to find a way to take 2 of 3 from the Dodgers in this weekend’s series, Xander Bogaerts will get his first career hit against Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Dennis Eckersley will set a new personal record by saying “cheese” 50+ times in a single broadcast.

Why: The Dodgers are unquestionably the hottest team in baseball, and even though Boston just finished up winning a three-game set against the Giants, they are still just .500 in the month of August. So why will the Sox win this series? For starters, the Sox have three of their best starters going; Lackey takes the hill Friday, Lester on Saturday and Peavy gets to face-off against his old NL West rivals on Sunday Night Baseball. Also helping Boston’s cause is the fact that they will miss two of LA’s best starters in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

Xander Bogaerts played in two of the games against the Giants this week, but he only started in one of those games and he did not start against struggling left-hander Barry Zito. This hints that John Farrell is trying his best to ease the 20-year-old phenom into playing time. Since Stephen Drew hit a bomb in Boston’s series-clinching win against the Giants, it wouldn’t surprise me at all for him to start against right-hander Ricky Nolasco in the series opener on Friday. However, I do think that Bogaerts will start against the left-hander Ryu because of Drew’s struggles against south paws this year. I also think that Bogaerts is due for a hit. Besides believing that he is due, I don’t really have a good reason to think he will get his first hit in that game. I guess my Spidey Senses are just tingling.

Pictured: Dennis Eckersley thinking about a nice slice of Cheddar Cheese. Probably.

The last of my predictions is also the easiest to make. Dennis Eckersley has given it his all trying to spice things up in the absence of Jerry Remy. Most notably, he has made it abundantly clear to his audience that he will never call a fastball by its true name. In fact, he may never call any pitch by its true name. Instead, he likes to talk about “cheese,” and “gas.” You can count me as one of those in complete support of his hilarious lexicon.

The Red Sox will be glad to have a day off before heading to LA, but I cannot wait for this three game set to begin. It should be a fun weekend of baseball, folks.

The Red Sox’ Key to Victori[no] in 2013

I just watched Shane Victorino hit his 8th HR in the 3rd inning of a fixture against the Giants (shout out to all dem Barclays Premiere League fans), and it inspired me to write a quick post about him. Also, if that home run wasn’t enough reason to write about him, his walk up song is “Three Little Birds.” That’s so much fun. My god that’s a lot of fun.

Anyway, on a more serious note, Victorino has been one of the most important pieces to the Red Sox’ resurgence this season. Some found the Victorino signing as a bit of a head scratching move by the front office (along with the Napoli signing, which our newest member just did a fantastic job analyzing).

However, Victorino has been one of Boston’s most important players, and a lot of his value comes from his defense. According to fangraphs, he has already posted an 18.4 UZR, which is good for 3rd in all of baseball, and 1st among right fielders. Although the defense wasn’t the Sox’ biggest problem last season, they managed to improve from 13th to 4th in the Right Field position from 2012 to 2013 (according to UZR). That, again, is thanks to Shane’s speedy legs.

Although Victornio has been middle of the pack in terms of his offensive production, his bat has not hurt the Red Sox (102 wRC+). Just like he has provided stability in the outfield, he has been a rock while hitting 2nd in the lineup. He provides good speed and a solid .336 OBP which sets the table for the big bats that follow.

Most importantly, Victorino has been extremely important to Boston’s turn around in terms of dollar value. According to Fangraphs, Victorino would have been worth $18.3 MM on the open market thus far in 2013. Projecting that out for the rest of the season, Victorino should be worth about $21.3 MM by the end of the year. That’s already more than half of the 3-year, $39 MM contract the front office gave him in the offseason. Before this year, many felt that his contract was a dumb move by the Red Sox, but it thus far he has been a steal for Boston. It was clear after the fire sale last year that the front office needed to be better when handing out big money, and with Victorino they have definitely been much smarter.

In conclusion, this is my message to you-oo oo: lets appreciate the work that the Flyin’ Hawaiian has done this season, and recognize that he’s been one of the most important reasons that Boston is still leading in the AL East.

Would the Real John Lackey Please Stand Up?

John Lackey’s success this year has been one of many feel-good stories for the 2013 Boston Red Sox. Lackey has been one of the best Red Sox starters this year by almost any measure, making him a surprising anchor for a rotation that includes Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Ryan Dempster.

But is the 2013 version of Lackey just a mirage, or is he going to continue to pitch like the player the Red Sox wanted when they signed him to a 5 year, $82.5 million contract (per baseball-reference.com)? Let’s take a closer look at his numbers to this point and see if we can figure out what we can expect from him moving forward.

To begin, Lackey has been the best Sox starter by a handful of different measures. Lackey has had the best command of any starter for the Red Sox this year. In fact, he is 6th in the American League in K/BB ratio, ahead of such players as Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander. He is T-2nd on the team in terms of fWAR, and perhaps most importantly, he leads the team in xFIP. This is the first indicator that his 2.95 ERA is a fairly good estimate of his overall performance, and it also predicts more success for him through the rest of the season.

Now, one might assume that half a season is not a big enough sample size to understand Lackey’s future, and one might also make the argument that his numbers this year have been due to luck rather than skill. However, there are a couple reasons to believe that Lackey’s success is sustainable, and he might have turned a corner after two awful seasons, and another in which he didn’t pitch an inning, in Boston.

The first noticeable change in Lackey’s pitching is his pitch usage. According to PITCHf/x data, Lackey’s four seam fastball use has increased astronomically this year compared to his previous two full seasons. This year Lackey is using his four seamer 51.3% of the time, compared to 15.2% and 15.1% in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This surprising jump in fastball usage has come largely at the expense of his cutter. In 2010 Lackey used his cutter 41.9% of the time, and that number is down to 27% in 2013. Perhaps he is more confident in his fastball this season after having Tommy John surgery in 2011.

Lackey is also using his off-speed stuff with much less regularity this season as compared to his first two in Boston. He threw his 24.1% curveballs in 2010, but this year that number is down to 13.1%. Another change, one that might not be as easy to notice, was Lackey’s use of his change-up. In his last three years in LA, his average change-up use was 3%, but in his first two years in Boston that number jumped to 6.2% (including 7.8% in 2011). In 2013 he is only throwing the change 3.1% of the time.

So what are the results of Lackey’s change in pitch repertoire, and why have his changes led to his return to dominance? For starters, he has induced batters to swing-and-miss at a much higher rate. This year against Lackey, batter’s swinging strike percentage has increased by 2.5% from Lackey’s last two full seasons (up to 9.5% from 7.0% in 2010 & 2011). Lackey is also throwing more first-pitch strikes this year.

After such a dramatic about-face from what Red Sox fans had seen from Lackey in his first two years, it is only natural to be hesitant in believing that he will continue to play well. But given all the reasons stated above, it seems like this new John Lackey might really be here to stay. On top of all the reasons previously stated, his HR/FB rate (14.7%) this year suggests that he is not being helped by luck when it comes to fly balls making it out of the park. Lackey is also inducing more ground balls than ever before (50.8%), and his GB/FB rate is top 10 in the AL.

All told, it seems that the 2013 version of John Lackey (22.7 K% and a sub-3 ERA through 106.2 innings) might just be with us for the long haul. It would be easy to declare this drastic change — from a pitcher who’s career many had written off to a staff-ace for the AL East leading Red Sox — a shocking and unexpected turn of events, but it’s difficult to call anything about this team shocking, based on the surprises that have already happened this year.

The continued success of the Red Sox depends heavily on players like Lackey continuing to have surprisingly good years. The Sox’s rotation is in an especially delicate position with the nagging injury issues of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester’s continued struggles, so they need Lackey to continue to provide stability to their pitching staff. Luckily for the front office and fans, it doesn’t appear that the 2013 version of John Lackey is leaving anytime soon.

As a closing thought that doesn’t really have too much to do with this article except for the title, I leave you with this video. Please enjoy.

Red Sox Lose Last Two Before Break

The Red Sox wrapped up the first half of their season losing the last 2 games of a 3 game set with Oakland. Nevertheless, the series had some encouraging moments, and nobody East of New York will be complaining about Boston’s 58-39 record heading into the Break.

Things I liked: Even though Oakland took the last 2 games, there was a lot to like about the way the Sox played. For starters, John Lackey pitched 7 innings and racked up 5 Ks  while leading Boston to a 4-2 win in game 1.

I have been told to alert Mr. Lackey that the 2005-07 Angels called and they want their pitcher back. Seriously. What has gotten into this guy? The dude has a 2.78 ERA and a 3.27 xFIP through 100.1 innings pitched and he leads Red Sox starters with a 4.04 K/BB ratio. We shall discuss whether or not Mr. Lackey’s success to this point is sustainable in another post, but at the moment he is leading the Boston pitching staff in the absence of Clay Buchholz.

In game 2 of the series, Boston was brushed aside by Oakland’s AJ Griffin. Griffin pitched eight shutout innings and the he never really let Boston get into the game. However, Jon Lester produced an encouraging night in which he only allowed 3 runs (albeit on 3 walks and 6 hits, including Derek Norris’ 5th inning home run). For the Red Sox to build upon their unexpected play thus far they’re going to need Lester to figure out how to pitch like he did from 2008 to 2011.

Game 3 saw the Sox produce their third straight positive start. 24-year-old rookie Brandon Workman took a no-hitter into the 7th inning when Coco Crisp broke it up with a ground ball to Pedey. Two batters later, Josh Donaldson blasted his 16th home run which tied up the game at 2. Nonetheless, the Work-Man (wow, how bad is that nickname?!) pitched well enough for Boston to win, and if he keeps pitching like that he’s going to be a great asset for years to come.

Things I didn’t like so much: For a series against a potential playoff opponent in which Boston lost 2 of 3, the last three games didn’t give me a whole lot to complain about. The offense disappeared for all but two of the last 20 innings of the series, but we’ll just chalk that up to fatigue after a long first half and the fact that Boston faced Oakland’s two best starters (2.4 WAR for Colon and 1.5 for Griffin, per Fangraphs.com) in games 2 and 3.

Overall, I’m not going too far out on a limb by saying that Boston’s first half was a success. If you had told any member of Red Sox Nation at the start of the year that their boys would be 58-39 and 2.5 games up in the division at the All Star Break, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would have believed you. But, after 97 games that’s the case.

Moving forward, the Red Sox figure to be in the heart of the playoff race come September. Boston would love to win the East and at this point there’s no reason to believe that they can’t. But in one of the toughest divisions in baseball, in which 4/5 teams still have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs, it would be A-okay if the Sox can sneak into the postseason with a Wild Card birth. But hey, let’s not let that patented Red Sox-pessimism start sinking in just yet. This season has been a blast so far, so let’s keep enjoying it.

Red Sox take 3 of 4 from Seattle

The Red Sox wrapped up their series against the Mariners this afternoon winning 8-7 in 10 innings. It was important that the Sox at least manage to split this series following two disappointing games this weekend against the Angels. With the Rays winning their last eight, the Sox can’t afford to fall into a cold spell. After this series, Tampa is only 3.5 GB.

Things I liked: There was a lot to like about this series. Aside from a disappointing result in the first game — in which they only managed to score 2 runs off King Felix and 4 runs total — the Sox offense was red-hot. Boston hit seven HRs in the last three games of the series, including five bombs in the second game.

David Ortiz continued his scorching month of July (.438/.472/.875) racking up eight hits over the series. Papi had three doubles and two home runs to go along with his third stolen base of the season (LOL). Even more encouraging, it doesn’t seem like the big man is going to see too much regression going forward. He has continued his three-year trend of having a K-rate sitting at about 13% (below his career average of 17.9%)

Felix Doubront continued to pitch well, and over his last five starts he hasn’t given up more than two earned runs. Even more encouraging, his 3.91 ERA seems believable at this point. Fangraphs pegs his FIP at 3.63 and his xFIP at 3.92, so we shouldn’t expect Doubront to fall off from his current pace.

Things I didn’t like so much: Even though the they took 3/4, the pitching left a lot to be desired. Playing in a pitching-friendly Safeco the staff still managed to give up four, eight, four, and seven runs. Aside from Doubront’s start, the staff looked awful. Lester pitched poorly, Dempster gave up seven runs in 3.1 innings (only four earned) and Allen Webster continued to remind management that he isn’t big-league ready quite yet.

The bullpen pitched fine, but against better offensive teams in the long run the front office still needs to find a way to upgrade before the trade deadline.

Looking ahead: On the whole, this series washed most of the poor taste from last weekend’s debacle out of Red Sox Nation’s mouth. Flying to The Bay, the Sox have Lackey and then Lester slated to start the first two games.  It would be great if Boston could finish off the first half by taking the series against a solid Oakland squad, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if they only manage to take one of three.