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Entries in Boston Red Sox (105)

Monday
Jan272014

Sizemore Unlikely to Beat Out Bradley Jr. for CF Job in Boston

By now, Grady Sizemore was supposed to be burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials. Sizemore had it all -- power, speed, strike-zone awareness, Grady's Ladies -- and was about as valuable during his age 22 to 25 seasons (24.6 Wins Above Replacement) as Frank Robinson, Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. But today, the Indians' erstwhile franchise center fielder is merely a 31-year-old scrapping for a roster spot with the Red Sox following seven surgical procedures that have prevented him from taking the field since September 22, 2011.

What do the defending World Series champions see in Sizemore, whom they signed to a one-year, $750,000 deal that could reach $6 million if he hits performance bonuses? Where could he contribute in 2014? Here are a couple ways that Boston could deploy Sizemore, assuming he makes it through spring training in one piece.

A Jackie Bradley Jr. alternative in center field

This seems to be the angle that's getting the most play in the media. Boston, looking to replace new Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury in center, might be reluctant to give an everyday job to Bradley Jr., given the 23-year-old's wretched showing in the majors last season (.189 AVG/.280 OBP/.337 SLG in 107 plate appearances). It's a sexy story ("broken down star beats out hot shot youngster"), but Sizemore likely won't be trotting out to the middle pasture come opening day.

For one thing, Bradley Jr. is still highly promising. The former South Carolina star has a career .297/.404/.471 line in the minors, blending superb plate patience with mid-range power. He's also a gazelle in center field, with MLB.com's Jim Callis dubbing Bradley the best defensive outfield prospect in the game. Sure, he was terrible in limited playing time in 2013, but it's hardly unprecedented for a top young player to flail initially and then go on to have a great career. Dustin Pedroia, for example, had an even worse showing at the plate than Bradley (.191/.258/.303 in 98 plate appearances back in 2006). When he got off to a .182/.308/.236 start in April of 2007, some were ready to cut bait. Sometimes, it takes prospects a few hundred ABs to get acclimated.

Bradley's main issue last year was contact, as he punched out in 29 percent of his plate appearances. He had a particularly difficult time squaring up high pitches (he swung and missed 27.1 percent of the time, compared to the 20.3 percent MLB average). But there's not much reason to think he'll whiff like Pedro Alvarez or Mark Reynolds moving forward -- Bradley struck out a modest 17.4 percent of the time on the farm. Chances are Bradley gets on base, drives pitches into the gaps and tracks down fly balls like a boss in 2014.

We also have no idea whether Sizemore is actually capable of playing center field at this point. Advanced defensive metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating considered him a plus fielder during his halcyon days in Cleveland (+4.3 runs saved compared to an average player per 150 games), but that was before Sizemore had microfracture surgery on both knees. Maybe he can still fly, or maybe he gimps around like Kirk Gibson in the '88 World Series. We won't know until he takes the field.

Jonny Gomes' platoon partner in left field

This scenario looks more plausible, though Daniel Nava is more deserving as a guy who thumps righties (.303/.401/.459 in 2012-13) and isn't coming off a two-year respite. Gomes obliterates left-handed pitching (.277/.387/.494 over the past three seasons) but gets shut down by righties (.205/.314/.382). He also plays defense like a guy who had microfracture surgery yesterday. Sizemore, meanwhile, still managed to inflict some damage versus right-handers while his body betrayed him (.254/.333/.450 from 2009-11). A Sizemore-Gomes platoon could be productive. Of course, a Nava-Gomes platoon is already productive.

Mike Carp also hits righties pretty well (.258/.333/.449 from 2011-13). He could be swapped, though I wouldn't bet on GM Ben Cherington showing that much faith in Sizemore's durability.

Sizemore's role in Boston is about what you'd expect for a guy who hasn't seen live pitching since beer-and-chicken-gate -- he doesn't really have one right now. He could contribute, and he has far more upside than your typical 30-something scrapheap sign. Still, nobody's counting on him to crack the opening day roster, much less usurp a top prospect like Bradley.

Tuesday
Jan142014

Big Papi Refuses to Get Old

Red Sox GM Ben Cherington recently said that "the door will be open" for the club to discuss a contract extension with David Ortiz, who will pull down $15 million next season during the last year of his current deal. For most 38-year-olds who don't contribute in the field and on the bases, the door would have slammed shut years ago. But Ortiz, fresh off a season in which he posted the best park-and-league-adjusted OPS (60 percent above average) among qualified hitters this side of Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis, just won't get old. Forget slowing reflexes and declining bat speed -- Big Papi is too busy hoisting World Series trophies and sporting WWE championship belts.

In fact, Ortiz's lumber looks as quick as ever. He annihialated "hard" pitches -- fastballs, cutters and splitters -- in 2013, boasting the third-highest slugging percentage in this game against those high-speed offerings.

Baseball orthodoxy says that sluggers lose their quick-twitch fibers and prodigious power as they age. Not Ortiz, who is actually yanking more hard pitches to right field -- and launching them deeper -- as he creeps closer to forty. His pull percentage and average fly ball distance versus fastballs, cutters and splitters has increased three years running.

Ortiz's pull percentage and average fly ball distance vs. hard pitches, 2011-13

        

In addition to his World Series and pro wrestling gold, Ortiz can now claim his place as one of the all-time great batters among old dudes. Ortiz has the fourth-highest OPS+ ever for a hitter from age 35 onward (minimum 1,500 plate appearances). A chemically enhanced Barry Bonds, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth are the only batters who mocked Father Time more effectively than Big Papi, though those guys continued raking into their forties.

(Source: Baseball-Reference.com)

Should the Sox pony up one last time for Ortiz? History hasn't been kind to similar sluggers. The list of DHs who have thrived from age 38 onward is an awfully short one: Just Edgar Martinez (132 OPS+), Brian Downing (130 OPS+) and Harold Baines (111 OPS+) managed to be at least 10 percent above average with the bat while logging 1,500+ plate appearances. And keep in mind, these are guys who only contribute offensively. Still, are you going to bet against Big Papi at this point? Eventually, he's going to slow down. But if there's one thing we've learned while perennially writing his baseball obituary, it's that Ortiz cares little for typical aging curves.

Thursday
Dec192013

Missing: Matt Thornton's Fastball

Matt Thornton finally learned how to tame his upper-90s fastball in his thirties, emerging as one of the game's most lethal relievers after walking the yard in the minors and during his first few years in the majors with Seattle. The durable lefty dominated from 2008-11, posting the fifth-highest strikeout rate (10.7 per nine innings) and eighth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (59 percent above average) among qualified 'pen arms. Hitters knew what was coming -- Thronton threw his meal ticket fastball an MLB-high 86 percent over that time frame -- but that knowledge didn't help them look any less foolish at the dish.

The Yankees just signed the 37-year-old Thornton to a two-year, $7 million free agent deal, hoping he can serve as a lower-cost alternative to power lefty Boone Logan (now a Rockie after inking a three-year, $16.5 million contract). Unfortunately, Thornton seems to have misplaced his meal ticket. These days, Thronton's throwing his fastball slower -- and leaving it over the heart of the plate far too often.

Back in 2011, Thornton boasted the highest average fastball velocity (95.8 MPH) of any lefty reliever not named Aroldis Chapman. But his average heater declined to 95 MPH in 2012, and 94.2 MPH in 2013. As Thornton's fastball velocity dipped, hitters' contact rate against the pitch spiked:

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2011

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2012

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2013

 

Batters whiffed at Thornton's fastball 22 percent of the time that they swung in '11, well above the 18 percent average for relievers. However, that whiff rate dropped to 16.4 percent in '12 and just 13.9 percent this past year. For comparison's sake, J.P. Howell -- who throws 88 MPH gas on a breezy day -- got whiffs 13.6 percent of the time. Connecting much more frequently, opponents raised their batting average off Thornton's fastball from .256 to .275 to .298.

Thornton's fastball velocity isn't the only thing on the wane, though -- his command has also suffered. He has thrown more pitches over the vertical middle of the plate three years running (31 percent in '11, 36.3 percent in '12, and 36.8 percent in '13). When pitchers toss a belt-high fastball, hitters pretty much morph into Dustin Pedroia. They rarely whiff (a collective 14.2 percent miss rate in 2013), hit for average (.291) and drive the ball into the gaps (.464 slugging percentage). Poorly located fastballs lead to laser shows.

With diminished zip and command, Thornton's K rate has dipped from 9.5 per nine frames in 2011 to a career-worst 6.2 in 2013, when he couldn't crack the Red Sox playoff roster. It's not like the Yankees shelled out big bucks to bring him aboard, considering that $7 million now buys about a win on the free agent market. But, like many of his formerly elite teammates in the Bronx, Thornton has seen better days.