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Entries in Boston Red Sox (105)

Friday
Nov042011

Bard of the Rotation?

At the present moment, Boston's 2012 rotation consists of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz (back injury cooperating) and...uh...your guess is as good as mine. With Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey out following Tommy John surgery, Nuke LaLoosh doppelganger Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland (who combined for a 6.44 ERA in 2011) may be the fourth and fifth options. The Red Sox will no doubt scour the free agent and trade market for an arm or two, but one idea being bandied about is moving Daniel Bard from the bullpen to the rotation.

Peter Gammons said the move, while considered by Boston, is unlikely. Jonathan Papelbon hits free agency this winter, and the Sox may well move Bard to the closer spot and let someone else give Papelbon upwards of $13-15 million per year. But if Papelbon returns, or the Sox sign another reliever to handle the ninth, or they don't find many palatable starting options outside of the organization, the former starter at North Carolina would have to tighten up his approach against left-handed hitters to succeed going through the lineup multiple times.

Since he made his MLB debut in 2009, Bard has a 3.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.34 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) against right-handed hitters. He hasn't been bad against lefties, but he has shown a decent-sized platoon split (a 2 K/BB ratio, and a 4.09 FIP). Righties swing through his stuff often, missing 31.1 percent of the time that they offer, but lefties have a milder 21.1 percent miss rate.

Most of that difference stems from his upper-90s fastball. Righties can't seem to handle the pitch (24 percent miss rate), especially the high heat:

Right-handed hitters' contact rate vs. Bard's fastball, 2009-2011

Lefties, however, connect much more often (16 percent miss rate):

Left-handed hitters' contact rate vs. Bard's fastball, 2009-2011

Happily for the Red Sox, it seems like Bard might be adapting against lefties and becoming a little less predictable. He cut his fastball usage against southpaws from 77 percent in 2009-2010 to slightly less than 70 percent, mixing in more hard, high-80s-to-low-90s changeups and mid-80s sliders. It's dangerous to make much of a one-year change in a platoon split for a reliever, but he did increase his ground ball rate against lefties from 49 percent the previous two years to 64 percent, and his K/BB climbed to 2.6.

Bard hasn't started a professional game since 2007, when he walked over a batter per inning and posted a 6.25 FIP between two levels of A-Ball. But he has made gigantic strides since that lost season, and he profiles as a more ground ball-slanted version of Alexi Ogando, a high-octane reliever-turned starter who managed a 3.6 Wins Above Replacement season for Texas. If the Red Sox think he could handle 150+ innings and fend off lefties, moving Bard to the rotation and signing someone else to handle the ninth wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Wednesday
Oct262011

Cherington Backs Crawford 

Carl Crawford's first season in Boston was a bust. The long-time Tampa Bay Ray landed a seven-year, $142 million contract last offseason with the expectation that he'd bring his power/speed combo and top-flight defense to Fenway. Instead, Crawford missed a month with a strained hamstring and batted just .255, with a career-worst .289 on-base percentage and a .405 slugging percentage. His 85 OPS+ was his worst mark since he first became a full-time starter as a 21-year-old back in 2003, and he was exactly replacement-level according to Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement.

New Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, however, believes that the 30-year-old left fielder has plenty of championship-caliber baseball left in him. During his introductory press conference, Cherington backed Crawford:

“I was one of the strongest proponents of signing Carl Crawford last offseason,” Cherington said. “I pushed hard for that because I believed in him and I believe in him just the same now as I did then. This guy has been an impact player on both sides of the ball for a lot of years in this league. We saw over and over what he can do to help a team win when he was in Tampa.”

So, what went wrong at the plate for Crawford, causing him to look like a shell of the hitter who posted a 107 OPS+ during his time in Tampa? For one, he walked in just 4.3 percent of his plate appearances, his worst mark since 2005. Pitchers were more aggressive against Crawford in 2011, placing more of their offerings in the zone instead of off the outside corner. Check out opponents' pitch location versus Crawford from 2008-2010, compared to 2011:

Opponents' pitch location vs. Crawford, 2008-2010Opponents' pitch location vs. Crawford, 2011Crawford's percentage of pitches seen within the strike zone climbed to 49 from 45 over the previous three seasons. And he let more of those pitches go by for strikes, as Crawford's called strike percentage increased to 34.1 percent from 30.7 percent from 2008-2010 (the league average is 31.2 percent). More in-zone pitches and more called strikes put Crawford in the hole more often: he was backed into pitcher's counts in 48 percent of his plate appearances this season. From '08 to '10, he fell behind the pitcher in 45 percent of his PAs.

Aside from showing poor pitch recognition, Crawford's batting average on balls in play took a tumble. His BABIP was .299 this past season, about 30 points below his career average before signing with the Red Sox. Check out his in-play average (including home runs) by pitch location from 2008-2010, and then 2011. With Boston, he rarely got hits on pitches thrown high and away:

 Crawford's in-play average by pitch location, 2008-2010

Crawford's in-play average by pitch location, 2011

His BABIP against right-handers fell somewhat (.325, compared to .341 from 2008-2010), but the drop was more pronounced against lefties (.240 BABIP, down from .298 from 2008-2010).

It's difficult to pinpoint the reasoning for Crawford's BABIP decline. He's undoubtedly one of the game's fastest players when healthy, boasting the second-highest Speed Score in the game over the past three seasons. Perhaps his bad wheel caused him to beat out a few less hits than he typically would.

Or, his falling behind pitchers so often could be a factor -- he could have been taking more defensive swings, instead of really letting 'er rip and making hard contact. The count has a significant effect on how often batters get hits on balls put in play. Overall, hitters had a .289 BABIP in pitcher's counts in 2011, compared to a .299 BABIP in even counts and a .308 BABIP in hitter's counts.

If Crawford's 2011 BABIP mirrored his career mark with the Rays, he would have had a batting average in the mid-.280s, a .320ish OBP and a slugging percentage in the mid-.430s (and that's assuming all additional hits are singles). That's not too terribly off his career .296/.337/.444 line with the Rays. Whether it be better health, improved strike-zone judgment or just a few more lucky bounces, Crawford needs his BABIP to bounce back if he's going to validate Cherington's confidence in him.

Wednesday
Sep282011

ERA aside, Lester Still Strong

With Boston's season quite possibly on the line, Jon Lester takes the mound tonight against the Orioles. The lefty has been drubbed for 17 runs in 25.2 innings pitched in September, contributing to a starting pitching collapse that has erased what was an 8.5 game lead over the Rays in the Wild Card race to begin the month.

Further stoking Sox fans' fears, Lester is pitching on three days' rest. Starters throwing on short rest tend to get rocked: according to Baseball-Reference, starters' opponent on-base-plus slugging percentage was 13 percent higher on three days' rest than in other situations in 2010, and 27 percent higher in 2011.

But, rather than painting an apocalyptic picture of a tired Lester getting rocked against the O's, I'd like to point out a few reasons why he's still Boston's best hope of avoiding what Nate Silver suggests could be the worst September swoon of all time.

- Lester might have an ERA nearing six this September, but his fielding-independent numbers are still strong. His xFIP, an ERA estimator based on strikeouts, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate, is 3.75 this month. Lester hasn't been ace-like, but he shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Kyle Weiland, Erik Bedard and Andrew Miller, whose combined xFIP in September is 5.47 (Josh Beckett also has a strong xFIP of 2.96).

- Shallow bloop hits in the outfield and bleeders in the infield have caused much of Lester's September woes. Here's his opponent hit chart for the month:

 

Lester's in-play average (including homers) is .403 in September, compared to .301 from April-August and the .320 league average. Whereas Lester got roughed up when he missed high and down the middle through August, he's giving up those seeing-eye hits all over the zone in September:

Lester's in-play average by pitch location, April-August 2011                  Lester's in-play average by pitch location, September 2011 - It's not pitch location, either. Virtually nothing has changed in terms of where Lester is throwing the ball:

Lester's vertical pitch location

April-August: 30% thrown up, 33% middle, 37% down

September: 29% up, 34% middle, 37% down

Lester's horizontal pitch location

April-August: 30% inside, 21% middle, 49% outside

September: 31% inside, 23% middle, 46% outside

- Lester's velocity isn't down. He's still sitting 92-93 mph with his fastball, maxing out at 96, and tossing his cutter around 88-89 mph.

- The "pitching on three days' rest" narrative is a bit misleading, as Lester threw just 55 pitchers in his September 24 start against the Yankees. For a guy who topped 200 innings three straight years prior to 2011 and has averaged about 105 pitches per start this season, fatigue might not be such a big issue.