Monday, April 09, 2007

Dirty Water: Sox Talk With The Thunderstick

This is the second installment of dcat's new regular feature wherein the Thunderstick and I discuss the state of our beloved Boston Red Sox and when we can catch a breath, baseball generally.:

Thunderstick: Well, while I know we'll got a bit off-topic from time to time with this journal, I figured that since we've just reached the end of the first week of the season it's important at this point to reflect on what we've seen so far and what we are looking for in the coming week.

It's tough to really categorize this first week for the Sox. I wouldn't call it a failure but I wouldn't call it a success either. Going 3-3 on the road isn't bad, but 4-2 just sounds a whole lot better and I wish we had been able to pull things out. I was going to do this Peter King MMQB style and write what I liked and didn't like, but after I started listing stuff, I realized that there was a lot more that I didn't like than that I did.

So in summary what I did like:

1. The starting pitching--sure Schilling had a tough first outing, but he looked very much in command last night so I feel a lot better about him. Beckett looked OK--it took him too many pitches to get through 5 innings, but better to get through 5 innings with one ER because he was forcing himself to mix in off-speed pitches and curveballs, than to go 100 pitches, 7 IP, 4 ER because he was just grooving fastballs. DiceK was about as good as we could have hoped for and lost in all the hullaballoo was that Waker looked great in his first outing. So I like that.

2. Papelbon--having a shutdown closer is such an ease to the mind when watching the game.

3. Drew and Dusty--I like the pitches Ortiz and Manny are getting even if they aren't taking full advantage of them yet because Drew is behind them. Dusty looks like he'll be solid in the 9 hole.

What I didn't like:

1. Most of the lineup--Ortiz and Manny are off to slow starts (although Ortiz got going last night). I have no doubt that they'll end up with their always solid numbers and that Drew will get it done behind them. I also like Youk as the 2 hitter and Dusty seems to be OK at the 9, but Lugo, Lowell, Tek and Coco are causing me ulcers. It's going to drive me crazy all season to see these guys get left on base if these guys don't hit better. It's too early to get this worked up--Lugo especially needs a few weeks, but the trends with Lowell, Tek and Coco are troublesome at best. We are already hearing about all the other stuff Tek brings to the team other than hitting. I hate hearing that because it means he's not hitting and people are worried.

2. The fifth starter and the pen--sure, we are hoping that by the all star break, Lester will be filling in the 5th starter and Tavarez can get his crazy ass back to the pen, but there's a danger in having someone with so little control as your fifth starter and that is that we don't need every fifth day to have to go to our pen in the 4th/5th inning. I think we've seen that things might be pretty shallow in the Sox pen already (at least until Timlin gets back) and we don't need them taxed with long outings. Sox need to find someone who can go 6-7 innings. I don't care if they give up 4-6 runs in those innings. The pen before Pap isn't good enough to pitch that many innings every fifth day.

3. The general preparedness of this team--I feel like the Sox weren't ready for the season to start. Batters look lethargic and we're seeing baserunning and defensive botches at a rate that I'm not happy with this early in the season. Even though they won three games, I found myself yelling "get your heads out of your asses" more than I think I should be for the first week of the season.

But as we talked about last week, it is just the first week of the season and there's a lot of weeks to go. We've got Seattle and Anaheim/LA/California/the OC coming in this week and if there's one thing we've seen in past years it's that the Sox bats seem to really liven up at Fenway. So we'll get another week of evaluation here before we start worrying too much about certain guys and celebrating too much about other guys. It'll be cold in the Boston area this week--especially for night games and Thurs there is almost certainly going to be rain all day and even the chance of snow overnight, so I think we may already be chalking that one up. But let's see what a week at home does for these guys.

dcat: You do not give me a lot of fodder with which to disagree. I too am pleased with the starting pitching as a whole, am happy with the rookie, Pedroia, and with Drew’s first week, and am happy to see Paps back to lights out status even though I still have to wonder what, other than necessity, caused the change in the status of his shoulder’s structural soundness. And I too am frustrated by the lack of offensive output, by the lack of depth in the pen (though I actually am ok with Tavarez for now – he flourished last year in a set role, so whatever we do, we need to establish a comfort zone for him; yes, he’s nuts). And above all, the simply dumb mistakes grate with me as they do with you – a team that does not bring a lot of speed to the table should at least be sound with baserunning fundamentals. And for the love of God, don’t get tossed out stealing third to end an inning.

So I’ll instead move on to two other points that regularly feature in our correspondence. The first has to do with the meaning of these games. April is certainly a feeling out period. We have embraced Theo’s paradigm, which goes something like this: A team that hopes to contend has the first third of the season to figure out what your weaknesses are, the second third to address them, and the last third to get it done. But keep in mind always: these games count every bit as much as the ones in September. Getting shut out in Arlington on a Friday night in April, and squandering an outstanding outing by Waker in the process hurts just as much as losing to Texas 6-5 in May and as much as losing in September unless the September loss comes to a team in the division. Right now we face a schedule that ought to allow us to rack up a few wins and get ourselves in the poll position in the East for a while. Instead in these first two series we have been muddling through. Muddling through is no good for the team and it sure as hell is no good for us.

The second of our regular talking points, which one of us will probably mention most Mondays, is that I hate off-days, as I know you do. Football is about building up over the course of a week to a game on Saturday or Sunday (or sometimes Monday or Thursday). Basketball and hockey are not sports predicated on a seasonal rhythm – and at the professional level both seasons go on for too damned long anyway. But baseball is different. Baseball is a game the appeal of which is in part based on the fact that it becomes a daily companion. With the exception of the All Star break, which practically causes withdrawal to kick in, baseball is a six-day-a-week, April to (we hope) October relationship. We know that the Sox are off on most Mondays, and yet it feels like a dead spot whenever the off day arrives. Once April kicks in I want a game every day, a story and a box score every morning. I suppose in part that disruption of the rhythm is what created this weekly journal, or whatever we are calling it.

In any case, the big event to anticipate this week will be Dice-K’s Fenway debut on Wednesday. Hitting leadoff for Seattle on Wednesday night will be Ichiro, which will constitute the biggest cultural moment in Japan since the inventions of Hello Kitty and anime porn. Back in Japan’s big leagues, Ichiro was something like 8-for-34 against Matsuzaka and I imagine our guy will want to start off the game by sending a message and striking out the guy who once represented Japan’s greatest export to the US. But as important will be to see if Beckett manages to progress, to mix up pitches as you observed, but also to start stretching out and getting deeper into games. These days scare me because of the weather, frankly, and I am always glad when we get past the games when the guys are bundled up and we see the steam when they breathe and hear the announcers use words like “frigid.” Let’s save that talk for October baseball.


Thunderstick said...

Good points all DCat--a couple things to address.

Beckett--it'll be interesting to see this start. I imagine it will be much like his first. That game was frigid in KC and the annoucers were remarking about how hard it is to get a good grip to throw a curveball in the cold for a good curveball pitcher, much less someone that is trying to just get comfortable with it like Beckett is. What was promising was that even when he was having trouble controlling it throughout the game, he kept mixing it in, knowing that once he went to 80% fastballs, he'd start seeing that ball go over the fence. I imagine we'll see more of the same on what will certainly be a chilly Tuesday night at Fenway.

The off days--I absolutely hate them, but at the same time, looking at the schedule, I'm glad the Sox have one today. The first couple weeks have such irregular starting times. They played an afternoon game in KC on Thurs, then had to go to Texas to play an afternoon game on Friday. We've noted often how teams in those situations seem to really have a loss of focus most likely due to road fatigue after strange overnight trips. I have no doubt that itinerary had something to do with the lackluster 2-0 loss on Friday afternoon. Getting done at 11 last night would have made for a tough turn around tonight at Fenway. Hopefully we can take advantage with a day of rest and more familiar surroundings tomorrow.

Every game counting the same--I'm on board with the Theo theory that you posted about the season being broken down in to thirds and what you are trying to accomplish in each of those. But I agree with you (as you know because we talk about it all the time) about these games being no less important than later games. By that same token, one thing we have not addressed is the division race. Like most years we are looking solely at the Yanks with the understanding that should we wake up on August 1st to see the Jays or O's or (snicker) DRays there in the standings we'd start worrying about them. But the Yanks are clearly in a bit of turmoil right now--their starters ERA is almost 10. Their relievers have pitched more innings than their starters and they've started the season 2-3 and that would have been 1-4 if not for the heroics of every New Yorker's hero ARod on Saturday afternoon. You've got Matsui on the DL and Damon hobbled already. We went through this in 2005 when the Yanks got off to a horrible start and the Sox were playing OK, but not great. It seems like the past several years the Sox have not been able to take advantage when the Yanks went into slumps. It seems that I find myself saying "the Yanks really aren't playing well, I wish we were taking advantage of this to open up some space in the standings" a lot more than saying "the Yanks aren't playing well and we are putting them in a hole." As such, we see that one of our prime opportunities this year to put a lot of pressure on the Yanks might be coming in the first few weeks of the season and we can't afford to be playing bad right now. Sure we could not play well and go 10-9 to start and find ourselves a game or two in front of NY and be saying "good thing they aren't playing well or we'd be 3-4 back right now" and we'd feel pretty good about being in good shape after a so-so start, but when we see the Yanks go through that 20-6 run they'll have at some point and we go from 2 up to 5 down, we'll be pointing at these first few weeks as the time we didn't jump on them. It seems like in the last 10 years that when the Yanks are cold we aren't hot and when they are hot, we are cold and you can point to one or two 15-20 game stretches that really made the difference in the season. There's no reason to say "it's early, it's OK for us to work through some things" when we could be running up a lead in the standings.

dcat said...

Thunderstick --
I agree about the necessary nature of off days. I hate them, but I know that teams cvannot do without them, and as the season progresses I'll hate them more but they will be more necessary, especially if we continue to deal with a thin bullpen corps -- though my guess is that even before the trade deadline theo will be working the lines for pitching help.

As far as pitching goes, I have to assume that we are third of three for the services of one Roger clemens and that the Yankees will open up their pocketbooks in a way that we will eventually shy from. If it's money Clemens wants (and at least in part it is money Clemens wants) he'll get the best offer from New York. That said, while I would love to add Clemens, I do not fear the Yankees adding him. We ahve talked about this a lot, but the reality is that his last rodeo in the AL East was more than three years ago and even then he was not dominant. He was especially not dominant against us. If the Yanks want to rent Clemens for $25 million from June onward, let them do it.

And while I agree that the yankees do not look like the threat they have been in the past, neither did they enter either of the last two years looking like that sort of threat. I think we are in a position where we have to respect them but we do not have to fear them. i think that you allude to the main point -- we will keep an eye on the yanks more than the others, and will not worry about the other teams in the east until they show they can hang for a full season -- though last year's third place finish galls me to no end and I hope that head to head we wax the Jays.

I tend to think you are right about beckett -- in the cold especially we'll see a guy struggling to spot his curve but still using it to take the pressure off the heat. I just continue to look to him to have a breakout season. With Schill's performance yesterday I am back to dreaming of Schill to Beckett to Dice K topped off with an effective Wake and a resurgent Jon Lester carrying us through the summer. in those dreams, of course, there is no need for middle relievers. If only my awake time was so simple!


Thunderstick said...

I have no doubt that the Yanks rotation at some point will feature Wang, Clemens and that minor leaguer that they are raving about. All the more important that we jump on them early--with the money they have to spend, I think you have to assume that barring further injuries, the Yanks will only get better as the year goes on, not worse. And as we've seen in the past--you can hit your way to the playoffs--it's tough to win in the playoffs without pitching, but most teams that score 1000+ runs end up getting there so we need to open up that lead now. I think those first few series with the Yanks this month will be more crucial for us than them.

I have no doubt that the Jays might be a factor and I know we tied with them last year, but we had also packed it in the last month of the season (sadly) and we went through this with Baltimore a few years ago when they were in first for a good chunk of the beginning of the season. I just can't bring myself to worry about anyone else until I see them within a few games on August 1st.

GoodLiberal said...

So, it seems with Schill, Beckett and Dice-K that we have the potential for 3 15-20 win pitchers, we can safely say. Beckett seems to have learned his lesson from last year and is mixing in more off-speed pitches to keep batters off balance. Wake will do the usual. Hopefully, Lester will come in and replace Tavarez. I think this department is our most predictable.

Relievers look O.K. so far. Papelbon is the man, even with that pout of his. Donnelly looks solid- Piniero and Lopez look shaky. I'm hoping that Devern Hansack turns into a solid reliever, and that Theo will go shopping if necessary come June.

Which leaves us with the bats. V-Tek and Coco came out against the Mariners the other day... It's just a question of whether they can keep it up.

As for the Jays and the MFYs:
Burnett was injured for the first half of the year for the Jays, and now Halladay and Burnett anchor a pretty solid rotation, even if the rest of the rotation is not as deep with the departure of Lilly (who always seemed to do well against us...). The likes of Wells, Glaus and Rios means that they can mash if they need to. Discount them at our peril, but I would have thought that we beat them out through depth of rotation.

As for the Yanks... It's all down to their pitching, isn't it? I'm with dcat on Clemens. Would prefer if they didn't have him, but not too worried if they do, but think Thuderstick might be buying the hype around the Yankee's young prospect, Hughes. He had an awful Spring Training and doesn't seem like an AL East pitcher yet. Maybe in a year. We have the better pitching, but they will score lots and lots and lots of runs.
It always comes down to the wire, doesn't it?

dcat said...

GoodLib --
All good points, I think. Although as much as pitching is key not only for us but also for the Yanks and Jays, and as much as we may spend the summer settling the middle-reliever corps, i would suggest that right now it is the hitting that seems problematic. We are 4-4 and in the four losses by and large the bats have been out of commission. As daunting as our 3-4-5 will be, we cannot look to them to produce 900 runs on their own this year. It's too early to panic, and yesterday, for example, we faced a guy who is going to be dominant in this league for a long time if he remains healthy. But i just fear that runs may be more scarce than maybe we thought coming into the season.

Then again, let's let the weather warm up, let the bats free up against some #2-3-4-5 pitchers, and give some of the new folks a chance to get their legs under them.

And yes it seemingly always comes down to the wire.