Tuesday, October 30, 2007

2004 vs. 2007

On the eve of the 2nd Red Sox parade in four years (and the 5th New England sports parade in since 2002, not including Ray Bourque's return trip home with the Stanley Cup that he had to go to Colorado to win), many in the media have been asking: which championship team was better: 2004 or 2007?

One thing that seems clear: without 2004, this year's team would have had a much more difficult time managing expectations both during the year, and especially in the post-season.

There are the obvious similarities between '04 and '07: the core of the lineup for both teams is and was -- in John Kerry's immortal words -- "Manny Ortiz"; the back-to-back power and on-base percentage has been duplicated very rarely in baseball history, most famously by Ruth and Gehrig in the late 1920s. Curt Schilling anchored both pitching staffs, although in 2004 (his first year in Boston, at age 37) he was still a power pitcher, with 8.05 Ks per 9 innings, while in 2007 he was down to just 6.02 K/9IP. Behind the plate, Jason Varitek remains the same, although his productivity has dropped (OPS down to .788 from a career high .872 in 2004), as would be expected from a catcher now 35 years old and with plenty of miles on the odometer.

But the entire infield has been turned over, and the 2007 team is clearly younger than the 2004 team (although less than one might think, with average age of 30.5 in 2004, and 30.1 years in 2007). More important, the 2007 team has young, home-grown talent in key positions: CF Jacoby Ellsbury, 2B Dustin Pedroia, closer Jonathan Papelbon, and 1B Kevin Youkilis, as well as pitchers Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Manny Delcarmen. In contrast, the most prominent product of the Sox farm system on the 2004 team was Trot Nixon, although he was already a grizzled dirt dog by that time.

In the years since 2004, it has become clear that some players -- Edgar Renteria and Matt Clement leap immediately to mind, although the jury is still out on Coco Crisp, Julio Lugo, and J.D. Drew -- have trouble making the leap to playing in (i) the American League; and/or (ii) the fishbowl of Boston.

What's missing from this year's team are the "Idiots" -- most prominently, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar -- who were both outspoken veterans who kept the media on its toes and the clubhouse loose. Millar, in particular, apparently rubbed some on the team the wrong way, but there's no question that for a team with high expectations (the 2003 team was 5 outs away from the World Series), the veterans were important. Manny, interestingly, seemed to try to take on the "Idiot" role with his we'll-win-next-year comments (on the off-day) after Game 4 of this year's 2007 ALCS.

Finally, although it's difficult to remember today, there was an ongoing debate in 2004 about whether a World Series victory without an ALCS championship over the hated Yankees would still 'count':

That's what is so disappointing about this situation. In the aftermath of the brainlock by He Who Must Not Be Named, which kept the Red Sox out of the 2003 World Series, the 2004 Boston baseball season was viewed by all as a go-for-broke endeavor. Acquire a stopper and a closer, spend money, let the free agents play hard in their walk years, and trade Nomar if you have to. Go for it.

And just about everyone bought into it. The Nation wanted the Yankees. Merely winning a World Series wasn't enough. The road had to go through the Bronx.

No one seemed to worry too much about the Yankees this year.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"It's like rain on your wedding day..."

A few years ago, Alanis Morrisette burst on to the pop music stage with a catchy tune entitled "Ironic." The lyrics purported to describe a series of events that displayed irony:

A traffic jam when you're already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It's meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
Of course, as any 10th-grade English teacher will tell you, most of the examples in the song were not 'irony' -- defined as incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result -- as much examples of "a-kick-in-the-ass." (But of course, the lyrics would have been more difficult in such case.)

So what does Alanis Morrisette have to do with the present-day Red Sox?

In 2003, the Red Sox experimented (for a few short weeks at least) with the Bill-James-inspired idea of 'closer-by-committee,' which was a concept that was based on two main ideas: first, that a team's best relief pitcher (aka the 'closer') was often utilized in games that would be won anyways; and second, that almost anyone could close. The rational extension of James' philosophy was that a team's best reliever ('closer') should often be used in the 6th, 7th, or 8th inning, when the game hung in the balance; and that any relief pitcher could be used in almost any circumstance.

As chronicled in the Baseball Prospectus book, Mind Game, the plan might have worked. But with a bullpen that suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness, and a manager (Grady Little) who was not enamored with James-ian philosophy, then-rookie GM Theo Epstein pulled the plug on the experiment after two months, and traded for Byung-Hyum Kim, who led the Sox in 2003 with 16 saves.

Fast forward 4 years to the ALCS. The Indians (although it has not been widely reported) have clearly adopted some elements of James' philosophy: their 'closer' -- Joe Borowski -- is not their best relief pitcher (as evidenced by his 5.07 ERA, and 1.43 WHIP), although he did record 45 saves during the course of the season.

But in the three games the Indians have won so far, it has been the Indians' middle relief (especially in comparison to the Sox' ineptitude in Games Two (Gagne, Lopez, and Lester) and Four (Delcarmen)) that has been a large part of the difference. In particular, Rafael Betancourt has been very effective (Games Two and Four). (Zero production out of the #1, #6-9 spots in the Sox order has not helped.)

Borowski has pitched in three games for the Indians so far in the ALCS, but only once (in Game Three) in a save situation. The Sox closer (and second-best pitcher, after Josh Beckett), Jonathan Papelbon, has pitched only once (2 effective innings in Game 2.)

Losing the ALCS because you get nothing out of your major post-season acquisitions (Julio Lugo and JD Drew)? That's a kick-in-the-ass.

Losing the ALCS because Cleveland (and, presumably, its GM Mark Shapiro) does a better job applying James-ian analysis to a baseball situation than the very team that employs James? That, friends, is irony.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Forecast for Jacobs Field: Scattered Angst

MLB's staggered postseason schedule has added a new dimension to pitching staff strategy this year. With at least three planned off days in the LCS, it is very reasonable to try and let your best starting pitcher go three times since rest is much less of an issue.

So since the Red Sox have one great starter (Beckett) and three others (Schilling, Dice-K, Wakefield) who all have some questionable aspect to their potential performance, they seem like the perfect candidate to bring back Game 1 winner Beckett for tonight's Game 4.

Even though pitching on three days rest has been spotty in the postseason for even great pitchers since the Division Series was added in 1995 (team record 39-54, starters ERA 4.37, 5.4 IP, 90 pitches), the Red Sox have a seemingly sure thing in Beckett.

But that is where all the statistical forecasting gets pushed aside for the meteorological forecasting. Rain is expected tonight and is expected to intensify by the start of Game 5. What if Beckett starts tonight and the game is delayed, forcing him to cut his outing short? But then what if they play an uninterrupted game tonight and Game 5 is disrupted by Mother Nature.

Red Sox Nation favors throwing the Cy Young favorite tonight. I agree, unless Chief Wahoo has been sighted doing his rain dance....

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Wrong Brother

The Red Sox have a long history of acquiring the 'wrong' one among baseball-playing brothers:

* Dom DiMaggio rather than Joe (although Dom was, by all accounts, more admirable than Joe off the field, and a better baseball player (7-time All Star) than Vince (2-time All-Star))

* Jeremy Giambi was supposed to be the answer at designated hitter in 2003, with David Ortiz signed that same winter as back-up insurance. Jeremy was certainly no Big Papi, and has been no Jason Giambi either.

* Which brings us to the news that J.D. ($70M) Drew will likely sit tonight against Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia in favor of Bobby Kielty, who is the very definition of a replacement-level player. (Kielty was signed in August when he was literally out of baseball, having been released by the A's.) Meanwhile, over in the NLCS, Arizona relies on 24-year-old Stephen Drew at shortstop; S. Drew went 7-14 in the NLDS with 4 RBIs (albeit 1-for-4 last night), but also led the Drew family with career-smiles-on-camera (with at least 1, during Game Three in Chicago).

Which is not to say the Sox always get the wrong brother: in 1992, the Dodgers had both Pedro and Ramon Martinez on their roster, and elected to keep Ramon. The Sox signed Ramon in 1999 (to team with brother Pedro), but let Ramon walk after 2001, and stuck with Pedro until 2004.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Washington Heights' Finest

The George Washington High School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan has a number of notable alumni. Henry Kissinger's diplomacy, Harry Belafonte's creative juices, and Rod Carew's hitting stroke all trace their origins to the school. The two alums, however, who are still grabbing the most headlines in today's world, Alan Greenspan and Manny Ramirez, are seemingly very different, yet share a common opacity to the general public. To wit:

Ramirez: "Forget about the trade man. This is the place I want to be man. It's great man. They love me here man. This is the place to be. 'Manny being Manny', it's great man."

July 31, 2005; just after having delivered a game-winning hit on the trade deadline after fully expecting to leave the Red Sox

Greenspan: "I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I've said."

1988; shortly after becoming Fed Chairman

You could make the argument that lack of clarity gives a Fed Chairman the freedom and flexibility to react appropriately as the economic conditions and markets ebb and flow. And that eccentricity also gives a baseball player the freedom and flexibility to "be himself" in a high-pressure media market.

But what happens after "the game is over"? Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence offers valuable insight into how he formed his worldview and applied it to his job. I, for one, can't wait until Manny's career is over and he writes his book.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

"I Hate You More..."

It was noted a few weeks ago in this space that Mitt Romney (and for that matter Rudy Giuliani), had made a habit of bashing his 'home' state -- Massachusetts -- as part of his campaign's effort to position him as a true conservative who had to trim his sails to be elected in one of the most liberal states in the Union.

But the polls reported above by WBZ yesterday, has to give even the most ardent Romney supporter in Massachusetts pause. Romney does worse in a hypothetical match-up among Bay State voters with Hillary Clinton than Rudy (Romney would lose 65%-31%; Rudy would lose, 59%-34%).

Worse than the raw numbers (and a 2:1 margin is bad in any state, let alone one where you were governor) were the 'man-on-the-street' interviews put together by Jon Keller. (And Keller is no goo-goo liberal; his recent book "The Bluest State" calls Massachusetts, a "Brigadoon of 1960s liberalism.")

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Red Sox-Angels

Most prognosticators are looking forward to a victory for the Red Sox over the Angels, in a Divisional Series that starts today. Moreover, the Sox won the regular season series (6-4), the Angels are suffering from injuries (for example, Vlad Guerrero will hit rather than play right field), and #1-starter John Lackey is 1-6 with a 6.27 ERA in 11 career starts against Boston.

It is clear that the Sox were built for the regular season, and they had the best record there (along with Cleveland) in the majors, at 96-66; they play a modern-day version of Earl Weaver-style baseball: pitching, defense, and three-run homers.

Yet the Angels seemingly offer a counterpoint: they are second in the AL in stolen bases (the leader, ironically, is Baltimore), after leading the league the past three seasons; over the past few days, talking heads on the Boston airwaves have repeated incessantly that 121 times the Angels went "first-to-third on a single."

But the Angels scored 822 runs over the course of the year, 4th in the League to the Red Sox's 867 (good for third); the Angels allowed 731 runs (5th), significantly more than the Red Sox's 657 (1st). Playing small ball may have its disadvantages over the course of 162 games, but it can clearly be important in the context of a short series, and especially an elimination game.

While Lackey has struggled against the Sox, Dice-K's second half (5-6, 5.19 ERA) has left everyone wondering about all of the fuss. While it may be possible that the bad second half was the result of wearing down, it also could be the result of hitters seeing Dice-K a second time; by pitching him in Game 2 (rather than Curt Schilling), the Japanese 'rookie' will be seen by the Angels for the second time in a week in a hypothetical Game 5.

A Sox opening round loss will be bitterly disappointing -- and bitterly recounted on talk radio -- but it's not outside the realm of possibility. While the Sox should win, don't bet the (subprime) mortgage on it.