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Archive for the tag “Clayton Kershaw”

Lowering the Bar

Photo courtesy of espn.go.com

Jon Lester is not an ace.

Don’t tell me about four straight years of at least fifteen wins (2008-2011). I don’t want to hear about how he will be the starter on April 1 in Yankee Stadium. Thirty starts? 200 innings? Good. But not great. Lester may be confused about what it means to be a legit ace, but I’m not. There aren’t many, but you know one when you see one. Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia stop losing streaks. Not only do those players expect their respective teams to lean on them, but they embrace it. You can count on them. They’re dependable.

And for the past year and a half, Lester has been anything but dependable.

With that out of the way, it’s important to begin figuring out exactly what we can realistically expect from him in 2013. That Cy Young-type season that many of us have been waiting for is not coming. I feel pretty confident in saying that. At the same time, there is absolutely no reason why Lester cannot return to his very good (not great) form from a couple of years ago.

Bouncing Back

I’m going to keep this relatively simple. In 2012, Lester was downright bad. The southpaw consistently struggled early in ballgames, racking up high pitch counts, and often times, getting hit rather hard. Stats aside, the former 19-game winner did not look like himself. And the numbers lend credence to that.

Lester’s average WAR (wins above a replacement level player) from 2008-2011 was 5.2. His WAR last season? 0.4.  He went 9-14 last season. His ERA was 4.28. Raise your hand if you think that those numbers will improve.

No Beckett? No problem

Josh Beckett will never, ever, ever receive the credit he deserves in New England–injuries and a poor attitude sealed his fate with most fans. In 2007, Beckett’s right arm almost single-handedly won the Red Sox their second World Series Championship in four years. You should be proud to have the opportunity to say you watched him pitch that season, especially in October. But that doesn’t mean that his influence will be missed.

For the first time in Lester’s career, the Red Sox will open the season without Beckett in their rotation. I’m not a hater of the Texas native, but it’s impossible to simply dismiss the idea that some of his bad habits may have rubbed off on guys like Lester. Even if Beckett was still pitching for the Red Sox, Lester is his own man. He’s not a kid — he’s 29-years old. But still, Beckett is a guy that younger pitchers undoubtedly looked up to. Like or not, he was, for a period of time, a role model to pitchers who came up through the Sox’ system. The hope is that a different tone will pervade the clubhouse this season, espeically with regards to the starting staff. Will the extraction of Beckett lower Lester’s ERA a full run? Of course not. But I’m willing to bet it won’t hurt.

The Farrell Factor

During Farrell’s tenure as pitching coach (2007-2010) of the Red Sox, Lester experienced a great deal of success. He went 54-23, fanned 8.6 batters per nine frames, and posted an ERA of 3.40. It was the stretches of dominance during that four year period that raised fans’ expectations for Lester. In the offseason that followed the 2010 season, Farrell left Boston for an opportunity to manage the Blue Jays, not knowing that the Red Sox would soon have a managerial vacancy themselves. Lester’s 2011 campaign was not an abject failure–he finished year the year 15-9 with 124 ERA+ (adjusted ERA), both quite good. But that was overshadowed by his dismal finish to the disastrous season. Lester’s ERA in his final six starts was a robust 5.40. The Red Sox went 1-5 in those games, and the big lefty looked completely and utterly gassed. He walked too many hitters and allowed bad mechanical habits to persist.

Farrell did not return to Boston as the team’s pitching coach, so it would be silly to assume he will have as much involvement with the staff as he did from ’07-’10. It would be equally foolish, however, to think that Farrell will simply sit back and watch Lester repeat the mistakes he has been making for the past year and a half. Aside from pitching poorly, Lester has received criticism for his overall presence on the mound. Instead of seeing that mean, competitive Lester, we received the complaining, umpire-blaming version. Showing up umpires on the regular makes you appear like a six year old, and that’s never a good look. I believe Farrell (as well as new pitching coach Juan Nieves) will work to reallocate Lester’s focus towards the hitter, rather than the guy calling balls and strikes.

What to Expect

This isn’t exactly a contract year for Lester, but it is close. The Red Sox hold a team option for 2014 worth $13MM. I can’t really see them declining that option, but anything can happen. Either way, it is imperative for Lester to have a good year, not only for the Red Sox but for him personally as well. Nothing is standing in Lester’s way of having a year looks something like 16-8 with an ERA of 3.70.

He is not Verlander or Sabathia. We know that. But Lester is who he is, and over the years, we’ve learned that that typically means more success than failure.

Power Plays

Photo via mlive.com

On Wednesday, the Red Sox officially addressed an area of surplus. They have a closer. Andrew Bailey is injury-plagued. There is no debating that. But he is a legitimate ninth inning pitcher, a former All-Star with 81 saves on his resume. The bottom line is that GM Ben Cherington did not need to bring in a proven closer this offseason.

But he did.

Joel Hanrahan was traded by the Pirates to the Red Sox in a six-player swap that will also send reliever Mark Melancon to Pittsburgh. The Red Sox still have not come to terms with free agent Mike Napoli, leaving a vacancy at first base. They remain shallow in the outfield with Jonny Gomes likely needing a platoon-mate that can do damage against hit right handed pitching. Clearly, Cherington still has several areas of need to address, yet he chose to actively pursue adding a late-inning arm to a bullpen that already has Bailey and Koji Uehara.

Why?

The answer has everything to do with Daniel Bard.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Red Sox possessed two of the game’s absolute best in the eighth and ninth innings. Bard and Jonathan Papelbon were a powerful one-two punch that helped former manager Terry Francona win more than a few games during the final segment of his tenure in Boston. Both Bard and Papelbon threw hard and threw strikes. The pair represented exactly what every team wants at the end of games.

In the offseason that followed the 2011 season, Papelbon left Boston for Philadelphia. Bard, who, despite fatiguing down the stretch for the Red Sox in ’11, seemed tailor-made for the closer role in 2012. His powerful stuff played well in the late innings of ballgames. Fans were used to watching him wiggle out of high leverage situations, using his fastball that consistently registered well above 95 MPH to blow away hitters on the regular.

But then the Red Sox got cheap, and Bard got a little greedy.

Cherington and the rest of baseball operations understood the potential payoff of converting Bard to a starter. Let’s face it — Bard made roughly $1.6MM in 2012. Good luck getting Hiroki Kuroda to pitch for your team for that salary. At the same time, Bard knew that starting pitchers do not need to pitch at the level of a Justin Verlander or a Clayton Kershaw to get paid. Pick up the phone and give Edwin Jackson a buzz. He will tell you all about his four-year $52MM deal that the Cubs gave him last week.

It was a perfect storm. Bard wanted to start, and the Red Sox saw it as a cost-efficient opportunity to fill a vacancy in the rotation.

Bard performed miserably as a starter. His outing on Sunday June 3 in Toronto was the breaking point of the experiment. In an inning and two-thirds, Bard walked six Blue Jays and plunked two others. It was like watching the goriest of horror movies, when one is only able to catch a glimpse of the television screen between fingers as their hands shielded their face. It was that bad. The whole thing was an unmitigated disaster that ultimately earned Bard a demotion to Pawtucket and a question mark when it comes to where he fits on this team in 2013.

The Red Sox subsequently spent their second straight offseason looking for ways to plug the gaping holes left by both Papelbon and Bard. Had the latter embraced the role of closer in the same fashion the former did, the Red Sox would likely not be participating in the annual game of bullpen pick ‘em. If Cherington and Co. had recognized that Bard’s stuff as well as his mentality is best suited at the end of ballgames, Hanrahan may not have been a trade target this offseason.

Removing Bard from the bullpen created quite a large void for the Red Sox–one that was only amplified by his abject failure as a starter. Since then, Cherington has been searching for that power arm that is almost always needed at the end of games. Simply put, swing and miss stuff limits the amount of balls that are put in play, and Bard certainly racked up a great deal of punch outs as a set-up man.

The addition of Hanrahan is yet another example of how poor baseball decisions can negatively impact a club for years down the road. Hanrahan’s performance in 2013, good or bad, will serve as a reminder of how sorely Bard is missed in the Boston bullpen and how desperately Cherington has searched for someone to anchor it.

Ross Puts Sox on Back

Damn it. Wrong Ross.

Cody Ross slugged two home runs last night, helping the Red Sox snap a five-game skid. His first long ball tied the game in the seventh inning. It was two-run shot to left field that hugged the line. It had the distance. The only question was if it was going to stay fair or not. With two outs in the top of the ninth, and the game still knotted at five runs a piece, Ross took a low, outside pitch from Twins’ closer Matt Capps to deep right field for a solo home run. It was an impressive display of power by 2010 NLCS hero who is known as a predominately pull-hitter. Alfredo Aceves somewhat reluctantly shut the door in the bottom of the ninth, securing a much-needed 6-5 win for the local nine. Ross was the man on Monday night in Minnesota.

A few other observations from a Monday in Mauer country…

  • Before the season, Jon Lester made it abundantly clear that he would like to be mentioned among the game’s elite hurlers. Throughout the spring, Lester was the most contrite out of all of the pitchers who were accused of taking their foot off of the gas in September of last season. He seemed focused, primed for a big year. It may be time to abandon the thought that Lester will ever evolve into a true ace. As a caveat, when I refer to an “ace”, I don’t mean C.J. Wilson. I don’t mean Ricky Romero. When I talk about an ace, I’m pointing to C.C. Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and the small fraternity of pitchers who instill a feeling of “yeah, we’re going to win today” in their teammates. Lester is very good, but he is not Roy Halladay. He’s not Cliff Lee. He’s not even Matt Cain. Kudos on settling down and giving your team seven innings but walking four and allowing five runs to the Minnesota Twins when your team desperately needs its stopper to stp up simply does not cut it. And let’s not even get into the fact that Lester has been spotted at least a two-run lead in the early innings of his last two starts. Squandered leads are not good for business in Boston.
  • It was nice to have Daniel Bard out of the bullpen again. It felt so good, so good, so good.
  • David Ortiz is absolutely raking right now. Even the outs he makes are hit hard. Watching him give the metaphorical middle finger to the shift is fun to watch. He looks like a smart hitter who is comfortable in his own skin.
  • Someone should tell Kevin Youkilis that the left side of the infield on the opposing team usually takes grounders before the game. He does not need to provide them fungo work during it.
  • Ryan Sweeney will likely never be a superstar or even a star, but he seems content hitting line drives and doing his job. I like that. (Clearly ignoring his mishap in right field last night. He can thank Bard for that.)

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