Once a month, we’re going to try to take a step back and take stock of what the bigger picture looks like for the Boston Red Sox.
April 2012: the bigger picture’s a little blurry. It’s definitely no DaVinci, and it probably doesn’t belong in an art museum. I think that a lot of people still aren’t really sure what this team has in it. But one thing’s for sure: so far, the Red Sox haven’t impressed in the long term. Sure, there are dominant streaks here and there – the Sox blew out a few teams, won a lot of games in a row after a truly dismal start – but still on May 4, we’re looking at a team that’s two games under .500, last in the ultra-competitive AL East, and staring up a steep six-game deficit to first-place Tampa. The Yankees are in fourth, and Toronto and Baltimore probably won’t last in the third and second spots, respectively, but that doesn’t make me feel mounds better. Even if the Sox scramble into third place, third place in the AL East is the first loser in playoff contention.
Starting pitching: here’s what worries me about the starting pitching. They’re working through their fifth turn in the rotation, and none of the Red Sox front five have an ERA under 4.00. Josh Beckett’s averaging around 6.2 innings pitched per start (32.1 innings pitched), and Jon Lester’s at around 6.1 (31.0 innings pitched), but that’s about as good as it gets. What that means is, to put it simply, that five turns in, the starting rotation hasn’t been able to put together consistent quality starts.
Clay Buchholz, especially, is getting beat up. Even though he leads the team with three wins (and as we all know from the Felix Hernandez Cy Young discussion, wins are pretty irrelevant in evaluating an individual pitcher’s success), his 8.69 ERA reflects the fact that he’s let up seven home runs (tying Beckett for a team high) and struck out far fewer batters than many of his rotation buddies. There’s no denying that Buchholz has the talent to make him an outstanding pitcher. But, it’s been what, five years since he first got his shot at the Red Sox rotation? At one point is an ERA over 8.00 just not acceptable for a number three starter? He’s not a rookie, and he’s had plenty of chances to ease in to the big leagues.
Meanwhile, the Daniel Bard Experiment appears to be working out. Bard, you’ll recall, was the focus of the entire organization’s existential crisis once presumptive closer Andrew Bailey went down with a thumb injury the day before the regular season started. So far, though, he’s proved an admirable starter, especially for a starter just starting to start. His 4.38 ERA leads the starting staff, and he’s only allowed one home run so far this year (compare that to Beckett’s seven, for example). Felix Doubront’s also been a pleasant surprise. I mean, he’s a fourth starter who has an ERA just over 5.00 and basically always gives the team a chance to hit their way to a win – what else can we really ask for from a pitcher who is just easing his way into the major leagues?
Bullpen: Let’s just get the easy one off the board first. Remember Mark Melancon, he of the two-inning, eleven run, 49.50 ERA fame? That was fun, wasn’t it? Remember how he was the Astros’ closer, and a pretty good one at that, last year? Remember how he used to pitch for the Yankees here and there, and he was decent? Yeah. That was fun. Remember when people thought maybe he should be the closer, or maybe the eighth inning guy?
Anyway. So far, Bobby Valentine’s gotten the most work out of Scott Atchison, Matt Albers, Vicente Padilla, and Franklin Morales, followed by Junichi Tazawa (sent down to AAA a few days ago) and Justin Thomas (in Pawtucket following a terrible start and a Rich Hill callup). Atchison and Albers definitely lead the pack here – Atchison’s logged a 1.88 ERA over 14.1 innings of work, and Albers is close behind with a 1.80 ERA over ten innings.
Now, here’s where things get interesting – Padilla has an 8.00 ERA. That’s really not good, especially not for a bullpen pitcher who gets regular work. Morales is better, with a 4.32 ERA; but still, I think we can easily make the point that once we get past the solid Atchison and Albers, hold on to your hats. And the closer! Whoo! Alfredo Aceves had a rough start. I think that, you probably think that, I’m sure Ace himself thinks that. We’re reminded that he came to spring training intending to start, found out that he was apparently just a pawn in the Daniel Bard as starter idea, got put in the bullpen, and then ingloriously became the closer when Bailey went down. Given all that capital-D Drama, Aceves has done all right for himself lately. He has five saves in seven chances, so he’s getting the job done. He’ll never make the Hall of Fame for the ninth inning, but it seems like he’s a serviceable option until Bailey gets back.
Offense: The good news is, there are two very bright spots in the Boston offense. David Ortiz and Ryan Sweeney have been mashing. Currently, Ortiz is fifth in baseball in batting average (.391), second in doubles (11), sixth in OBP (.441), and fourth in slugging percentage (.707). Not too bad, big guy. Sweeney’s seventh in batting average (.361) and first in doubles (12).
After that, the Red Sox regulars seem kind of just that – regular. Dustin Pedroia’s been getting it done as expected (.294/.339/.471), and unexpected leadoff man Mike Aviles has emerged as a force (.281/.317/.500). Cody Ross has five home runs, and he’s hit some of them in some pretty clutch situations.
Other than that, there’s really not too much to get excited about so far. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s started to turn his early-season black hole around, and he’s currently batting .241. After the .070 I saw on the Fenway scoreboard with my own eyes, I’ll take a .240 average. Kevin Youkilis has, it seems, been hurt – he’s on the DL now (hi there, Will Middlebrooks!) with a bad back and a .219 average. Because he’s hurt, we’ll give Youk a pass.
You know who we can’t really give a pass to? Adrian Gonzalez. This guy – with the perfect Fenway swing, the huge contract, the Big Excitement – is hitting .250. He has a middling five doubles, only two home runs (on pace for what, 12?) and 20 strikeouts. That’s not very good. What’s up, Adrian? Not only is he not getting the big hits we were promised – he’s really not getting any hits. The offense needs someone else to step up: it can’t rely on an aging Ortiz, a Sweeney who is playing way over his head, and Pedroia and Aviles all year. It needs a steadying force, and I nominate Gonzalez.
Managing: Bobby Valentine’s been interesting. He’s no Terry Francona, that’s for sure. I have to think that the Sox knew what they were getting into with him – a history of poor media relations, disguises in the dugout, of not getting along with some players, and of general non-Titoness. But, maybe that’s what the Red Sox thought they needed. And, maybe it’s still what they need. It remains to be seen. Bobby’s made some terrible bullpen decisions so far, and he posted a lineup based on a misunderstanding as to whether an opposing pitcher was a lefty or a righty a few games ago, but let’s give him some credit. He willingly took on a difficult, fractured clubhouse in an intense organization, and he’s doing his best to turn it around. And, he can’t swing the bat or throw the ball for the players.
Maybe, after all the hype, the big names, the long contracts, maybe this year’s version of the Boston Red Sox just isn’t that good. Maybe after we look at the statistics, the personalities, the slowly-withering crowds (don’t let the “sellout streak” fool you – as the Globe pointed out this morning, it’s manufactured, and owes a lot to team personnel giving tickets away for free at the last minute), we’re just led to one simple conclusion: this team doesn’t have what it takes. If it does, it needs to start showing that soon. As Yogi Berra said, it gets late early out there. We can look at injuries – sure, a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford would probably help – but all teams deal with injuries. It’s only May, but it’s already May.