(I apologize ahead of time for the poor analogies and cliche sayings. Bear
with me, I’m crazy.)
Let’s consider for a minute that Major League Baseball is just one big game of
high-stakes winner-take-all Texas Holdem’ poker. Now, consider the AL East as a
hand, with each team as a different player at the table. Who wins the hand?
Arguably, you can look at the Red Sox as having a pair of aces in the hole. There’s
not much doubt in the baseball world that Jon Lester is arguably one of the
best young southpaws around, and we all know how baffling Josh Beckett‘s
stuff can be when you’re looking at it from the plate.
Here’s the problem. The Yankees have a pair of kings, and they picked up two more
Kings on the flop (C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira,
Curtis Granderson). Okay, so Sabathia is an ace and Burnett is more like a
Queen, but just bear with me once again for the sake of the metaphor.
Not wanting to fold their hand, the Red Sox are desperately hoping for running aces
to take home the pot. Could you consider John Lackey and Daisuke
Matsuzaka as aces? Can we run the table for quads of our own? Can the
powerful Yankee hand be beaten?
Exit metaphor. Enter reality.
An article from The Hardball Times sparked my curiosity
regarding the subject. In the article, Kevin Dame looks at Beckett’s 2009
season visually. In his figure, he uses red to represent a quality start (minimum 6 IP,
maximum 3 ER), and blue to represent a non-quality start. Also, he marks the
amount of IP to the side, with the amount of ER per inning. Partial innings are
rounded down for sake of clarity (click on the image for the full size version):
Looking at the graphic, you can see that Beckett produced 21 quality starts in 2009,
as opposed to just 11 poor starts. However, the part of the graphic that perhaps
says more than the red / blue comparison is the IP and ER / Inning. in no start last
year did Beckett fail to make it into the fifth. Furthermore, he seems to be able to
prevent the big inning from ever happening against him. The problem? When things
go bad, the pain is chronic. Instead of giving up one big inning, he tends to give up
1+ run per inning multiple times throughout the course of a poor outing. Although,
even when this occurs, he seems to manage to keep his head on his shoulders and
pitch through it, taking one for the team. In my opinion, that’s what defines an ace
more than anything else, and thus Beckett gets my vote.
This article intrigued me to investigate further. Because of this, I was compelled to
make my own visuals for the rest of the Red Sox starting pitching staff in question
here. First, take a look at Lester:
Looking at Lester’s graphic, he produced more quality starts over the course of the
season than Beckett did. 23 to be exact (with a rain-shortened game holding him
from a potential 24th), with just 9 that were less than stellar. Once again, looking at
the IP and Runs per Inning shows a very glaring problem that Lester needs to solve.
Unlike Beckett who can seemingly get out of an inning, when things go bad for Lester
– they go really, really bad. Instead of preventing the big inning, he seems to
succumb to it. The 4’s, 5’s, and a 6 jump off the page, far too often. However, with
that having been said, when he’s hot he streaks, and he seemingly doesn’t give up
any runs at all. When he has a bad day, it’s a rarity, and aside from the beginning of
the season, they don’t occur in groups. If the season started in May, he’d have been
the hands-down ace of the staff last year. The best stat I see here is that, as a
southpaw, he should have problems in Fenway with the Monster looming, but
somehow he thrives at home. He gives up more runs on the road then he does at
Fenway. To sum all that up, I’d be happy to see him on the mound in any must-win
game, especially in front of the hometown crowd. That makes two aces.
Next is John Lackey:
Lots to look at here. First, Lackey was injured until May. Second, his first start of the
season isn’t included, as he was ejected after two pitches, and his last start of the
regular season isn’t included, as he was pulled after 2 innings to keep him fresh for
the post-season. Finally, the last three starts in the figure are from the postseason
against big teams from the AL East (for all you nay-sayers about his ability to pitch in
a division that lives and breathes baseball instead of just treating it as a casual
past-time). 18 quality starts to 10 otherwise. Perhaps the first couple poor starts
could be due to him getting into his groove after coming back from an injury. Who
knows. The biggest thing here is that he’s a work horse. He averaged between 6
and 7 IP per game last season, and pitched 1 CG (although he pitched a full 9
innings on three different occasions only to see it go to extras twice). Like Lester,
when he’s on, runs are hard to find, but when he’s not, they’ll come in bunches.
Expect the best of Beckett and of Lester in one package, but also the flaws of both.
Like Beckett, he’s not going to give in early on in a game – if he’s on the mound,
expect him to be there for the long-haul. It’s unknown how well he’ll do in Fenway,
but with a near no-hitter in his history there, the expansive right field, and an
upgraded Sox defense, you can expect him to be a third ace on the team’s staff,
provided he can stay healthy in 2010.
I don’t know anyone who screams “inconsistency” more than Dice-K. Note that I used
2008’s stats as opposed to his 2009 stats, as it shows his performance over the
course of a full season without significant injuries that could possibly dictate the
quality of his performance. No significant hot streaks, no significant cold streaks.
More often than not, he had a less than stellar start, but his record for the year was
18-3, and 3-0 in the post-season (seen as the last three games on the figure).
Anyone who follows his career knows that he doesn’t give in to hitters. This means
he issues a lot of walks, gets a lot of K’s, and deals with a lot of base runners and
high pitch counts, but somehow gives up very few runs. a good percent of the time,
he won’t last past the 5th or 6th inning, but he very rarely leaves while behind in the
game. With an average run support per game between 5 and 6, you can imagine
that that would equal a lot of wins, provided you have a bullpen that can clean up the
second half of the game, which the Red Sox have been able to do in the past.
Daisuke can be an ace, but he needs to be able to last deeper into games (aka
learning to pitch to contact). If the Red Sox training program has finally sunken in he
should be healthy, and if he has learnt the AL and can learn to pitch to contact, he
can turn the majority of his lackluster starts into quality outings. Long story short, I
would take any of the three men before him in a game to end a losing streak or a big
game in the post-season, but I wouldn’t be afraid to give Dice-K the ball if I had to.
Expect him to be the wild card of the staff in 2010 – either a luck-driven winner like in
2008 (which, aside from looking deeper into run support and other assorted stats,
looks like a fluke year), or just another pitcher in the rotation, like in 2007 (although
he still won 15 games as a rookie), and 2009.
Close down the rotation with either Clay Buchholz, who can be good or bad
as history has shown, or Tim Wakefield, who can be healthy or damaged
goods, as history has shown, and you’ve got a formidable rotation. Add in the
potential starters in the minors, such as Junichi Tazawa and Michael
Bowden, and you have a solid back-up if the going gets tough. The market
might even see Cliff Lee and/or Brandon Webb up for grabs if the
Mariners or Diamondbacks aren’t looking like potential playoff contenders at the
trade deadline, potentially making the Red Sox rotationn even more potent, should
they go after someone.
To make a long story short, the Red Sox may or may not have the cards to beat the
Yankees, but when you’re staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, the best thing you
can do is stick the barrel of yours in the face of your enemy and fire away.