It’s back-to-school day! Here’s hoping those of you with kids don’t pick a fight with teachers before the morning bell even rings. We don’t want to see that happen to more than one Parent this year.
It’s Week 21 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
2. BOSTON RED SOX
MLB Network’s Brian Kenny has spent the past few months pushing a campaign to #KillTheWin. Kenny argues that pitcher wins can be a misleading stat, since they depend on many factors beyond a pitcher’s control (run support, bullpen support, defense) and there are metrics that better illustrate how well a pitcher has performed. By lending credence to the wins stat, Kenny argues, award voters, Hall of Fame voters, and others are painting an inaccurate picture of various pitchers, unnecessarily pumping up some legacies and deflating others.
Valid points, all. But except for very rare instances in which a manager, say, tries to squeeze one more out of a struggling starter nursing a 6-5 lead with two outs in the fifth inning, the existence of the wins stat doesn’t cause teams to make moves that lead to losses. Saves are another matter altogether. Time after time after time, managers refuse to use their closers except in save situations (or to get a little work in, because said closers haven’t pitched in a week, because no save opportunities have popped up). The problem is especially egregious for road teams, for which some managers will use every scrub at their disposal rather than deploy a closer, with the game finally ending in a loss and the team’s best reliever never getting into the game.
John Farrell committed just that foul in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Giants. Boston and San Francisco were tied 2-2 headed to the bottom of the ninth, and Farrell called on lefty Franklin Morales to start the inning. A pitcher with iffy command even in the best of times, Morales had struggled in very limited playing time this year, and had come off the disabled list just a few days earlier. Still, the Giants were sending up some weak hitters that inning; normally you don’t want to save your best pitchers, but you could at least see the logic in Morales facing banjo hitters like Joaquin Arias and Roger Kieschnick. At any rate, it didn’t work. Morales allowed a single and a walk and hit a batter, loading the bases with two outs.
With the game on the line and Morales clearly struggling, this was the time to bring in Red Sox closer Koji Uehara, one of the two or three best relievers in the game this season. Uehara has had health concerns in the past and was approaching a career high in innings pitched, so you can understand Farrell wanting to be judicious with a pitcher who might be needed deep into October. On the other hand, Uehara was more than fresh, having not pitched for three days, with just two appearances in nine days leading into this game. The Red Sox had been slumping, the Rays were breathing down their necks, and this was a do-or-die situation. If the stat invented by sportswriter Jerome Holtzman 53 years earlier hadn’t wormed its way into every manager’s consciousness, there’s no way in hell any sane human would do anything other than go to Uehara at this point. Farrell … did not do that. Instead, he tapped Brayan Villarreal, one of the wildest relievers in the majors, a right-hander who’d walked close to six batters per nine outings over the course of his career. After issuing nearly seven free passes per nine innings with Triple-A Toledo, Villarreal was nabbed by the Red Sox as part of the Jake Peavy trade. If you had to pick one pitcher you wouldn’t want in the game in a spot with no margin for error, Villarreal would be a fine choice. So what happened? Marco Scutaro stepped to the plate … and Villarreal walked him on four pitches.1 Ballgame.
Yes, the fourth pitch probably should’ve been called a strike. You still couldn’t love Villarreal’s chances to escape that jam, even if the count had gone to 3-1.
A pragmatist might argue that killing the save would do more to positively affect how managers run their bullpens and how games are won than would any Kill The Win campaign. The good news for Red Sox fans is that Farrell seemed to learn from his mistake.2 Four days after l’affaire Villarreal, the Red Sox led the Dodgers 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning. L.A. had already scored two runs that inning and put two men on base, with A.J. Ellis striding to the plate. Despite Farrell’s usual reluctance to insert Uehara into the middle of a jam, he brought him in this time. Uehara struck out Ellis, then set down the Dodgers 1-2-3 in the ninth. Granted, this was a save situation, while Tuesday’s spot was not. But at least Boston’s manager showed he was willing to do something more aggressive than save his closer for the often piece-of-cake save opportunities that entail getting three outs before the other team can score two or three runs. Baby steps.
After that loss in San Francisco, Farrell admitted he was saving Uehara for a save situation, so there were no secret, less lamentable factors governing the decision.
The Red Sox still have their share of problems, whether or not a #KillTheSave effort catches fire in the clubhouse. If the Sox had more quality relievers, they very well might’ve escaped that pickle in San Francisco even without using Uehara. But season-ending injuries to three relievers expected to make big contributions — Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Miller, and Andrew Bailey — have left the bullpen with only three more or less reliable options out of the pen: Uehara, setup man Junichi Tazawa, and soft-tossing left-hander Craig Breslow. Though Boston did well to add Jake Peavy at the deadline, the team didn’t aggressively pursue bullpen reinforcements. In many ways, then, this is a team far better equipped to make a deep playoff run than it is to win the AL East. With more frequent days off and the ability to go to a four- or even three-man rotation depending on circumstances, the Red Sox could trot out a flawed but certainly improved staff, led by Peavy and the Uehara-Tazawa-Breslow trio out of the bullpen and backed by the league’s second-most productive offense. The regular season becomes iffier, though, with big question marks over whether you’d get the Jon Lester who has allowed one earned run over his past two starts; a healthy and effective Clay Buchholz in September; and the Felix Doubront who has fared well for most of the year (versus the one who has pitched poorly in three of his past five starts).
Still, as the Boston Globe‘s Pete Abraham noted, the Sox led the division by one game when they started a stretch in which they played 16 of 19 games on the road. They went 9-10 over that stretch yet still hung on to that one-game lead, and now play 18 of their final 30 regular-season games at Fenway. The Peavy pickup made them stronger, Xander Bogaerts has a chance to become baseball’s latest impactful late-season call-up, and they still have a roster full of terrifying mashers/gray T-shirt enthusiasts. All things considered, most other teams would kill to be where the Red Sox are right now.
10. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
The Orioles may very well be the new kings of hara hachi bu. If you need a refresher on what that means, here’s what I wrote about the Braves in December 2011.
In the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, locals practice a unique kind of diet. It’s called hara hachi bu, which roughly means, “eat until you’re 80 percent full.” Sounds both logical and awful, right? Okinawans eat less than people in Western societies, and also live longer. And forget 100 percent — we slam two helpings of turkey smothered in gravy, three plates of stuffing and sweet potatoes, and four kinds of pie every Thanksgiving, then feel like garbage afterwards. But dammit, it tastes good, and it’s our right to stuff ourselves silly and destroy our health and waist lines. Hara hachi bu might make sense on paper, but it hasn’t caught on in most other first-world nations.
The Braves are the Okinawans of Major League Baseball. Sure, plenty of teams run much lower payrolls and keep draft spending in check. But those teams do so because they’re poor by MLB standards. The Braves are not. They’re a mid-market team not far removed from one of the greatest runs of success any team has seen in half a century. But where previous owner Time Warner bankrolled one of the top payrolls in the game, Liberty Media has clamped down on spending, with the Braves ranking a modest 15th at $87 million last season. They could probably spend more money and still turn a profit. They choose not to. Meanwhile, the new collective bargaining agreement’s restrictions on draft spending should have zero effect on the Braves. They were one of very few teams that stuck to slot recommendations every year. In fact, Braves president John Schuerholz was a driving force behind the new spending caps and the penalties that result from going over those caps. The Braves continue to pump out great players, using superior scouting in the draft and on the international market to bring in new generations of exciting talent. But in a division that features a new, big-spending superpower in the Phillies, that hasn’t been enough, with just one playoff berth and no division titles for Atlanta in the past six years.
Turns out that analysis had its merits, but also its flaws. The Braves won 94 games last year but failed to win the NL East for the seventh straight year, setting up a one-game wild-card playoff that they lost to the Cardinals. But they also eventually addressed both their outfield and shortstop needs, trading for Justin Upton and promoting the closest thing we’ve ever seen to Ozzie Smith since Ozzie’s retirement, Andrelton Simmons. They also made their highest-priced free-agent pickup in franchise history when they inked B.J. Upton for more than $75 million, and now lead the NL East by approximately infinity games.
Like the Braves of 2011, the Orioles were a good team heading into this season. They had just come off their first playoff appearance in 15 years. They would get the benefit of rostering rising star Manny Machado for a full season, after an exciting two-month debut last year. If they could spend a little money to address some of the team’s biggest weaknesses (most notably starting pitching, second base, left field, and DH), they’d have a good chance to get back to the postseason, and maybe to set themselves up for a multiyear run given the growth of Machado and the favorable mid-20s age of several key players (Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, etc.). That’s not what happened. Rather than upgrade at second base, they left the position to the likes of Brian Roberts and Alexi Casilla, and have received more or less replacement-level performance at the deuce as a result. They didn’t upgrade at DH, and thus cycled through an army of underqualified options at that spot, a problem that persists as we enter the home stretch of the season. Worst of all, they made only minor moves to upgrade the rotation, ending up with a starting five that ranks near the bottom of the league in ERA and dead last in Fielding Independent Pitching.
Yet with 33 games to go in the season, the O’s still sit on the fringes of contention in the AL East (5½ games behind the front-running Red Sox) and very much in the race for the second wild-card spot, trailing Oakland by two games after taking two out of three against the A’s over the weekend. You can tick off the reasons pretty easily. Chris Davis has grown into one of the most terrifying power hitters on earth, swatting 46 homers and leading a Baltimore offense that has scored more runs than any other AL team except the loaded Tigers and Red Sox. Machado has evoked (realistic!) comparisons to Brooks Robinson, pacing a team defense that has been one of the best in the game. Jones and J.J. Hardy have both had productive seasons, as has Nate McLouth, a re-signing that looked like a cheap fallback move but has instead produced solid results (a .272/.342/.412 line that’s a shade above league average on a park-adjusted basis, with good defense and some of the best base-stealing and baserunning numbers in the league).
Still, you wonder if Peter Angelos’s steadfast desire to hoard the nine figures a year he makes from regional sports network MASN alone might’ve thrust the Orioles into a hara hachi bu situation. In a deadline trade market in which no truly elite players were available and even the ones you could call very good could be counted on one hand, Baltimore did acquire Scott Feldman3 and Bud Norris to upgrade that shaky starting rotation, and Francisco Rodriguez to help a bullpen that had fallen off some after a huge 2012 performance, thanks in part to some late-inning blowups by closer Jim Johnson. You could applaud those moves as a sign the Orioles wanted to improve their playoff chances this year without sacrificing premium prospects to do it. But the notion that Feldman (4.56 ERA in nine starts since coming to Baltimore, though with only five runs allowed over his past three starts), Norris (5.53 ERA in 27⅔ innings with the O’s), and Rodriguez (whose 1.09 ERA was a ticking regression time bomb that has led to five home runs allowed in just 11⅔ innings for the Orioles) would constitute significant upgrades in the first place owed to the O’s entering this season with far more holes than you’d like to see from a team with real playoff aspirations.
Credit GM Dan Duquette for recognizing the team’s strong core of boppers and other strengths and building a good team despite being hamstrung with a middle-of-the-pack payroll limit. But if the Orioles fall a game or two short this time around, we’ll be left to wonder what might’ve happened if the team’s owner had loosened the purse strings a bit, instead of well, you know.