Red Sox End-Of-May Report Card, Part I: The Pitching Staff

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Red Sox End-Of-May Report Card, Part I: The Pitching Staff
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After struggling through a brutal month of April, the Red Sox began playing up to their potential during the month of May, going 19-10 and temporarily pulling into first place before slumping as the month came to a close.

The month included a seven-game winning streak, an 11-0 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels and back-to-back wins in which the offense scored a pair of touchdowns.

The offense hit .287 in May and produced 156 runs (5.38 runs per game), but the pitching staff wasn’t quite as successful, posting a 4.01 ERA in the month.

The starting rotation won more games in May than it had in April (13, as opposed to 10), but saw its ERA increase by more than a quarter of a run (4.14, as opposed to 3.83 in April).

On the other hand, the bullpen was dramatically better...posting a much better record (6-4, as opposed to 1-5 in April) and lower its ERA by nearly a run-and-a-half (3.76, down from 5.13).

With the first weekend of June upon us, it is time for me to distribute my report card for the first two months of the 2011 campaign.

Over the course of the next two days, I will present my report card for the ballclub through the first two months of the 2011 season. Today, I start with the pitching staff… tomorrow I’ll examine the hitters:

 

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The Starting Rotation

Josh Beckett: A-

He was surprisingly strong in April, and somehow managed to be even better during May despite not having a lot to show for it (thanks to paltry run support).

Last month, he went 2-1, with an exceptional 1.00 ERA (4 ER in 36 IP) and 1.17 WHIP (up from April, when it was just 0.85).

I am not saying he is the pitcher he was back in 2007-08, he is not—his strikeout-rate is three-quarters of a point lower and his walk-rate is nearly double what it was back in the day—and according to fangraphs.com, less than half of his pitches are in the strike zone (his zone rating is just 48.8% thus far in 2011).

Plus, his ground ball to fly ball ratio is nearly 1-to-1 thus far in 2011. These are harbingers of potential problems for later in the season…but all things being equal, the ballclub will take it. He seems to have reinvented himself on the mound.

He is pitching more to contact. He is relying less on his fastball (52% in 2011) and curve (17%) while using his cutter (17%) and changeup (14%) far more often.

He only averaged six innings per start throughout the month of May, but when the results are as good as they were it is hard to complain about length of outings… still, there is enough to be concerned about here that he doesn’t get an “A.”

Al Bello/Getty Images

 

Clay Buchholz: B

After sleepwalking through the month of April, Clay flipped the switch in May… it truly was a Tale of Two Pitchers. After going 1-3, 5.33 in April, he went 3-0, 2.08 in May.

But it is the peripherals that really underscore how well he pitched in May: opponents hit just .204 against him, his WHIP was 0.95, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was an outstanding 3.63-to-1 over 39 IP (he walked 8 batters all month).

His grade lags due to his slow start, and while I am cautiously optimistic moving forward, I see warning signs on the horizon: most notably, he has thrown just 44% of his pitches for strikes in 2011.

If hitters start to lay off his offerings, he’ll either issue more walks or have to give them better pitches to swing at…and then what happens?

 

John Lackey: F

A rough April turned into an unbelievably horrific May for Lackey, and after two starts early in the month he was shut down with a tender elbow, but the widespread conjecture is that his struggles have had nothing to do with any physical discomfort in his right arm.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Most pundits believe his struggles are a direct result of issues in his personal life—that is to say, his focus is lacking (no pun intended) when he is at the ballpark as a result of his wife’s battle with cancer.

While his dilemma is understandable and we can all sympathize with his plight, his manager and teammates need him to do a better job of blocking those issues from his mind when he toes the rubber.

It’s a lot to ask, but if he leans how to do it he may be able to use baseball as an escape from those things in life that really matter…

 

Jon Lester: B

Lester has got it all backwards. He is a usually slow starter who gets better as the weather heats up before faltering in the intense heat of August, but the 2011 season thus far hasn’t followed form.

He was strong in April (3-1, 2.52), raising Red Sox Nation’s expectations this would develop into his first Cy Young campaign… but those hopes were dashed by a brutal May—during which he posted a 5.50 ERA over 36 IP (though his record was 4-1).

He pitched well in Cleveland 10 days ago and it appeared he had turned things around, but the White Sox hammered him on Monday night (5.2 IP, 7 ER, 8 H, 4 BB), so we are again left to wonder what is going on with our would-be ace.

Thanks to his offense, he was 2-0, with 1 No Decision, in three games in which he allowed 14 earned runs in just 17.1 IP; otherwise, he would be a .500 pitcher with nearly a 4.00 ERA through the first two months of the season.

 

Tim Wakefield: C+

With Matsuzaka’s career in Boston apparently concluded (or close to being finished), his regular spot in the rotation will reportedly be handed off to knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, though I think it should go to Alfredo Aceves.

I know I am beating a dead horse here, but Wakefield is getting older and he has a chronic bad back. Taking a regular turn in the rotation will not benefit either the pitcher or the ballclub… but we all know that he wants to set the mark for most wins in team history.

He threatens to be a sullen influence in the corner of the clubhouse (a la Nomar Garciaparra, in ‘03 and ‘04) if he doesn’t get his way, so it seems the manager is going to appease him by letting him have Dice-K’s slot at the back end of the rotation.

He is 2-1, 4.25, in sporadic starts in the rotation thus far in 2011, so it’s not like he’s been a disaster up to this point, but it remains to be seen what those numbers will look like after the grind of taking a start every fifth day wears on him throughout the summer.

 

Elsa/Getty Images

Incomplete: Daisuke Matsuzaka

With his Red Sox career prematurely ended by an elbow injury and his impending Tommy John surgery, I will resist the temptation to dance on his grave.

He made eight appearances (seven starts) in 2011 and posted a 3-3 record, with a 5.30 ERA. It’s possible the elbow injury caused his ineffectiveness… let’s just leave it at that.

 

The Bullpen

Alfredo Aceves: B+

Aceves has been everything he promised to be when the Red Sox signed him away from the NY Yankees as a free agent back in February. He has appeared in 14 games (3 as the starting pitcher) and has posted a 2-1 record, with a 3.51 ERA.

He is 1-1, 4.50, as a starter (he should have had another win except for a Matt Albers meltdown against the Cubs)… he provided the club with two outstanding starts before getting battered in his last outing.

He has a career mark of 16-2, with a 3.28 ERA, so it would seem we will be in for more of the same from him throughout the summer.

 

Matt Albers: B-

I am a BIG fan of Aceves, but not of Albers… sorry, Albers fans. It seems that whenever there is an implosion in the Sox bullpen, he’s in the middle of it.

Frankly, I am not sure what the front office saw in a guy that posted an ERA of 4.50+ in four of his five seasons prior to coming to Boston—while playing for non-contending teams in Houston and Baltimore.

I don’t think he has the stuff to pitch meaningful innings for a team that has championship aspirations.

 

Daniel Bard: B+

In spite of decent results and a B+ grade, Bard has been a disappointment for me through the first two months of 2011.

I gave him a pass after posting a 0-3 mark in April owing to some bad luck he had, but May (1-1, 3.38) was only marginally better and not what I had expected from the guy who is Jonathan Papelbon’s heir apparent.

In my opinion, the next closer needs to post an ERA under 2.00, a WHIP significantly lower than 1.00, and a K-rate that is substantially north of 1.0 / 9 IP… Bard’s ERA is 3.29 (as opposed to the 1.93 mark he posted last season), his WHIP is in the vicinity of 1.00 and his K-rate is barely 1.0.

Maybe he is hampered by heightened (or unrealistic) expectations, but at this point he doesn’t seem ready to be the club’s closer in 2012.

If his performance remains the same throughout the rest of the season, could it set the stage for Pappy to return to the organization next season?

 

Bobby Jenks: F

He has been brutal up to this point of the season, posting a 7.59 ERA in 13 games. When he went on the DL in early-May, I wondered whether his early-season struggles could be explained by an injury.

But he has allowed four base runners in two innings of work since coming off the DL, so now I am left to wonder whether his ineffectiveness is an indicia that ChiSox manager Ozzie Guillen and ChiSox GM Kenny Williams were on to something when they cut him loose.

It seems plausible the Red Sox front office brought Jenks on board as an insurance policy for 2012, assuming Papelbon would leave via free agency at the end of this year and in case Bard proves incapable of assuming the closer’s duties by next season.

But with Bard struggling to become a lock-down closer and Jenks proving to be completely ineffective, it seems the Red Sox should (at least) entertain the possibility or bringing their resurgent closer back for the next three or four years.

 

Hideki Okajima: C-

Okajima’s ERA has increased in every season since he first became a member of the Red Sox (from 2.22 in 2007 to 4.50 last season). While his 4.32 ERA thus far was marginally better than last year, it isn’t what you want from your lefty specialist.

His ineffectiveness stems from lack of control (5 BB in 8.1 IP) and bought him a demotion to Pawtucket. He has watched as the Red Sox turned to Rich Hill, traded for Franklin Morales and has now promoted 29-year-old Tommy Hottovy.

Yesterday, he declared he wants to be traded—as opposed to being re-promoted to Boston. Sayonara, Okaji!

 

Jonathan Papelbon: B+

Pappy had been cruising along pretty well until about a week ago, then he allowed runs in three of four appearances (four runs in 4 IP)… as a result, his ERA increase by more than a run (from 2.29 to 3.42).

Last night, he came into a save situation against Oakland and he was overpowering in registering his 11th save of the season.

While it is a bit disconcerting that he has allowed runs in seven of his 24 appearances, the fact of the matter is that he is 2-0, with 11 saves and only one blown save… and at times he’s looked like the dominant closer you want at the back end of the bullpen.

While it has been assumed this year would be his last season in a Red Sox uniform, his performance (combined with the struggles of Bard and Jenks) makes it likely the front office will have to kick the tires on bringing him back in 2012.

 

Dan Wheeler: B

 Wheeler is another reliever the ballclub signed in the off-season in the hope of improving a bad bullpen, and he is another guy who has been a HUGE disappointment.

Like Jenks, he went on the DL in early-May, raising the possibility his early-season struggles were in part linked to an injury.

He has made four appearances since being reactivated and hasn’t allowed a run… lowering his ERA by more than three-and-a-half runs in the process.

His performance since his return (4.2 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 2 BB, 4 K) leaves me hopeful that he will prove to be highly effective moving forward.

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