Monday, August 17, 2009

Stick a fork in them?

It's August 17 - six weeks to go in the season, and the Red Sox are now trailing in both the AL East and Wild Card standings.

7-1/2 games back of the Yankees, 1/2 game back of the Rangers. 12-17 in their last 29 games.

This is not a blip - it's a trend, and it's looking ugly.

Beyond wins & losses, though, is this troubling statistical split -- 118 and 20. The first number is the amount of stolen bases allowed by the Sawx pitching/catching batteries this season, the second is the number of runners caught stealing. That's a 98 stolen-base split... yikes. In fact, the Sawx are last in both stolen bases allowed and runners thrown out.

As the Tampa Bay Rays have demonstrated in nearly every game against Boston this season -- and as the Texas Rangers painfully reinforced this weekend (8 steals in 3 games) -- today's game is a speed/defense/pitching game, and not the bash people's heads in game of past years. Sure, everyone knows that, and the Sawx are Exhibit A writ large of what can happen when you fall behind the athlete curve.

As a team, the Sawx have stolen 92 bases and succeed in their steals 75 percent of the time -- fourth in the AL in both categories. Those rankings, though, are deceptive: Jacoby Ellbury has 53 of the Sawx 92 steals, and is the only player on the team with 20+ steals and a plus-75% success rate (generally considered the cut-off for an effective base-stealer). By contrast, the Rays have 3 players with 20+ steals, each exceeding 75% in their success rates (Carl Crawford 54 steals, 84% success rate; B.J Upton 35 steals, 76% success rate, Jason Bartlett 21 steals, 88 % success rate) and a team mark of 80% success rate (158 steals, 39 caught), which trails only Texas (84%) in the base-stealing efficiency ranks.

Here's another troubling fact -- the Sawx are now the sixth-best fielding team in the league by fielding percentage (.984 - total assists & putouts/total chances), but that's deceiving when you consider that the Sawx have the fewest amount of total chances in the league. Some of that is due to the pitching staff, which has struck out the second-most batters (900) in the league - after all, you can't catch the ball if the batter strikes out - but the Sawx have also allowed better than a hit per inning (1.02 H/IP). Amongst contending teams - division leaders and wild-card contenders - only the AL West-leading Angels have allowed more.

Number, numbers, numbers... what does this all REALLY mean? It means that the Sawx, who for the last three season either had the highest or tied for the highest fielding percentage in the AL, are slipping behind their competition. Hence the trade for Alex Gonzalez to solve their shortstop problem, the shuffling of Mike Lowell between 3B and DH, the move of Youkilis to 3B, the trade for Casey Kotchman, bringing up Josh Reddick, etc. - all moves designed to make the Sawx better in on defense.

When you consider that the 3-5 spots in the pitching rotation currently sport a collective ERA of almost 6.00 and a WHIP (walks + hits/IP) of almost 2.00, it's critical for this team to be able to get outs in the field and control the base paths. And the Sawx are just not getting it done in those departments - and no amount of production from the offense will fix that. You can't beat the opposition if you can't get them out or stop them from running on your pitchers/catchers.

The truth is, this team's flaws were evident early in the season, but the line-up was producing (Big Papi's season-long funk notwithstanding) so they weren't as obvious. But now they are... and I'm not sure how they can be fixed as we move into the Aug/Sept stretch drive.

And that, more than the lack of production from Papi, J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, etc., may have the Sawx on the outside looking in when the playoffs roll around.

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