Rivals in Exile: Errors, Wild Cards and Building for Octoberby Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken
August 08, 2004
Ben Jacobs: Nomar Garciaparra. Trot Nixon. Bill Mueller. Mark Bellhorn. Scott Williamson. Byung-Hyun Kim. Ellis Burks. Pokey Reese.
That's the list of Red Sox players I expected to be of some use (Burks) or vital importance (Garciaparra) or anywhere in between who have (or will have soon) spent significant time on the disabled list. I'm not whining about how unfair it is. Quite the opposite, in fact. If the Red Sox were floundering because of all these injuries, I could at least rationalize this season. I could tell myself the Red Sox had a great team, but injuries ruined everything and there was nothing to do about it.
Despite all the injuries, however, only two teams in the AL (Yankees and Indians) have scored more runs than Boston, only four teams in the AL (A's, Angels, Twins and White Sox) have allowed fewer runs than Boston, and no team in the AL has a better run differential than Boston's plus-81. Yet somehow, five AL teams (Yankees, A's, Twins, Rangers and Angels) have more wins than the Red Sox do.
Boston's last four losses have all been by one run, they've lost 9 of the last 11 one-run games they've played and their record in one-run games for the season is 7-15.
How many other maddening things can I point out besides the injuries and the record in one-run games?
Well, how about Keith Foulke. The Red Sox signed him because the bullpen was a disaster last year and he's been as good as advertised, posting a 1.77 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 56 innings. And he's had as little impact on the team as a pitcher that good can possibly have.
As far as I can tell, in only 15 of Foulke's 46 appearances has the first batter he faced had the potential to either tie the game or put the other team ahead. He hasn't entered a single game all season long with the tying or go-ahead run on base. I don't know if that's a small percentage of high-leverage appearances, but it sure seems like it.
If that wasn't bad enough, he also has a large percentage of low-leverage appearances. In 13 of his 46 outings, he's pitched the ninth inning with the Red Sox winning by four or more runs. In two other games, the Red Sox were already down by three runs when Foulke came in. In one 10-day period, he pitched in games that the Red Sox led at the time by five, eight and nine runs.
Nine runs! You could put me on the mound for an inning with a nine-run lead and not be in grave danger of blowing the save. You certainly don't need to waste your best pitcher. The Red Sox have wasted nearly a third of the appearances of their best reliever in situations when any reliever could have done the job.
While we're talking about inefficient reliever usage, how about Boston's inefficient offense? The Red Sox are second in OBP (.356) and SLG (.465) by just a point each and lead the league in OPS and GPA. Yet they're only third in runs in part because they've got a dreadful .284 OBP and .383 SLG in 140 plate appearances with the bases loaded. If they had the same numbers with the bases loaded as they do overall, they'd be comfortably leading the AL in runs scored.
How about their poorly timed bad defense? The Red Sox are third in the AL with 83 errors. Those errors have led to 75 unearned runs (0.90 runs per error). Detroit leads the league with 93 errors, but only has 33 unearned runs (0.35 runs per error). Kansas City is second with 90 errors, and has 64 unearned runs (0.71 runs per error). Baltimore's fourth with 76 errors, and has 47 unearned runs (0.62 runs per error). Not counting Boston, the average AL team is giving up 0.59 unearned runs for every error committed. If the Red Sox were right at that average, they'd have the third-fewest runs allowed in the AL with just five more runs allowed than league-leading Minnesota.
I've sat through 107 games watching this team that I was sure had a good chance at winning 100 games turn into a team that will be lucky to win 90, so you'll excuse me for rambling on and on about how unlucky the Red Sox have been.
The fact of the matter is that this season has been inexplicably strange for Boston. A season full of hope turned to a season full of what-ifs. What if they had stayed healthy? What if Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe had pitched up to expectations? What if they knew how to use Foulke? What if they could hit with the bases loaded? What if their pitchers didn't fall apart every time somebody made an error?
And despite all the what-ifs, the Red Sox somehow find themselves just two games back in the wild card race. All of those what-ifs can't keep going against them all season, can they? They've survived four months of weirdness and still have a shot at the playoffs, and the fact that they've had to deal with all this crap must mean that they'll surge ahead if the crap goes away, right?
I'm hoping against hope that I'm right, that the breaks will start going Boston's way (or at least stop going against the Red Sox) and that the Yankees won't be the only northeastern team playing in October. I don't think I could handle it very well if this team that was built for the playoffs and then threw away my favorite player missed the playoffs.
Larry Mahnken: And I'm hoping that you're wrong, because there's no team I'd rather face less in October than the Boston Red Sox. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to win the ALCS over the Red Sox again, but no team is better built to dominate the postseason, if healthy, than the Red Sox -- even with Nomar gone. If Boston wins the Wild Card, the runaway victory in the AL East will be much less sweet, and much less important.
Fortunately, after two-thirds of a season where the Yankees appeared to be doing it with mirrors, things are starting to come together as originally planned, and maybe even a little better. Kevin Brown has given up 1 run in 14.1 innings since coming back from the DL, Javier Vazquez would have pitched 8 shutout innings on Friday if not for Carlos Delgado hitting a good pitch out of the ballpark, and Orlando Hernandez has surprised, going 4-0 so far with a 2.25 ERA, striking out 40 men in 32 innings, and making the question of who is going to fill out the postseason rotation much easier to answer.
Derek Jeter's batting average is finally over .280, though his OPS was at its highest in mid-July. Hideki Matsui's ground ball days are over and he's become the slugger the Yankees were expecting last year. Gary Sheffield's been on fire the past few weeks.
Teams of course go through hot and cold streaks, but considering that a lot of what has happened lately is what we expected to happen all along, the Yankees could be ready to roll in October. If Mussina comes back as an acceptable #3 starter, and Brown pitches like he has, all the questions about the Yankees' starting pitching will be thrown out, as their rotation will be as solid as any.
Even the most optimistic Red Sox fan has to concede the AL East to the Yankees, and with that the Yankees can start to get set for October. They can fool around with C.J. Nitkowski in the bullpen, hoping against hope that he can fill the LOOGY role, and expecting that he'll at least be better than The Run Fairy, Felix Heredia. They can take their time with Steve Karsay, slowly easing him back into a reliever's routine, hoping that he can be healthy for the postseason, and make their bullpen that much deeper. They can survive the loss of Jason Giambi, and the chances seem good that he'll be back on the field with enough time to get his swing back for the big games. A blessing in disguise this may be, for Jason Giambi with a full season of wear on his knee might have been too tired and pained to be of much use in the playoffs.
How strange it is that the fates should line up on the side of the Yankees once again, when they already have so many advantages. By no means are they guaranteed anything beyond a playoff berth (and really, not even that yet), but these Dog Days of August are a time of good feelings in the Pinstriped Nation.
We Yankee fans are pretty spoiled by our team, they haven't missed the playoffs since I was in high school. The closest I can come to really feeling empathy for you is 1995, when they entered the season with the expectations of a team that had the best record in the league when the strike began, and had added John Wetteland and Jack McDowell. They had to rally late to make the playoffs, but back then, the playoffs were enough for me, my team not having played in October since I was 4 years old. The Red Sox were 5 outs away from the World Series last year, I think a Wild Card and LDS loss ain't gonna cut it in Beantown.
BJ: I think the most frustrating thing about this season is the sharp contrast with the Yankees. Both teams have had numerous problems, more than they could have pessimistically expected before the season. Yet the Yankees have ignored their problems and are running away with the best record in the AL while the Red Sox are simply praying for a spot in the playoffs.
Another great frustration is that I can still see the great team when I look at the Red Sox, but it runs away and hides as soon as it shows itself. You're right that the Red Sox are still built for the playoffs, and that would just make it even more painful if they don't make it, knowing how much damage they could have done.
They still have two pitchers who can be great in Schilling and Pedro. Schilling has been consistently good all season, and Martinez has shown flashes of brilliance -- such as back-to-back 11-strikeout games his last two starts.
The bullpen can still be a big strength if Foulke is used properly (he entered the game with a four-run lead again Saturday, by the way) and Scott Williamson is healthy and Alan Embree and Mike Timlin aren't in one of their funks. The wild card in Boston's bullpen is Ramiro Mendoza, who pitched brilliantly when he came of the disabled list in July but made his first August appearance today.
The defense is undeniably better with Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, and with defensive specialists Pokey Reese, Dave Roberts and David McCarty available off the bench (or to start in certain situations). And even with Garciaparra gone, the offense should be good enough in the playoffs if Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Mark Bellhorn, Johnny Damon and Jason Varitek are all healthy.
So, as frustrating as this season has been, there is still hope -- a lot of it. If the Red Sox can just win the wild card, they would have as good a shot at winning the World Series as anybody.
By beating Detroit today and with Baltimore beating Texas, the Red Sox are back in the lead in the wild card race (well, tied). The win today also gave Boston consecutive series wins for the first time since those series against Oakland and Texas right before the All-Star break.
It might only be four wins in six games against Tampa Bay and Detroit, but it's a start. A start towards getting the season back on track, getting to the playoffs, and possibly getting that first world championship since before my grandfather was born. And that, obviously, would make everybody in Boston forget about what happened from May through July.
LM: And if they don't, we Yankee fans will be right here reminding you of when that last World Championship was. Because we're jerks like that.
As I was watching the Yankees celebrate Bernie Williams' grand slam Sunday afternoon, it occurred to me that perhaps the most erroneous assumption I and others made about the 2004 Yankees was one of chemistry. With Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield, both known for having somewhat acerbic attitudes, signing as free agents, and Alex Rodriguez coming over and moving to third to accommodate Derek Jeter's intangibles, everyone it seemed expected there to be internal strife in the Bronx.
But Brown's intolerance of any kind of failure has been appreciated by the business-like Yankees, and Sheffield's intensity has been focused on a desire to win. And for all the talk of a coolness between Jeter and Rodriguez, they have seemed like best friends all year. After every Yankees win, Rodriguez grabs Jeter, lifts him in the air and shouts in his ear, "You are the greatest player in the history of the New York Yankees!"
They laugh and tease each other in the dugout, and the closest there has been to internal sniping was a comment by Sheffield about playing through injuries that was interpreted by some as a shot at Giambi. If it was, I'm sure Sheff feels bad about that now, knowing what we do. This team is getting along as well as any of the great teams of the late 90's, and it's a credit to Joe Torre.
It's all coming together for the Yankees, and I don't see them beating themselves in October -- someone's going to have to step up and beat them.
Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken are staff writers for The Hardball Times. Ben can be contacted here, Larry can be contacted here.