Thursday, July 8, 2010
Updated: July 9, 12:39 PM ET
Uneven first half for Sox pitching staff
By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPN Stats and Information
The pitching staff was supposed to be the strength of the 2010 Boston Red Sox. Bolstered by the addition of John Lackey, they had arguably the deepest rotation in baseball. The continued emergence of Daniel Bard meant a stronger bullpen than the one that had the second-best ERA in the American League last season.
Of course, that's not how it has worked out. Josh Beckett was ineffective and then hurt. Stalwarts Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon have struggled in a bullpen that has the most home runs allowed (37) in the AL and carries the second-worst ERA (4.78), nearly a run higher than last season (3.80).
With the All-Star break on the horizon, let's crunch some numbers from the first half that may help explain it all.
With the first 90 innings of his career in the books, Bard has proven to be among the last pitchers against whom a hitter wants to fall behind. After an 0-1 count, Bard has an amazing 77 strikeouts compared to just four walks, and opponents are hitting only .114 in that situation. You can see why: Inside Edge clocks his average fastball at 97.8 mph, second in the league only to Joel Zumaya. He's been dominant at Fenway, where he has a 1.41 ERA in 44 2/3 career innings. But the big improvement has been on the road, where he had a 5.84 ERA in 2009 that has been trimmed to 2.61.
One aspect of Bard, however, is puzzling. With Jason Varitek behind the plate, Bard is nearly perfect. He hasn't allowed an earned run in 15 2/3 innings, opponents are hitting .082, and he has 20 strikeouts to just one walk. But with Victor Martinez catching, Bard's ERA jumps to 3.38, and he has 11 walks to go with 22 strikeouts. It may come down to the fastball, which Bard throws in the zone over 60 percent of the time to Varitek, but less than half of the time to Martinez.
Thursday was the 50-day mark since Beckett was placed on the disabled list, making it the longest of Beckett's 13 career trips to the DL. It's difficult to analyze a first half of eight starts and questionable health; however, one trend bears watching when looking for a second-half resurgence. Beckett's changeup has failed him this season, particularly against lefties. According to Inside Edge, opponents hit .500 on at-bats ending with a changeup compared to .191 in 2009. That includes a .563 mark for lefties, a huge increase from .171 in 2009. He's yet to record a strikeout with his changeup in 2010 after having 17 last season.
The ascension of Clay Buchholz has reached a new level in 2010 courtesy of his continued willingness to pitch to contact. Opponents are swinging and missing at fewer of his pitches than ever before, and Buchholz's 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings represent the lowest rate of his career. An example of how this has helped Buchholz is in double plays. In 61 double-play situations, Buchholz has induced 13 (or one fewer than he had in his first three seasons combined). That 21.3 GDP percentage is best among all AL starters, and it's part of the reason that opponents are hitting just .223 against Buchholz with men on base.
Also of note, Buchholz has allowed just three home runs in 72 innings this season, a rate of 0.27 per nine IP, which ranks third in the majors. Opponents are slugging just .309 against him, which is third in the AL behind Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson.
Through May, Delcarmen had a 1.80 ERA, second-best among AL pitchers with 25 or more innings pitched. Even through his first nine appearances of June, his season ERA stood at 2.23. Then came the three games preceding his trip to the DL, when Delcarmen retired just three of the 14 batters he faced, allowing eight runs. But even before that stretch, Delcarmen was averaging just 1.28 strikeouts per walk, essentially half of his 2008 rate (2.57). The biggest non-health concern might be first-pitch strikes. Delcarmen's 48.3 first-pitch strike percentage is third-lowest of any AL pitcher with 30 or more innings. Of his 20 walks, 16 came after a first-pitch ball.
On a team where staying healthy is an accomplishment, John Lackey has that much going for him. But a 4.40 ERA is not what you expect from a pitcher who was handed $82.5 million in the offseason. So what's been the problem? Lackey's performance with two strikes is a good place to start. Lackey is only averaging 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings after having posted five straight seasons of 7.0 or greater.
Lackey entered 2010 having held opponents to a .186 average in two-strike counts. This season, that has ballooned to .249, the fifth-worst mark of any AL starter. It's been particularly bad against lefties, who are hitting .286 and are swinging and missing only 8.7 percent of the time with two strikes, as compared to 19.2 percent last season.
Meanwhile, Lackey is walking more batters than ever. In fact, the two aren't mutually exclusive. He has walked 18 lefties in two-strike counts. Last season, he walked a total of 22 lefties in all counts. In total, he's walked 30 left-handed hitters, tied for most in the majors, and just one fewer than he had in the last two seasons combined.
Remember when Jon Lester was 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA after three starts? Well, since that point, he leads the AL in wins (10), ERA (1.84) and opponent batting average (.183). In other words, Lester might just become the first Red Sox lefty to win the Cy Young Award. A big improvement from last season has been first-pitch strikes. Lester's 54.5 first-pitch strike percentage in 2009 was fifth-worst among starters with at least 150 innings. This year, he's raised that to 61.3 percent, putting him in the top third in the league. This is a particularly important stat for Lester, who absolutely dominates when ahead in the count. After an 0-1 count, opponents are hitting just .132 against Lester, lowest among all starters.
He's also been a workhorse for a staff in need of one. Since his poor beginning, Lester is averaging seven innings per start, fourth-most in the AL. In fact, from the seventh inning on, opponents are hitting just .128 against Lester, including one hit in 29 seventh-inning at-bats.
Is there any way to start the game in the second inning? In Matsuzaka's 11 starts, the first batter of the game has reached base seven times (five walks, two hits). Take out the first, and opponents are hitting just .120 with a .228 OBP when leading off an inning. Of course, Matsuzaka's first-inning struggles aren't limited to the first batter. Overall, opponents have a .356 BA and .516 OBP in the first compared to .212 BA and .293 OBP over the rest of the game. Of the 35 runs that he's allowed, 16 have come in the first inning.
Look what happens when you take out the first inning: Matsuzaka has a 3.17 ERA, and opponents are hitting just .212 with a .293 OBP -- numbers quite similar to his 18-3 season in 2008. And just like in 2008, Boston's bats are coming to the rescue. The Red Sox are averaging a robust 7.0 runs per start for Matsuzaka, the second-best run support in the majors behind Phil Hughes.
Over his first three seasons in the majors, Okajima's rates have all been on a downward trend. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has decreased with each season, while his ERA, opponent batting average and WHIP have all moved in the wrong direction. While little suggested season four would be different, the drop-off wasn't supposed to be this steep. After a 1.59 ERA through eight appearances, Okajima has a 7.17 ERA in 26 appearances since.
Perhaps most alarming is his ineffectiveness against lefties. Over his first three seasons, lefties hit just .193 against Okajima, who had four strikeouts for every walk against them. This season, they're hitting .333 and he's struck out just two more than he's walked. In order to match last season's numbers against lefties, Okajima would essentially need to keep them hitless the rest of the way.
In 2009, Papelbon's peripheral stats indicated a significant drop-off. He threw fewer strikes and his walk rate tripled from the previous season. Yet, in the end, his 1.85 ERA and 38 saves trumped any appearance of regression. This season? Papelbon is again throwing fewer strikes and issuing more walks, but now he's paying for it. His 3.60 ERA is nearly double last season's mark, and he's equaled his three blown saves from 2009. Worse yet, he's already given up a career-high six home runs.
So what's changed? Papelbon hasn't been able to escape out of his own jams. Last season, he held opponents to a .128 batting average with runners in scoring position, the lowest for a Red Sox pitcher over the past 35 years. This season, that number has ballooned to .303, and it's underscored by a significant dip in strikeouts. In 2009, he struck out 38.6 percent of batters with runners in scoring position, but that percentage has fallen to 28.9 this season. One more alarming note: Papelbon has only two called third strikes compared to 19 in 2009.
Allowing five runs in your first 1 1/3 innings will do cruel things to your ERA. Just ask Ramon Ramirez (4.76 ERA). But since those first three appearances, Ramirez' ERA is just 3.58 ERA and he's held the opposition to a .233 batting average. Even better is his 2.63 ERA over his last 15 appearances.
A big reason for Ramirez's improving numbers is his performance with runners in scoring position. Opponents are hitting just .150, a number made all the more improbable by his low strikeout rate. This is nothing new for Ramirez, who held opponents under .200 with RISP in 2008 and 2009. In fact, over the last three seasons, he's held opponents to a .184 batting average with RISP, second-best among relievers with at least 200 batters faced.
Opponents are jumping all over Wakefield's first pitch. He's already allowed more first-pitch hits (26) than in either of the last two seasons, and is on pace for the most by a Red Sox pitcher since Tom Gordon in 1996. In all, opponents are hitting .491 on the first pitch, fifth-highest among starters. Compare that to previous seasons: .313 in 2009 and .271 in 2008. One possible reason is an increased use of his fastball. Wakefield has thrown 30 first-pitch fastballs this season, according to Inside Edge. That is only four fewer than the previous two seasons combined.
This brings up a rather counterintuitive question: Is Wakefield throwing too many first-pitch strikes for a knuckleballer? Take out his one-pitch at-bats and opponents are hitting just .230, well below the league average of .249. Even after a first-pitch ball, Wakefield has held opponents to a .242 average (the MLB average is .275). Ultimately, walks derail this argument; however, an adjustment needs to be made for a pitcher who has given up three first-pitch home runs in his last five starts.
Scott Atchison: When not hitching a ride on the Pawtucket shuttle, Atchison has posted numbers more impressive than his 4.88 ERA might suggest. With runners in scoring position, opponents are hitting just .143 (4-for-28), which is tops among Red Sox pitchers.
Felix Doubront: Between Pawtucket and Boston, lefties are hitting just .100 (3-for-30) against Doubront, which makes one wonder if he could be of use in the bullpen once the rotation gets healthy.
Dustin Richardson: Through 10 career appearances, Richardson has a 1.27 career ERA. Over the last 25 years, the only pitchers to start a career in Boston with a lower ERA through 10 games were Okajima (0.93) and Bard (0.75). Then again, the lefty has only been asked to pitch a full inning in one of his eight games in 2010.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.