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Once-woeful Red Sox seem to be situated nicely

May 23, 2011

Boston Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett (left) is having an excellent season.

Some things I think I think:

It didn’t take long for the Boston Red Sox to climb out of that impossible hole all the doomsayers had put them in after they started the season with two wins in their first 12 games. After Sunday night’s win over the Cubs, Boston’s record stood at 25-21 and the Sox were just one-half game out of first place in the American League East.
How did this happen? Easy. The Sox went 23-11 after their 2-10 start. And there are no great teams in the major leagues right now, unless you count the 29-15 Indians, with whom Boston began another three-game series last night in Cleveland. You might remember that Cleveland swept three games from Boston last month, ending a 0-6 road trip to start the season.
Somebody ought to check with the schedule-maker. How do the Indians get to host Boston for six games in the first six weeks of the season? Shouldn’t this series be in Boston? (Another reason to lament the unbalanced schedule.)
Cleveland has been thriving on home cooking this season. The Indians were 18-4 at home and 11-11 on the road as the new week dawned. You figure they’ll come back to earth soon. Meanwhile, it’s a great story for a city that needs some hope after NBA superstar LeBron James dumped the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat less than one year ago.
It’s also a great story for Boston that free agent Adrian Gonzalez is everything Red Sox fans could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Gonzalez leads the league in RBI, took a crazy .342 batting average into Monday night’s game, and stands fourth in the league in Theo Epstein’s favorite stat – OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentage). Gonzo trails only the unconscious Jose Bautista, unheralded Matt Joyce and otherworldly Miguel Cabrera in that stat.
Gonzo sort of offsets Carl Crawford’s incredibly inept offensive showing thus far. Boston’s other $20M per year offseason acquisition ranks 95th out of 95 American League qualifiers in OPS. He is 94th in slugging percentage and 93rd in on-base percentage. These lowly numbers come from a lifetime .293 hitter. So if you’re a Red Sox fan, you figure Crawford will eventually wake up. How good will Boston’s offense be with Crawford getting on base at his lifetime rate of .334? Right now, he’s reaching base at a .243 clip. That’s about one more time on base every night than his current rate.
As Old School manager Gene Mauch used to say about a slumping player: “By the end of the season, he’ll be within 10 points above or below his lifetime average.” Mauch said that back in the days when batting average, runs scored and RBI were the three main stats people looked at when evaluating a player. Now we add OPS to the formula, along with a lot of other stuff too complex to detail in a newspaper story. My favorite is BABIP (batting average for balls in play). Basically, the stat reflects what a hitter does when he isn’t striking out.
Bottom line is this: Carl Crawford will get hot pretty soon, probably as the weather warms up. Adrian Gonzalez (lifetime .287 hitter) will cool off some, too. Dustin Pedroia (lifetime .300 hitter) will leave his current .244 BA behind in an explosion of base hits. And when July 1 arrives, we can expect Boston to stand at the top of the A.L. East standings.
What about the Yankees? Well, this is an aging club that will need to dump 39-year-old DH Jorge Posada in another few weeks, assuming he keeps hitting at his current .182 clip. The Yanks have one of minor league baseball’s top young hitters (Jesus Montero) sitting in Scranton, waiting for the chance to DH and do a little catching.
That would be one possible fix for the Yankees, assuming Montero is ready to hit big league pitching. There are several more holes in the dyke to be plugged. New York’s bullpen was supposed to be dominant this season with the addition of Rafael Soriano, who saved 46 games for Tampa last season. Soriano, though, developed a sore elbow this spring and has contributed little to the late-inning success of the bullpen, which has blown six leads already this season.
New York also has a weak bench and suspect starting pitching, something we knew about before the season even began. Tampa Bay has the best starting pitching among the three East contenders. The Rays, though, come up short in the bullpen, and lack the 1-through-9 hitting potential of Boston.
It’s a long season and contenders will improve themselves through trades and promotions over the next few months. Right now, though, Boston seems to be situated quite nicely as the horses head to the middle of the track.
***
One last thought on Epstein and OPS, which he used to defend J.D. Drew’s performance last season. Drew is a lifetime .883 OPS performer. Crawford is a lifetime .774. I guess Theo won’t be using OPS to defend the Crawford signing over the next seven years.
***
On my last visit to McCoy Stadium, I sat with some professional baseball scouts a few rows behind home plate. Watching these guys aiming their radar guns at pitchers and timing runners to first base with their stop watches proved to be an interesting subplot to the game between the PawSox and the Scranton Yankees. It was interesting to note that the average time of righthanded hitters to first base seemed to run between 4.2 and 4.4 seconds, a little higher than I imagined. A speedy lefthanded hitter can get to first in under 4 seconds. But I saw no times of 4.0 seconds on this occasion.
At one point, I mentioned the old baseball legend about Mickey Mantle and Vada Pinson having been timed at 3.1 seconds out of the lefthanded box back in the early 1950s (Mantle) and early 1960s (Pinson).
“You don’t believe that, do you?” Milwaukee Brewers scout Tom Mooney said, turning around and looking at me.
I started to backtrack quickly.
“Well, it is a legendary story,” was the best I could offer.
Mooney snickered and went back to his work. That night, I went home and did a computer search of “Mickey Mantle and 3.1 seconds to first base” and gained some insight. Turns out, Mantle and Pinson were recorded at that time, but both were drag-bunting from the left side as they were clocked by scouts. So you figure that gave them a head start to first base, perhaps cutting three-tenths of a second off their natural times.
The search also revealed that Bo Jackson was clocked to first base from the right side at 3.4 seconds. Bo was definitely the fastest baseball player I’ve ever seen so that makes sense. The young Mantle (ages 19-23) supposedly was the fastest player of his generation. Vada Pinson took that title away in the 1960s.
Who is the fastest baseball player today? Good question. I’ll have to ask a scout someday.

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