Interleague play starts today, and the Brewers have a three-game series against the Red Sox at Fenway. To get us ready for the set, I asked my good friend--and non-card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation--Marc Normandin to tell us a little about his team.
You may know Marc from Baseball Prospectus, where he writes Player Profiles and Fantasy Beat columns. He also was one of the original bloggers at SBN's stats site Beyond the Boxscore, and he contributes weekly columns to Heater Magazine.
Q: Last year, Daisuke Matsuzaka was pretty good. So far this season, he's been great, even though he's had to work around 30 walks in 48 innings. Are we seeing a new, improved, Dice-K, or will a start against the Brewers start regressing him to the mean?
A: This is something I covered the other day over at Baseball Prospectus. Matsuzaka has essentially cut his home run rate in half, but other than that he has lost over a full strikeout per inning and tacked on two additional walks per nine to a total that was already close to iffy. He's been lucky so far with a .209 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) and has also posted a lofty strand rate thanks to an assist from a Red Sox defense that is converting 71% of all batted-balls into outs.
Supposedly he's been mixing in random pitches less often so he can focus on getting hitters out, but there's a few things that don't jive with that thinking. First, look at his pitch distribution at Fangraphs; there are some slight changes in usage, but nothing too significant. The second part of this is that he's stopped "nibbling" as much, but he's walking additional hitters and still using the same pitch distribution, and is in fact throwing 4.2 P/PA after 4.0 (3.98 without the rounding) last year.
Basically, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop when he's walked the bases loaded at some point after tiring himself out in the 4th inning. His FIP calls for an adjustment to a 4.12 ERA, which seems about right if the homers don't come back. If they do though, well, sigh. I'm not sure if the Brewers are the team where we will see him regress to the mean--that's a pretty awesome .316 team OBP you have going on there--but it will happen sooner than later.
Q: Talk to us about the shortstop situation. From an outsider's perspective, it looks like Julio Lugo sucks and Jed Lowrie's ready now. Yet Lowrie is back in Pawtucket and Alex Cora is starting until Lugo is healthy again. Please explain.
A: Lowrie can't field the position, and Lugo's biggest problem at present is an inability to field the position. It looks as if Lugo is jealous of Youkilis' errorless streak, and he's doing his best to force Youk to collect an error scooping an errant throw. His Rate2 from the Davenport Translations is 78 (22 runs below average per 100 games played) and he's already 7 runs below average defensively by that metric. I'll admit here that I thought signing Lugo was a good idea at the time, but my mind was apparently clouded by the previous shortstops we had in tow.
The Sox haven't announced a long-term plan with Lowrie--I think he's a future third baseman with second handled by Pedroia--but he may be their younger version of Alex Cora with more pop and less defense to be deployed as a utility guy.
It's tough to figure the Sox out sometimes, they just like to play with smoke and mirrors and never tell you their true intentions. Sometimes it works out nicely, and other times they do weird things like tell Josh Beckett to stop throwing a curveball for an entire season during side sessions, or sign Mike Lowell to an extension when you have someone ready to take the position, etc. I try to ignore those times to avoid frustration.
Q: Speaking of "ready now," the same can be said of Jacoby Ellsbury. Now that the Cubs signed Jim Edmonds (tee hee), there's one less suitor for Coco Crisp. Do you see Crisp being dealt, or is there another way the Sox can handle having four outfielders who either deserve or want to start?
A: Crisp doesn't deserve to start, no matter what his friends and relatives might tell him. I like the production of the "I'm not guaranteed playing time" Covelli much more than the one who was phoning in at-bats daily for two years. It looked like he picked up some bad habits at the plate while recovering from his finger injury in 2006, and he never worked around them until now. Of course, we're talking about an 89 at-bat sample. He could certainly slug under .400 again by year's end.
Defensively, he's excellent, but so is Ellsbury. Ellsbury's the better hitter, the better baserunner, and after some more experience out in Fenway's center, probably at least his equal defensively due to his speed and solid instincts. Crisp may deserve to start elsewhere in the league (how about the Padres? Please?) but the Sox can afford to use him in a role where he spells the other outfielders and comes in defensively late. If at some point you're forced to witness the Ellsbury/Crisp/Drew defensive alignment in the 8th-9th when the Sox have a flyball pitcher on the mound, you might hate yourself a bit. I like that much better than what the Mets have cooked up, where they are sometimes forced to do things like start Angel Pagan in their outfield. Covelli is an excellent fourth outfielder :-)
Q: Here's a fun fact: relative to league average, every offensive position on the Sox is above average. The two "worst," though, are second base and DH. Pedroia, ok--average is respectable. But...David Ortiz? People have been forecasting his possible demise for years, but is this finally the year he begins morphing into Mo Vaughn?
A: Ortiz is dealing with a knee injury that has sapped some of his power. I know an ankle injury was the beginning of the end for Maurice, but I'm hoping Ortiz hasn't lost it all at once. One of the reasons I didn't like the extension the Sox gave him was because it's possible he will one day wake up and be too big and out of shape to play daily in the major leagues, but it's too soon to say that day is now. The best season of his career was 2007, so I'm hoping he's able to rebound some when his knee heals up.
On a related note, have you seen my buddy Manny up there? .308/.386/.551 with 8 homers. He worked out this winter vigorously for the first time in ages--Manny is notorious for his hard work preparing for games, but it usually has to do with his swing more than it does lifting weights and exercising--and for once, the spring training fluff story seems to have a ring of truth to it. I'm not sure what exercises he did that allowed him to make an over-the-shoulder grab and then high-five a Sox fan, but he should keep doing them. You might ask, "But Marc, Manny's BABIP is .370, and you of all people shouldn't get excited when someone does that!" I'd agree with you if his career BABIP wasn't .343 with four seasons at a higher BABIP than this year's on his resume.
Q: Finally, I know you must get asked this all the time, and it's rough being in second place all these years. But do you think 2008 is the season when the Red Sox can finally catch the Rays?
A: This is such blasphemy, and it's possible that if Sox fans bothered to venture out of their Nation (outside of their road trips designed to drive other team's fans insane), they would see me read this, but I could honestly care less if the Rays finish in first. Good for them. That doesn't apply to the other AL East teams (or hell, other AL teams outside of Kansas City) but the Rays deserve to win. Maybe that's just the baseball fan in me talking. I'm sure the Sox fan in me will start yelling in an hour when he realizes what I said, but it's nice to have someone else to catch up to and play important games against in the East. The Sox/Yanks rivalry is to the point where it's played out, and the "drama" just doesn't grab me, no matter how much the media tries to shove it down our throats every time they play.
And hey, the Sox finally won the division last year for the first time since 1995. What a roster that was...I'm still not entirely sure how they did it.