Wednesday, May 4, 2016

5 Things About the 2016 Boston Red Sox That Aren’t Being Talked About Enough

After finishing the 2015 season in last place, the Boston Red Sox look much better this year, currently on a pace for 93 wins. While some things have gone very well, there are others that have not. Despite the chatter that seems to perpetually swirl around the team, some things haven’t received the attention they deserve. Here are five of them (keeping in mind the season is only about a sixth of the way over):

The Way Outfielder Chris Young is Being Used: Signed by the Red Sox this past offseason, the veteran right-handed hitter figured to be the fourth outfielder, getting the bulk of his playing time against lefthanders because of his severe career splits (.224/.292/.410 BA/OBP/SLG against righties and .263/.362/.474 against southpaws). His struggles against right-handed pitchers have become particularly pronounced in recent seasons, as evidenced by his combined .211 batting average against them in his last three seasons entering 2016.

Given Young’s strengths and weaknesses are as defined as any player on the roster, it’s been surprising to see him getting so much playing time thus far against his right-handed nemeses. He has fared predictably, collecting just two hits and eight strikeouts in his 17 at-bats against them, compared to 3-for-13 with just two whiffs against lefties. The Red Sox may not have faced a ton of left-handed starting pitcher so far on the young season but that’s no reason to put Young in situations where he has less of a chance to help the team.

Jackie Bradley Jr. Has Arrived: After several years of struggling to transition from a 2011 first-round draft choice to a major league regular, it appears the 26-year-old outfielder has finally made the leap. Although he may not be a star, he has developed into quite a useful player, contributing terrific defense and enough with the bat to make him a solid starter. In 25 games this year he has hit .276 with an American League leading four triples, a home run and 13 RBIs. He has also cut back a bit on his strikeouts, whiffing about once every four at-bats instead of the once every three at-bats during the earlier part of his career.

The Weird Start of Hanley Ramirez: After a disappointing 2015 season, and a nightmare of a time playing outfield, Ramirez impressed with a relatively seamless transition to the team’s starting first baseman. While he has worked hard and not been a distraction, he is a mixed bag so far at the plate. Although he is hitting a respectable .284, he has just two home runs and walked an uncharacteristic four times against 25 strikeouts (which is putting him on pace for the highest rate in his career—approximately once every four at bats).

However, his .351 BABIP is a bit higher than his .328 career rate, but not enough to scream regression is ahead. His 36.7% Hard Percentage (balls put in play hit hard) is also above his career rate. Still just 32, the physical specimen should still be more or less in his prime, so the numbers suggest he may be on the verge of breaking out in the near future.

Heath Hembree May Have Locked Down a Bullpen Spot: The 27-year-old right-hander has been on the Boston-Pawtucket yo-yo the past couple of years but has been lights out since being called up to the Red Sox this year. In four relief appearances, spanning nine innings, he has permitted just five hits and a lone walk while striking out 11. His fastball has jumped a tick (now averaging about 94 MPH) from when he first reached the majors in 2013 with the San Francisco Giants. His success in the long relief role has been particularly valuable because of the inconsistencies of the starting rotation.

Boston’s Offense is Flourishing Because of Small Ball; Not the Long Ball: Entering this season, hopes were high that the team would field a strong lineup. Although they have produced handsomely, how they have done so is a bit different than most might have expected. Currently, the Red Sox lead the American League in runs (135), batting average (.280), doubles (67), triples (9), and are tied with the Kansas City Royals for the lead in stolen bases (22). However, the team is tied for second-to-last in home runs (22).

Boston lineups in recent years have been headlined by sluggers who were more apt to put a game out of reach with a three-run home run than by maintaining a rally by taking an extra base. The rise of talented youngsters like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, who have more well-rounded games than big power, has led to this shift. With designated hitter David Ortiz playing in his final season, it’s possible that the team will continue to find even more ways to score runs in the coming years than putting balls over the fence.

Although the season has just entered its second month, there’s already a lot to chew on for fans of the Red Sox. As things continue to play out, there are a lot of things flying under the radar as the team continues to find its identity and see what they can accomplish as a unit in 2016.

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Man Versus Ball: A Review

George Plimpton was an author best known for participating as an amateur in sporting events and writing about his experiences.  His perspective and unique writing style exposed an entire new genre of sports journalism. Although he passed away in 2003, his influence remains, as evidenced by Jon Hart’s Man Versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures (University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

In a very Plimptonian way, Hart documents a number of experiences he has had in the sporting world. These include working (for years) as a vendor at major league baseball games; playing semi-pro football; amateur caddying; working for several years as a ball boy at the U.S. Open; and professional wrestling.

Hart’s most interesting venture is his vending, which began as a writing assignment but continued well past that as an actual job. The politics of the trade, along with the little things most people would never think of when buying a hot dog or cotton candy at a game (taking time to find proper currency to give to the customer may increase the likelihood of simply being told to keep the change).

It may be a matter of self efficacy but Hart spends much more time discussing the challenges he faces when working with each experience than the successes. In particular, his time as a player for the Brooklyn Mariners, a semi-pro football team, and his foray into wrestling did not come naturally to him.

In most cases, instead of using real names, Hart comes up with nicknames for the people he interacts with during his adventures. This proved a little difficult to keep up with who was who but ultimately didn’t detract too much from the stories. It would have also been helpful to have a bit more insight into his professional writing and how much that impacted his decisions to immerse himself in these experiences.

A lot of people casually dream about participating in sports, professional or otherwise, but seldom go to the lengths Hart did to find out what all the fuss is about. He writes in an easy style that engages the reader, and acts as a conduit to let us all know what it’s like to do such things as sling hot dogs in Shea Stadium or get clotheslined in a wrestling match. I’m more than happy to let him experience them for me but am also entertained by reading about how he came to have such an eclectic résumé.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Steven Wright Is Pitching Himself Into Permanent Status With The Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox have gone through their fair share of pitching woes over the past several seasons. Despite signing a blue chipper in David Price last offseason, the 2016 season has still been one of inconsistency for their staff. While it seems there is still work to be done, the surprise emergence of knuckleball starter Steven Wright may end up going a long way towards fortifying the team’s starting rotation.

The 31-year-old right-hander has pitched in parts of four seasons with Boston since coming over from the Cleveland Indians in a 2012 trade. A second-round draft pick in 2006 who began his career with a more traditional repertoire, he ultimately switched to the knuckler after stagnating in the minors. His acquisition seemed like a good idea, particularly in light of the success fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield enjoyed in Boston for 17 years.

Until this year, Wright has been on a yo-yo between the big league club and Triple-A Pawtucket. To date, he has appeared in 29 major league games (14 starts), going a combined 8-7 with a 3.56 ERA. An injury this spring to young hurler Eduardo Rodriguez created an opening for him to begin the year as the team’s fifth starter, and he has run with it, going 1-2 with a microscopic 1.40 ERA in his three starts.

Rodriguez is nearing his return, and given his potential, should be back in the rotation. However, Wright has made a strong case that he should keep his job and be considered as a long-term option at starter. In addition to his strong start to this season, he has also been much more effective starting than coming out of the bullpen. His 3.36 ERA in his 14 career starts, along with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.24 WHIP are all more than respectable numbers.

Truly successful knuckleball pitchers are few and far between. It’s a pitch that must be thrown with such feel and command that there aren’t many who can master the offering enough to translate it into a successful career, but it’s looking like Wright might be joining that exclusive club. Although approximately five out of every six pitches he throws are knucklers, he also mixes in other pitches that have made him a challenge to face. In addition to a curveball, he throws a fastball that averages about 83-85 MPH and is hard enough to warrant batters being sent a bottle of fine liquor after feeling its impact.

Poorly thrown knuckleballs can quickly translate into home runs, but what Wright has shown pitching at Fenway Park, a notorious bandbox, has been impressive. In his career, he has a 3.23 ERA and allowed a home run every 9.2 innings at home as opposed to marks of a 3.82 ERA and a home run allowed every 7.9 innings on the road.

What the Red Sox need is a dependable starter at the end of their rotation who can keep the team in games and give them a chance to win. Through the first 17 games, Boston starters have lasted at least six innings just nine times, and three of those efforts were turned in by Wright. The team is also second to last (ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles) in average length of starts (5.1) and in runs allowed per game by starters (5.13, ahead of only the Houston Astros). He is giving them exactly what you want to see from a fifth starter and has earned an opportunity to continue in that role beyond his current status as an injury replacement.

No matter how deserving, higher paid veterans and well-regarded prospects have a tendency to squeeze out lunch pail guys like Wright. In this case, there may be a developing path towards keeping him in the rotation. Joe Kelly has struggled mightily (8.2 innings in three starts) and was recently placed on the disabled list with shoulder trouble. It’s a tough way to get a job but at the very least it will keep him in the Boston rotation longer than originally planned.

Wright may not be a future Cy Young winner but if he keeps pitching the way he has to start the 2016 season he is setting himself up for a lengthy and successful career with the Red Sox and helping sort out what has been a problematic starting rotation. All he needs at this point is Boston to continue believing in him and handing him the ball every fifth day.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Carl Mays Interview: Ray Chapman's Death

One of the most tragic events to ever take place on a baseball diamond was the 1920 death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, who was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch in a game against the New York Yankees. Some thought that the right-hander never showed the kind of remorse or visceral reaction he should have in light of the circumstances, which helped create a reputation that follows him to this day (nearly 50 years after his death). However, he did go public shortly after fateful pitch to talk about what had happened and the aftermath that ensued.

Mays did not speak about the Chapman incident often but there is a written record of his thoughts about his role and the ensuing reaction. Below, excerpts are in italics along with my reactions. These quotes come from an interview he did in the November, 1920 issue of Baseball Magazine (which was reproduced by didthetribewin.com).

Although Chapman’s death was an accident, Mays became a scapegoat as a bad guy in the aftermath: “A ball player is not often called upon to discuss his own faults. Usually those failings are played up behind his back, a certain courtesy forbidding their mention to his face. It would be foolish, however, for me to ignore the widespread criticism of which I have been the unwilling butt. For there have been weeks at a time when I could hardly pick up a newspaper without finding my own name assailed by writers, players or owners indiscriminately.”

With Chapman’s death being a first, it was likely a natural reaction to find someone or something to blame. Mays, who was known to be taciturn and willing to let his fists speak for him, was an easy target. Obviously, he threw the fatal pitch but there has never been anything to suggest an iota of intention behind it, and making him shoulder the blame was unfair.

Mays was painfully aware that he was not a popular person:It was long ago made very apparent to me that I was not one of those individuals who were not fated to be popular. It used to bother me some, for I suppose there are none of us who wouldn’t prefer to be well-thought of. But I was naturally independent and if I found that a fellow held aloof from me, I was not likely to run after him. Evidently I didn’t impress people favorably at first sight. After they knew me better, I was generally able to be on friendly terms with them.”

“When I first broke into baseball, I discovered that there seemed to be a feeling against me, even from the players on my own team. When I was with Boise, Idaho, I didn’t have a pal on the Club until the season was half over. Then the fellows seemed to warm up a bit and we were on very good terms for the balance of the season.”

With 207 career major league victories (and another 75 in the minors) and a 2.92 ERA, Mays had a career that should have put him in the conversation for the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the six votes he received on the 1958 ballot has been the extent of his support for inclusion.

Mays used perceived slights against him to help fuel his success on the field: “My fellow players on the Providence team didn’t seem to like me and I wondered why. I always have wondered why I have encountered this antipathy from so many people wherever I have been. And I have never been able to explain it even to myself, though I have one or two theories on the subject. I did get genuinely discouraged at Providence and, of course, feeling as I did, was unable to do good work. In fact I lost all interest in my work. I wrote to my Uncle telling him I had about decided to give up baseball. He is no doubt responsible for my being identified with the game at present, for he replied with a mighty stiff letter in which he handled things straight from the shoulder and without gloves. In brief, he told me if I failed to make good, he would consider me a quitter and that is a word I never liked to take from any man. So I decided to brace up and see what could be done.”

Even Mays’ playing style set him apart from other players. He was renowned for his extreme submarine pitching delivery and thought nothing of standing up for himself when it came to his contract. He was also quick to temper, and was once fined for throwing a ball into the stands and striking a fan in the head during a game.

In an eerie premonition, Mays once joked he would have to get in trouble to get any true recognition in baseball:I remember a conversation I had with my wife about this time in which I told her my baseball career had been singularly free from trouble. I said to her in a joking way that perhaps it would be necessary for me to do something out of the ordinary to get my name in the papers. But I needn’t have been impatient. For could I have looked into the future, I would have seen trouble enough headed in my direction to satisfy the most ambitious trouble seeker who ever lived.”

Mays was right on the money with this. Even though he had a career adjusted ERA+ of 119, which matches Hall of Famers like Warren Spahn and Bob Lemon, his accomplishments as a player are largely forgotten and overshadowed by his role in Chapman’s death.

Just because he didn’t like to discuss it didn’t mean Mays wasn’t sorry about Chapman’s death:The unfortunate death of Ray Chapman is a thing that I do not like to discuss. It is a recollection of the most unpleasant kind which I shall carry with me as long as I live. It is an episode which I shall always regret more than anything that has ever happened to me, and yet I can look into my own conscience and feel absolved from all personal guilt in this affair. The most amazing thing about it was the fact that some people seem to think I did this thing deliberately. If you wish to believe that a man is a premeditated murderer, there is nothing to prevent it. Every man is the master of his own thoughts. I cannot prevent it, however much I may regret it, if people entertain any such idea of me. And yet, I believe that I am entitled to point out some of the many reasons why such a view is illogical.”

“I am a pitcher and I know some of the things a pitcher can do as well as some of the things he can’t do. I know that a pitcher can’t stand on the slab sixty feet away from the plate and throw a baseball so as to hit a batter in the head once in a hundred tries. That is, of course, assuming that the pitcher actually wanted to hit the batter in the head, a thing which is absurd on the face of it.”

The bean ball is an unfortunate tradition in baseball, especially during the time of Mays and Chapman. However, there has never been any evidence that the pitch was thrown on purpose. In an age before video and instant replay, people across the country formed their opinion on this event based on past biases and imagination instead of facts.

Even if Mays had been trying to hurt or maim Chapman, such an outcome would have been highly unlikely:But to actually kill a man it is by no means sufficient to hit him on the head. Walter Johnson with all his terrific speed has hit batters on the head and yet they have not died. Fairly often a batter gets hit on the head and seldom is he even seriously injured. There is only one spot on a player’s skull where a pitched baseball would do him serious injury and that is a spot about his temple which is hardly half as big as the palm of my hand. Suppose, to meet some of these malicious slanders that have been directed against me, we assume that a pitcher is enough of a moral monster to deliberately murder a batter at the plate, a batter with whom he can have no particular quarrel and from whose death he could not possibly benefit. What chance would he have of perpetrating such a crime? He would have to hit that batter, and what is more, hit him on a particular part of the skull of very limited area.”

It’s interesting to note that while Mays was subjected to the blame game, Chapman’s death did nothing to change the culture of pitching inside or even hitting batters on purpose. Batting helmets were still decades away, so the fact that such a sobering result came from this one play is indicative that most people likely knew in their heart of hearts that this was an accident.

In the aftermath, Mays didn’t know what to do and took the counsel of others. This probably helped make things worse for him: “Almost everything I have done or haven’t done since that time has been criticized. I have read newspaper comments which blamed me for not going to the Club House to see how seriously Chapman was injured. The fact that I was a pitcher on the mound and had no opportunity to go to the Club House means nothing to these people. When I was finally taken out of the game, Chapman had already been removed in an ambulance and it was then too late for me to see him.”

“I did not go to see Mrs. Chapman when she was in town. I could not, under the circumstances, bring myself to undergo this ordeal, though I would have done so if any good would have come of it. I did suggest doing so, moreover, to Colonel Huston, and he advised strongly against it on the grounds that it would be a trying experience for Mrs. Chapman. I was guided by his advice in the matter. I wrote to her, however. I did not go to see Chapman after his death. I knew that the sight of his silent form would haunt me as long as I live, and since no good would be accomplished from my going, I decided not to do so. It is possible I was mistaken in this attitude, but it was certainly through no lack of respect for Chapman or his friends. I have been bitterly criticized for pitching again so soon after this terrible tragedy. I can assure anyone who has made such a criticism that it was no easy task for me to take up my work where I had left off.”

This was pretty clearly a damned if he did, damned if he didn’t situation. That being said, his decision to hold back and not reach out to Chapman or his family only strengthened preconceived notions that he was an uncaring jerk who may have thrown the bean ball on purpose.

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