I’ve never been the type of person who’s enjoyed giving people what they wanted. In fact, one of my favorite pastimes (in addition to explaining why someone’s argument is poorly constructed) is purposely taking a contrarian viewpoint on a particular topic rather than agreeing with their argument. In a sadistic sort of way, this amuses me. Does that make a jerk? Perhaps, it does, but I don’t let it bother me too much. Deep down, I know that I’m full of awesomeness that can’t be surpassed by anyone else. As a result, I’ve humbly learned to take in stride that I’m living in a world where I’m constantly explaining why I’m right and everyone else is irrational or flat out wrong. While it’s an incredibly difficult life I lead, it’s mine nonetheless; therefore, I embrace my plight rather than run from it.
With all of the negativity permeating Red Sox Nation following their woeful 5-11 start, I feel compelled to give my readers the opposite of what they want. I will not feed the monster! I will not join you in your negativity! I will not follow your lead by wallowing in my sorrows like a little 10 year old schoolboy who just got beat up by eight year old girl half of his size! That’s right. I will, instead, counteract Red Sox Nation’s pessimism with (gasp) positivity!
Rather than dwelling on Carl Crawford’s disappointing start; Dice-K’s maddening inconsistency; or Saltalamacchia’s inability to develop into an every day catcher, I’ve decided to focus on the positive aspects of the Red Sox season thus far. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but there really have been a few reasons to be hopeful. Let’s take a look at the biggest developments so far.
The Return of Josh Beckett – While I fully admit the sample is far too small to make any real conclusions about how he’ll perform over the course of the season, you can’t help but be excited about Beckett’s last two starts. In those games, he’s looked like the Beckett of old— freezing hitters with his ridiculously tight curve ball; inducing ground balls; commanding his fastball on the edges of the strike zone; and pitching deep into games. He’s been exactly the kind of stopper the Sox have needed during their rough start. Will he continue on this run? It’s tough to say for sure given his recent track record. Still, we know the kind of herculean performances he’s capable of providing; especially in those situations where the stakes are the highest. At only 30 years of age (he turns 31 on May 5th); Beckett should have plenty left in the tank. If he can recapture the 5-6 WAR form he exhibited from 2007 to 2009, it would go a long way towards answering one of the most pressing questions facing the Red Sox coming into the season. Beckett is currently 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA (1.96 FIP) and 23/7 K/BB ratio in 20 innings.
The Legend of Jed Lowrie – Troy already covered the 27 year old middle infielder pretty well on Monday, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say, Jed Lowrie has been a savior so far this season. With everyone in the lineup not named Dustin Pedroia performing below their expected performance baselines, Lowrie’s offensive prowess has quite possibly saved the Red Sox from digging themselves an inescapable hole. While it’s clear to even the biggest homer that Lowrie can’t keep up his .556 wOBA (in 33 PA) for too much longer, we still should be encouraged by his development. After suffering from a lingering wrist injury (2008 and 2009) and an unfortunate case of mononucleosis (2010), many in, out, and around the Red Sox organization assumed Lowrie had “played” himself out of the team’s plans. After posting excellent numbers last season (.393 wOBA, 1.8 WAR in 197 PAs), and following it up with a hot start this season, Lowrie has not only forged his way back into the Red Sox’s plans, but also made it damn near impossible for Tito to keep him out of the everyday lineup. Here’s hoping he keeps it up long enough to show the baseball world he’s capable of being an everyday starter.
Papelbon: The Renaissance Man – Ok, maybe he’s not a renaissance man (far from it really), but he’s certainly given us plenty to smile about so far this season. After two consecutive seasons of too many base runners, spotty control, and “pull your hair out” performances, Jonathan Papelbon seems to have returned to form. While his fastball velocity has slipped a little (probably due to an inconsistent workload), he’s remained effective largely due to the success he’s had with his secondary pitches. According to Fangraphs pitch type value chart, Papelbon’s slider and splitter have been valued at 2.16 and 2.78 runs per 100 pitches respectively. Since those stats are only based off of five innings, it’s probably best to take those numbers with a grain of salt. Still, it’s nice to see that he may be developing beyond just being a predictable fastball pitcher. Another reason we should feel optimistic about Papelbon is his 8/1 K/BB rate. (His one walk this season was done intentionally.) Small sample size concerns aside, this is kind of a big deal. His April K/BB ratios in 2009 and 2010 were 10/6 and 9/8 respectively (versus 66/18 and 67/20 during the rest of the year). If he can continue to prove he’s rediscovered his elite level control, the quality of the Red Sox bullpen would improve exponentially.
Jon Lester Avoiding the April Blues – Between 2008 and 2010, Jon Lester exhibited a tendency to struggle mightily throughout the month of April (and occasionally into May). As such, we all grumbled and groaned as Lester bombed on Opening Day to the tune of three home runs and no strikeouts in five innings. Was this going to be another frustrating April for our ace? Luckily, no. Outside of his poor start on Opening Day, Lester has been every bit as good as we’d hoped he would be. Through 25-1/3 innings, Lester’s struck out 22 batters, induced ground balls at a 60% rate, and allowed only three home runs (all on Opening Day). Assuming Lester continues to dominate hitters (and there’s no reason to believe he can’t), he should become one of the front runners in the Cy Young Award race this season.
The Little Engine that Could – Were you really expecting me to leave Dustin Pedroia off of this list? He’s a man; a myth; a legend. He’s the master of the “laser show.” If Chuck Norris was a baseball player, his name would be Dustin Pedroia. There’s no way I could possibly leave him off of the list. After all, he’s the only regular that’s producing. Thankfully, after missing more than half of the 2010 season with a broken foot, he’s returned to the field unscathed. In his first 16 games back, all he’s done so far is produce a .394 wOBA, exhibit outstanding range at second, get on base, and serve as the team’s offensive catalyst. Can he continue to produce at this level all season? I don’t see why not. With Pedroia entering his age-27 season (he doesn’t turn 28 until August 17th), he in the midst of a season in which most players peak. During his previous four seasons as a MLB regular, he’s posted wOBAs in the .360-.382 range. While .394 might be above his true talent level, there’s no reason he can’t put together a career season in 2011.
So there you have it. While there might not be a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the Red Sox 5-10 start, there have been a few bright spots. The best part is that we don’t have to look that hard to find them. Provided none of the above named players sees their performance take a drastic long-term turn for the worst (entirely possible given the small sample sizes), the Red Sox could have a potentially dominant 1-2 punch in their starting rotation; a closer who’s rediscovered his unhittable ways; and a young double play combination with above average offensive capabilities. Once the rest of the team sees their performance regress back towards the mean, the Red Sox should have a pretty damn good team. Until that happens, let’s try to focus a little bit more on the positive aspects of our team, and a little less on what’s going wrong.