When An 18-Wheeler Gets Rollin’

Dec. 18th, 2010
Merry Christmas, Boston. You have the makings of a shutdown bullpen.

(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

We could
have written that headline last Christmas after the Red Sox stacked their bullpen with top-of-the-line relievers. The reliever binge made the 7th, 8th and 9th innings an unrelenting gauntlet for opposing teams.

Boston bolstered the late innings pitching core by adding free agents Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler to go along with Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. Hey howdy hey these are all great pitchers. (Sure, Ozzie Guillen’s son isn’t a fan of Jenks, but guess what, most of us aren’t fans of Ozzie Guillen.)

When the December winter settled in on Boston, the team kept the ground warm by investing heavily in upgrades. Hot stove indeed. Not making the playoffs in 2010 was unacceptable and the bullpen was a point of emphasis for the front office.

So was getting Adrian Gonzalez and stealing Carl Crawford from the Angels. Playoff baseball is a no-brainer at that point. People started talking about 100-win seasons. The Red Sox added a bounty of weapons to their stockpile to battle AL East in the fall. Presumptive, but fair right?

Sure, in the winter.

Once the middle of April came around, everything that had been added in Boston looked like it didn’t fit. This included their ROOGY specialist Wheeler. What was up with this guy?

Wheeler, a Pawtucket, RI native was a well-known bullpen specialist who commanded right-handed hitters and embodied the type of sneaky-and-solid players the Tampa Bay Rays routinely unveil.

Wheeler spent three years in St. Pete and when his contract was up, the Rays declined to offer arbitration to him because it would have cost them $4 million.

With a valuable role-player sitting on the free market, Theo Epstein pounced in and inked the big right-hander to a one-year deal worth $3 million. The deal also included a $3 million option for 2012 that will vest with 65 appearances. Great signing. This guy is a stud against righties.

Forget about the option at this point though. It didn’t start out well and Wheeler probably won’t reach 65 appearances at his current pace due to a 15 day-DL stint in May.

Following back-to-back poor outings in early May against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (still the worst and unnecessarily longest team name in baseball), the Sox put Wheeler on the shelf to try and heal him up mentally, physically and technically.

In the early going, like most of his Red Sox teammates, Wheeler struggled to find his footing and carried with him an ERA in the double-digits.

He looked like a bust to a lot of fans and he was cast aside our conscious.

Most of May passed and on the 24th, Wheeler returned from the disabled list with his his ERA sitting at 10.03.

Fast-forward six weeks and Wheeler’s ERA has cut in half to 5.08, but what is most remarkable is that he has issued just four walks on the season. His command (K-to-BB ratio) is a remarkable 5.5 on the back of 1.3 BB/9 and 7.0 K/9.

Suddenly, Wheeler is the lights-out guy we thought we were getting at Christmas.

It wasn’t even so much that Wheeler was pitching poorly in the early part of the year. A large part of his struggles was in how the Red Sox used him.

In one particularly bad outing against his old team the Tampa Bay Rays, Wheeler was tattooed for 5 runs in just one inning of ‘relief’ during a 16-5 throttling at Fenway Park.

You probably don’t remember that game so I’ll ask you sarcastically, do you remember Daisuke Matsuzaka? (I have enjoyed forgetting about him). Wheeler’s blow up came in a Dice-K outing on April 11th where Matsuzaka lasted just 2.0 innings, allowing seven runs. You can’t blame Dice-K for Wheeler, but in that early April game, Wheeler’s reputation became correlated negatively with Matsuzaka and a lot of fans were ready to give him back to the Rays.

In his previous two outings, Wheeler had struggled with Cleveland and Texas. Now the Rays were circling and looking to draw blood from an old teammate. Not a great start to his Red Sox career and being lumped in with Dice-K starts made it even worse. You can thank the Red Sox’ bullpen strategy, too.

With the Red Sox trailing 12-4, Wheeler came entered the game in mop-up duty to pitch the 9th inning. The Rays had already put a hurting on Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield (3.1 IP, 5 ER) and were about to send the Sox to a 2-9 record. Wheeler was about to face a whole string of lefties and have a meltdown.

This is supposed to be a right-handed specialist. As in face all the righties and get them all out. Don’t face lefties because they crush him. Weird use by Terry Francona, right?

Matsuzaka went under the knife for Tommy John surgery and may never wear the Red Sox uniform again.

Ben Zobrist led off the 9th inning and being the switch-hitter he is, Zobrist faced Wheeler from the left side of the plate. Ugh. Not good for Wheeler. You can try to defy his weakness but it won’t work. Just copy Joe Maddon’s use of him. It was odd to see the Red Sox deliberately going against the grain. Zobrist singled to start the inning and that brought up BJ Upton.

It’s aggravating, but is it within reason to try out your new arm and see if you can get him an edge on lefties? None of Wheeler’s previous teams could do it before (TAM, NYM, HOU, TAM), but perhaps the Red Sox have something up their sleeve.

(Hard to convince yourself of this though)

So, next up is Upton. Upton should be no problem here for Wheeler. Upton is a RHH (right-handed hitter) and this Wheeler’s bread and butter. 7 pitches later, Upton singled to shortstop and Marco Scutaro threw the ball away pushing Zobrist over to third base.

First and third, nobody out.

This was not a fun way to start the season. Heck, even Tampa Bay was struggling at the time (2-8 record), but it was the Red Sox who truly looked dysfunctional. The Rays beat the tar out of Boston that night.

Not what anyone expected in Red Sox Nation.

It’s 10:00 at night on the East Coast in early April and you are sitting in your living room wondering what is going on with this team? How can this be so bad?

– Zobrist on 3rd, Upton on 1st – nobody out –

Next, the Rays manager pitch-hit for Felipe Lopez and brings in the LHH (left-handed hitting) Casey Kotchman. Bad matchup #2. Kotchman ropes a fastball into right field scoring Zobrist to make it 13-4.

Well, this is fun. Everyone stinks at this point. Wheeler, Carl Crawford (.186 BA), Jarrod Saltalamaccia (.154 BA), Scutaro (.185 BA), Jacoby Ellsbury (.194 BA), John Lackey (1-1, 15.58 ERA) and Matsuzaka (0-2, 12.86 ERA) – all stink.

That warm fun we were feeling in December is long gone replaced with wet, heavy disappointment.

Most people probably aren’t even watching the Rays game at this point. I’m sure the Green Line was plenty full by the 7th inning while Wheeler continued the tour of left-handed Tampa Bay batters.

John Jaso (switch-hitter), Reid Brignac (L), Sam Fuld (L), Johnny Damon (L) and Matt Joyce (L) all went up against Wheeler in the 9th. It was a recipe for disaster trotting him out there against that sequence of batters and his ERA ballooned to 18.90.

In June, Fire Brand’s Troy Patterson broke down Wheeler’s early season usage suggesting the Sox had tried to make some changes to Wheeler’s approach against LHH, but it failed. After the DL-stint the Red Sox started using him a little more in line with that of a one-sided specialist.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the line of demarcation for Wheeler. By Memorial Day, the ‘Dan Wheeler’ we had expected was showing up on the mound and mowing down righties.

Over the last 31 days, Wheeler’s ERA is 2.19 and he’s struck out 10 batters in 12 innings. Wheeler Earned the ‘Amica Pitcher of the Week’ honors this week after dominating for a third consecutive week.

Tampa Bay pounded Boston during that day and it was an illustration of how to neutralize your own strengths. The Red Sox eventually stopped experimenting with Wheeler, he put the truck in gear and started rolling. Today, he looks like a weapon that will come in handy if the Sox restrict his matchups like Tampa Bay did.

He just might come in handy against Upton and Evan Longoria. Or Mr. 3000, Derek Jeter.

Just don’t let him pitch against lefties.

Categories: Adrian Gonzalez Bobby Jenks Boston Red Sox Carl Crawford Dan Wheeler Daniel Bard Joe Maddon Jonathan Papelbon Tampa Bay Rays Terry Francona Theo Epstein

One Response to “When An 18-Wheeler Gets Rollin’” Subscribe

  1. @wezefe July 10, 2011 at 1:28 PM #

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