April 8, 2010

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LONGSHOTS: The Nation makes a pitch for having best staff in baseball
by Dave Long

We start the year with many talking about the Red Sox having the best overall starting pitching in baseball. That may be true, especially if depth is factored in, as right now they have five slots and six guys to put into them. And the outlook in the other areas is interesting too. So, as promised last week, here’s a look at assorted myths, realities and predictions about the home town pitching staff.

Myth Number One: They Have Three Number Ones: As usual it all comes down to the individual definition. Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester are very solid, but a number-one to me is a guy who is a Cy Young candidate and a threat to win 20 every year, has a high winning percentage and unquestionably is the MAN you want out there in the moment of truth. Beckett was all that at once in 2007 and has two stellar post-seasons to his credit. But he has had durability issues, only been an all-star once and a Cy Young threat in ’07 when he finished second. Lackey has won over 14 just once, never had an ERA below 3.00, has finished in the Top 10 of the Cy Young voting just once and he’s only 3-4 in post season — though the 3.12 ERA is pretty good. And guess who his baseball-reference.com “he’s like” numbers match up with? Yup: Beckett — whose own “he’s like” numbers don’t match up with anyone close to getting in the Hall. As for Lester, if he can be a bit more consistent toward his high water marks, he has the best chance going forward to be a consistent number one. That’s because he wins. Even the year it was discovered he had cancer he was 7-2. His .727 lifetime winning percentage lifetime is best in the majors not just among active pitchers but ever! And thus better today than AL Cy Young winner Zach Greinke, CC Sabathia, Chris Carpenter and State Farm insurance mogul Dick Lombardi’s favorite, Tim Lincecum. Plus at 25 he’s on the rise.

A number one to me is a guy like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Dave Stewart, Roger the Steroid Dodger and Roy Halladay. Compared to those guys, even taking into account that 17 wins in the age of five-man rotations is the new 20, I’ll call Beckett a 1.5, with the other two being more realistically good number-two starters.

Myth Number Two: Nothing From Dice-K: Even though he is infuriating to watch and not exactly a slave to conditioning, there’s something about him I like. Maybe it’s how he conitnuosly wriggles off the hook after loading the bases so often. Maybe it’s being 18-3 in ’08 with the lowest batting average against in the AL. But it’s something. So I expect good things, though with six starters it’s hard to know how many starts he’ll get. I’m figuring 23 — which means 12 wins, seven losses and 3.45 ERA.

Clay Buchholz: He didn’t have a good spring at all, though his last outing was solid. It brought to mind  his awful 2008 campaign when lost confidence left him pretty fragile. But you can argue he was their best pitcher the last six weeks of ’09 and pitched better than any Red Sox in the playoffs. Even with a hiccup or two he continues moving toward being a real number two — 14-9 with a 4.02 ERA.

Tim Wakefield: He was 11-5 last year and an All-Star before back issues derailed him for the year in July — so he can still pitch. But you know at 42 he’s probably going to get hurt too. So how exactly do you use him since it’s hard to count on him for the long haul? Plus even in the best of times his postseason record with Boston is a less than stellar 3-7 with an ERA over 7.00 when he’s had series ERAs of 11.81, 12.27, 13.50, 16.88 and 33.75. So I think he’s an excellent insurance policy looked upon for 20 starts max. If he does that it’s 8-6, 4.57.

Josh Beckett: I don’t know about you, but I don’t think he’ll reach the lofty level I once thought he would. That would be several seasons like 2007 when he was outstanding. But while he’s not a perennial 20-game winner he’s been pretty good. He’s averaged 16.5 wins and 8.5 losses in four Boston years, so I’ll go with that — 16-9 with a 3.65 ERA.

John Lackey: I really like his fire and that he’s much better than number two Yankees starter AJ Brunett. So he won’t be one of these guys thrown off in the new place after signing a big deal and he had a big spring. So he fits fine into the 3-vs.-3 pitching match-up to go 17-8 with a 3.25 ERA.

Jon Lester: In 2009 he gave up 16 fewer hits and struck out 63 more batters in about the same innings as 2008. I think he’s ready for a similar step up, but he’ll have to get out of the box quicker than in ’09, where on May 14 he was 2-4 with a 6.51 ERA. After that he was 13-4 when in the next four months his ERA was 1.80, 2.06, 2,41, 3.07. That’s the pitcher he’ll be in 2010 — 17-6 with a 3.22 ERA.

8th Inning Bridge Guys: By now we know what Hideki Okijima is. Not perfect, but pretty effective most of the time. As for Daniel Bard, he’s going to be a big star IF he gets more consistency against the big boys. Even if he doesn’t do it right away, the Red Sox are very solid here.

Myth Number Three: Pap Had  Good Year In ’09: The numbers say he did, but he didn’t. Thanks to an over-reliance on one pitch and too much nibbling, Jonathan Papelbon had too many heart attack saves. He wasn’t terrible, just not up to the exalted status of the best first four years any closer has ever had. But he gave up 35% more hits in 2009 than in the same innings during 2006 when the average against was .167 vs. last year’s .250. His 24 walks TRIPLED 2008, he coughed up the lead against the Angels in heart attack fashion when they were eliminated from the playoffs and he gave up more hits than innings pitched in the spring. But maybe he was working on the splitter. All need to be better. I think he will be better but not all the way back — 68 innings, 75Ks, ERA 2.10 and 38 saves.

So I’m predicting 63 wins from the starters against 45 losses. If they do that, they just need 30 wins from the bullpen to get the wild card. But if the starters are better we may be talking the pennant.

Dave Long can be reached at dlong@hippopress.com. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.


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A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Hero’s death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat